In recent years the historical existence of Jesus has been disputed by atheists and extreme skeptics. Such challenges have typically originated online, consisting of non-professional commentary from individuals with no relevant qualifications (with only very rare exceptions). The overwhelming scholarly consensus of professional historians considers the historical existence of Jesus to be conclusively established. This article surveys the historical sources typically cited as evidence for the existence of Jesus.
There are no contemporary records of Jesus’ life; that is, none written during the time that he was alive. Even the gospels were written long after his death. The apostle Paul is in fact the earliest witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The following are sources outside the New Testament, commonly cited as witnesses for the historicity of Jesus. They are not all of equal value, and some of them do not contribute very useful historical data.
- Thallos (Greek historian), c. 55 CE.
The Christian historian Georgius Syncellus quotes a passage from 3rd century Christian historian Julius Africanus, who in turn quotes Thallos referring to an eclipse. Although Thallos treats the eclipse as a natural event, Africanus argues he is wrong, and that this was an act of God which took place at the crucifixion of Jesus. The uncertainty of who Thallos was, what he wrote, and the lack of a direct reference to Jesus, means this source does not provide any useful information confirming the existence of Jesus.
- Josephus (Jewish historian), c. 90s CE.
Josephus is considered the most important historical witness to the life of Jesus outside the New Testament, not only because he is the earliest but also because his work ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ (written during the 90s), contains two references to Jesus. The first reference is lengthy, and much of it looks like it was written by a Christian rather than a Jewish historian such as Josephus; see the words marked here in bold.
‘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; (64) and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross,b those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day,c 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 at this day.’
It is certain that this reference contains a lot of material which is obviously not authentic, having been added by later Christians scribes when copying Josephus’ work.   Nevertheless the overwhelming majority of scholars believe that once these Christian additions are removed, there is still a genuine historical reference to Jesus in the text, which was written by Josephus. Here is an example of what the original text is typically understood to have looked like.
‘At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.’
Very importantly, a 10th century Christian manuscript written in Arabic quotes this section of Josephus in a way which shows the writer (Agapius of Mabbug), had access to a text which did not suffer from the Christian additions of the oldest available Greek text.
‘At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.’
This text was only published academically in 1971,  long after scholars had suggested a neutral ‘reconstructed’ version of the quotation from Josephus, with the most obvious Christian additions removed. The fact that this Arabic text is very similar to the reconstructed text, and is independent of the corrupted Greek version, strengthens the considerably the case that Josephus contains an authentic reference to the life and death of Jesus. This is acknowledged by the overwhelming majority of current scholars.  
The second reference to Jesus in Josephus contains a reference to James, called by Josephus ‘the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James’. This reference has been far less disputed, since the mention of Jesus is incidental and since he is referred to as Jesus ‘who was called Christ’, indicating that the writer himself did not believe Jesus was the Christ. 
- Pliny the Younger (Roman senator), c. 111-113 CE.
While he was the governor of Pontus-Bythinia from c. 111-113 CE, Pliny wrote to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with Christians. However, Pliny’s letters tell us only about the beliefs and practices of the Christians in his day; he does not refer to Jesus specifically, and does not provide any independent information on Jesus as a historical figure. Like Thallos, Pliny does not provide any useful information confirming the existence of Jesus.
- Tacitus (Roman historian), c. 116 CE.
In his historical work ‘Annals’ (written around 116 CE), Tacitus refers explicitly to Jesus as the founder of Christianity, and his crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. Arguments that this passage was not written by Tacitus, and was inserted by later Christians, have failed to convince mainstream scholarship. This remains one of the earliest historical references to Jesus, and to his crucifixion under Pilate.
- Suetonius (Roman historian), c. 120 CE.
In his work ‘Lives of the Caesars’ (c. 120 CE), Suetonius refers to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome by the emperor Claudius, which Suetonius says was ‘since they were always making disturbances because of the instigator Chestus’. The vast majority of scholars consider this passage to be genuine, and the word ‘Chrestus’ was a common mistaken spelling of ‘Christus’ (meaning ‘Christ’ in Latin).
Nevertheless, this passage speaks of Jews making disturbances in Rome as a result of ‘Chrestus’, which does not seem to be a reference to Jesus (who was never in Rome). Although Suetonius refers elsewhere to Christians (whom he calls ‘Christiani’), he does not do so in this passage; consequently, this reference in Suetonius is of little use in establishing the historicity of Jesus.  
- Mara bar Serapion (Syrian writer), c. 73-150 CE.
An non-Christian Syrian writer named Serapion, in a letter to his son (the date of which is still uncertain and debated), refers to a ‘wise king of the Jews’, for whose death God held the Jews responsible, punishing them by exiling them from Judea and scattering them throughout the earth. The only surviving copy of this letter is dated to the seventh century, and Serapion does not name Jesus, but the context suggests he is the ‘wise king’ referred to.  This provides some evidence for the historicity of Jesus.
As a result of these sources, Jesus’ existence is considered well established by professional historiography, and the idea that he did not exist is typically not taken seriously.
‘The theory of Jesus’ nonexistence is now effectively dead as a scholarly question.’ 
Although details of the life of Jesus are still hotly disputed, there is still a very broad agreement on the key events of his life. The following statements are are all agreed on by the overwhelming consensus of peer reviewed professional scholarship on the historicity of Jesus, from those as conservative as Witherington, Blomberg and Habemas, through those less conservative such as Theissen, and Sanders, to those as skeptical as Ehrman (agnostic), Vermès (Jew),  and Lüdemann (atheist). 
- Jesus was born to a woman named Mary, during the reign of Herod the Great.
- He had a father (biological or not), called Joseph.
