Catholicism commemorates the life and teachings of Christ by means of the liturgical year. Through specific days and seasons, the events of our Lord’s earthly ministry are prayerfully recalled, proclaimed, celebrated, and studied. Unfortunately, the same is true for the opponents of the ancient faith. They, too, follow the liturgical year, and through various media channels, present their best refutations of the mysteries of Christianity precisely as we’re commemorating them. For example, during Advent, programs will appear on television or elsewhere explaining that many different religions contain prophecies about a future Messianic figure. At Christmas, it will be asserted that the world abounds with ancient myths about demi-goods coming down from heaven through a miraculous virgin birth. Lent will be paralleled with scientific claims that it is demonstrably impossible for a human being to fast for forty days and forty nights. And Easter will resound with claims that paganism has always had its share of resurrecting deities, so that Christianity is only more of the same.
The intended effect of these impious efforts is to undermine the truths of the Christian religion by making them appear ordinary, even boring, as if they offered nothing new but were only reiterations of the same old redundant doctrines. But is it logical to claim that an event or belief is necessarily false simply because a similar event or belief can be found at an earlier time? Must there be a connection between two similar things, so that the only rational explanation is that the younger borrowed from the older? No, this is not at all logical or necessary. It would be like claiming that two people who looked alike must have the same parents, or that if two people shared the same name, then the younger person must have derived their name from the older. Two things can be quite similar but unrelated. In ordinary life, we all realize this. But sadly, when claims are made against Christian belief in this “documentary” or by that “expert,” the faithful often quickly collapse in a state of embarrassment and doubt.
Such claims are hypocritical and would never be made about other politically and culturally protected groups. By contrast, Catholics are assaulted for their beliefs on all sides. They are condemned as being founded on ignorance and even hatred. Ironically, the world that denies the existence of truth and moral absolutes proclaims that the Church’s doctrines are certainly false and her moral teachings absolutely wrong. The world that demands tolerance, open-mindedness, diversity, and non-judgmentalism from everyone then denies them to the faithful, so that Catholicism can be openly and publically derided.
There are several standard arguments presented by critics that attempt to undermine the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. One or another is popularly presented to us during the Resurrection season, in an attempt to shame the faithful and mock the faith; but of equal gravity is the desire to prevent non-believers from ever embracing the faith. For now, however, I would like to focus on an argument that attempts to go above and beyond these petty arguments by questioning the very historicity of the Resurrected One. It seeks, not merely to disprove the Resurrection, but to eliminate from existence the One who Resurrected. It may be occasionally used by the professional intellectual classes, but it is more often heard from the ordinary folk, from our own relatives, friends, or acquaintances who generally put little effort into such religious argumentation. The objection is this:
“Christianity is founded on a myth. The hero of the religion – Jesus Christ – never even existed. He was probably invented by an individual or group of overly fervid apocalyptic-minded Jews who wanted to make a name for themselves. Borrowing ideas from other ancient religions, they merely gave a new twist to old themes and characters. Thus, the Gospel is pure legend, and the world fell for the lie.”
The power behind this claim is found in its vagueness. There is hardly a single detail a Catholic could identify, isolate, and discuss. It sounds historical, and yet there is nothing historically concrete about it. Rather than an actual argument, it is more of a broad swipe that wipes away the whole subject, leaving nothing to debate. And because it poses as a historical claim, it deserves a historical response.
As stated above, the “borrowing” claim is pure presumption. It is entirely possible that two or more religions could contain similar ideas, while only one of those religions was free from error. There is nothing illogical about this possibility. A variation on this notion of odds is the claim that, in light of the many thousands of “gods” proposed by the world’s religions, it is impossible that one religion could proclaim the one true God, while all the others proclaimed only false gods. This view is also illogical. It is entirely possible that there could be only one true God among a myriad of false gods, just as it is true that, among the billions of parents that exist, only one pair is truly mine. The mere fact of the vast number of parents throughout the world does not make it one iota more likely that I may have several or more mothers and fathers. Odds have nothing to do with some equations, and nothing at all to say about mysteries and the supernatural order. For the deeper truths of religion are not contrary to reason, but above it, and are therefore accessible only through divine revelation. This is one of the reasons religion is so despised: it strikes at the root of human pride. It does not and will not submit to man’s limited lights, nor to his egotistical desire to believe he intellectually grasps all things. For according to the rationalist, any concept that man does not understand should be rejected. But even science disproves the sensibility of this precept on a daily basis.
