Lecture 22 – The New Testament Era – The Historicity of the life of Jesus

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    Are there other sources besides the New Testament for the historicity of the life of Jesus? In lecture 22 Dr. Jewell refers exclusively to the bible mainly the Gospels of the New Testament and the epistles. I’ve read and seen a few articles that challenges the historicity of Jesus saying that he is a literary allegory. I’m not trying to offend anyone’s religious sensibilities but I would like to know if there are non-biblical corroboration of the actual life of Jesus. It seems like if he had run ins with the Roman authorities there would be some records of him through Roman sources. Obviously the historicity of the life of Jesus has little to do with the impact of Christianity on western civilization, but I’m just interested for my own information. So are there secular sources for the life of Jesus or is the New Testament of the bible the only record of his life? If the New Testament is the only source what is the consensus of the validity of that part of the bible as a historical account as opposed to a religious mythology?

    Jason Jewell

    Hi, Kenn. There are other first-century sources that corroborate the life of Jesus, although not in any great detail. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was hostile to Christianity, writes of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. The Roman historian Tacitus writes of him as well. The so-called “Gnostic” Gospels are second-century compositions. A prominent atheist whose name escapes me at the moment just published a book from a major press that is very hostile to Christianity but that also scolds his fellow atheists for playing the “Jesus didn’t really exist” card because there’s as much historical evidence for his life as for the life of almost anyone who lived in the ancient world.


    I believe Dr. J is referring to Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman.


    Kenn, I would also recommend Bart Ehrman. I read his book, Jesus Interrupted, and it totally shook up my ideas of what I had been taught in church. It’s a very unbiased look at the gospels (and much of the New Testament) and uses as much reliable historical data from the times to build up an interesting case about who the historical Jesus was.

    Personally, I am a little uncomfortable and disappointed with the air of Christian bias so far in my listening (I’m only on lecture 7). I was not expecting to get such a heavy dose of that perspective when I signed up for courses tied so heavily with liberty, reason, and logic. It’s not so much that religious topics are covered that’s bothered me, but that it feels Dr. J is overstating or legitimating its role in Western History and in our life. I’m not denying the influence, but it’s important to touch the religious topics rationally (for instance, during his discussion of the Hebrews, I got the feeling he assumed the miracles and conversations with God to be real). I’m not the expert… but for purpose of learning unbiased Western History, I would have preferred for the approach to be as secular as possible.

    Jason Jewell

    Squamousguy, it’s a mistake to call Ehrman’s treatment of the gospels “unbiased.” (I’m fairly certain Ehrman would agree with me here.) He shares a particular set of biases with other scholars engaging in so-called “higher criticism” of the Bible and the “quest for the Historical Jesus.” They may happen to be biases with which you agree, but they’re still biases.

    Your comment appears to indicate that you think either religion in general or Christianity in particular is antithetical to liberty, reason, and logic. Is this a bias?


    Personally, I am a little uncomfortable and disappointed with the air of Christian bias so far in my listening (I’m only on lecture 7). I was not expecting to get such a heavy dose of that perspective when I signed up for courses tied so heavily with liberty, reason, and logic. It’s not so much that religious topics are covered that’s bothered me, but that it feels Dr. J is overstating or legitimating its role in Western History and in our life.

    1) I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the influence. In point of fact, most of what is taught in the mainstream vastly understates (one might ask oneself why, but that’s not our purpose here).
    2) In no small part because of #1, to delegitimate it’s role is to deligitimate Western History and Civilization (btw, this might answer my parenthetical in #1), which within living memory was still referred to as “Christendom” unironically (when doing research on a political theory paper I was writing, I came across a scholarly paper, written in the mid-60s, and not overtly religious at all, which used that word once, unironically, as a descriptor of the West as a whole. As far as I know, that was the last time it was used unironically).

    3) For the most part as Professor Jewell’s lecture series goes on, when he describes various Christological/Theological controversies – well apparently a lot of people have a problem with the inclusion/”focus” of discussion on these matters. However, – and this is an analogy* – matters of theological doctrine were as important to them as ideological-political matters are to people today. Now, you might think people are foolish to adopt this or that view. Or you might think they are foolish to place so much emphasis upon it. Or get so strongly stirred up over these things. But if you want to understand them, then you need to know about these things. Dismissal with a sneer before knowing – that is, that things should not even be brought to your attention – is not really a search for historical understanding, or informed rational knowledge (though I guess it would fall within the realm of “rational ignorance theory“).