- He was baptized in Galilee.
- He became an intinerant teacher.
- He proclaimed the kingdom of God.
- He conducted a healing ministry which involved certain genuine acts of healing.
- He taught a subversive and counter-cultural socio-religious ethic expressed in wisdom sayings and parables; Mark 2:19; 3:27; 4:21; 10:25; 12:17, Matthew 5:38-48; 6:9-23; 7:7-8; 11:7-8; 18:12-14; 18:23-25; 20:1-15, Luke 6:20-21; 6:41-42; 9:58; 9:59-60; 10:30-35; 11:24-26; 12:22-31; 13:6-9; 13:20-21; 14:16-24; 15:11-32; 16:1-8a; 17:33; 18:1-8; 20:46 are all considered authentic sayings of Jesus by the Jesus Seminar.
- He associated and identified with social outcasts.
- He criticized the established Jewish religious elite.
- He was arrested and crucified during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate, for being a public nuisance and social threat.
- He died at around 30 years of age.
 Also spelled ‘Thallas’ or ‘Thallus’.
 ‘Around 55 C.E., a historian named Thallos wrote in Greek a three-volume chronicle of the eastern Mediterranean area from the fall of Troy to about 50 C.E. Most of his book, like the vast majority of ancient literature, perished, but not before it was quoted by Sextus Julius Africanus (ca. 160–ca. 240), a Christian writer, in his History of the World (ca. 220).2 This book likewise was lost, but one of its citations of Thallos was taken up by the Byzantine historian Georgius Syncellus in his Chronicle (ca. 800).’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 20 (2000).
 ‘This fragment of Thallos used by Julius Africanus comes in a section in which Julius deals with the portents during the crucifixion of Jesus. Julius argues that Thallos was “wrong” (ἀλογώς) to argue that this was only a solar eclipse, because at full moon a solar eclipse is impossible, and the Passover always falls at full moon. Julius counters that the eclipse was miraculous, “a darkness induced by God.” Thallos could have mentioned the eclipse with no reference to Jesus. But it is more likely that Julius, who had access to the context of this quotation in Thallos and who (to judge from other fragments) was generally a careful user of his sources, was correct in reading it as a hostile reference to Jesus’ death. The context in Julius shows that he is refuting Thallos’ argument that the darkness is not religiously significant.’, ibid., pp. 20-21.
 ‘The question of identity aside, the value of this fragment is slight. At best all that it shows is that someone in the first century had learned of the tradition of the darkness at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and then attempted to explain it in natural terms.’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 455 (1998).
 Josephus, ’Antiquities’, 18.63-64, in Whiston (ed.), ‘The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged’ (1987 ed.).
 ‘The clause “if indeed it is right to call him a man” suggests that Jesus was more than human. This looks like a Christian scribe’s correction of the christological implications of calling Jesus only “a wise man.”’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 91 (2000).
 ‘The crux of this problem is the curt sentence “He was the Christ” (ὁ Χριστὸς οὗτος ἦν). Leaving aside the issue of how intelligible this statement would have been to Josephus’s Gentile audience,43 this sentence looks like a confession of Jesus as Messiah.’, ibid., p. 91.
 ‘The entire sentence, “For on the third day he appeared to them alive again, because the divine prophets had prophesied these and myriad other things about him” is filled with Christian content.’, ibid, p. 92.
 Meier, ‘A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume One, The Roots of the Problem and the Person’, p. 61 (1991).
 Brown, ‘The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1 and 2: From Gethsemane to the Grave, a Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels’, p. 375 (1994).
 A 12th century Syriac text by Michael the Syrian, published at the same time, is very similar to the text of Agapius.
 ‘Hence the most that can be claimed is that Josephus here made some reference to Jesus, which has been retouched by a Christian hand. This is the view argued by Meier as by most scholars today, particularly since S. Pines drew attention to a less obviously Christian version of the ‘Testimonium’ which is quoted in Arabic translation in a tenth-century Christian work.’, Wells, ‘The Jesus Legend’, p. 28 (1996).
 ‘Most scholars today consider the passage authentic, but think it has been extensively altered to reflect core Christian beliefs (italic type in the quotation above indicates those parts of the Testimonium that are usually considered obvious additions by a Christian hand).’, Neufeld, ‘Recovering Jesus: The Witness of the New Testament’, p. 40 (2007).
 ‘Most scholars are confident that Josephus wrote something like this because the later mention of the Christ in the James citation from Antiquities 20.200 assumes a previous mention of this figure.’, Bock, ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods’, p. 55 (2002).
 ‘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, [or, some of his companions];’, Josephus, ’Antiquities’, 20.200, in Whiston (ed.), ‘The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged’ (1987 ed.).
 ‘That, indeed, Josephus did say something about Jesus is indicated, above all, by the passage — the authenticity of which has been almost universally acknowledged — about James, who is termed (A XX, 200) the brother of “the aforementioned Christ.”’, Feldman, ‘Inroduction’, in Feldman & Hata (eds.), ‘Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity’, p. 56 (1987).
 ‘The overwhelming majority of scholars holds that the words “the brother of Jesus called Christ” are authentic, as is the entire passage in which it is found.25 The passage fits its context well. As for its content, a Christian interpolator would have used laudatory language to describe James and especially Jesus, calling him “the Lord” or something similar. At least, as in the passage to be considered next, he would have used the term “Christ” in an absolute way. Josephus’s words “called Christ” are neutral and descriptive, intended neither to confess nor deny Jesus as the “Christ.” Thus Josephus distinguishes this Jesus from the many others he mentions who had this common name.’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, pp. 83-84 (2000).
