Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Historical Jesus

Secular Commentary

CELSUS (~ 178 A.D.) Celsus was a second century Roman author and avid opponent of Christianity. He went to great lengths to disprove the divinity of Jesus yet never denied His actual existence. Celsus sets himself up for criticism by mimicking the exact accusations brought against Jesus by the pharisees which had already been addressed and refuted in the New Testament. 
On Jesus’ Miracles: “Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain [magical] powers… He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god… It was by means of sorcery that He was able to accomplish the wonders which He performed… Let us believe that these cures, or the resurrection, or the feeding of a multitude with a few loaves… These are nothing more than the tricks of jugglers… It is by the names of certain demons, and by the use of incantations, that the Christians appear to be possessed of [miraculous] power…”
On the Virgin Birth: “Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her hands. His mother had been turned out by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery [with a Roman soldier named Panthera]. Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard.”
On the Apostles: “Jesus gathered around him ten or eleven persons of notorious character… tax-collectors, sailors, and fishermen… [He was] deserted and delivered up by those who had been his associates, who had him for their teacher, and who believed he was the savior and son of the greatest God… Those who were his associates while alive, who listened to his voice, and enjoyed his instructions as their teacher, on seeing him subjected to punishment and death, neither died with nor for him… but denied that they were even his disciples, lest they die along with Him.”
On Jesus’ Divinity: “One who was a God could neither flee nor be led away a prisoner… What great deeds did Jesus perform as God? Did he put his enemies to shame or bring to an end what was designed against him? No calamity happened even to him who condemned him… Why does he not give some manifestation of his divinity, and free himself from this reproach, and take vengeance upon those who insult both him and his Father?”
John the Baptist “If any one predicted to us that the Son of God was to visit mankind, he was one of our prophets, and the prophet of our God? John, who baptized Jesus, was a Jew.”
On the Crucifixion: “Jesus accordingly exhibited after His death only the appearance of wounds received on the cross, and was not in reality so wounded as He is described to have been.”
Skeptic Interjection: Celsus also states, “It is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie and that your fables are not well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction.” How do we know Celsus is referring to a historical Jesus and not just debating mythAnswer: Evidence which shows Celsus to be refuting aspects of a historical Jesus is as follows:
  1. Our answer can be found in Celsus own words: He was therefore a manand of such a nature, as the truth itself proves, and reason demonstrates him to beSatisfied with his presentation of evidence, Celsus offers his conclusiothat Jesus was only a man- not a myth (or a God, as the apostles had claimed).
  2. Instead of denying the alleged eventsCelsus offers alternative theories to the early Christian claims (like the virgin birth being a cover-up for an illegitimate pregnancy and the miracles actually being works ofsorcery). If he was discussing a mythical character, he would not have needed to go to such lengths butmerely to have dismisseJesus as a myth. After all, there is no easier way to discredit a religion than to assert its founder never existed! Of course, this is an argument Celsus never makes.
  3. The “fables” Celsus refers to is his belief that the claims such as a virgin birth and resurrection were embellishments created by early Christians- not that Jesus was Himself a myth. Celsus was debating theclaims of Jesus’ divinity, not His existence.

LUCIAN OF SAMOSATA (120 – ~180 A.D.) Lucian was a second century Greek satirist and rhetorician who scornfully describes his views of early Christianity. Though he ridicules the Christians and their Christ, his writings confirm Jesus was executed via crucifixion and that He was the founder of Christianity.
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day- the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account… It was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers from the moment they are converted and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws…” The Death of Peregrinus 11-13
What this passage reveals and how it confirms the Biblical account:
  • Jesus did exist
  • Jesus was the founder of Christianity
  • Jesus was worshiped by His followers
  • Jesus suffered death by crucifixion
Skeptic Interjection: Can we consider Lucian’s testimony reliable due to the source being a literary work? Answer: Lucian’s commentary revolved around historical events. In Lucian’s work The Way to Write History, he openly criticises his contemporaries who distort history to flatter their masters or those who fill in the historical gaps with personal conjecture:
    The historian’s one task is to tell the thing as it happened..He may nurse some private dislikes, but hewill attach far more importance to the public good, and set the truth high above his hate... For history, Isay again, has this and only this for its own. If a man will start upon it, he must sacrifice to no God butTruth. He must neglect all else. The Way to Write History

Skeptic Interjection: Is it possible Lucian received his knowledge from Christian sources or that this passage is an interpolation?Answer: Seeing how adamant Lucian was in regards to historical accuracy and critical investigation, our answer is an emphatic no. As to the passage being a Christian interpolation, chances are the reference to Jesus would be far more favorable if this were so. Lucian refers to Jesus only as a man, a lawgiver, and a sage (human- not divine- descriptions). He never once refers to Jesus as a God. Furthermore, there isn’t anything in the above statement that reveals what wasn’t already known- it merely asserts that Jesus lived, preached, and died. Remember, at this time Christians were trying to prove Jesus’ divinity- not His existence.
MARA BAR-SERAPION (Post 70 A.D) Mara Bar-Serapion of Syria penned this letter from prison to his son. Though it is obvious he does not acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, he does mention aspects of Jesus’ life. There is some criticism regarding this passage but it must be noted nothing in Serapion’s letter contradicts what we know about Jesus.
“What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: The Athenians died of hunger. The Samians were overwhelmed by the sea. The Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good. He lived on in the teachings of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good. He lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good. He lived on in the teaching which He had given.” 
Skeptic Interjection: How do we know this passage is a reference to Jesus? Answer: There are several references in this passage which imply Serapion is referring to Jesus:
  • He was a wise King (Jesus was mocked by the Romans as The King of the Jewsthe messianic propheciesfulfilled by Jesus referred to the coming Messiah as a king, Christian believers believed Jesus was theirpromised spiritual king, and Jesus was born from the royal line of King David).
  • He was Jewish (Jesus was a Galilean Jew).
  • He was executed (Jesus was crucified after the Jews appealed to Pilate to have Him crucified).
  • After His death Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed (This occurred in 70 A.D., after Jesus’ death).
  • The Jews were dispersed after His death (The Jews abandoned Judea after the Roman attack of 70 A.D.).
  • He was a teacher (Jesus was a rabbi/teacher).
  • He lived on after death in His teachings (Jesus and His teachings founded the Christian faith).

Skeptic Interjection: Is it possible Serapion was referring to another person? Answer: Though critics mention other possible candidates, the timing is off as Serapion specifically states just after that their kingdom was abolished. Only Jesus fits into the appropriate timeline as Titus destroyed Jerusalem a mere 36 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. The others lived approximately 170-250 years prior to the desolation.
Skeptic Interjection: Didn’t the Romans technically kill Jesus, though? Answer: The Jews were under Roman domination which restricted their ability to execute capital punishment. The Jews rallied the Roman government to crucify Jesus for the crime of blasphemy as they did not have the legal power to do so. Even the Bible mentions Pilate’s reluctance to punish an innocent man but that he allowed it to take place to prevent a Jewish revolt in an already hostile environment.