Contra Fabulas Christianorum
There is more evidence for Jesus than any other historical figure of his time.
It’s an often made statement by Christians in defense of the historicity of Jesus, either verbatim or in slight variations. I have encountered this idea in interactions with Christian apologists on numerous occasions. This post investigates whether this claim is true or false.
As a few example references show, the statement is eagerly copied by many a Christian, without really looking very deep into the matter. To test the claim from my end, I decided to compare the evidence for a historical Jesus with the evidence for a historical character during the former’s own lifetime, Tiberius Claudius Nero (Jr.), better known as emperor Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus or simply emperor Tiberius.
As I progressed it turned out that the famous Christian author Josh McDowell had already set out on the exact same path and not so long ago published a revised edition in co-authorship with his son Sean of “Evidence that demands a verdict”. In this 880 pages tome, the comparison drawn between Jesus and Tiberius forms but a smaller part as the book is a much broader discussion on Jesus’ historicity and apologetics in general. I will jump to the conclusion offered by Sean McDowell himself, on his blog.
Sean’s stance seems to be somewhat ambiguous on the matter. The URL of his blog post states “the historical evidence for Jesus is greater than for Caesar. We have to read to the very end note of his post to find a bit of nuance:
“ It may be an overstatement to say the evidence for Jesus far surpasses that for Tiberius. But if we consider what would be expected, given both the length of their “rule” and the nature of their public ministries, the evidence for Jesus is remarkable when compared with the most powerful person of his day.”
This note however still leaves much open to interpretation [and no wonder that many Christian apologists simply interpret it as saying what it says in the blog’s URL]. So what does the note say?
Does it say that the evidence for Jesus may not ‘far’ surpass the evidence for Tiberius but still surpass it none the less? Or does the entire note read as a very euphemistic admission that it may not? It will not surprise you that I will not leave the answer solely up to a Christian apologist. In the below table, I have listed all the historiographical first century sources on both characters I could find.
Above table shows that there are twice as many historiographical sources on Tiberius than on Jesus. Admittedly, above table comprises only first century sources on both our characters and I will mention other famous and frequently referenced sources right away. But as for any character applies, how far removed can a historiographical source be before it is no longer a source? Anyone who has engaged in any discussion about the historicity of Jesus will be familiar with the below authors, but it brings us also to the question how to qualify a document as a source.
Whether one classifies “the gospel according to John” as a first or second century source is in this regard not a determining contributor to the answer, as it testifies to both. Aside from the gospel of Luke, both Mark and Matthew allude to Emperor Tiberius, but only as Caesar. And although it could hardly have been anyone else than Tiberius, they do not name him directly; it’s why I did not count them as sources on him.
Next we have of course Tacitus. Although the famous senator and author did live in the first century, the works he left us were in all likelihood only published in the first decades of the second century. Again, including him would be supportive of both characters… and I’m giving the “Jesus side” a lot of leeway here. Even if we totally disregard the discussion that Tacitus’ reference of the Christians may have been another Christian forgery, including him would not benefit the Jesus scale. Tacitus’ reference in his Annales is merely a short passage of book XV, while he dedicates no less than six entire books on Tiberius.
Another favourite of Christian apologists is the letter of Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan, written around 112 AD. But in both his and Tacitus’ case, we need to make the distinction between their reports on what some Christians believed and testifying as to what they themselves believed. It is a distinction many Christians seem unwilling to make. And to use the often used no-true-Scotsman fallacy by Christians myself now, no serious historian would see either author as a confirmation of Jesus’ existence; only a confirmation of the existence of Christians.
In his “Lives of the Twelve Caesars”, Gaius Suetonius Tranquilius briefly mentions the Christians. In Divus Claudius 25, he devotes one sentence to the troubles caused by Jews on instigation of Chrestus. In Nero, he equally dedicates one sentence to Christians, but does not mention Chrestus, Christus or Jesus. Conversely, an entire book is dedicated to Emperor Tiberius.
