Scott on January 24, 2006 at 4:41 pm
Atheist’s suit challenges priest, calls Jesus a fable
I was fascinated to see this news story referenced in several papers and online sources. In 2002, an atheist named Luigi Cascioli filed a lawsuit in an Italian court against the Rev. Enrico Righi for asserting that Jesus was an actual, historical figure. This suit is now moving forward.
Interestingly, the atheist doesn’t believe that his lawsuit has much of a chance. He says that in a country like Italy, which is primarily Catholic, it would be impossible for the case to get a fair shake. However, it doesn’t seem to have entered his thinking that he might not stand a chance in court because his premise is flawed. If he had spent even a little bit of time doing some basic research, he would have run into some fairly inarguable facts that most people do not dispute because of their historical veracity.
To me, this case could not be a better opportunity for Christianity to put a strong argument out into the collective conscience of the world. There are many intellectuals and pseudo/wanna-be’s whose smug brand of anti-Christianity is rooted in skepticism about a historically verifiable Jesus. This is an opportunity to let some hot air out of their smarmy egos and get some facts into the collective legal record. It’s a shame that the suit was filed in such a small town. If it had been filed in Venice or Rome, IMAGINE the publicity.
Anyway, I figured I would take a quick moment to disabuse any poor, mislead, misinformed, misguided people out there of the notion of Jesus as myth. In this day and age, I wouldn’t think this would be necessary, but since I recently had a conversation with a colleague of mine who is well read and intelligent but who seems to believe along the same lines as the atheist in the story, I figure a little review can’t hurt.
Point I: Christianity is rooted in history. You can’t have Christianity without a historical Jesus. There are some liberal theologians who seem to believe otherwise, but you just can’t. Without Jesus’ claims, you have no radical departure from the ancient mainstream. Without Jesus’ death and resurrection, you have no reason for belief in him as the Son of God. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, if Christ did not live, and thus did not die and rise from the dead, then Christianity has NOTHING! It is pointless.
Point II: You don’t need the Bible to prove the Bible, thus you don’t need the Gospels to prove Jesus was real. Many non-Christians make the argument that Jesus can only be proved by using the Bible as a proof. I agree that some Christians do attempt this approach, but it isn’t very logical and shouldn’t be considered typical of a Christian apologetic. There are plenty of historical references to substantiate the belief that Jesus was a historical figure. Granted, the references aren’t massive texts filled with detailed descriptions of his life, and they aren’t supposed to be. These texts reference the person Jesus as contained within the historical record. In the context of history, these sources are VERY SIGNIFICANT.
It has been said that there is more inarguable, irrefutable historical reference to Jesus of Nazareth than there is to Julius Caesar, who is hardly mentioned at all in historical documents. I don’t know about that, but I do know that a quick overview of the secular and non-Christian writings from the first 150 years after Jesus life demonstrates clearly that Jesus was certainly an actual historical figure.
From Pagan / Non-Christian Sources
1. Thallus: Thallus was a Samaritan-born historian who lived and worked in Rome about A.D. 52. Thallus was far from “pro-Jesus” and in fact wrote to try and offset the supernatural element that accompanied the crucifixion. Though the writings of Thallus are lost, Julius Africanus, a chronographer of the late second century, was familiar with them and quotes from them extensively where Jesus is mentioned.
2. Mara Bar-Serapion: In the British Museum sits a letter from a Syrian father to his son named Mara Bar-Serapion. In prison at the time of the writing, the father pleads with his son to be wise. He illustrated the folly of persecuting wise men like Socrates, Pythagoras, and the wise king of the Jews, which the full context of the letter obviously indicates is Jesus.
3. Tacitus: Usually rated as the greatest of Roman historians, Tacitus told how the Christians were made scapegoats for the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64. When Tacitus wrote about this, he mentioned Jesus by the name of Christus.
4. Plinius Secundus, called Pliny the Younger: Governor of Bithynia about A.D.112, he often wrote to the Emperor Trajan asking his Imperial advice on how best to deal with the problem of the Christians in his province. In one of his letters, he spoke of Christ as he reported of some information which he extracted from some Christian girls by torture.
