Atheism and the Historical Christ

By Wayne Jackson

Bruno Baur (1809-1882), a German historian, was the most radical New Testament critic of his day. Rejected by his contemporary theologians, he became so bitter that he eventually denied the historical existence of Jesus, asserting that Christianity is “the misfortune of the world.” His views were rejected by the scholarship of his day.

Later, however, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), somewhat influenced by Baur, would argue that a “Jesus” may have lived in Palestine in the first century, but if he did, he was so unlike the “Jesus” of the New Testament, that, for all practical purposes, one might conclude that the Christ of the Gospel records did not exist in fact. Neither Baur nor Schweitzer exerted significant influence relative to the question of the historicity of Jesus.

Over the years, even radicals have been forced to bow their heads in acknowledgement of the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a central character of the biblical world twenty centuries ago. The French humanist Ernest Renan (1823-1892), no friend of Christianity, admitted that “all history is incomprehensible without him” and “to tear [Jesus’] name from this world, would be to shake it to its foundations” (26, 212).

In 1912, Professor Shirley Jackson Case, a liberal theologian at the University of Chicago — who denied the supernatural elements in the Gospels — produced a book titled, The Historicity of Jesus. In the Preface he stated: “The main purpose of the present volume is to set forth the evidence for believing in the historical reality of Jesus’ existence upon earth” (v).

In 1922, Joseph Klausner, of Hebrew University, authored his controversial volume, Jesus of Nazareth. Though Klausner rejected Christ as divine, he nonetheless argued persuasively, based upon ancient sources, that Jesus was a bona fide historical character (17-62). Significantly, no ancient adversary ever even disputed Jesus’ existence!

The case is so settled that Professor Bruce Metzger of Princeton University could say in 1965: “Today no competent scholar denies the historicity of Jesus” (78). Quite true. But this does not prevent some not-so-competent writers from disputing this fact.

Actually, though, this article is not about the solid historical evidence which establishes the reality of the first-century Jesus. Elsewhere we have argued the case of the historicity of Christ with ample positive documentation (see The Historicity of Jesus Christ). No, this article is about the deliberate perversion of historical data, along with the shoddy scholarship, that is characteristic of the atheistic community.

Atheism and Intellectual Integrity

A small group of vocal, obnoxious atheists is attempting to resurrect Baur’s bogus theory that Jesus never lived. Their influence is so nil that one might be inclined to ignore them altogether — except for the fact that this circumstance affords an excellent opportunity to focus upon how these antagonists deal with the evidence of history. It throws a floodlight upon their character and their utter lack of comprehension relative to the legitimate conclusions that one may draw from ancient documents.

Here is an example of what I mean. Judith Hayes is an atheist. She is the author of a recently published book, In God We Trust: But Which One? An apostate from the Lutheran Church, Mrs. Hayes reveals a vicious bitterness towards the Bible. She is ignorant of the most fundamental of biblical matters, yet what she lacks in knowledge she compensates for with venom and crudeness. There is a chapter in her book designated as “The Messiah,” which begins in this fashion:

“Just whether or not Jesus was an actual, historical figure is the subject of much scholarly debate. St. Paul, who was the real founder of the religion known as Christianity, barely discussed Jesus as a person, and made no references to his family. Jesus must remain a puzzle, historically speaking. He may have existed, and then again he may not have”(119).

Later Hayes assembles what she describes as a “partial list of some of the Jewish and pagan writers” who lived in, or close to, the first century. These, she asserts, “made no mention of Jesus’ supposedly astounding appearance on Earth.” The author catalogues the names of twenty ancient writers, the silence of whom, regarding Jesus, supposedly buttresses her case as to the doubtful historicity of the Son of God (147). What shall we say in response to this reckless charge?

A Response to Hayes’ Harangue

No responsible researcher would dream of ignoring the vast depository of evidence for the historicity of Jesus in deference to the silence of a few writers who did not mention the great Teacher. This is lame logic indeed. There may be a variety of valid reasons which explain their silence. Remember this: Silence proves nothing — one way or the other. To attempt to establish one’s case on such a basis reveals the utter desperation of the position. Note this concession from another atheist: “Silence on a topic does not in itself prove ignorance of it — unless the silence extends to matters obviously relevant to what the writer has chosen to discuss” (Wells, 364).

Five of the twenty authors cited by Hayes — Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Lucian — do, contain historical allusions to Christ. These are cited in “The Historicity of Jesus Christ”, previously referenced.