 ‘Because he has not been present at such trials before his appointment to Bithynia (to judge from what follows), Pliny has several questions: How should Christians be punished? What are the grounds for investigation, and how far should investigation be pressed? Are any distinctions to be made for age, or for renouncing Christianity? Are Christians to be punished just for being Christians, “for the mere name of Christian,” even though they may not be guilty of “crimes associated with the name”?’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 24 (2000).
 ‘Pliny does not deal explicitly with the “historical Jesus.” If he has learned anything in his investigations and interrogations about Jesus, he does not relate it to the emperor.’, ibid., p. 28.
 ‘None of these features, of course, add to our knowledge of the Jesus of history.’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 459 (1998).
 ‘The founder of this name, Christ, had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate’, Tacitus quoted in Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 41 (2000).
 ‘The textual integrity of this section has on occasion been doubted. The text has some significant problems, as attested by the standard critical editions.59 These and other difficulties in interpreting the text have also led to a few claims that all of it, or key portions of it, has been interpolated by later hands.60 But there are good reasons for concluding with the vast majority of scholars that this passage is fundamentally sound, despite difficulties which result in no small measure from Tacitus’s own compressed style. The overall style and content of this chapter are typically Tacitean. The passage fits well in its context and is the necessary conclusion to the entire discussion of the burning of Rome. Sulpicius Severus’s Chronicle 2.29 attests to much of it in the early fifth century, so most suggested interpolations would have to have come in the second through fourth centuries.’, ibid., pp. 42-43.
 Suetonius quoted in Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 30 (2000).
 ‘We conclude with the overwhelming majority of modern scholarship that this sentence is genuine.’, ibid., p. 31.
 ‘“Christus” was often confused with “Chrestus” by non-Christians, and sometimes even by Christians.’, ibid., p. 34.
 ‘Although Suetonius did view Christ as an historical person capable of fomenting unrest,55 his glaring mistakes should caution us against placing too much weight on his evidence for Jesus or his significance for early Christianity.’, ibid., p 39.
 ‘The “Jews” may really refer to Christians, who in the first century were viewed as no more than a sect within Judaism itself; or the designation may refer to Jews who quarreled with Christians (along the lines of what we find in Acts). Of the two, the latter interpretation is the more probable.’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 457 (1998).
 ‘The confusion involved is hardly the work of artifice or contrivance, but certainly weakens the historical value of the text.’, Dunn, ‘Jesus Remembered’, volume 1, p. 142 (2003).
 ‘What advantage did the Athenians gain by murdering Socrates, for which they were repaid with famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, because their country was completely covered in sand in just one hour? Or the Jews [by killing]93 their wise king, because their kingdom was taken away at that very time? God justly repaid the wisdom of these three men: the Athenians died of famine; the Samians were completely overwhelmed by the sea; and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, are scattered through every nation.’, Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 54 (2000).
 ‘The text contains no specific Christian ideas — except for the expression “the wise king of the Jews,” which may refer to Jesus127 — and therefore is presumably of pagan authorship.’, Possekel, ‘Evidence of Greek Philosophical Concepts in the Writings of Ephrem the Syrian’, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, volume 580, number 102, p. 29 (1999).
 ‘The value of this curious comment lies in the apparent fact that by the end of the first century Jesus was regarded in at least some non-Christian circles as the Jews’ “wise king.”’, Evans, ‘Jesus in Non-Christian Sources’, in Chilton & Evans (eds.), ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research’, p. 456 (1998).
 Van Voorst, ‘Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence’, p. 14 (2000).
 Thiessen & Merz, ‘The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide’, pp. 569, 571-572 (1998).
 ‘Sanders offered a more concise sketch in The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993). – Jesus was born c. 4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great; – he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village; – he was baptized by John the Baptist; – he called disciples; – he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities); – he preached “the kingdom of God”; – about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover; – he created a disturbance in the Temple area; – he had a final meal with the disciples; – he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest; – he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.’, Broadhead, ‘Jewish Ways of Following Jesus: Redrawing the Religious Map of Antiquity’, pp. 64-65 (2010).
 Ehrman, ‘Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium’ (1999).
 Vermès, ‘Jesus and the World of Judaism’, pp. 11-12 (1984).
 ‘Why, then, was Jesus crucified? In Vermes’s subsequent volume, ‘The Religion of Jesus the Jew’, he succinctly summarizes his conclusion: “The arrest and execution of Jesus were due, not direclty to his words and deeds, but to their possible insurrectionary consequences feared by the nervous authorities in charge of law and order in that powder-keg of first-century Jerusalem… He died on the cross for having done the wrong thing (caused a commotion) in the wrong place (the Temple) at the wrong time (just before Passover)” (x).’, Keck, ‘Who is Jesus? History in Perfect Tense’, p. 41 (2001).
 ‘”The Synoptists are unanimous in presenting him as an exorcist, healer and teacher. They also emphasize that the deepest impression made by Jesus on his contemporaries resulted from his mastery over devils and disease, and the magnetic power of his preaching.”’, Vermes, quoted by Scott, ‘New Options in An Old Quest’, in Greenspoon et al. (eds.), ‘The Historical Jesus Through Catholic and Jewish Eyes’, pp. 7-8 (2000).
 Lüdemann, ‘The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did’, pp. 77, 83, 96-97 (1999), and ‘Jesus After Two Thousand Years: what he really said and did’, pp. 689-690 (2001).
 ‘Lüdemann even concludes that ‘the activity of Jesus in driving out demons is one of the most certain historical facts about his life’ (Jesus 13).’, Dunn, ‘Jesus Remembered’, p. 677 (2003).
Today Christians in the Western world are typically living in a post-Christian society. Christian beliefs are met with skepticism, and people see little reason to believe. Christians are confronted with daily challenges to their faith, and often struggle to understand the relevance of Christianity to modern life.
