Sunday, February 27, 2011

Concerning Extrabiblical References: The Hilarity Continues

Village Atheists on the internet are a funny bunch. A favorite argument of theirs is that "nobody besides the New Testament writers mentioned anything about Jesus, therefore He is just a myth".

First of all, the argument is a biased fallacy that arbitrarily discounts the historicity of the New Testament. A single source document doesn't automatically disqualify itself as evidence.

They love to tear away at the extrabiblical sources that do mention Jesus, and most of those have proven to be modifications to the original documents by the early Church. However, there are 2 that stand out as reliable.

The first is a passage by the Jewish Historian Josephus, from his book Antiquities, known as the Tesitmonium Flavianum. The passage was in fact modified by the early Church, but if the obvious Christian language is stripped from it, it still mentions Jesus by name. I won't go into detail about it here. You can read about it in "The New Testament Documents" by F.F. Bruce, page 111.

I want to discuss a passage from Cornelius Tacitus, considered by many to be Rome's finest historian. It comes from his "Annals", and it mentions in detail the controversy surrounding the Emperor Nero and the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64:

"But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind."

There are few who have studied this passage that doubt its authenticity. Ironically, Tacitus is the only Roman historian to mention Pontius Pilate, and it happens to be in reference to Jesus. It doesn't prove Jesus was anything but a man, but it stands as evidence from a non-New Testament source about the confirmed existence of Christ. Okay, so it's only one reference, but it proves that others besides believers knew about Him.

The funny part is when I mentioned this to some Village Atheists at a website, they went nuts. The first one was stuck on the idea that this reference was a forgery. He had no way to prove this was the case, but he blabbered on, anyway. Another Atheist tried to ridicule the passage because it didn't use the name "Jesus", as if there were 30 guys calling themselves Christ when Pilate was Governor. A third Atheist posted this response:

"Point by point dissection of the b******* that is Tacitus."

Followed by this link:

The link is from some obscure Australian website which referenced the "Constantine Invented Christianity" conspiracy. It is a link to an electronic copy of a book by a guy nobody heard of, named John Wilson Ross, originally published in 1878. The book is about the supposed "Eusebian corruption" of the histories of Tacitus.

The angry Atheist then instructed me to refute every point in Wilson's book or shut up.

Too funny! I'm picturing this guy, furiously googling his fingers to the bone, so that he could dredge up a link to 133 year old book that was originally published anonymously. Gee, you'd think there might have been some more recent research done on this subject, say, within the LAST CENTURY? The answer is YES.

The fact that the early Church messed with some of the ancient documents they preserved is well known. But improved scholarship of the last century has helped correct most of those flaws and provide us with what was originally written by the authors.

On top of that, I was dealing with one specific passage from the Annals, and in response I get a homework assignment from a sputtering Village Atheist.

I won't waste space here reproducing the opinions of a dozen of the finest Tacitean scholars, who have no doubt that this passage from the Annals is authentic and uncorrupted.

Let it suffice to say that their expertise trumps the book from the unknown dead guy, who passed away before the 20th Century.

You just can't buy this kind of entertainment.

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