Did Jesus Exist? Paul Maier’s Complete Failure

Christian apologists often write CRAP, crap that is taken by sheeple in the pews to be POWERFUL ARGUMENTS.  I suspect that Christian apologists often write crap precisely because they write for a generally ignorant and highly biased audience who will buy their books by the millions and show deference to the GREAT SCHOLARSHIP in the books and articles of Christian apologetics, despite the intellectual shoddiness of the vast majority of books and articles written by Christian apologists.

One such example of crap written by a Christian apologist (who clearly writes for an audience of biased sheeple), is the article “Did Jesus Really Exist?” by Paul Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University.  REAL SCHOLARS who study ancient history generally make carefully qualified claims, and speak in terms of probability and plausibility, but Maier dispenses with such intellectual humility in an attempt to win over his dim-witted audience of true believers:

In fact, there is more evidence that Jesus of Nazareth certainly lived than for most famous figures of the ancient past.  This evidence is of two kinds: internal and external, or, if you will, sacred and secular.  In both cases, the total evidence is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence.  And yet this pathetic denial is still parroted by “the villiage atheist,”  bloggers on the internet, or such organizations as the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

(“Did Jesus Really Exist?” from the opening paragraph, viewed 6/11/16, emphasis added)

Such overblown and exaggerated rhetoric may endear Maier to his ignorant Christian fans, but such strong claims are red meat for skeptics like me,  so Maier is just begging for a good ass-kicking, and I will be happy to provide him with one here.

The sheeple who read his essays and articles are probably taken in by the crap he writes, but I am not one of those ignorant sheeple, and I can clearly and plainly see that his case for the above very strong claim is a COMPLETE FAILURE, just as Bart Ehrman’s ABSIG argument (Agreements Between Seven “Independent” Gospels) for the existence of Jesus in Chapter 3 of Did Jesus Exist? is a complete failure.

Although Ehrman’s first argument for the existence of Jesus (ABSIG) is a complete failure, his book Did Jesus Exist? (hereafter: DJE) does have some merit.  In Chapter 2 “Non-Christian Sources for the Life of Jesus” Ehrman quickly and efficiently argues for the important conclusion that “If we want evidence to support the claim that he [Jesus] did in fact once exist, we therefore have to turn to other sources [i.e. to CHRISTIAN SOURCES].”  In other words, there is no significant evidence for the existence of Jesus from non-Christian sources.  If Ehrman is correct, then Maier’s claim that “external sources” provide evidence for the existence of Jesus that is “overpowering” and “absolute” is clearly wrong, because much of the evidence from “external sources” is from non-Christian sources, such as Roman sources.

Maier makes various false and highly dubious claims in his crappy article “Did Jesus Really Exist?”, but the biggest and most glaring problem with this article is that he makes NO ATTEMPT WHATSOEVER to show that any of the non-Christian sources that he cites are independent from the canonical gospels.  This is a very basic and fundamental flaw, one that would be obvious to just about any NT scholar.  Any NT scholar with even a modest degree of objectivity would reject such a case out of hand; it is only because Maier is writting for an ignorant audience of Christian sheeple that he is able to get away with such an intellectually shoddy case.

Ehrman lays out the relevant principle of historical scholarship clearly and simply:

Moreover, in an ideal situation, the various sources that discuss a figure or an event should corroborate what each of the others has to say, at least in major points if not in all the details. …

At the same time, it is important to know that the various sources are independent of one another and do not rely on each other for all of their information.  If four ancient authors mention Marcus Billlius as a Roman aristocrat in Ephesus, but it turns out that three of these authors derived their information from the fourth, then you no longer have multiple sources but only one.  Their agreements do not represent corroboration but collaboration, and that is much less useful. (DJE, p.41-42, emphasis added)

This is NOT rocket science.  This comes very close to being just a bit of common sense.  In any case, the issue of the independence of historical sources is often important in NT scholarship, so this principle is one about which any NT scholar should be very familiar.

For example, the following (imaginary) line of apologetic argument would be rejected as hopelessly ignorant and naive by just about any NT scholar:

We can establish with great certainty that Jesus was crucified on the order of Pontius Pilate because not only does the Gosel of Matthew assert this to be the case, but this claim is also corroborated by the Gospel of Mark and by the Gospel of Luke.  So, we have at least three early historical sources that all agree on this key point.

