Building a Hedge around the Historical Jesus

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by Tim Widowfield

Please don’t eat the Bible

I was glancing over at the Exploding Cakemix recently, keeping abreast of the latest mythicist-bashing, and I happened to notice a story about a guy who said:

[I]f anyone can find a full professor of Classics, Ancient History or New Testament in any accredited university in the world who thinks Jesus never lived, I will eat a page of my Bible, probably Matthew chapter 1. (Dr. John Dickson, PhD, Ancient History)

Now I’ve heard of people using the Bible for rolling papers in a pinch (not recommended), but it never occurred to me to eat it. I know that if you’re stuck on a disabled bus in the wilderness you should eat your boots and the seats before you eat your fellow passengers. But the Bible? I’d need loads of ketchup.

Dr. John Dixon
Dr. John Dickson: Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Honorary Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University

Anyhow, it turns out this John Dickson guy is a real professor with a doctorate and everything. He teaches real students at a real college university for real cash money. So we should sit up and take notice.

The historical Tiberius versus the historical Jesus

Dickson’s post is the usual litany of supposedly solid evidence that we’ve all seen before. Most of it is of the “throw-it-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” variety. But there was something new there, at least for me. He writes:

The [sic] Tiberius provides a good example (he was the emperor when Jesus was crucified). Our best sources for Tiberius are Tacitus and Suetonius, both composed eighty or so years after the emperor’s death in AD 37. The New Testament writings were composed much closer in time to their central figure. Several of its sources – Mark, Paul, Q, L and James – date to within 25 years of Jesus, and one crucial passage is dated to within a few years of the crucifixion, ruling out the suggestion that even the basic details of Jesus were part of a process of legendary accumulation.

My interest is piqued. I like Roman history. But what’s this claim from our expert about the “best sources” for Tiberius? Emperors, even mediocre or bad ones, leave big footprints. But sometimes it’s the smallest bits of evidence that persist. Like this one:

Roman Coin: Tiberius Caesar
Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus
Pontifex Maximus

Moving the goalposts

If you take a few minutes to read the comments, you’ll see that someone mentions the fact that the Romans minted coins during Tiberius’s reign, and that we actually have some that we can pick up and hold in our hands. In the ancient history trade they call that “primary evidence.” He or she goes on to explain why it’s important to corroborate claims in texts with primary evidence.

And certainly the coin is persuasive physical evidence, but, as some guy who goes by the initials RMW explains, it’s like totally unfair. He responds:


To the best of my knowledge, statues, coins or images are most often associated with emperors, so what you are saying is only emperors can be proven.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Look, we didn’t bring up Tiberius. You did.” I hate to tell you, but that’s not how this game is played. As Daniel Dennett points out, it’s like playing tennis, but when it’s their turn to hit the ball, the net comes down. Don’t bother complaining. It’s just the way things are.

So forget the coin. What about written sources? Well, I pulled out my old Roman history text book from college to see if I could find any contemporary references. It seemed to me that although we’d lost a lot of stuff from the early Principate, there was something . . . Yeah, here he is: Marcus Velleius Paterculus, historian. Tiberius was his patron. You can even read his Tiberian Narrative in English.

Where does this crap come from?

By now you might be wondering how a guy with a PhD in ancient history could manage to remain ignorant on such a simple, basic matter. And you might also be wondering, as I did, where such strange horsecrap masquerading as knowledge comes from. I was keen to find out.

My search led me to a web site run by a guy named Matthew Ferguson. In his post Ten Reasons to Reject the Apologetic 10/42 Source Slogan he tracks down the origins of the Tiberius claim. He says he Googled it and quickly found an article at CARM (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry). Ferguson writes:

Even Turner really does not deserve credit for the research on the CARM page, since half of the article was merely a direct quote out of Gary Habermas and Mike Licona’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus from the appendix of the book (pg. 233). Finally, after some muckraking I had dug up the original source coming from some big name apologists! Habermas is regarded as an “expert” on the resurrection of Jesus and Licona is his apprentice in the Dark Side. (Star Wars joke aside, I am grateful since then that Licona has since acknowledged the error.)

Ryan Turner’s article is titled “Did Jesus Ever Exist?” and he gives the 10/42 statistic as proof that “If one is going to doubt the existence of Jesus, one must also reject the existence of Tiberius Caesar.” This is a typical apologetic fallacy of false alternatives. Nevertheless, I will be clear from the beginning that, while I do not regard mythicist scholars, who doubt Jesus’ existence, as “radical skeptics” like Turner, I personally take the position that Jesus was more likely an obscure historical figure.