    Finally – you’re probably attracted to this site because you’re attracted to Austro-Libertarianism. Murray Rothbard, who was apparently agnostic-atheist, is basically the founder of Austro-Libertarianism. He didn’t think it was beneith him to know about the religious beliefs and practices of people. Indeed, I’m fairly sure that, given how much attention he himself gave these matters in his studies & writings on American history, he wouldn’t think it was possible to have a good understanding of either American or Western History without knowing these things, and treating the issues at least with some respect (now, as for people who tried to use the power of the state to enforce them, he held the same attitude towards that as he did towards anyone – secular as well as religious – who did that sort of thing). And, evidently (I’m far, far from an expert on Rothbard) one of his breaks with Rand is that he did not think all people or ideas with religious basis/origin should be dismissed out of hand as irrational nutters. (Bob Murphy, earlier this year, made a good converse point: many of the people who read his blog regularly and respect his reasoning and logic on all sorts of matters. . .then suddenly dismiss him as being “irrational” when he talks about Christianity. He made the point that – he’s the same person. Likewise, Ed Feser – a former Atheist, like Murphy – makes the point that he became a Christian on a rational basis. Now, you may disagree with the reasoning of both men, and find flaws in it – but the way to do so would be the same way one does with anyone’s reasoning. Not simply a contemptuous sneer. That, I would suggest, is the irrational mindset).

    *which sincere Christians would probably see as crude, because for a truly devout person, matters of faith are more important than matters of temporal politics. You may disagree with that, but this is not in and of itself a necessarily rational disagreement on your part.


    Porphy at it again!

    “I was not expecting to get such a heavy dose of that perspective when I signed up for courses tied so heavily with liberty, reason, and logic.”

    I also think it’s interesting to note that Christians believe all 3 of those things (liberty, reason, and logic) emanate from the character of God. Only distorted Christianity takes the approach of trying to coerce submission to Christ.


    I’m sorry to all who think I have a “sneer” or if I seem too harsh. I would like to point out that one can be disappointed and/or disagree without having strong ill-feelings toward someone.

    To Dr. J. I didn’t mean that Erhman has no biases at all (of course, all humans do), but in reading the book (Jesus, Interrupted), in which he includes some details about his personal journey, it was clear that he had to work through and/or cast aside many learned fundamental Christian ideas (such as, the Bible being the infallible word of god) while he studied the Bible in university . So I meant that he was willing to come to conclusions about the Bible and its contents regardless of standards/dogma/personal feeling, so long as he felt the evidence was sufficient (so I suppose, as I gathered, he was biased toward the most consistent and rational evidence). I did find the book very interesting and influential to my views of the Bible, but if you think that his sources of evidence and his colleagues and such are unreliable, I’m certainly open to the idea.

    As for my comment about “liberty, reason, and logic.” I do understand that many Christians believe that their beliefs match up with these values, and to a certain extent they may; but that doesn’t mean Christianity itself truly supports these values. I would argue that Christianity at its core (I can’t really speak for other religions, because I have no experience) runs counter to these values. First, let me say that I grew up as a Christian and I had a mostly amiable experience. I still have plenty of emotional attachment ideas such as god, the church, and a soul; but I’ve come to believe that Christianity can’t be rationally accepted (based on evidence and reason). So I don’t believe I’m biased on this subject (from an emotional and interpersonal standpoint, I would love for the religion I grew up with to be true), I simply want to find the truthiest truth possible. Let’s start with liberty. It seems apparent to me that a Christian doesn’t really support complete liberty, especially of the mind, because one must somehow submit himself/herself to god. If you choose to be a Christian, how much can you question the Bible and its contradictions? Are you “allowed” to accept scientific advances, even if they contradict doctrine? Are you “allowed” to raise your children free of religious indoctrination? To one degree or another, a Christian must limit these freedoms (whether this is “right or wrong” is another argument). So while a Christian can possibly argue for liberty from the authority of the State (I can, however, think of at least one passage that contradicts this), he must always submit his mind and certain other actions to god be considered a Christian. As for Christianity not being reasonable or logical, well, I think there is a lot evidence for this. The Bible (the supposed source of authority and truth) is riddled with contradictions and impossible feats. The creation account, miracles, and god’s intervention and deeds do not conform to reason, the senses, or science. We do not see any supernatural occurrences today, and scientific advancements (completely absent in those days) and reasoning can answer many of the whys and hows, although not necessarily our wants (which I think is largely due to cultural and childhood baggage). The idea of a god in and of itself cannot be reasonably explained… How can one reconcile the world we see and understand through science and the senses (indifferent to human wants and needs) with a god that is supposedly omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, just, AND loving (apparently fully concerned with human doings). It’s a self-destructing, circular idea; and even if you say that this being exists in a different realm then it’s simply irrelevant to our lives (we exist in only one realm, as even consciousness is a product of the physical). Add all this to the Biblical accounts of god’s cruelty, hypocrisy, and contradictions; and Christianity is highly unreasonable. These are the reasons I brought up “liberty, reason, and logic.” I’m sorry again if I sound too brash and insensitive; and of course, feel free to convince me otherwise if I’m being illogical.