If the above objection that Christ is only a myth is correct, then it should be the case that there were no mentions of Jesus during the first or second centuries, outside of the New Testament. This is the only period of time that matters, because no other era would have had certain firsthand or at least reliable secondhand knowledge of the question. But such is not the case. There are both Jewish and non-Jewish references to Christ during this time period.
But first, it should be appreciated that the sacred writers of the New Testament understood their faith to be grounded on real objective factual events and facts, and their writings reflect this. Saint Luke began his Gospel in this way:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.”
In the third chapter, the same evangelist wrote,
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness; and he went into all the region about the Jordan , preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
If one is about to invent a myth out of the blue, one does not begin by citing an assortment of verifiable characters and circumstances. One wouldn’t dare.
Saint Peter presented his teaching in a similar way, Recalling Christ’s Transfiguration on the Mount, he wrote,
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain’ (2 Pet. 1:16-18).
Saint John witnessed to the tangibility of Gospel events in a similar way. Beginning his First Letter, he declared,
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you….”
These four passages contain, not the language of fantasy, but that of reality and history. And moving on from the initial Christian witness, we can find many non-Christian testimonies as well.
Jewish References to Jesus
The Talmud is a Jewish collection of rabbinical writings composed between the years 70 and 500 AD. It contains many insulting remarks about Jesus and even claims that, after the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, Jesus remained there and studied magic; later, He practiced the black arts in Palestine and, as a result, made a name for Himself and gained a number of dedicated followers.
The specific insulting claims found in the Talmud are irrelevant. All that matters is that the references are to Jesus Christ. The Jews did not claim He never existed; rather, they sought to distort and discredit His character and work. So, one passage says,
“On the eve of the Passover, Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald…cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”
“Yeshu” is Jesus’ name in Hebrew. He was executed on the “Eve of the Passover.” And Holy Scripture indeed refers to crucifixion as a sort of hanging. Saint Paul wrote,
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree” (Gal. 3:13; Dt. 21:23; Lk. 23:39).
The charge of sorcery most likely came from the Pharisees’ inability to deny Christ’s miracles, including His exorcisms. After all, they authorities publically witnessed them. The worst they could do was to denounce them as being evil in origin. Hence, after Jesus had liberated a mute demoniac, the Pharisees objected,
“He casts out demons by the prince of demons” (Mt. 9:34).
On another occasion, after our Lord had liberated a blind and mute demoniac, the Pharisees said,
“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Mt. 12:24).
Josephus was born in 37 or 38 AD. He was a Pharisee as well as a military leader in the Jewish uprising against Rome in 70 AD that eventually led to the destruction of the city and the temple. For a while, he was imprisoned by the Roman emperor Vespasian, but was later freed. He died 100 A. D.
Josephus is famous for a work entitled Jewish Antiquities, written in 93-94, that recounted the entire history of the Jewish people.
“Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man. He drew over to Him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned Him to the Cross, those that loved Him at the first did not forsake Him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from Him, is not extinct at this day.”
We can forgive Josephus his derogatory reference to the Church as a “tribe,” for the simple reason that, as with so many of the Church’s other enemies, in writing against her, they left us a precious ancient historical record of the existence of Christ and His disciples. In the end, they have actually helped us!
Josephus also wrote,
“[Ananus] assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.”
Incidentally, the description of James (the “lesser” or “younger”) as the “brother of Jesus” is in accord with the Jewish custom of referring to cousins as brothers. He is described in the New Testament as the son of Alpheus (Mt. 10:3; Mk. 3:18; Lk. 6:15) and a Mary other than the Mother of Jesus. The Gospel of Saint Mark records that, at the scene of Christ’s crucifixion,
“There were also women looking on from afar, among them whom were…Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses…” (Mk. 15:40).
This James the younger, then, was the son of Alpheus and Mary, the brother of Joses, and the cousin of Jesus.
