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Goodbye Jesus

A Recent Email Debate


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Recently I received this email from Paranoid Android of the Unexplained Mysteries Forums. I thought that I might share them with you all:


I just wanted to forward an email on to you, if you have time to read it. It's a reply from one of my favourite historians and writers, John Dickson. Yes, he is a Christian, but in all his writing, I have noticed that he has had a great ability to separate his Faith from what history says. Dickson was for a time the Postgraduate coordinator for that subject at the University of Melbourne, and I have read his comments that he despises Christian apologists for "abusing history" (his words) to make things fit. In that vein, I chose to forward on the details of your thread you started about Jesus' birth date, to see what kind of response an actual historian would provide:


I copied it into an email and asked nicely if he could send a reply from an historical perspective (since I am not an historian, and do not claim to be one). Being that I know he's a busy man, he took some time to answer in part, though he couldn't provide a complete detailed response. I've quoted the email from him down below (with his permission) and I just wanted to hear your thoughts on the issue - he sounded quite fair and impartial on the issue, separating what we know from what we take on Faith.

It would be good to get some feedback on this from you.

Other than that, I hope everything's fine in sunny Texas (it's a heatwave down here at the moment, haha). Best of wishes, mate :)




Dear Robert,

Thanks for the email. I cannot reply in detail but, basically, your friend has created little more than smoke and mirrors, I am afraid. He starts with a widely acknowledged problem (Quirinius Governorship) and then builds on it a complete house of cards. Also, he has completely misread the Irenaeus quotation which refers to John the disciple living to the time of Trajan, not Jesus.

Here is the reality and any glance at serious historical Jesus books will bear this out:

Matthew and Luke (independently of each other) place Jesus birth within the time of Herod. Herod died early 4BC. Luke says Jesus was about 30 in the 15th year of Tiberius, i.e., AD 28). So, Jesus was born between 6BC-4BC. (the 6th century Italian monk who gave us our BC-AD calendar was out by several years.) The problem arises because Luke says (a) there was a census around the birth of Jesus and (B) that Quirinius was Governor of Syria at the time. We know Quirinius was Governor of Syria AD 6/7 and that he conducted a census during this time. On balance most historians think that Luke made a mistake in placing Quirinius and the census back in the time of Herod (between 6-4 BC) but no reputable historian thinks that this calls into question the actual existence of Jesus. Your friend is entirely idiosyncratic to suggest otherwise. Even our best sources Tacitus, Josephus, etc not infrequently make temporal errors.

So, what I am saying is that you could concede a mistake on the part of Luke at this point and it would have no impact on the general historical credibility of the Gospels.

That said, it is possible to reconcile the problem by supposing that Quirinius had a former period of Governorship in which he conducted a former census. There is absolutely no evidence for this outside the Gospel of Luke (which does say, This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria). However, there are enough gaps in our knowledge of Quirinius career between 6-4BC (contrary to your friends affirmations) to make a former Governorship/census possible (though not historically probable). I would say, however, that insisting on this solution is borne out of a faith in Lukes Gospel and not from any historical evidence. Can you see the distinction? On the face of it, Luke has made a mistake (a small one); but those who believe the Gospels are the word of God have a possible interpretation which, while not suggested by evidence, is not contradicted by any evidence either. Here I wear two hats. As an historian I am happy to concede that the historical evidence is against Luke; as a believer I affirm that Luke got it right, trusting that further evidence, if ever found, would vindicate him.

But I want to stress the larger point. Your friend is plainly wrong to suggest that Jesus existence is in doubt. He clearly has not read widely in historical Jesus literature.

Your friends comments about the date of the Gospels are simply wrong (most date them from 65-95). And the statement that Irenaeus didnt know the Gospels is frankly an embarrassing error. Irenaeus is well known to have talked about all four NT Gospels. Irenaeus mistake about Jesus being 40-ish is simply because he didnt have the historical knowledge we have. He didnt know that the 15th year of Tiberius (when Jesus was about 30) was AD 28 and that Jesus died only a few years later, around AD 30. This second century bishop made a mistake but this says nothing about Jesus and the Gospels.

Much more could be said on the details but there is a lot of huff and puff in your friends email and not much of historical substance, in my view.





My answer to his friends tripe:

– Here your friend is quite wrong…here is the quote from Irenaeus and another that affirms the first:

"From the 40th and 50th year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, affirming that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan."