This post continues from the original post in this series.
Carrier defends Murdock on the canon
In his book (p. 24), Ehrman made the following response to a claim by DM Murdock (writing under the pseudonym ‘Archarya S’), concerning the canon of the New Testament (Murdock’s claim is in quotation marks, “” and Ehrman’s comments follow in square brackets, ):
Bart Ehrman: ―”It took well over a thousand years to canonize the New Testament,” and ―”many councils” were needed to differentiate the inspired from the spurious books (31). [Actually, the first author to list our canon of the New Testament was the church father Athanasius in the year 367; the comment about ―many councils‖ is simply made up.]
Carrier objected to Ehrman’s statement, charging him with error:
Richard Carrier: (1) Ehrman’s statement that there weren’t “many councils” to decide the NT canon is, read literally, false. There were in fact several councils ruling on the canon, and indeed the canon was never truly settled until the 16th century. Someone who tutored under Metzger, who extensively documented these facts, should know that. I can only assume he meant to say that the canon proposed by Athanasius in 367 (in a letter, not a council ruling) was repeatedly affirmed by every subsequent council convened to decide on the canon (although the fact that they had to keep meeting to do that means there were repeated attempts to change it). Acharya’s own characterization of the matter might also be accused of being misleading. But Ehrman’s wording is going to seriously mislead and misinform the public even more, not only as to the actual history of the canon, but also as to Acharya’s knowledge of the facts.
Carrier’s claim that ‘the fact that they had to keep meeting to do that means there were repeated attempts to change it’ is a non sequitur; the conclusion does not follow logically from the premise. He fails to take into account the fact that church councils often re-affirmed the decisions of previous councils regardless of whether the points affirmed were under challenge. He provides no evidence for his claim, and the facts are to the contrary.
When challenged on this point by a respondent on his blog, Carrier gave a response including the the following claim:
Richard Carrier: Your facts also don’t quite agree with what is stated in Metzger’s Formation of the New Testament Canon. You might want to do more homework on this.
This response appears authoritative on the surface, but on closer inspection it is transparently a bluff. Carrier makes a vague reference to Metzger (a recognized scholar on the history of the New Testament text), but fails to actually address any of the points raised by the respondent, and does not cite or quote any specific statements by Metzger relevant to the point under discussion. The reality is that Carrier has no answer to the challenge raised by his respondent, and is hoping that a casual reference to Metzger will convince them that they are wrong. This attempt at evasion is not the response of someone confident in a knowledge of the facts.
Additionally, Carrier’s reference to the work ‘Formation of the New Testament Canon’ is problematic, since he attributes this work to Metzger. There is a book entitled ‘The Formation of the New Testament Canon: an ecumenical approach’ (1983), by Farmer and Farkasfalvy, and another book by entitled ‘Formation of the New Testament Canon’ (1965), by Robert Grant, but Metzger did not make any contributions to either book. Carrier did not provide any details which would help identify specifically the work to which he was referring.
Metzger’s own work on the formation of the New Testament canon is entitled ‘The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance’ (1997), and when we examine what Metzger actually says in that book, we find nothing supportive of Carrier’s claims. Metzger does not say that numerous councils were held to decide on the canon. On the contrary, he notes that the canon suggested by Athanasius was promoted by Augustine in three provincial synods, all of which re-affirmed the canon of Athanasius.
Bruce Metzger: It was Augustine who, in three provincial synods, cast his weight for the twenty-seven books which we know as the Christian Scriptures. These synods were held, one of them in Hippo in A.D. 393, one in Carthage in 397, and the last of them again in Carthage in 419. The opening words of the statute on the canon are straightforward and forthright: ‘Besides the canonical Scriptures, nothing shall be read in church under the name of the divine Scriptures.’ Then there follows an enumeration of the canonical Scriptures. The order of the New Testament books is Gospels, Acts, Pauline Epistles, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, James, Jude, the Revelation of John. The only difference to be noted in the reiteration of the statute is that, in the synods of 393 and 397, the phrase runs, ‘Thirteen Epistles of Paul, and the Epistle to the Hebrews, by the same’, whereas the statute of 419 reads, ‘Fourteen Epistles of Paul’. (See Appendix IV. 12 below.)
Twenty-seven books, no more, and no less, is henceforth the watchword throughout the Latin Church.
None of the councils cited here by Metzger were held to determine the canon, they simply re-affirmed the canon as they addressed other issues. The 393 CE synod of Hippo was a general annual synod, the 397 CE synod of Carthage was a general synod addressing issues from the transfer of clerics between churches to the reconciliation of repentant actors (it states explicitly that it is simply confirming the canon already received), and the 419 CE synod of Carthage was held specifically to address appeals to Rome.
Metztger notes that this did not settle the issue of the canon once and for all in every Christian community, and does note that differences over the canon continued to be raised occasionally.
Bruce Metzger: Yet it would be a mistake to represent the question of the canon as finally settled in all Christian communities by the beginning of the fifth century.
Bruce Metzger: Thus, despite the influence of Jerome and Augustine and the pronouncements of three provincial synods, more than once in the following centuries we come upon evidence of divergences in the canon, either by way of addition or subtraction.
Nevertheless, Metzger provides no support for Carrier’s defense of Murdock’s claim that there were ‘many councils’ held to decide the New Testament canon.
Ehrman’s representation of Wells
Neil Godfrey charges Ehrman with misrepresenting the views of Wells so completely that it is not possible that Ehrman has even read the pages of Wells’ work that he cites.
