Hello, I had recently been in a discussion with someone who doubts the historicity of Jesus. When I tried to tell him that his facts were wrong by pointing out to videos on youtube about his historicity, he tried to counter with this: "I’ve seen plenty of those videos before. They never have all their facts right.
Tacitus was born more than 20 years after the fact. The lost gospel of Q would have been written when he was a young boy. Theÿ gospel of Mark would have been written when he was a boy or teen. There are 2 Josephus entries. One is very vague, and could have referred to anyone. The other was an obvious forgery added much later. As for the oral tradition, that’s not very reliable. King Arthur was an oral tradition too. There were lots of apocalyptic preachers in the early 1st century who did say things very much like what is in the 3 earlier gospels. If you read Mark, you will see the only miracles are non-physical like removing evil spirits. Also at the end, it seems to imply that he appears to them in spirit form rather than rising bodily from the dead." How would you respond to this?
Yes, it is true that Tacitus was born 20 years after Jesus died, and yes, the first written accounts of Jesus were probably recorded about the same time he was born and Mark when he was a young boy. Is this his reason for not believing Jesus existed? That is a bit odd. Tacitus was a careful historian. He has a consistent record of checking his sources. We can assume that he used sources on Jesus. Saying that Tacitus was wrong about the existence of Jesus because of the time gap is kind of like saying that we cannot be sure that Dwight Eisenhower lived because he died fifty years ago. I am not sure I can say the analogy here is perfect, as we have greater communication today, but it is illogical to think that twenty or even fourty years after the events, the existence of one of the most influential people in history would have been invented out of nothing. It is not inconceivable that Tacitus might get one or two details about Jesus wrong, but to claim that he was mistaken about the existence of Jesus or the fact that he was killed under orders of the Roman governor requires a stretch of the imagination which begs the question of whether the one making the claim is thinking straight in my opinion.
It is true that there were two Josephus references to Jesus and that one is more significant than the other. The claim that the other is a forgery is not in agreement with the evidence. The famous statement of Josephus comes for his Antiquities.
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
It is true that there is some controversy about this excerpt. It certainly is not a forgery, but there is a significant probability–actually a likelihood that later Christian authors added an interpolation. In fact, in the version I am copying above, the material likely to have been added by a Christian author is in yellow. There is a version of Antiquities in Arabic which has the text in black but not the interpolation. The majority of scholars agree with the theory I am presenting here. I know of none who have studied the data carefully who completely reject that Josephus mentioned Jesus in his original. Therefore your friend’s contention that this is a forgery is simply not true. Probably he has been reading some highly biased anti-Christian polemics.
A lot of study has been done on the reliability of oral tradition. I will let you do your own research, but the general consensus is that oral tradition can and usually is quite reliable over time spans of up to one hundred and even two hundred years. Oral tradition for events beyond one or two hundred years can be fairly unreliable because there is not sufficient eye-witness or second generation information to maintain accuracy. Current research implies that the oral tradition of Jesus which was turned into written gospels within twenty to thirty years of his death when thousands of people who knew Jesus and his life well were still alive would be very accurate and reliable. Comparing this to oral traditions about King Arthur and Camelot, which was written more than eight hundred years after the events is downright irresponsible. This is so obvious that I must question the motives of anyone using this as an analogy to the reliability of the New Testament information about Jesus.
As for the last point your friend raised: "If you read Mark, you will see the only miracles are non-physical like removing evil spirits. Also at the end, it seems to imply that he appears to them in spirit form rather than rising bodily from the dead." This is so obviously not the case that it is hard to frame an answer. The feeding of the 5000 (Mark 6:30-42), Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4:35-41), Jesus walking on water (Mark 6:45-56), the resurrection of Jesus and literally dozens of other rather physical miracles makes me wonder if the person making this claim has even read the book. Either he/she has not read the book or cannot be trusted to frame reasonable arguments at all.
John Oakes, PhD