    To Porphyrogenitus. I think I made a poor choice of words and lacked in detail when I said, “overstating or legitimating its role in Western History.” I did not mean to imply that religious topics should be dismissed or are beneath me, as you suggested. I understand that religion (Jewish, Christin, Islamic, others, and their many forms) have had a HUGE impact on our history, and I certainly want to learn more about them from an anthropological standpoint. When I said “overstating,” I meant I had the sense while listening to the two lectures on the Hebrews that Dr. Jewell was saying that our basis of morality originated with the 10 commandments, but as I understand it, essential human morality (don’t steal, kill, etc) had been shaped earlier in history. This could be a misunderstanding or mistake on my part (I’m sorry if it is), and I probably shouldn’t of put it in such terms as “overstating.” As for “legitimating,” I was referring to the way Dr. Jewell was using many references from the Bible as historical accounts that I don’t think are legitimate (mostly the supernatural content); such as, god parting the red sea, god talking to Moses through a burning bush, and god knocking down the walls of Jericho. I think it’s quite reasonable to question some of this content and its implications on further content if Dr. Jewell is willing to teach the miracles of the Bible as historical fact. That’s my opinion, yet I don’t wish for it to sound mean spirited. I don’t care on a personal level if Dr. Jewell has religious beliefs and I have enjoyed much of the content. I am also obviously capable of setting aside my disagreements and decide for myself what is reliable content. I brought it up and said I was “disappointed” because I was surprised that a website seemingly non-affiliated with a religion has an entire Western Civilization course conducted by someone who quotes such parts of the Bible as historical truth. If he did not mean to quote them is such a way, I apologize, but I did re-listen to the lectures and it certainly comes off that way.

    Jason Jewell

    Squamousguy, before I reply to your specific comments, I’ll repeat what I noted in another thread some time ago. My summary of the Genesis and Exodus accounts,etc., in the lecture is just that: a summary of those accounts. I do not assert the historicity of any of the miraculous events in the lecture. I include them because familiarity with them is, in my opinion, important to cultural literacy. These stories, historic or not, have had a huge impact on Western civilization. If you get uncomfortable because I don’t include sufficient disclaimers if one kind or another (e.g., “Now of course none of this really happened”), that seems to be evidence of your own biases.

    Now to your comments:

    “So I meant that he [Ehrman] was willing to come to conclusions about the Bible and its contents regardless of standards/dogma/personal feeling, so long as he felt the evidence was sufficient (so I suppose, as I gathered, he was biased toward the most consistent and rational evidence).”

    What is Ehrman’s standard of evidence? What does it mean to be “consistent and rational”? If you (or he) define these terms in such a way that they rule out in advance any possibility of revelation or some other religious component, and then you say that “consistent and rational” evidence (according to your definition) is the only allowable means of getting at some truth, this is evidence of a bias. It may or may not be true, but it is undeniably a bias.

    Likewise if you define “liberty” as absolute individual autonomy, then of course Christianity does not support “liberty.” But this is not what “liberty” has meant to the vast majority of thinkers throughout the history of the West.