Neil Godfrey: Bart Ehrman has indignantly declared he read all of the books he discusses in his book Did Jesus Exist? How, then, could he possibly have confused the mythicist argument of Wells with that of Doherty. The two are opposed to each other. But Ehrman appears to have picked up a garbled account and attributed half of Doherty’s argument to Wells!
Neil Godfrey: Ehrman is writing outright disinformation about Wells’ argument. Ehrman cannot possibly have read the pages in Wells’ book that he cites.
Godfrey’s claim is directed very specifically towards this paragraph by Ehrman.
Bart Ehrman: Instead, Wells contends, Paul understood Jesus to have been a supernatural being who lived in utter obscurity some 150 years or so earlier, who was crucified not by the Romans but by the demonic forces in the world.
Let’s put this paragraph of Ehrman’s next to Wells’ own words, as quoted by Godfrey himself.
* Ehrman: ‘Wells contends Paul understood Jesus to have been a supernatural being‘
* Wells: ‘Paul believed in a supernatural Jesus‘
* Ehrman: ‘who lived in utter obscurity‘
* Wells: ‘he was convinced that Jesus lived an obscure life on earth’
* Ehrman: ‘who was crucified not by the Romans but by the demonic forces in the world.’
* Wells: ‘who assumed human flesh and was crucified on earth at the instigation of supernatural powers‘
Godfrey claims that Ehrman ‘is writing outright disinformation about Wells’ argument”, and ‘cannot possibly have read the pages in Wells’ book that he cites’. Readers may decide for themselves if the evidence supports Godfrey’s claims.
This post continues from the original post in this series.
Dying and rising gods
Carrier objected to Ehrman saying that the Egyptian god Osiris died and was raised from the dead (an issue related to Ehrman’s dismissal of claims that the gospel records of Jesus’ resurrection were literary creations based on previous myths of dying and rising pagan gods):
Richard Carrier: Regarding the claim that Osiris “returned to life on earth by being raised from the dead,” Ehrman insists that in fact “no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods)” (p. 26). He relies solely on Jonathan Z. Smith, and fails to check whether anything Smith says is even correct. If Ehrman had acted like a real scholar and actually gone to the sources, and read more widely in the scholarship (instead of incompetently reading just one author–the kind of hack mistake we would expect from an incompetent myther), he would have discovered that almost everything Smith claims about this is false. In fact, Plutarch attests that Osiris was believed to have died and been returned to life (literally: he uses the words anabiôsis and paliggenesis, which are very specific on this point, see my discussion in The Empty Tomb, pp. 154-55), and that in the public myths he did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 19.358b).
Note the following claims made by Carrier:
* “He relies solely on Jonathan Z. Smith”: in fact Ehrman cites Jonathan Smith and Mark Smith (perhaps Carrier failed to differentiate between the two because they have the same surname), and in his reply to Carrier he demonstrates use of the relevant primary sources
* “almost everything Smith claims about this is false”: Carrier provides no evidence for this claim
* “in the public myths he [Plutarch] did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body”: as we shall see, Carrier later completely abandons this claim once Ehrman challenges it
Ehrman responded by proving Carrier wrong; Osiris did not return to earth in his resurrected body (emphasis mine):
Bart Ehrman: Literally, he [Osiris] came “from Hades.” But this is not a resurrection of his body. His body is still dead. He himself is down in Hades, and can come back up to make an appearance on earth on occasion. This is not like Jesus coming back from the dead, in his body; it is like Samuel in the story of the Witch of Endor, where King Saul brings his shade back to the world of the living temporarily (1 Samuel 28). How do we know Osiris is not raised physically? His body is still a corpse, in a tomb.
Carrier’s original claim was made with regard to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, claiming that the Osiris myth was a counterpart of the gospel resurrection accounts, which decribe Jesus as rising with the same body which was crucified. Carrier’s claim was that likewise, ‘Plutarch attests that Osiris was believed to have died and had been returned to earth‘, specifically ‘he did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body‘.
Ehrman disproved this; Osiris did not return to earth ‘in his resurrected body’. Osiris’ body was dismembered and remained in pieces, while his disembodied soul sometimes came to earth.
Carrier’s response was to change his argument; abandoning the clam that Osiris ‘did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body‘, he accepted that Osiris had not returned to earth in his resurrected body, and started to argue that Jesus had not done so either.
In order to continue to appeal to Osiris as a parallel, Carrier changed what he had previously said about Jesus and Osiris, now arguing that neither had returned to earth in their resurrected body, so the comparison was still valid (emphasis mine):
Richard Carrier: Of course the same is most likely true of Jesus (as I and several scholars have argued: see my Empty Tomb FAQ; even conservative scholar N.T. Wright has suggested the possibility), and obviously this is in fact how Jesus was originally believed to have appeared (in visions, not a walking reanimated corpse), so there is no clear difference from the Osiris case even as Ehrman describes it.
Note the complete change of argument. First Carrier claims Osiris is a legitimate parallel to Jesus because they both returned to earth in their resurrected body:
* “he [Osiris] did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body“
Having been proved wrong on the claim that Osiris returned to earth in his resurrected body, Carrier then claims Osiris is a legitimate parallel to Jesus because neitherof them returned to earth in their resurrected body:
* “Jesus was originally believed to have appeared (in visions, not a walking reanimated corpse), so there is no clear difference from the Osiris case even as Ehrman describes it“
In all this, Carrier never acknowledges he was wrong in the first place; he simply abandons his original argument, makes a new argument, and claims he is still correct.
Carrier then went on to claim that the difference between these two forms of returning to life wasn’t relevant anyway, despite the fact that he had originally based his entire argument on the difference between them (emphasis mine):
Richard Carrier: But even granting the difference, this is precisely the kind of distinction that isn’t relevant to the point: Osiris is a dead god who still “lives again” and visits and converses with the living.