Pagan References to Jesus
In addition to these ancient Jewish references to Christ, there are several pagan accounts as well.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a Roman historian who served as director of the imperial library under Emperor Trajan and as private secretary under Emperor Hadrian. He lived from 69-140 AD. Suetonius composed The Twelve Caesars – a history of the Roman emperors from Augustus to Domition. In this work, he wrote
“Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from the city.”
“Chrestus” is the name by which the ancient Romans wrongly but repeatedly referred to Jesus Christ, while they sometimes called the followers of Our Lord “Chrestians.” The Jewish disturbances and expulsion Suetonius mentioned are referred to in the Acts of the Apostles:
“And he [Paul] found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, lately come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome” (Acts 18:2).
Suetonius also recorded that, under the emperor Nero,
“Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.”
Nero was a notorious persecutor of the early Church, and reigned from 54-68 AD. This evidence for the existence of Christians obviously implies the previous existence of Christ.
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian and politician who lived from 55-117 AD. He wrote two famous works, the Annals and the Histories. In the former book, Tacitus recorded the plight of the Christians under Nero. In 64 A.D. a massive fire destroyed much of Rome. The common belief was that it was set by Nero, but the emperor blamed it on the Christians. Tacitus wrote,
“All human efforts…did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular….Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt to serve a sa nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
This excerpt contains a remarkable amount of accurate information. It states that the name “Christian” was given by the populace, these Christians already existed at the turn of the second century, and they were followers of a Christ who was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate. And in spite of the execution of their Founder and the persecution of His followers, the religion continued to spread throughout Judea and to Rome.
Gaius Plinius Caecilius served as imperial legate of Bithynia (modern northern Turkey) under Emperor Trajan. He lived from 61-114 AD. The Christian religion had been accepted by many Bithynians, and as a result, pagan worship was rapidly falling away. Because this concerned Pliny, he wrote to Trajan for advice in governing the people as a whole and dealing with the Christians. He explained,
“For the moment, this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution. For, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.”
“Others…said that they had ceased to be Christians….They also declared that the sum total of their guilt was this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no break of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony, it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary harmless kind….”
This letter reveals that Christians at the turn of the first century worshipped Christ on a particular day of the week through the chanting of verses, observed a strict a moral law higher than that of paganism, and, as a religious act, shared in some sort of a meal.
The Vagueness of the Objection
In light of the above evidence, it is clear the claim that Jesus Christ never existed is simply absurd. The historical evidence for His existence is found in Christian, Jewish, and pagan sources. But a proper and full response must address another aspect of the objection – its convenient vagueness. It lacks specifics of any kind, so that a series of questions should be asked in response. They are the following:
– Who invented the so-called Christian myth? Is it known with certainty? Have many scholars found and named the person? And are they all in substantial agreement about the details of his or her identity?
– When did this person invent the Christian myth? Was it at the time of John the Baptist, or is he, too, a part of the myth? This is important, because the early first century was a time of fervid Messianic expectation. The Jews were expecting the Messiah to appear precisely when Christ the “myth” did.
– Where was the Christian myth invented? Was it in Palestine or Egypt? Was it in Rome? Perhaps it was in Atlantis?
– Why was the Christian myth invented? What was the motive? Considering that it is known the early Christians were horrifically persecuted, tortured, and executed on a mass scale until the beginning of the fourth century, why on earth would anyone bring such misery upon themselves and their family and friends?
Considering the superb organization of the Roman Empire and its military forces, how did a miniscule band of pacifistic religious commoners effectively convert the empire to a lie, and without a shred of political influence or military might of their own?
If Christianity had been concocted out of thin air, the ancient world of the time – both Jews and gentiles, religious and irreligious – would have risen up in one consistent voice against the early Church and insisted, “Jesus Christ never even existed, and you know it!” It would have been the only refutation needed against the new religion. But this was not the cry of the first-century non-Christian world, for the obvious reason that many of those who had personally witnessed the teachings and miracles of Christ were still alive, and those He had healed or liberated from demonic possession were still walking about. And the next generation received the same accounts from those whom they knew and trusted. Only after a substantial amount of time had passed could the claim be made that Jesus Christ never existed.
Until the persons who make the Christ-myth objection can answer all of the above questions, and until many scholars substantially agree on the details of their answers, the claim itself is only a wild wish. More precisely, it is a myth – the myth myth.