Notice that Irenaeus makes a point that he is referring to “our Lord”, not to John and then that he (John) remained among them up to the times of Trajan. Then in the second quote from Against Heresies (II, 22) he reaffirms the age of Christ at his death:

The Thirty aeons are not typified by the fact that Christ was baptized in his 30th year: He did NOT suffer in the twelfth month after his baptism, but was MORE THAN FIFTY YEARS OLD WHEN HE DIED." This would give Jesus’ death around 50 CE, that is during the reign of Claudius. If you use Irenaeus as a source for dating Jesus, you have serious problems with the validity of his only biographies, the gospels. If Jesus was born during the reign of Herod, as you friend is attempting to skew around so he is, then he would have started his ministry sometime between 24 and 26 CE, that is between 3 and 5 years before John started his own ministry (15th year of Tiberius or 28-29 CE) and he would have died 14 years after Pilate was recalled to Rome for undue cruelty towards the Jews. I did not misread Irenaeus and am in the company of quite a few secular historians in this matter…here your “unbiased” Christian shows that like all apologists he skews history to fit his beliefs, even making suppositions where there is no evidence…LOL

Wow…he want it both ways…LOL…how can he be born during the reign of Herod, yet be only 30 in the year 28 (or 29) CE? Last time I checked that would put him born in either 2 or 1 BCE…that is a little late to be born in the reign of Herod…we still have a disagreement between Luke and Matthew…LOL..makes me wonder about your friend’s grounding in history.

here your friend makes another mistake…an error of this magnitude calls into question the entire report, especially since there is no way to make Matthew and Luke agree with each other or recorded history…all this problems do indeed call the existence into question…especially since only these two missives are the only biographies existing on this wondrous godling. Reputable historians want multiple sources, not the word of anonymous writers, writing long after the fact and with a distinct bias…incidentally, there are many reputable scholars calling into question the existence of Jesus. There is just as much evidence for the existence of Mithras, Krishna, Horus, Osiris, Erakles, etc as there is for Jesus. Why don’t you believe in them also?

Something that I concede, especially after being heavily worked over by Christians scribes over the centuries…LOL


considering that you can find mention of Jesus only in the gospels and no where else until the 2nd century CE any disagreement throws the existence of this miracle worker into question and puts the entire “biography” on shaky grounds. You want to discredit Mithras, yet if you subject Jesus to the same criteria that the “Congress” subjected Mithras, you would come to the same conclusion for Jesus that they came to with Mithras…LOL This is one reason I question your friends objectivity, he would want to agree with the “Congress” but wants us to give the question of Jesus’ existence the benefit of the doubt…LOL


You don’t want to go there…that would put his birth too early to be baptized by John, condemned by Pilate and die after John…LOL…then you also have the fact that we know the governor of Syria during that period - Gaius Sentius Saturninus, BCE 9-6;

P. Quinctilius Varus, BCE 6-3; L. Calpurnius Piso, BCE 3-1…there is no recorded dual governorship of any province during the Empire for the main reason of “dignitas”. Dignitas is the concept of how you are viewed by society in general and your peers in particular, a concept very similar to the oriental concept of “Face”. You can not under any circumstances subjugate yourself to an equal, you have to be an equal and to be an equal, he would have been recorded as being the Governor…a census taker would have been subjugated to the power of the governor, who was an equal…thus no census…besides, we know that from 5 to 3 BCE Qurinius was conducting a campaign against the Homonadenses, in what is now modern Turkey, quite a distance (by their standards) from the province of Syria. Incidentally, he was successful, reduced their cities and strongholds, starved them into submission and received a triumph for this victory. So much for not having gaps in our knowledge of Quirinius life from 6 to 3 BCE…actually the gap is from 12 to 8 BCE, which would correspond to Augustus second census which was only a count of Romans, nothing to do with taxing or counting provincials (which incidentally Judea was not at this period, being a protected but independent nation, under the rule of its own monarch). I am wondering more and more about the bias of your friend.



Probably read as much of it as he has and also the critiques of secular scholars which (even those that accept a historical Jesus) point out that these works provide little if any evidence of his existence, making assumptions based on their faith and beliefs, but offering no real evidence. There is absolutely no evidence for Jesus that is contemporary, even the two historians that coexisted in time and place with him made no mention of him or his movement, even though one of them made a study of the various Jewish sects (of which Christianity would have been one). As for the dates of the gospels, strangely during the 19th century and earlier, it was accepted that the gospels were all the product of the early 2nd century…we get most of our current datings from the evangelistical movement of the 1930s to present. If your friend will check there are many scholars that accept a second century date for the gospels and even some that accept a 2nd century date for Paul’s letters. With only two small fragments of what MIGHT be the gospels that date to the second century, to assign 1st century dates to the gospels is totally unsupported, especially in light of no mention of them prior to mid second century. That is the proper procedure for making historical pronouncements…When he can produce something more than two postage stamp sized fragments of unknown provence as evidence, maybe I will concede


Then PA came back with this:


Thanks for your reply, Mako.