    For every rhetorical question you ask of Christians, there is a comparable one that can be asked of empiricists/rationalists/secularists. These folks have accepted (on faith) a package of ideas that limit their thinking in certain directions. For example, take your statement “We do not see any supernatural occurrences today.” Really? Can you prove this? Do you have data for every event that has occurred in human experience in the last, say, ten years? If not, how can you make such an unsubstantiated statement? Is that “consistent and rational”?

    I do not wish to bog the forum down in an extended discussion of epistemology, or anything not directly related to the content of the lecture series. I only wish to point out that the insistence on a “secular” presentation of Hebrew or Church history (by which, I assume, you mean one in which the truth of the stories in the Bible is explicitly denied) is just as biased as an insistence on a “Christian” presentation of such history.


    Great discussion! Thanks guys.


    Well, first I’ll support what Professor Jewell says, but then go beyond it slightly, cutting through to the core. First, empiricism does not establish itself. It has to be established by a foundation that it, itself, cannot provide (a number of a priori premises).

    Secondly, as even (especially) empiricists in epistemology admit, consistently applied empiricism never fully establishes anything as “true.” All they really get from empiricism alone are a series of cases (looking for a theory – or a fire). Now, if you have a theory through which to interpret empirical evidence, empirical data can – again as even (especially) empirical epistemologists accept – never conclusively establish or prove the theory. This is why they tend instead to go in for “fallsification.” Theories can be falsified empirically, but not “proven true.”

    Therefore, yes, a consistent empiricist would never be able to say “there is not and never has been revelation.”

    Now, I’ll also recommend this argument put forth by someone who is, himself, an atheist:

    The coolest thing about Universalism is that it has the perfect opposition. If a Christian who believes his or her faith is justified by universal reason is a Universalist, a Christian who believes his or her faith is justified by divine revelation – in other words, a “Christian” as the word is commonly used today – might be called a Revelationist.

    Suppose you have two faiths. Both claim to be absolutely and undebatably true. Faith A tells you it is an ineluctable consequence of reason. Faith B tells you it is the literal word of God. Which is more likely to be accurate?

    The answer is that you have no information at all. Perhaps faith B is the literal word of God, but you have no way to distinguish it from something that someone just made up. Perhaps faith A can be derived from pure reason, but you have no way to know if the derivation is accurate unless you work through it yourself. In which case, why do you need faith A?

    In fact, of the two, faith A is almost certainly more powerful and dangerous. As anyone who’s majored in Marxist-Leninist Studies knows, it’s very easy to construct an edifice of pseudo-reason so vast and daunting that working through it is quite impractical. And this edifice is much more free to contradict common sense – in fact, it has an incentive to do so, because nonsensical results are especially subtle and hard to follow.

    Whereas when the word of God contradicts common sense, the idea that it might not actually be the word of God isn’t too hard to come by. In other words, if faith A contains any fallacies, they are effectively camouflaged.

    Me again: A lot of so-called rational empiricists take a lot on faith themselves; they certainly don’t work through everything themselves, gathering data independently. Rather they accept from some authority this or that; they read in some book by, say, a crank like Dawkins or Dennett and pick up on some of their rhetorical flourishes and “gotcha” questions, satires, and logical fallacies/argument-from-ignorance masquerading as reason, and the like (this is much more popular among the New Atheist set, I notice, than actual reasoned argumentation). New Athiests also tend to take it on faith that scientists (physicists or what have you) have demonstrated things they haven’t really even understood properly, much less demonstrated. Und so weter. After all, believing some guy who tells you he proved the universe created itself from nothing is no more scientific than someone claiming he saw a guy turn water into wine or feed five thousand from a few loaves and fishes.

    In closing, I remember a funny illustrative passage in one of the Hitchhiker’s books, on what it would truly mean to be a consistent empiricist; each day is a new day and whenever one wants to, say, use a pencil, one must experiment with it from scratch.

    (Btw, none of this is to imply that looking at empirical reality has no relevance. Rather, only that empiricism by itself is incomplete and, by itself, incoherent).


    Dr, J. I apologize, then, perhaps it is only I who thought you were portraying those passages as historical truth. Of course, I would prefer a different tone; but I’ll agree that is just my opinion.