What is the 10/42 statistic? It’s the claim that “42 ancient sources record Jesus 150 years within his lifetime, whereas only 10 mention the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius.” Of course, it’s utterly wrong, but it sounds nice, apologists enjoy saying it, and people who need to be comforted lap it up. There’s a loyal audience out there for the lies these apologists manufacture. Demand is strong. The eager believers can’t wait for new factoids to post on Facebook.

Anyhow, I highly recommend reading Ferguson’s post. He thoroughly debunks 10/42 and comes up with his own statistic: 14/0. The number of actual contemporary writers who mention Tiberius stands at 14. For Jesus we have none at all.

What just happened here?

All right, how did I end up rummaging through old history books and scouring the web for information about Tiberius? It’s as if Dickson rolled up a ball of tinfoil, waved it in front of my eyes, and then tossed it into the woods.

“See this, boy? See it? Go get it!”

Several hours later I think to myself, how did I get here? And consider poor Matthew Ferguson. He has spent an enormous amount of time debunking this claim. It’s a thorough job. He nailed it. Squashed it flat.

But here’s the problem: It doesn’t do any good. It won’t change anyone’s mind. The people who come up with these “facts” don’t care about whether they’re true or not.

“So it was wrong. So what? I’ve got a thousand more balls of tinfoil, ready for tossing. And guess what? You’ll go chase them every time.”

Consider Dickson’s claim about non-Christian sources for Jesus. He includes “Mara,” by which he means Mara Bar-Serapion. Only in the study of the historical Jesus would a letter dated between 73 C.E. and the third century with a vague reference to the execution of the “wise king” of the Jews be considered “hard evidence.”

Nuts. I did it again. Put down the tinfoil, Tim.

Protecting the Status Quo

We need to recognize this strategy for what it is. They’re building a hedge around the historical Jesus. The endless stream of books, essays, blog-posts, and videos provide a barrier that protects their Jesus. Not every part of the hedge, not every brick in the wall, not every “fact” needs to be true. As long as it keeps everybody busy out on the periphery, it has done its job.

And here’s the wonderful thing. Even if a false fact is debunked, they get to use it again. As we’ve mentioned before here on Vridar, it’s always Groundhog Day for historical Jesus apologists.

I think it’s time to reassess what we’re doing. What do readers of Vridar think? Are we wasting our time when we try to engage in an honest debate with these people? Is there a more effective way to get the truth out, or is it a hopeless cause?

In the meantime, here are two videos I hope you’ll enjoy. One of them stars Dr. John Dickson; the other, his mentor.

[vimeo 3861772]


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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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23 thoughts on “Building a Hedge around the Historical Jesus”

  1. Well…you know, people who teach factoids about Jesus in universities and colleges (and they are numerous) have to have an historical Jesus because that particular job depends on it. They may even realize that Jesus didn’t exist but that doesn’t matter…what matters is their jobs.

    It’s the same with a preacher in a certain Christian church who has come to realize that it’s all bullshit – he will still keep on preaching it because his job, his livelihood depends on it. What else is he going to do? Get a real job? Throw away his degrees and doctorates?

    [I]f anyone can find a full professor of Classics, Ancient History or New Testament in any accredited university in the world who thinks Jesus never lived, I will eat a page of my Bible, probably Matthew chapter 1. (Dr. John Dickson, PhD, Ancient History)

    Well, yeah, I guess so… because those accredited universities are not going to hire or keep a “myther” in their employ. Why? Well, because it has already been established as a fact that Jesus existed — only it hasn’t been. What it really amounts to is that universities started out as religious schools and Jesus has been assumed as a fact since the day of their Christian religion foundation. Yeah, IOW, it’s going to be hard to convince a bunch of Christians that Jesus doesn’t exist and that’s who runs those schools.

  2. Are we wasting our time when we try to engage in an honest debate with these people? Is there a more effective way to get the truth out, or is it a hopeless cause?

    If your goal is to change the minds of your opponents, you’ll likely be disappointed. Debating in public and on record, which links the personae and reputations of interlocutors to the positions and rhetoric they respectively espouse, favors the escalation of commitment, though the skeptical side, with the benefit of the null hypothesis, is less constrained, having less to defend.

    But as long as the debate is available to an audience or readership, it may not be hopeless. It offers and evaluates evidence and reasoning to those with an appetite for them, often in a way more accessible and focused than self-directed study. For what it’s worth, I’ve known of this blog for only a week, but I treasure its wealth of information and thoughtful commentary, and I’m reading it voraciously.

    Thank you, Tim, Neil, and all who advance origins scholarship here.