I have no desire to play "pass the message" and send what you have written back to him for rebuttal. I'm not an historian and do not have the level of knowledge that either you or John Dickson possesses. However, I will side with John, not because I believe what he believes, but because what he says is backed up by the majority of historians.


I found it interesting that what you call an "error of this magnitude", he considers a "small error". I'm inclined to agree with him on this one - when other authors in that day also made errors on dates and such, I can't see how you could call this an error of any magnitude without also calling into question all the other ancient writings of all other historians as well.


From what I understand about the Irenaeus, the mistake in age of "our Lord" (Jesus) was based on a 2nd Century monk who did not have the historical knowledge that the "15th year of Tiberius" was about 28 AD (the rest of the quote was about John staying with them to the time of Trajan). Regardless, as I read the comment - whether it's Jesus or John - the point, I believe, is that the date was given by a 2nd Century monk who did not have the historical knowledge that the "15th year of Tiberius" was about 28 AD. Any date assigned by this monk then to Jesus' death would simply be a "guess" on the part of Irenaeus. Correct me if I'm wrong, of course. *for the record, if Jesus was "about 30", that doesn't mean he was "exactly 30" - he could have been a year or two older or younger, right?


For the rest, I believe he agreed with the basis of your argument that most historians do agree that Luke made a mistake (the well-known problem of Quirinus, according to him), but simply said you have put too much store in supposition to get further details that you did. I thought he did well in separating the "faith from fact" issue - he specifically stated that there is no historical evidence to suggest an earlier governorship, and stated categorically that it was historically improbable (but we might take it on "faith" that there was one - something historians wouldn't do, but Christians might; that doesn't sound like an apologist to me, just someone stating the facts as they are). Though since his email was too brief to go into details, I can't say what specific gaps he was referring to between 6-4 BC, and as I said I have no desire to pass messages back and forth - he says there are gaps in that time period, I'm inclined to agree since his writings have proven accurate so far.


While a mistake on Luke's part might (I stress, might) call into question the idea of the Bible being the "inerrant word of God", it would also be amiss to ignore that most historians who study biblical texts don't view them as if they are the "word of God". They simply get to the point of analysing the texts as they would any other historical document. To them, the "minor problem" of getting the date wrong does not throw the entire issue into chaos.


I'm not sure exactly what your qualifications are, but he has a Doctorate in Ancient History and was the Post-graduate coordinator for Ancient History at the University of Melbourne for many years. While that doesn't make him infallible, as it stands I'm inclined to take his side of things for now. He has clearly separated what we know about Jesus from what we take on Faith about Jesus, and this has been my experience of all his writings (I own several of his books). He doesn't attempt to "preach" to us or convince us that Jesus is God. I have met many Christians who don't like him for that very reason. They say he leaves issues "up in the air" without taking his thoughts to what they see as obvious theological conclusions. They don't like his impartiality - one of his books in particular ("A Spectator's Guide to World Religions") they say was too impartial and made other beliefs seem more valid than they were. Interestingly, that's why I like him - because he does not preach to us, nor tell us that everything in the Bible is true and must be the word of God. I read that specific book and loved every page - he successfully pushed aside his beliefs and simply wrote the history of the belief and what the believers of that belief have.


But I digress. Thanks for the response you've provided, but from what I have read of this response, with a few minor differences, it's almost exactly the same information as you provided in your post on UM. On the balance, I'll take his view, mostly because it holds with what I have seen the majority of historians agree with, partly because it is also how I have viewed things, and partly because his comments were not "pushing his beliefs", but simply separating what he knows from what he believes (the wearing of two metaphorical hats - historian and Chrisitan). I must disagree totally about him being an "apologist", he seems to me just be an historian who holds Christian beliefs.