The problem with this argument is that the author of the Gospel of Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as a main source of information about Jesus, as did the author of the Gospel of Luke.  In fact, the passion narratives (which tell the story of Jesus’ trial before Pilate and Jesus’ crucifixion) in Matthew and in Luke are mostly borrowed from the Gospel of Mark.   So, because the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke use information from the Gospel of Mark, particularly in their passion narratives,  they do NOT provide INDEPENDENT evidence for the claim that “Jesus was crucified on the order of Pontius Pilate”.

Any NT scholar with half a brain would reject the above (imaginary) apologetic argument as being a COMPLETE FAILURE, as being based on either ignorance of the dependence of Matthew and Luke on Mark, or as failing to take into consideration the basic principle of historical scholarship requiring that historical sources be INDEPENDENT in order to provide corroboration of a claim.

In the section of his article that covers secular external evidence, Maier cites three Roman writers: Cornelius Tacitus, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, and Pliny the Younger.  Maier never claims that any of these historical sources were INDEPENDENT from the canonical Gospels.  Maier never argues that any of these historical sources were INDEPENDENT from the canonical Gospels.  These omissions by themselves make Maier’s case a COMPLETE FAILURE, because this is, for any NT scholar, a very basic issue, an issue that must be addressed in order to make any sort of reasonable case for the claim that these historical sources provide corroboration of the view of the canonical Gospels that Jesus was an existing historical person.

But worse than that, there is good reason to suspect that these historical sources are NOT INDEPENDENT of the canonical Gospels, as Ehrman points out in Chapter 2 of  DJE.  Maier quotes from Annals by Tacitus, which was written in 115 CE (DJE, p.54).  The Gospel of Mark, however, was written about 70 CE (DJE, p.75).  So, Tacitus wrote the passage in question about 45 years after the Gospel of Mark was written.   Clearly, it was possible that the information Tacitus had about Jesus came (perhaps indirectly) from the Gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were written about ten to fifteen years after the Gospel of Mark (DJE, p.76), so they were written between 80 and 85 CE.  Clearly, it was posssible that the information Tacitus had about Jesus came (perhaps indirectly) from either the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of Luke, since Tacitus wrote the passage in question about 30 to 35 years after those Gospels were written.

Concerning a passage quoted from Annals by Tacitus, Maier makes the following overblown claim:

Were no other references to Jesus available, this passage alone would have been sufficient to establish his historicity.  Skeptics realize this, and so have tried every imaginable means to discredit this passage–but to no avail.  Manuscript analysis and computer studies have nerver found any reason to call this sentence into question, nor its context.  

(“Did Jesus Really Exist?” from the section called “External Evidence: Secular”, viewed 6/11/16, emphasis added)

By “discredit this passage” Maier presumably means: to show this passage to be spurious, to be something that was not actually written by Tacitus, but that was inserted into the text by a Christian copyist.

There is no need to “discredit” the passage, because Maier has COMPLETELY FAILED to meet his burden of proof as an historical scholar, which requires that he provide evidence and arguments showing that this passage was in no way influenced (even indirectly) by information from the canonical Gospels.

Ehrman, however, does provide an argument, but it is an argument that casts doubt on the view that this passage by Tacitus was INDEPENDENT from the canonical Gospels:

…the information [from Tacitus about Jesus] is not particularly helpful in establishing that there really lived a man named Jesus.  How would Tacitus know what he knew?  It is pretty obvious that he had heard of Jesus, but he was writting some eighty-five years after Jesus would have died, and by that time Christians were certainly telling stories of Jesus (the Gospels had been written already, for example), whether the mythicists are wrong or right.  It should be clear in any event that Tacitus is basing his comment about Jesus on hearsay rather than, say, detailed historical research.  Had he done serious research, one might have expected him to say more, if even just a bit.

(DJE, p.56)

Ehrman argues that Tacitus did not review “any official record of what happened to Jesus” and that it is “highly doubtful” that any such record existed for Tacitus to consult (DJE, p.56).   Ehrman’s conclusion is this:

He [Tacitus] therefore heard the information.  Whether he heard it from Christians or someone else is anyone’s guess.  (DJE, p.56)

If Tacitus heard the information about Jesus from Christians, then that information quite likely originated from one or more of the canonical Gospels.  If Tacitus heard the information from a non-Christian, that information quite likely came to that non-Christian from conversations with Christian believers, and the information from those Christians, once again, quite likely originated from one or more of the canonical Gospels.

Maier’s case for the strong claim that external evidence for the existence of Jesus is “overpowering” and “absolute” is a COMPLETE FAILURE because he makes NO ATTEMPT WHATSOEVER to show that his external sources (such as the three Roman sources) are INDEPENDENT from the canonical Gospels, and there is good reason to believe that they are, or might well be, dependent on one or more of the canonical Gospels.