Now that Ehrman has proved him wrong, Carrier is retreating to more vague language, saying ‘Osiris is a dead god who still “lives again” and visits and converses with the living’. But he has abandoned his original claim, no longer defending the statement that ‘Osiris was believed to have died and had been returned to earth‘, or that ‘he did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body‘. In fact he is now explicitly contradicting his original claim, saying that neither Jesus nor Osiris returned to life in a resurrected body.
Carrier also claimed to have greater scholarly support for his position than Ehrman:
Richard Carrier: On all of this take note: Ehrman says his views are the standard in the field, but in defense of the claim he still only names one advocate (Smith). In the link above, in support of my view, I name eight. And in my chapter on resurrection bodies in The Empty Tomb I cite more, including abundant primary evidence. So you decide who to follow on this point.
The link to which Carrier refers is this section of an FAQ he wrote. It does not actually address what Ehrman says about Osiris (emphasis mine):
Richard Carrier: Q: Is it true that many other scholars agree with you that the earliest Christians believed Jesus rose from the dead by switching to a new body and leaving the old one behind?
A: Yes. These include: James Tabor, “Leaving the Bones Behind: A Resurrected Jesus Tradition with an Intact Tomb” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition: An Inquiry (forthcoming); Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (2005), pp. 57-58; Peter Lampe, “Paul’s Concept of a Spiritual Body” in Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments (2002), edited by Ted Peters et al.: pp. 103-14; Gregory Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered: Thomas and John in Controversy (1995); Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (1995); Adela Collins, “The Empty Tomb in the Gospel According to Mark” in Hermes and Athena: Biblical Exegesis and Philosophical Theology (1993), edited by Eleonore Stump & Thomas Flint: pp. 107-40; and C.F. Moule, “St. Paul and Dualism: The Pauline Conception of the Resurrection,” New Testament Studies 12 (1966): 106-23. Many others think it’s likely or at least possible (e.g. see answer to previous question).
This is talking about the view that ‘the earliest Christians believed Jesus rose from the dead by switching to a new body and leaving the old one behind’. Ehrman was talking about a completely different subject (emphasis mine):
Bart Ehrman: Carrier and I could no doubt argue day and night about how to interpret Plutarch. But my views do not rest on having read a single article by Jonathan Z. Smith and a refusal to read the primary sources. As I read them, there is no resurrection of the body of Osiris. And that is the standard view among experts in the field.
The ‘standard view’ to which Ehrman refers is that there is ‘no resurrection of Osiris’. Carrier responds saying ‘Ehrman says his views are the standard in the field, but in defense of the claim he still only names one advocate (Smith). In the link above, in support of my view, I name eight’, and links to a list of scholars addressing the resurrection of Jesus, not the resurrection of Osiris.
Carrier’s response is irrelevant to what Ehrman wrote.
This post continues from the original post in this series.
Pilate: prefect, procurator, or both?
Carrier claims Ehrman was wrong to say Roman historian Tacitus committed an error by referring to Pontius Pilate as a procurator, instead of a prefect”:
Richard Carrier: This betrays ignorance of the fact that provincial prefects were often also imperial procurators, and from his treatment of the scandal of this fact throughout the Annals Tacitus has a particular motive to emphasize that fact here (see my discussion in Herod the Procurator, particularly the section “So Was Pontius Pilate a Prefect or a Procurator?”). In other words, Pontius Pilate was both a procurator and a prefect. And the recent literature on the subject confirms this, as would any consultation with an expert in Tacitus or Roman imperial administration.
In Carrier’s paper (to which he linked), there is a single brief section covering a few pages (pages 33-36), in which he discusses whether procurators could be appointed prefects simultaneously. This does not address directly the question of whether or not Pilate was a prefect who was also appointed procurator.
Responding to Ehrman, Carrier claimed ‘The view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator has long since been refuted (most conclusively by the work of Fergus Millar’. Reading Carrier’s paper, we find reference to two papers by Millar, one published in 1964, the other published in 1965. Did Millar indeed refuted conclusively the view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from ‘prefect’ to ‘procurator’, as Carrier claims?
One commentator has examined Carrier’s claim by reading Millar’s work. He concludes that Carrier has misread Millar:
In Millar 1964, he says plainly on p. 181:
“It is clear that such procurators [sc. governing small provinces], originally called praefecti, exercised a criminal and civil jurisdiction in their areas, which was equivalent to that of senatorial governors, except in that it was only in special cases that they possessed the ius gladii.” (Millar 1964: 181).
He is clear that procurators who were governors of minor provinces were originally called prefects (praefecti in Latin), and Millar (1964: 181, n. 9) cites A. H. M. Jones’s Studies in Roman Government and Law (Oxford, 1960), and does not engage in any refutation of this idea. The rest of the article is an interpretation of Tacitus, Annales 12.60, and Millar argues that it refers to Claudius’s granting of increased jurisdictional power to those procurators who managed imperial properties, a different type of procurator from the type who governed small provinces.
In addition, Millar (1965) simply adds more evidence to the case that Tacitus, Annales 12.60 refers to the authority of procurators of imperial properties: there is no refutation of the view that Claudius changed the official titles of the minor equestrian or freedmen provincial governors from prefect to procurator.
Not only does Carrier fail to demonstrate that Millar refuted conclusively the view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from ‘prefect’ to ‘procurator’, he has failed to realise that Millar never says anything against the view. On the contrary, Millar states specifically that the procurators to which he refers were ‘originally called praefecti‘, and attributes the change of authority to Claudius, the very opposite of what Carrier says.