5. Suetonius: Annalist and court official of the Imperial House during the reign of Hadrian. About A.D.120, he wrote The Life of Claudius. From this work comes his most famous statement: “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he (Claudius) expelled them from Rome.” Chrestus would be a derivation of Christus (which the Romans viewed as an honorific title bestowed upon Jesus by his followers).
6. The Talmud: There are two separate books of writings dealing with Jewish law called the Talmud. Together, the Mishnah (the law book) and the Gemara (the commentary) are called the Talmud. Being Jewish, suffice it to say, all references to “Yeshu’a of Nazareth” in the Talmudic writings are unfriendly, but nevertheless sufficient in number to establish beyond doubt his historical reality.
7. Josephus: A former Jewish general turned historian, Josephus tells of many of the outstanding persons we read of in the New Testament: Pilate; Quirinius of Syria (during whose governorship Rome enrolled the Empire for taxation purposes); the Caesars; the Herods; the Pharisees and the Sadducees; Annas and Caiaphas, who had Jesus crucified; Felix and Festus, under whose governorships the apostle Paul was arrested and before whom he spoke of Jesus; Jesus’ brother, James; and John the Baptist. Josephus also clearly references Jesus, “a wise man” and “doer of marvelous deeds.”
Point III: The logic of the history surrounding the story of Jesus dictates that he was, in fact, a historical figure. As a point of argument, let’s just say that Jesus was, in fact, a myth, that he was either the ideal conception of what a group of people thought a transcendent life ought to be, or that he was a story made up by men like Paul (Saul of Tarsus) as a story to inspire followers.
Logically, this would NOT be possible in the first century. People were alive in the first century that would have known that no such person as Jesus had ever lived in Nazareth, had ever been born in Bethlehem, and had ever caused a commotion in Jerusalem. In short, such a myth could not have been pulled out of thin air because it would have been immediately debunked by enemies of the movement that was causing the Roman Empire such problems. Records would have been produced and testimonies recorded to verify that Jesus had never existed.
It reminds me of an old episode of M.A.S.H. where Hawk-Eye and his buddy dummy up a bunch of paperwork and basically invent a soldier on paper, fooling the Army into awarding this fictitious “paper soldier” a medal of some kind. In that scenario, such a gag was possible because of the type of paperwork that was generated over long distances in a chaotic bureaucracy.
Such a fiction in the 1st Century would not have been possible because there was very little paperwork but TONS of relationships. There may have been bureaucracy to a certain extent, but primarily it was a very oral-rich, verbal culture that valued family and friendships and relationships of all kinds. To make up a person out of whole cloth would be impossible because there wouldn’t be anyone around who could vouch for that person’s existence.
Within 30-40 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the facts of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection were well known and established. Someone could not have come along 200-300 years later to conjure up some wise sage named Jesus and then fit that fictitious sage into a collection of religious writings. Jesus was already a well-known, well-established fact of the times.
Or let’s take it one further step, but in a different direction. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Jesus was verifiably an actual man but one who lived a regular life, married, had children, and died (ala “The DaVinci Code” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”). Logic does not allow such a scenario because the cultural awareness of the time would not have allowed it. Stories relating to Jesus were already well established in the culture by 50-60 A.D. People knew about the miracles surrounding his birth, about the life he lived and the teachings he shared, about the miracles he performed, about the physical torture he was subjected to, about the amazing miracle of his resurrection. If some/most/all of those stories were false, then people who had known him would have come forward to disprove what was being said. The Romans, of all people, would have used every resource at their disposal to find what was needed to debunk the untrue stories related to the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Similarly, the Jewish leadership in power at the time would have had a strong interest in debunking any false stories that circulated at the time.
But the Romans and Jews were left with the facts that were supported by the people living at the time who knew Jesus and his disciples and who were witness to his life, miracles and teachings, death, and resurrection.
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