    OK. While it may be challenging, I think it’s certainly relevant and important to history/liberty/individuals to tackle epistemology. So I’ll just state my case. Humans can only attain knowledge through the senses and/or reason. If something in your mind contradicts tangible/empirical/logical evidence, then it must give way to what can be measured objectively.

    Truth: when our internal, subjective, concepts match the external, objective, world; aka reality. This is very basic. How else can you practically, consistently, and rationally conceive of truth?

    While I understand that an empiricist must have “faith” (in the traditional, “I trust this guy” kind of way) in the method or results of other empiricists (and of course, he/she shouldn’t just take their word for it), this is not the same as religious faith. The word “faith” in religion is basically a euphemism for “belief with no evidence.” In other words, true prejudice. There is no evidence that the Bible is the word of god, that miracles happen, or that prayer changes things (external to yourself). If you have evidence for your claims, whether logically through mathematics or actual tangible results, then you can actually say it is true. I don’t have to scour every corner of the earth to know, practically, that supernatural events don’t occur. We have built our entire livelihood on the “faith” that they don’t occur, in fact. You don’t build a bridge thinking, “hmmm, I better pray daily that God will keep this bridge standing,” or attempt to stay fed after day by asking God to rain down bread from the sky. No, you use mathematics and scientific principles and laws to figure out the parameters of the bridge, and you find your own food. If you believe that supernatural events occur, and want to actually prove they do, you will need to show in some measurable fashion that they do. I don’t count peace/personal change from prayer as supernatural, as that is a psychological phenomenon contained completely in the mind.

    Porphy. I’m not sure I understand your first paragraph… especially, “It (empiricism) has to be established by a foundation that it, itself, cannot provide (a number of a priori premises).” It doesn’t seem to me empiricism “needs” a foundation of something else to be “established,” it’s simply a method for attaining knowledge about the objective world. I suppose, though, it must be coupled with “rationalism,” to be applied practically to our lives.

    Also, how is it an empiricist never (practically) establishes anything as truth? How about gravity? Is it not true and empirically validated that a rock will fall to the earth when you drop it? I think you are taking the “empiricism” idea to an impractical and illogical extreme. Of course an individual can’t say can’t say “I’ve seen/smelled/tasted/touched/heard everything that exists,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that divine revelation is then a viable belief to hold. Empiricism is still the best way to confirm the unknown, and coupled with rationality, you can go a long way. I don’t think it’s valid to say empiricism is overrated/invalid simply because we make assumptions about what is familiar (see a pencil) either. What do you propose as the alternative for uncovering truth, anyway (the missing piece(s) to incompleteness of empiricism, as you said)?

    In any case, I have not really read a direct response to the problems of Christianity I proposed. What I’ve seen are attempts to point out my biases and very verbose philosophizing about the merits of empiricism. If you so wish, tell me your epistemology and methods of attaining truth, and then truly tackle the problems I see as quite substantial to the fundamentals of Christian faith:

    — How can you reconcile the concept of the Christian god (omniscient/omnipotent/omnipresent/just/loving), not only with the contradictions and hypocrisy within the Bible, but also with the measurable and indifferent nature of the natural world it’s supposed to be relevant to? .

    — If you believe in a supernatural deity, why does it make sense to choose only the Christian god? Then you have the whole trouble of deciding who is damned to hell.

    I could write more, but these two issues are so glaring to me (others might have different issues), there seems to be no reason to move on to other things.

    Jason Jewell

    We’re wandering pretty far from the topic of this thread. I suggest that a discussion on epistemology would be better suited for the “General Discussion” forum.

    However, I hope that you can see that “Humans can only attain knowledge through the senses and/or reason” is not an empirically verifiable statement.


    squamousguy, I recommend this debate between a Christian and atheist as a starting point to delve into some of the issue you raise: http://www.bellevuechristian.org/faculty/dribera/htdocs/PDFs/Apol_Bahnsen_Stein_Debate_Transcript.pdf

    You can also find the audio on youtube if you prefer to listen rather than read.


    Dinesh D Souza has done the best debates on the existence of God Ive seen. Look him up online or you tube. apple podcast “debateGod’ has many good ones. His book whats so great about Christianity is good as well. anyways back to subject

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