    That said, as a reference for use in debates, there may be a handier format. Why not collect the tinfoil balls, as well as evidence presented or critiqued by those genuinely curious about Christianity’s origins, on a site modeled on Snopes.com? Each passage could have its own article, with examples and explanations of uses and misuses, citing printed and online works. “This is not a primary source for the historicity of Jesus” would, of course, appear in every entry.

    1. Some years ago I did make a start at compiling discussions of specific topics at vridar.info. There is much that we’d like to do with going back and indexing and organizing many of the past posts and making them available in some sort of stable and easy to access format. One day, . . . .

      I think posts like Tim’s recent series on Gospel genre are worth collating and promoting as a serious reference source.

  3. “The New Testament writings were composed much closer in time to their central figure. Several of its sources – Mark, Paul, Q, L and James – date to within 25 years of Jesus, and one crucial passage is dated to within a few years of the crucifixion”

    No-one knows when they were composed. The experts disagree.

    But there is a circular argument here.

    Q: How do we know when the crucifixion happened?

    A: From information in the Gospels.

    Q: How do we know the information in the Gospels is trustworthy?

    A: Because they were written shortly after the crucifixion.

    Q: How do we know that?

    A: We know they were written in Year Y, and that was shortly after the crucifixion.

    Q: How do we know Year Y was was shortly after the crucifixion?

    A: Because we know that crucifixion happened in Year X.

    Q: How do we know the crucifixion happened in Year X?

    A: From information in the Gospels.

    And so on.

  4. “And here’s the wonderful thing. Even if a false fact is debunked, they get to use it again.”

    One example of that is the claim “the disciples were martyred because they refused to deny the resurrection”. This has been debunked over and over again*, and yet I still see it being dragged out as though it were unquestionable.

    (*Not least by me, in my article “Dying for it”, Philo, Vol. 2, No.2, 1999.)

  5. The ridiculous claim about Tiberius is not new. In 1996, N.T. Wrong (I mean, Wright) in his overstuffed JESUS AND THE VICTORY OF GOD (Fortress) declared:

    “I have taken it for granted that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Some writers feel a need to justify this assumption at length against people who try from time to time to deny it. It would be easier, frankly, to believe that Tiberius Caesar, Jesus’ contemporary, was a figment of the imagination than to believe that there never was such a person as Jesus.”

    I answered this in my 1998 essay “Did Jesus Exist?” [reprinted in my collected short works, THROUGH ATHEIST EYES: SCENES FROM A WORLD THAT WON’T REASON. VOLUME ONE: RELIGIONS & SCRIPTURES. American Atheist Press, 2011]. If I may quote myself:

    “Unlike N.T. Wright, … a small number of scholars HAVE tried over the centuries to prove that Jesus was in fact historical. It is instructive, when examining their ‘evidence,’ to compare it to the sort of evidence we have, say, for the existence of Tiberius Caesar—to take up the challenge made by Wright and show that Wright was wrong.

    “It may be conceded that it is not surprising that there are no coins surviving from the first century with the image of Jesus on them. Unlike Tiberius Caesar and Augustus Caesar who adopted him, Jesus is not thought to have had control over any mints. Even so, we must point out that we DO have coins dating from the early first century that bear images of Tiberius that change with the age of their subject. We even have coins minted by his predecessor, Augustus Caesar, that show Augustus on one side and his adopted son on the other. Would Mr. Wright have us believe that these coins are figments of the imagination? Can we be dealing with fig-MINTS?

    “Statues that can be dated archaeologically survive to show Tiberius as a youth, as a young man assuming the toga, as Caesar, etc. Engravings and gems show him with his entire family. Biographers who were his contemporaries or nearly so quote from his letters and decrees and recount the details of his life in minute detail. There are contemporary inscriptions all over the former empire that record his deeds. There is an ossuary of at least one member of his family, and the Greek text of a speech made by his son Germanicus has been found at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. And then there are the remains of his villa on Capri. Nor should we forget that Augustus Caesar, in his Res Gestae (“Things Accomplished”), which survives both in Greek and Latin on the so-called Monumentum Ancyranum, lists Tiberius as his son and co-ruler.

    “Is there anything advocates of an historical Jesus can produce that could be as compelling as this evidence for Tiberius? I think not, and I thank N.T. Wright for making a challenge that brings this disparity so clearly to light.”

    Does our Classics/History professor not know about the Res Gestae?

    Frank R. Zindler

    American Atheist Press

  6. Of course, people like McGrath go all shy when you ask them to compare the evidence for the historicity of Jesus with the evidence for the historicity of Judas, Thomas, Lazarus, Nicodemus, Bartimaeus, Mary Magdalene , Joseph of Arimathea etc.

    Don ‘t lift that stone! is the motto….

  7. Yep.

    1) Begin with the conclusion at which one MUST arrive.