That Mrs. Hayes has never personally examined any of these sources is a distinct possibility. However, she is not totally oblivious to these references regarding Jesus, because she vaguely hints of “Christian interpolations inserted clumsily” into some of the writings (148). I mention this to emphasize the fact that Hayes’ treatment of the evidence is not entirely a matter of bungling incompetence (though there is plenty of that); it also reflects a deliberate distortion of the historical data.

The truth is — precious little material from secular writers of the first century has even survived to this day. The late E.M. Blaiklock addressed this matter in one of his books. Dr. Blaiklock taught ancient and biblical history for more than forty years, and was internationally recognized as an authority on the classical writings of antiquity. In discussing the surviving literature of the Fifties and Sixties of the first century, the professor writes: “Bookends set a foot apart on this desk where I write would enclose the works from those significant years” (13).

In considering the “silence” of ancient writers as to the existence of Jesus, the careful student must certainly take into account the proximity of an author to the sacred events. Was he separated by time or distance from the events relating to the Teacher from Galilee? Moreover, it is of some importance to ascertain the theme of the writer’s document, i.e., its relevance to matters of religious history. Let me illustrate.

One of the writers cited by Hayes was Arrian. Arrian was a Greek historian who spent most of his time in Athens but who also briefly served as a governor of Cappadocia. He was not even born until about sixty-five years after the death of Christ. He wrote some material regarding the ethics of the Stoics, but his most important work was his history of Alexander the Great (Anabasis). What possible relevance would “Jesus” have had in a discussion of a Greek military commander who lived the fourth century B.C.?

Another example: Hayes lists Juvenal (ca. A.D. 60-130) among the writers who did not allude to Christ. What she neglects to mention, of course, is that Juvenal was a Latin poet who wrote caustic satires against governmental corruption, crime, and immorality in the city of Rome. His works had nothing remotely to do with Middle Eastern religion.

Or what of Plutarch (ca. A.D. 46-120)? He was a Greek philosopher who wrote biographies (Lives) of forty-six distinguished Greeks and Romans, as well as a collection of some sixty essays setting forth miscellaneous ethical principles. If he knew anything of Christianity he probably regarded it as a temporary appendage of Judaism, immaterial to his literary purposes.

One of the candidates in Hayes’ list was Seneca (ca. 4 B.C. – A.D. 65). Seneca was a Stoic philosopher and Roman statesman. His literary works included philosophical essays, letters, a satire, and several tragedies. Why did this writer ignore Christianity? Blaiklock has noted that when Nero aroused public hostility toward the Christians in Rome — in that summer of A.D. 64 (the most likely time for comment) — Seneca himself was neck-deep in trouble with the emperor. He was a distracted and tormented man, and within a year he committed suicide (16).

Some of the writers doubtless entertained motives which negated any significant discussion of Christ or his teaching. Though Flavius Josephus made two brief references to Jesus (which cannot be dismissed as interpolations), McGarvey, more than a century ago, observed:

“He could have given no truthful account of Jesus or of the Church, which would not have been a story of shame for the sect to which he belonged; and as his chief purpose in writing was to elevate his people in the minds of Greeks and Romans who despised them, national pride and religious bigotry alike demanded silence on this theme” (7-8).

A similar point could be made with reference to Philo, another Jewish writer.

Conclusion

The most formidable problem that Mrs. Hayes and those of her ilk have, of course, is this: How does one explain the fact that millions of citizens in the ancient Roman empire were willing to commit their well-being, surrender their possessions, and forfeit their very lives — for a mere myth? Has Paul Bunyan, Robin Hood, or the Tooth Fairy ever excited such devotion?

Hayes’ own book bears the publication date 1996. Nineteen hundred and ninety-six years from what, Judith? This atheist’s treatment of Christ, as exhibited in the work under review, represents an embarrassing example of research, and a sad commentary upon the character of the critic.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Blaiklock, E. M. 1974. Jesus Christ: Man or Myth? Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
  • Case, Shirley Jackson. 1912. The Historicity of Jesus. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
  • Hayes, Judith. 1996. In God We Trust: But Which One? Madison, WI: Freedom From Religion Foundation.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 1996. “The Historicity of Jesus Christ,” ChristianCourier.com. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/26-the-historicity-of-jesus-christ.
  • Klausner, Joseph. 1989 Reprint. Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Bloch Publishing Co.
  • McGarvey, J. W. 1956 Reprint. Evidences of Christianity. Part III. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Co.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. 1965. The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content. New York, NY: Abingdon.
  • Renan, Ernest. 1991 Reprint. Life of Jesus. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
  • Wells, G. A. 1985. “Jesus, Historicity of” The Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Vol. 1. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.