Lastly I have to mention a source on Jesus that is no source on Jesus at all: Mara Bar Serapion. I can understand how someone would see this letter as evidence for a historical Jesus: it can be done if you put on the glasses of a Christian apologist that makes you see words that are not there; but blind to the context. The letter gives you even less to go on than Tacitus and Pliny, as it doesn’t mention Christians, it doesn’t mention Christus or Chrestus and it certainly does not mention Jesus. I can make more detailed remarks on this letter, but it would take us far off course. The only reason why I even bring it up is because Sean McDowell includes it in his list of sources without any reservation. I really don’t think I’m out of line to suspect a tiny bit of bias here. Once more however, if for some misplaced leniency on my part I would allow this letter into the evidence for Jesus, then I have to include the gospels of Mark and Matthew into evidence for Tiberius as well, which would tip the balance even more towards the latter’s side. As far as historiographical evidence is concerned, that balance is clearly a lot heavier on Tiberius’ side. But what about other historical evidence? It is very rarely mentioned by apologists, our two McDowells included. And it is clear why.
It is quite peculiar how Sean McDowell glosses over the abundant archaeological finds attesting to Tiberius’ reign. With the remark “While some coins have been found from the time of his reign, the primary way we know about Tiberius is through written accounts, some of which appear long after his death…” he urges us not to take too much note of this evidence. At the same time he hints at the time lapse of some texts about Tiberius, while completely omitting the time lapse of the very same authors he likes to use in defence of Jesus’ historicity. Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius and Josephus’ alleged evidence for the existence of Christians are just as far removed from Jesus as they are from Tiberius. Sean’s URL claim “the-historical-evidence-for-jesus-is-greater-than-for-caesar” is perfectly correct, as long as we do what he asks and ignore all the evidence.
Before we close off this refutation of the “massive-evidence-for-Jesus-” myth Christians try to keep alive, I’d like to take a look at the second sentence of Sean’s citation above. It sums up his earlier plea that we “must take into account the length and nature of their [Tiberius and Jesus] ministries,” and look at the insignificant, poor preacher Jesus was. It is true: we have merely been looking at Jesus the unremarkable human, for historical sources can only confirm so much. Directly opposed however are the very sources Christianity builds on to make the most outlandish claims, even if we’re only talking about a human being. Where are the testimonies of the three Magi, who declaimed Jesus king of the Jews? Why don’t we have any records of “all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law” that recognized the infant Jesus as their Messiah and guided the Magi (and Herod) to his place of birth? The gospels themselves impress upon us how Jesus performed perhaps perfectly explainable miracles in front of thousands of people including literate Herodian court officials, Sadducees, Pharisees and Roman officers. But none of them write anything for the next 40 years about this “noteworthy” and revolutionary preacher? There is indeed more evidence for Jesus than 99.99 % of his contemporaries. But this is an incarnated god we’re supposedly talking about and against that “fact”, it is rather remarkable that no extra-biblical sources of his day mention him.
When investigating the subject claim, I did not intend to single out Sean McDwell. None the less, he’s part of the myth builders that keep this claim alive. My post is perhaps not an 880 pages book and for all clarity, it does not set out to negate the historicity of Jesus. All it does is to test the claim about the evidence for Jesus being greater than any historical figure of his time. The conclusion is that this claim is false. Within the end note to his post, Sean similarly expresses wonder about the remarkable amount of historical evidence for poor Jesus compared to his contemporary Tiberius, the most powerful individual at the time. That only shows that Josh and Sean aren’t historians and don’t look beyond the immediate context around Jesus. They (conveniently?) forget about the 16 centuries following the first one. To explain this in detail would require an entire dissertation in its own right, but I will sum it up very simply: “Isn’t it remarkable that there are millions of Qurans more in Saudi-Arabia than there are copies of Hesiod’s Theogony?” Let those with brains understand.