Carrier’s statement that ‘view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator has long since been refuted’ rests on his citation of a single author writing over 50 years ago (Millar), who did not say what Carrier claims; in fact Millar said the opposite.
When this evidence from Millar’s own work was presented to Carrier on his blog, he gave the following enigmatic reply:
Richard Carrier: Millar 1965, pp. 364-65: “The legal evidence shows clearly that procurators never had a recognised right to exercise criminal jurisdiction.”
See also P. A. Brunt, “Procuratorial Jurisdiction,” Latomus 25.3 (July-September 1966): 461-89, with my analysis in Herod, pp. 34-35 (and in context, pp. 29-36.
This fails completely to address any of the points raised; it certainly presents no evidence that Millar conclusively refuted the ‘view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator’.
In response to Carrier, Ehrman commented that he had subsequently consulted a scholar of Roman history who indicated that Carrier was wrong, quoting ‘Prosopography of the Roman Empire‘ as evidence (‘PP’ in the following quotation refers to ‘Pontius Pilate’):
PP could just as well have had the title procurator, but evidently he didn’t … PIR (ed. 2, 1998) P 815 sums it up neatly: “praeses Iudaeae ordinis equestris usque ad Claudii tempora non procurator, sed praefectus fuit….” [This comes from the Prosopographia Imperii Romani (i.e., The Prosopography of the Roman Empire); I translate the Latin as follows: “Up until the time of Claudius [i.e., 41-54 CE], the provincial governor of Judea, a man of the equestrian order, was not a procurator but a prefect.
Carrier replied with the assertion that this source was outdated:
Richard Carrier: …contrary to what Ehrman’s quotation might seem to suggest, the PIR his colleague translates the Latin of on this point is a modern source, not an ancient one, and thus represents an outdated scholarly assumption and not what anyone in antiquity actually said…
The commentator I quoted previously corrects Carrier on this point:
The most recent edition of Prosopographia Imperii Romani saec. I. II. III. (2nd edn. part 6; eds. Leiva Petersen and Klaus Wachtel; De Gruyter, Berlin, 1998), revised in the 1990s, is quite clear that Pilate carried the title praefectus (PIR [2nd ed.] part. 6, no. 815, p. 348), on the basis of the Pilate inscription (see Année Epigraphique 1963 no. 104).
This source is not “outdated,” but represents the opinion of scholars from the 1990s, who had updated an earlier edition of the work.
Indeed, scholarly works written as recently as 2008 say either Tacitus made a mistake, or he was speaking proleptically.    As the commentator quoted previously notes, this does not appear to be an outdated view ‘long since refuted’ as Carrier claimed:
In short, I see no evidence at all that the “view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator has long since been refuted.”
Rather, the view that, from the reign of Claudius, the equestrian governors who were called prefects (or praefecti in Latin) were now called procurators appears to be the common opinion: it is held by Syme (1962: 92), Jones (1960: 124), Weaver (1972: 267-268), Garnsey and Saller (1987: 23), B. Levick (Levick 2001: 48) in her biography of the emperor Claudius, and Schäfer (2003: 105).
In his paper, Carrier makes the argument that Tacitus didn’t make a mistake, but that Pilate was a procurator as well as a prefect. In support, Carrier cites Philo and Josephus referring to Pilate as a procurator (neither of them refer to him as a prefect).
However, standard scholarship on the subject understands Philo, Josephus, and Tacitus as adopting the new terminology established during the reign of Claudius after 41 CE, since all of them were writing after this date and since the only epigraphical evidence for Pilate (dated no later than 36 CE, before Claudius), identifies him as a prefect, but not as a procurator. 
Carrier does not mention any of this scholarship. Nor does he cite any scholars saying that Tacitus didn’t make a mistake and wasn’t writing proleptically, except for himself.
 ‘Certain minor imperial provinces had equestrian governors, who were known first as prefects but from the time of Claudius as procurators (e.g., Pontius Pilate in Judaea; 15.44.3). Claudius evidently assigned certain judicial functions too to procurators, but T.’s report is unclear (12.60).’, Woodman, ‘The Annals’, pp. 359-360 (2004).
 ‘Pilate was appointed under Tiberius, and an inscription from Caesarea mentions his activities in regard to a Tiberieion (or imperial cult sanctuary to Tiberius). The text also gives his correct title as praefectus rather than procurator.’, Galinsky, ‘The Cambridge Companion To The Age Of Augustus’, p. 378 (2005).
 ‘Since Coponius was apparently dispatched as a prefect (praefectus, eparxos), Josephus’ nomenclature here seems incorrect, though the same problem is found in Tacitus (e.g. Ann. 15.44 on Pilate).’, Mason & Chapman, ‘Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. Judean war’, p. 80 (2008).
 ‘Pilate actually held the lesser rank of prefect in Judea, something that Tacitus, who had access to the official records at Rome’s Tabularium and frequently quoted from them in his Annals, should have known.’, Dando-Collins, ‘The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City’, p. 8 (2010).
 ‘However, a fragment of a Latin inscription found in Caesarea gives Pilate the title “prefect”. This supports the deduction made from other evidence, most of it epigraphic, that up to the reign of Claudius, though the terminology was still fluid, the normal title for an equestrian provincial governor was “prefect”, and “procurator” must now be reserved for the governors of Judaea after 44.’, Smallwood, ‘The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian : A Study in Political Relations’, p. 145 (2001).
 ‘This change in title under Claudius goes a long way in explaining the confusion of the principal literary texts here. Philo, Josephus, the NT and Tacitus refer to various governors as eparxos (praefectus), epitropos (procurator), and hegemwn (governor), apparently indiscriminately.’, Bond, ‘Pontius Pilate In History And Interpretation’, p. 12 (2004).
