This is perhaps a Scrooge-y thing to do, but readers will surely want to know about it. It involves new research paper by Richard Carrier that bears heavily on the evidence for a historical Jesus.
Most readers surely know of the controversy about whether the story of Jesus in the New Testament was based on a real person, divine or not, or was simply based on myths that agglomerated around a nonexistent person. Although most of us on this site firmly deny any divinity of Jesus, the controversy continues about whether those stories were based on a real person. While Biblical scholars largely deny (or ignore) the divinity part, they are divided about the historicity of Jesus. People like Bart Ehrman conclude that the myth is based on a real person—an apocalyptic rabbi living at that time. “Mythicists” like Richard Carrier deny that there was such a person, citing the absence of extra-Biblical evidence for a real Jesus.
Supporting the mythicists is the absence of contemporary evidence testifying to a preaching rabbinical Jesus. Philo (20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.), who lived during the era when Jesus was supposedly alive, was a Greek philosopher who lived in Egypt under the Romans, visited Jerusalem, and wrote extensively about politics in the Middle East. But what he says about Jesus: nothing. As one skeptical website notes:
Much as Josephus would, a half century later, Philo wrote extensive apologetics on the Jewish religion and commentaries on contemporary politics. About thirty manuscripts and at least 850,000 words are extant. Philo offers commentary on all the major characters of the Pentateuch and, as we might expect, mentions Moses more than a thousand times.
Yet Philo says not a word about Jesus, Christianity nor any of the events described in the New Testament. In all this work, Philo makes not a single reference to his alleged contemporary “Jesus Christ”, the godman who supposedly was perambulating up and down the Levant, exorcising demons, raising the dead and causing earthquake and darkness at his death.
With Philo’s close connection to the house of Herod, one might reasonably expect that the miraculous escape from a royal prison of a gang of apostles (Acts 5.18,40), or the second, angel-assisted, flight of Peter, even though chained between soldiers and guarded by four squads of troops (Acts 12.2,7) might have occasioned the odd footnote. But not a murmur. Nothing of Agrippa “vexing certain of the church” or killing “James brother of John” with the sword (Acts 12.1,2).
Nearly all the evidence for the historicity of Jesus, then, comes from either the Bible itself (a dubious source!) or people writing decades or centuries after the supposed crucifixion, and is thus based on hearsay.
One exception is Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100 C.E.), who lived shortly after Jesus supposedly died. Josephus was a historian who wrote extensively about contemporary events; as Wikipedia notes:
Josephus recorded Jewish history, with special emphasis on the 1st century AD and the First Jewish–Roman War, including the Siege of Masada, but the imperial patronage of his work has sometimes caused it to be characterized as pro-Roman propaganda.
His most important works were The Jewish War (c. 75) and Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94). The Jewish War recounts the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation (66–70). Antiquities of the Jews recounts the history of the world from a Jewish perspective for an ostensibly Roman audience. These works provide valuable insight into 1st century Judaism and the background of Early Christianity (See main article Josephus on Jesus).
If anyone should have written extensively about Jesus, especially his reportedly miraculous deeds, it’s Josephus. But there’s almost nothing about that in his writings save a couple of mentions of the Wonder Rabbi.
In Antiquities of the Jews, there are two brief references that, to Christians, prove ineluctably that Jesus was real. To “historicists” these constitute the smoking gun for at least a historical Jesus.
But first, here’s what Wikipedia says about them in its article, “Josephus on Jesus“:
Modern scholarship has almost universally acknowledged the authenticity of the reference in Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the Antiquities to “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” and considers it as having the highest level of authenticity among the references of Josephus to Christianity. . .
Scholars have differing opinions on the total or partial authenticity of the reference in Book 18, Chapter 3, 3 of the Antiquities to the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilate, a passage usually called the Testimonium Flavianum. . .
Let’s look at the mention in the Testimonium Flavianum first—the one that’s controversial:
Antiquities 18.3.3. “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; 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, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.”
For many reasons, which you can see at this site (where the translation above was given), this is taken to be a forgery—a later interpolation into Josephus’s text by Christians. But some historians think it real. In his new paper (see below), Carrier analyzes the issue in footnote 1 and finds this case for Jesus unconvincing based on its context and the fact that the account is so short but is sandwiched between much longer descriptions of much more trivial affairs. I consider the reference possibly spurious, and largely agree with Carrier. It’s not convincing evidence for a historical Jesus.
But on to the reference in Book 20, which Wikipedia says is “almost universally acknowledged to be authentic. ” Here it is (from Wikipedia):
And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus… Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of 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.
According to Carrier’s new peer-reviewed paper in the Journal of Early Christian studies, discussed on his website (reference and link below), this, too provides no convincing evidence. (The link below goes only to the abstract, so if you want the full paper just ask yours truly.) Here’s Carrier’s abstract:
Analysis of the evidence from the works of Origen, Eusebius, and Hegesippus concludes that the reference to “Christ” in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200 is probably an accidental interpolation or scribal emendation and that
the passage was never originally about Christ or Christians. It referred not to James the brother of Jesus Christ, but probably to James the brother of the Jewish high priest Jesus ben Damneus.
Carrier contends, and supports this with evidence that seems pretty convincing, that the “Christ” reference was added in the margins by some later reader or scribe who really wanted to strengthen the Jesus myth, and then became incorporated into the transmitted text of Joesphus from then on.
Carrier’s contention is not that the entire passage is a forgery, but, as seen above, that the “Jesus and James” names represented other, extra-Biblical people (both names were common in Palestine then).
At any rate, my verdict about whether Jesus was a historical figure is equivalent to the Scottish legal verdict of “not proven.” Carrier does a good job, and we find that the references in Josephus (taken up by later historians) form a slender thread on which to hang a historical Jesus.
And of course even if Jesus was a historical figure, that says nothing about his divinity. As Hitch might have said, even if you accepted Jesus’s historicity, “all your work is still before you.” And the evidence for divinity rests solely in the man-made Bible. But if one can’t even convincingly demonstrate a historical Jesus, then you needn’t do the work at all.
Carrier, R. 2012. Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200. Journal of Early Christian Studies 20: 489-514.