DPA, 15 April 2023
Notes, sources, references:
A. Examples of refuted statements:
“There is more evidence that Jesus rose from the dead than there is that Julius Caesar ever lived” Billy Graham, “Evidence for Jesus”, 15 April 2023, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, https://billygraham.org/devotion/evidence-of-jesus/
“The fact is, there's better historical evidence for Christ than for a lot of figures whose existence in history we take for granted.” Matt Nelson, “On Historical Evidence, Jesus Wins”, 16 July 2021, Catholic Answers Magazine, https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/on-historical-evidence-jesus-wins
“There’s More Historical Evidence For Jesus Than For Tiberius Caesar”, Anonymous (Mark Tapscott?), undated, HillFaith.org, https://www.hillfaith.org/history/theres-more-historical-evidence-for-jesus-than-for-tiberius-caesar/
Note: in third above mentioned example, Mark Tapscott misrepresents or misunderstands the conclusion of Sean McDowell’s book “Evidence that demands a verdict”, from which all three above sources correctly or incorrectly copy.
B. Refuted apologies
Josh McDowell, Sean McDowell, “Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World”, updated and expanded edition, 03 October 2017, Thomas Nelson, ISBN 9781401676711
Sean McDowell, “The historical evidence for Jesus vs. Tiberius Caesar”, 22 May 2020, https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/the-historical-evidence-for-jesus-is-greater-than-for-caesar
C. Online texts
Marjeta Šašel Kos, “Tiberius in Strabo’s Geography: echoes of his activities in Illyricum”, 2017, P. Kovács (ed.), Tiberius in Illyricum. Contributions to the history of the Danubian provinces under Tiberius (14–37 AD) (Hungarian Polis Studies 24), Budapest, Debrecen, https://www.academia.edu/36778290/Tiberius_in_Strabo_s_Geography_echoes_of_his_activities_in_Illyricum
Full text of Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars – Claudius: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Lives_of_the_Twelve_Caesars/Claudius#25
A.S. Kline, translator, Juvenal “the Satires – Satire X: the Vanity of Human Wishes, Poetry in Translation, https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/JuvenalSatires10.php
D. Coinage in the Roman Empire
Ken Pilon, “Roman coins – How many were made?”, November 2020, Forum Ancient Coins, Numiswiki-the Collaborative Numismatics Project, https://www.forumancientcoins.com/numiswiki/view
Doug Smith, “Tiberius, Tribute Penny”, 1998, Doug Smith's Ancient Coins https://www.forumancientcoins.com/dougsmith/feac60tri.html
If you want to have hands on evidence for Tiberius, NGC Collector’s society offers a wide variety of coins for sale. I haven’t seen any Roman coins with depictions of Jesus. https://coins.www.collectors-society.com/wcm/CoinView.aspx?sc=349075
E. Portrait statues, a few examples
The J. Paul Getty Museum, “Tiberius – Portrait of an Emperor”, https://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/tiberius/
My favourite planet, Pergamon gallery, http://www.my-favourite-planet.de/english/middle-east/turkey/pergamon/pergamon-photos-02-007.html#pergamon-tiberius-bust
Marble head from a statue of Tiberius Caesar, set on a modern bust, 4-14 AD, British Museum, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1812-0615-2
Emperor Tiberius sculpture, 22-23 AD, Harvard Art Museums, https://harvardartmuseums.org/collections/object/311091
Art from the 'Sperlonga villa' and grotto https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sperlonga_sculptures
F. Consulted Wikipedia pages
Description: SH85106. Silver denarius, Giard Lyon, group 1, 144; RIC I 26 (C); BMCRE I 34; RSC II 16; Hunter I C3691; SRCV I 1763, Mint State, extraordinary!, centered, light golden toning on luster, Lugdunum (Lyon, France) mint, weight 3.826g, maximum diameter 18.8mm, die axis 0o, early 'plain' fine style, c. 15 - 18 A.D.; obverse TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS, laureate head right; reverse PONTIF MAXIM (high priest), Pax (or Livia as Pax) seated right on chair with plain legs set on base, long scepter vertical behind in her right hand, branch in left hand, no footstool; SOLD Retrieved from: Forum Ancient Coins, Catalogue, https://www.forumancientcoins.com/catalog/roman-and-greek-coins.asp?vpar=1652&zpg=91175
Tables by author.