Letters to the Editors from the April 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
Jesus Christ: myth or reality
L. E. Weidberg in the article “Jesus Christ Supermyth” (Socialist Standard February) argues no other documents exist to corroborate the New Testament. He also says that the clearest reference to the existence of Jesus outside the New Testament itself is found in Josephus, and that this was faked by a Christian. Since it is his opinion that we have lots of writings from periods even more ancient than those mentioned in the New Testament, he sees this as evidence that their text is to be cast aside in toto, for they were composed around 300-400 years after the events they purport to relate.
No student of history rejects the writings of the classical authors in our possession merely because they are late copies of the originals. Thus, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, composed between 58-50BC, is known only in late manuscripts, the earliest of which is dated around 900 AD. Similarly, the history of Thucydides (460-400BC) and Herodotus (488-428BC) have as their earliest manuscript one from around 900AD.
Between 90-160AD many works were written by the so-called Apostolic Fathers. These show an intimate knowledge of the New Testament text, Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Barnabus and Polycarp, among others, all freely quote the text of the New Testament from memory. So it must have been freely circulating around the Middle East.
That text contains many references to officials in various cities, as well as customs among the various people visited by the early Christian propagandists (if I may use that term?). These references have been verified time and again by archaeological research. In proof I cite the researches of Professor F. F. Bruce in Jesus and the Christian Origins Outside the New Testament.
Early Jewish writings mention Jesus. Those who fled from Palestine at the sack of Jerusalem under Yohanan codified their religious laws and traditions. These later became known as the Mishnah. They describe Jesus as a magician who led the people astray. They say he was executed on Passover Eve for heresy. In a startling confirmation of the New Testament, Jesus is called “Ha-Taluy” The Hanged One. (Let me point out that crucifixion was a Roman, not a Jewish mode of execution. Jews stoned to death those adjudged worthy of capital punishment). They also named Jesus “Ben-Pantera”—Son of the Virgin.
Your assertion that some Christian “faked” the writings of Josephus is highly contentious. There is a Slavonic version usually seen as being a Christian interpolation; but how do we know that they did not have some text even more ancient than those which we know about to draw upon? On top of that, it was after all Origen, a Christian writer, who drew attention to the fact that Jospehus did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Yet two references to Jesus exist outside the Slavonic version of Josephus. One of them says Ananias the high-priest tried James, “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ”. For the other one you must read Dr. H. St. John Thackeray’s Josephus, the Man and the Historian, p. 125. He shows that the interpretation of Josephus is not so simple. There are disputes about the whole affair among scholars.
All this shows us, then, that the text of the New Testament is quite authentic when it deals with material affairs like officials, and various customs among the people in the Middle East of those days. Doubt only enters when they begin to relate miraculous events, and religious affairs. Atheists who read the Socialist Standard reject these last as gross superstitions. Having no faith in the existence and power of God, they can obtain no comfort from the New Testament. Christians, believing both, can: we say that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God”. The more we read, then, the more we are convinced.
H. C. Mullin,
The humanist view
In case anyone thinks that L. E. Weidberg’s article attacking the historicity of Jesus is far-fetched, I am writing to support it with a summary of the evidence. The whole issue is discussed in detail in two books by G. A. Wells—The Jesus of the Early Christians (1971) and Did Jesus Exist? (1975)—published by Pemberton, and the relevant sources are presented in C. K. Barrett’s anthology, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (1956), published by SPCK.
According to Christian doctrine, Jesus was born soon before the death of Herod the Great and at the time of the Roman census of Judaea (unfortunately, the former occurred in 4BC and the latter in AD6!), and was crucified in about AD30. Yet no contemporary evidence about him has survived, and the earliest independent evidence about him dates from about AD110; even the earliest Christian evidence dates from several decades after his supposed death.
The earliest Epistles of Paul, which date from the 50s and 60s, contain virtually no information about the life or death or about the teachings of Jesus; according to his own testament, Paul knew nothing of Jesus and rejected Christianity until he was convinced by a vision. The Gospels, which were compiled by unknown writers in unknown ways from unknown sources in unknown places between about 70 and 110, contain virtually no information which even claims to be first-hand, which is corroborated elsewhere, or which is consistent with what is known about Judaea in the early first century. There is no reference to them until the mid-second century, and it is interesting that the first Christian Fathers referred to the Epistles but not to the Gospels
The earliest non-Christian references to Jesus appeared in the 110s. Pliny the Younger, writing to the Emperor Trajan, refers not to Jesus living in Palestine in 30 but Christians worshipping Christ as a God in Asia Minor in 112. Tacitus and Suetonius, writing histories of Rome during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, refer to troubles associated with Christians in Rome under Claudius Nero; but their accounts are not reflected in any contemporary or any Christian source, and they seem to confuse Christians with Jews, which would be understandable at a time when many Jews had become Christians. Thus their story that Nero blamed the fire of 64 on the Christians was not told by Christians; and Suetonius’ reference to “Chrestus” causing trouble in Rome in the 50s is hardly evidence for Christians making trouble there then or in Jerusalem twenty years earlier. Tacitus does add that Christ was put to death by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, but this was Christian doctrine when Tacitus was writing and he may have heard it from them.
There is no Jewish reference to Jesus in such first-century writers as Philo and Josephus, and the earliest references appear in the second-century Talmud. They suggest that he was human rather than divine, and a bastard rather than the Messiah, which hardly supports Christian doctrine.
The early Christians were acutely aware of the absence of good evidence for the life and death of Jesus, so they perpetrated what were called “pious frauds” to fill the gap. In the second century Justin and Tertullian referred to official reports by Pontius Pilate, and in the fourth century Eusebius quoted letters between Paul and Seneca. Above all, some time between the early third century and the early fourth century, the famous reference to Jesus was interpolated into Josephus's history of the Jews. This forgery destroys itself, since it makes Josephus, who was a religious Jew, refer to Jesus as if he were the Messiah and a divine being. None of this material is accepted by any serious Christian scholar today.
The New Humanist
Pressure on space has forced us to make some cuts in these letters—without, of course, altering their meaning. We feel they can be published without our own detailed reply, since the historical evidence given by Nicolas Walter answers the objections raised by Mr. Mullin.
Two comments we must make. The issue of whether a man called Jesus Christ lived or not is interesting, but not so vital as to destroy, or even damage the socialist case against religion and for the materialist conception of history. Workers who are suppressed and exploited under capitalism should keep their attention upon the real, material world in which they live; this is the only life we know we have and we must struggle to make it the best of all possible experiences. All religion is a diversion from the workers’ urgent task of abolishing capitalism and establishing socialism. Apart from this, there is no evidence which can stand up to a scientific assessment to indicate that there is a supernatural life or any of the other mumbo jumbo associated with religious beliefs.
From this, we argue that people like Nicolas Walter would do better to preoccupy themselves with propagating socialist ideas, rather than with combatting religious ones. Religion, after all, is only one of the theories popular among non-socialist workers and which stand in the way of our getting socialism now.
Finally—we have received several letters of criticism of the article “Jesus Christ Supermyth” but only Mr. Mullin’s was suitable for publication; the others were either too long or were little more than religious ranting, or both. One who has read the article but who has not written to us is a violinist playing at the show Jesus Christ Superstar, who was seen to have the Socialist Standard on his music stand, propped open at the relevant page.