    (For reasons of feeding one’s family, feeding one’s ego, or feeding one’s delusions)

    2) Bend and twist all neutral evidence to fit.

    3) Discount all negative evidence

    4) Ignore missing evidence that SHOULD exist if one’s narrative held any water

    5) Fabricate evidence by the lorry-load to act as Polyfilla to bog-up the gaping chasms

    6) Sand over the crancks

    7) Thinly paint with “Varnish of Academia”, but with several coats or gowns. Allow to dry for decades.

    8) Lie through one’s teeth when challenged with fact and reality

    9) Repeat from 1) when one’s scam is revealed

  8. Dr John Dickson is a truly ground-breaking historian. In an earlier article he devastatingly overturns the modern findings of archaeology by citing the opinions of an evangelical Christian archaeologist before moving on to show us all how the scientific revolution itself was not the result of “rationalism” (that was a pagan Greek obsession!) but rather owed everything to a Christian philosopher writing in the 520s. It was Philoponus in 529 who gave the world the gift of science “as we now think of it”.

    “The breakthrough was immense . . .” Philoponus made “a stunning dismantling of the Greek doctrine of the rational, eternal universe in favour of a philosophical defence of the biblical notion of the universe as a created object with a beginning. And this gave us science as we now think of it.”

    So what did Philoponus teach us all?

    “We must humbly inspect what the Creator, of his own free will, has produced and apply our rational powers of testing to comprehend what He has manufactured.”

    It was this world of science that John Philoponus was responsible for “opening up” to the world. Dickson strongly implies that were it not for a work of Philoponus in 529 we would not have had Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Harvey, Boyle.

    I get the impression Dickson is wanting us to think the entire course of western civilization depended upon a publication in 529 by a Christian — that is, as a result of Christianity!

    One swallow might indeed have made the entire summer had not the church later condemned Philoponus as a heretic.

  9. “[I]f anyone can find a full professor of Classics, Ancient History or New Testament in any accredited university in the world who thinks Jesus never lived, I will eat a page of my Bible, probably Matthew chapter 1.”

    What about G.A. van den Bergh van Eysinga – Professor of New Testament at University of Amsterdam in the 1930′ and 40’s and denier of the historicity of Jesus.

  10. I had lengthy online discussion with Dickson five years ago and pointed out that Mara Bar-Serapion could have referred to couple of other guys. Last year I attended Dickson’s Life of Jesus meetings. He still claimed that he does not know any other person Mara Bar-Serapion could have referred to. It was a Deja Vu moment.

    BTW don’t bother posting at his “Centre for Public Christianity”. Critical comments get filtered out. There is no public discussion there.

      1. Dickson’s organisation and place they publish articles:


        Site used to have a blog were you could comment Dickson’s articles without registering (Now you can browse old content in a library section). Dickson rarely answered comments. Their media director Simon Smart used to run the comments. I haven’t been there for years since they repeatedly did not publish my comments.

        Dickson’s church if you want to attend his Life of Jesus courses:


        Dickson and his church members are really nice so it is easy to get on their courses. Even when I asked critical questions nobody got upset there.

  11. Interesting. Never heard of Mara Bar-Serapion before.

    d. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished.[…]nor is the wise king, because of the “new law” he laid down

    That bit about the new law and the abolishment of the kingdom makes me think of Josiah and the ‘discovery’ of the Deutoronymy scroll before the Babylonian excile, more than it reminds me of Jesus. But the execution doesn’t fit, I suppose.

    1. I recall reading somewhere (I can’t recall at the moment) that there might have been an earlier suppressed story about Josiah being fragged by his own troops. We’re told “archers shot King Josiah.” (See 2 Chronicles 35:23.) Whose archers?

      Perhaps this legend persisted and it’s what bar-Serapion meant. Who knows?

  12. Tim, I think you’re wise to ask whether actually arguing historical points of fact is doing any good…..and though I can’t point to any statistical proof that it is, I really believe we must stay the course. We will see some checkpoints crossed soon. Dickson can’t be too far away from having to eat his Matthew 1 page. It may come in the form of Richard Carrier finally getting the professorship that he’s long deserved. Or an NT colleague of Hector Avalos might finally see the light. Regardless of the details, that will mean that the landscape has finally changed….it will then be conceivable to be an NT scholar and admit that your doubts in the HJ’s existence have been gnawing away at you for years…that first professor that “comes out” will show others can do the same without having to fear that they’ll be booted from their campuses. From that point, I think progress only accelerates. But we have to get to that point, and sticking to the arguments, and the genuine methods of historiography, are our best bet to do that, I think. Therefore, keep up the excellent work!

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