This post continues from the original post in this series.
Ehrman on sources for the life of Jesus
Carrier objects to Ehrman’s claim that ‘the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were recent events’ is ‘the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all’ (p. 251):
Richard Carrier: This is false. And it’s astonishing that he would not know this, since several other scholars have discussed the sources that place Jesus in the reign of Jannaeus in the 70s B.C. Ehrman seems to think (and represents to his readers) that G.A. Wells just made this up (pp. 247-51). In fact, Wells is discussing a theory defended by others, and based in actual sources: Epiphanius, in Panarion 29, says there was a sect of still-Torah-observant Christians who taught that Jesus lived and died in the time of Jannaeus, and all the Jewish sources on Christianity that we have (from the Talmud to the Toledot Yeshu) report no other view than that Jesus lived during the time of Jannaeus. Though these are all early medieval sources, it nevertheless means there were actual Christians teaching this and that the Jews who composed the Babylonian Talmud knew of no other version of Christianity.
Let’s refer to what Erhman actually wrote in his book (emphasis mine):
Bart Ehrman: And so both the literary character of 1 Corinthians 15:3–5 and the logic of Paul’s understanding of the resurrection show that he thought that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were recent events. I should stress that this is the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all. It is hard to believe that Paul would have such a radically different view from every other Christian of his day, as Wells suggests. That Jesus lived recently is affirmed not only in all four of our canonical Gospels (where, for example, he is associated with John the Baptist and is said to have been born during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus, under the rulership of the Jewish king Herod, and so on); it is also the view of all of the Gospel sources—Q (which associates Jesus with John the Baptist), M, L—and of the non-Christian sources such as Josephus and Tacitus (who both mention Pilate). These sources, I should stress, are all independent of one another; some of them go back to Palestinian traditions that can readily be dated to 31 or 32 CE, just a year or so after the traditional date of Jesus’s death.
We see here that Ehrman was referring to the idea that ‘the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were recent events’, a view he says ‘is the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all’. He then goes on to list exactly which sources he is referring to; the four canonical gospels, the gospel sources, and the non-Christian sources such as Josephus and Tacitus. Ehrman was referring to the sources he was about to enumerate in the same paragraph as this sentence.
But why does Ehrman confine himself to these sources? Why does he not refer to Epiphanius and the Jewish sources to which Carrier refers? The simple reason for this is that these are not typically considered genuine and reliable sources for the historicity of Jesus. Epiphanius was writing over three hundred years after the time of Jesus, and the Jewish sources referred to by Carrier are even later. Carrier treats these sources uncritically, drawing the conclusion that ‘there were actual Christians teaching this’, but standard scholarship is dismissive of Epiphanius’ claims; thus Efron, ‘Studies On the Hasmonean Period’, p. 158 (1987); emphasis mine:
Nevertheless, there is no lack of modern attempts to uncover an ancient core in that report that identifies Jesus of Nazareth with Joshua b. Perahia’s pupil, relying on the support of Epiphanius, who sets the birth of Jesus in the reign of Alexander (Jannaeus), and Alexandra, that is, in the time of Ben Perahia or Ben Tabai. All these attempts, however, are based on pure delusion.
Efron continues (p. 159), explaining that (contrary to Carrier’s claim), there is no trace of any genuine tradition in Epiphanius (emphasis mine):
His entire exegesis contains no trace of a tradition, Jewish or Christian, regarding an unknown Jesus at the time of Joshua b. Perahia.
The early medieval Jewish sources are equally problematic. Firstly there is the difficulty of identifying which passages actually refer to Jesus at all; Cook, ‘Jewish Perspectives On Jesus’, in Burkett (ed.), ‘The Blackwell Companion to Jesus’, p. 220 (2011), emphasis mine:
But scholars (Christian as well as Jewish), cannot agree on the degree to which the rabbis even cared to allude to Jesus, let alone on which passages were framed with him in mind.
Secondly, there is the fact that as with Epiphanius, these Jewish sources are considered useless for any genuine historical information about the life of Jesus; Cook, ‘Jewish Perspectives On Jesus’, in Burkett (ed.), ‘The Blackwell Companion to Jesus’, p. 220 (2011), emphasis mine:
In any event, rabbinic texts that do refer to Jesus (however many or few), convey nothing credible about him but do convey a flavor of how Jews in this third period viewed him.
To refer to these as sources for the historical Jesus would be highly misleading; they aren’t. The only scholars Carrier cites who treat these sources as valid sources for the historicity and history of Jesus, are those Carrier acknowledges himself are ‘fringe’. It is hardly surprising therefore that Ehrman (who is anything but a fringe scholar), likewise omits them in his treatment of the commonly recognized sources for the historical Jesus.
Carrrier’s claim that ‘all the Jewish sources on Christianity that we have (from the Talmud to the Toledot Yeshu) report no other view than that Jesus lived during the time of Jannaeus’ is simply wrong. The Jewish sources identify Jesus with several different individuals, living at different times; Cook, ‘Jewish Perspectives On Jesus’, in Burkett (ed.), ‘The Blackwell Companion to Jesus’, p. 219 (2011), emphasis mine:
The rabbis mentioned Jesus in connection with various figures whose time frames, when combined, spanned at least two centuries.
Where is the evidence that ‘there were actual Christians teaching’ that Jesus lived during the reign of Jannaeus, and that ‘the Jews who composed the Babylonian Talmud knew of no other version of Christianity’? Carrier does not provide any. Where are the reputable, non-fringe scholars who believe ‘there were actual Christians teaching this and that the Jews who composed the Babylonian Talmud knew of no other version of Christianity’? Carrier does not cite any.