My answer:



When the only way you have to date a person/occurrence has conflicting reported dates it is a great error. You have to remember I am police trained and such “small” problems are what we use to tear apart a suspect’s alibi. Without a basis for dating this person (as I have shown, the dates provided by Matthew and Luke do not gibe with the story given or recorded history) we can’t say if any of the reported information is factual – thus a great error in that the rest of the story hinges upon it. As for Irenaeus, maybe he made a mistake and maybe he didn’t…there is nothing to prove that he did and without evidence of a mistake, we have to accept (albeit only until proof otherwise comes in) what he reported as a very strong possibility. It is easy for your friend to sit here 2000 years later and say that Irenaeus was wrong, without a shred of evidence; just his faith in the beliefs taught him from childhood.

As for my qualification, while I am not a doctorate level, I do have (since last year) a Master’s degree from the University of Texas in ancient history, a Bachelor’s in Chinese from Yale, an Associate’s in Computer technology from Texas State Technical College (just for grins and jollys as us Yanks say) and am working on my Bachelor’s in Archaeology at Hardin Simmons University. I have worked in the past as a historical researcher for the US intelligence community and am presently a member of a Federal Law Enforcement Agency.

Just remember, the majority of scholars once believed that the earth was the center of the universe and the majority you speak of is only those that share our cultural background…I can guarantee that the majority of scholars worldwide do not find the evidence for Jesus to be sufficient…LOL…


His next response was:

Thanks for that response. I do have one question though - the first email I sent you states clearly that Irenaeus extensively refers to all four New Testament gospels. How can he have done this if he had no knowledge of them? If Irenaeus had access to all four gospels (referring to them would appear he did), then the evidence would seem to clearly show that he simply made a mistake - plenty of evidence besides his Faith to suggest that Irenaeus simply got it wrong.


That would be how I look at it. You seem to imply that Irenaeus had no idea what was in the four gospels, but the email from John Dickson states that Irenaeus mentions all four extensively. If he knew what was in them, then Irenaeus would have simply gotten the date wrong as a mistake - that is not "faith", that is logical reasoning.


Just a thought,


And my response was:

We have no idea if the gospels he had are the ones we have...read "Misquoting Jesus" by the imminent epigrapher Bart Ehrman, he shows how the New Testament was extensively worked over again and again during the 2nd, 3rd and early 4th centuries...maybe the complete story was not set gelled into the one you know...why would he make such a mistake, not once but twice? I will leave you with these further quotes:


"For with the advent of the Christ, the succession of the princes from Judah, who reigned until the Christ Himself, ceased. The order failed and stopped at the time when He was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, in the days of Alexander, who was of high-priestly and royal race …And this Alexander, one of the anointed and ruling princes placed the crown on his own head ...After this a foreign king, Herod, and those who were no longer of the family of David, assumed the crown."– Epiphanius (Haer., 29.3) - this is from the 4th century where the gospels would be available and Epiphanius is one of the prominent apologists of that period...is this a smoking gun for the changing of the gospels? LOL


Every one knows that the Evangeliums were written neither by Jesus nor his apostles, but long after their time by some unknown persons, who, judging well that they would hardly be believed when telling of things they had not seen themselves, headed their narratives with the names of the apostles or of disciples contemporaneous with the latter." – Bishop Fauste - 3rd century CE...hmmm a man that tells it like it is...even back then the gospels were being questioned, even by Christians...LOL - Heimdall/Mako

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Thanks for posting this. It was very interesting and, as far as I'm concerned, shows why the constant appeals to authority on the existence of a historical jesus is just smoke and mirrors. Most historians simply place jesus into history by default and build their case from there...unlike the other mythical characters. Sadly the rest of cast, that really did exist, has a hard time of this.



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Great post! What christians don't seem to understand is that their precious buybull is primarily promoted as "inerrant". God-breathed. That was the way I was brought up to believe. Every dot and tittle! So if that is true, why would there be any mistakes? Now I'm sure a great majority of biblical scholars and liberal christians don't hold to the inerrant view. Yet I sure as hell can say the vast majority of your rank and file christian believes in inerrancy! The liberal christians and scholars justify the mistakes to human error yet they believe that should not take away from the whole message. I raise the bullshit flag on that one! :toilet: Afterall, if this message is all-important for the salvation of souls from hellfire and breathed from an omniscient god it better not have any mistakes! My eternal life depends on this being right. Didn't they have the holy spirit to guide them in writing this crap? You would think he would correct their mistakes. If this were just about Julius Ceasar and whether he existed or not then little errors wouldn't matter because it has no bearing on the way I live my life. Yet christians state otherwise about jesus. We are supposed to adhere to a set of rules and commandments set down by unknown authors literally thousands of years ago, with no original text, copy after copy made, each author with their own agenda in mind, and we are expected to base our modern day lives on this crap? Don't think so!

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