Friday, November 26, 2010

The Historical Jesus, a New and Plausible Hypothesis

Kevin Mulholland - November 26, 2010


Since my de-conversion from Christianity, my stepfather and I had been engaged in an email debate for several months.

On this occasion we were debating the historicity of Jesus Christ.

Specifically, I queried him on the lack of corroborating evidence from sources outside the bible, given Jesus' supposed fame (according to the bible).

He responded with ``What artefacts would one expect from that distant period for a preacher with an itinerant ministry for only 3 ½ years in the Roman outback of Palestine?”

To challenge that I decided to look for outside historical documents discussing some very minor new testament characters to see what I could find.

The characters I selected were:

Judas the Galilean (Noted in Acts 5:37)

Theudas (Noted in Acts 5:36)

"The Egyptian" (Noted in Acts 21:38)

To see if I could find any extra-biblical references for these I went to the works of Flavius Josephus, who was a Jewish military man and historian who was commanded by Caesar to document a detailed history of Judea, and of the wars for the previous five centuries.

Even though none of the characters I had selected had great healing ministries, miracles associated with them, or throngs of people following them, their histories are fairly lengthy and detailed in both the “Antiquities of the Jews” and “The Jewish Wars”.

Specifically, Theudas is found in Antiquities of the Jews - Book XX chapter 5, and "The Egyptian" is found in Antiquities of the Jews - Book XX chapter 9 and Jewish Wars II 261-3. Judas the Galilean is referenced in Jewish Wars chapter 2, and Antiquities of the Jews (the full text of which appears below).

The point I was attempting to make was that these were insignificant people compared to the "Son of God", and yet we can find historical reference and cross references to each of them.


When I began to research the story of Judas the Galilean, I was absolutely flabbergasted by what I found. (There are two different characters called Judas the Galilean, referenced by Josephus. One died in 4 BCE, and the other, who was engaged in the Census Wars, died ten years later in 6 CE).

The story of the earlier Judas goes as follows:

  • Judas was a preacher from Galilee who was "the most eloquent man among the Jews, and the most celebrated interpreter of the Jewish laws". All quotes direct from Josephus.

  • The learned men "frequented his lectures every day".

  • King Herod the Great had previously erected a golden eagle at the entrance to the Great Temple.

  • Judas incited a group of men to overturn and destroy the golden eagle (as a graven image was considered blasphemous).

  • The King’s captain brought a "great band of soldiers" to stop the insurrection. While many fled, Judas did not move, deciding to face Herod personally.

  • In order to justify himself, Herod brought Judas before the principal men among the Jews, and made them assemble in the theater.

  • All of this occurred just before Passover.

  • The high priest did not attend, and was replaced by Herod. He did not attend because of a dream he had in which he spoke to his wife.

  • Herod had Judas executed.

  • The night of the execution there was an eclipse of the moon.

  • Herod at the time was on his deathbed. He summoned his sister, and tried to get her to execute one member out of every family in his kingdom so that there would be mourning upon his death. (His sister never did this).

  • A great band of followers mourned Judas' death, and began a large insurrection.

The parallels of this story to the Gospels (the earliest of which was written a minimum of 75 years after this event) are just too incredible to be coincidence.

My stepfather had previously asked me “how there could have been Christians in the year 50 CE… if there was no historical Jesus”. These event occurred 55 years earlier in 4 BCE, and is more than enough time for this story to evolve through oral tradition into the gospel story, especially in the light of the great many followers that Judas had. The possibility that the original story could be lost/changed is easily believable in the light of the Roman conquest and dispersion of the Jews at about the time of the earliest gospel writing.

I could, of course, never prove conclusively that this absolutely became the Jesus of the Bible. However, this explanation requires no appeal to supernatural occurrences, and is completely in line with our everyday observations of the world.

Ask yourself: which story is really more plausible.

Side note: In the original Hebrew, Jesus = Yeshua, and Judas= Yehuda. Both remarkably similar.

Below is the original text of Antiquities of the Jews - Book XVII, starting from Chapter 6.

(Note text is not contiguous, as Josephus includes several non-related incidents in the midst of this text, which I have left out. However, I have not left out any details of the story in question).

There was one Judas, the son of Saripheus, and Mattbias, ...the most eloquent men among the Jews, and the most celebrated interpreters of the Jewish laws, and men well beloved by the people, because of their education of their youth; for all those that were studious of virtue frequented their lectures every day. These men, when they found that the king's distemper was incurable, excited the young men that they would pull down all those works which the king had erected contrary to the law of their fathers, and thereby obtain the rewards which the law will confer on them for such actions of piety; for that it was truly on account of Herod's rashness in making such things as the law had forbidden, that his other misfortunes, and this distemper also, which was so unusual among mankind, and with which he was now afflicted, came upon him; for Herod had caused such things to be made which were contrary to the law, of which he was accused by Judas and Matthias; for the king had erected over the great gate of the temple a large golden eagle, of great value, and had dedicated it to the temple. Now the law forbids those that propose to live according to it, to erect images (6) or representations of any living creature. So these wise men persuaded [their scholars] to pull down the golden eagle; alleging, that although they should incur any danger, which might bring them to their deaths, the virtue of the action now proposed to them would appear much more advantageous to them than the pleasures of life; since they would die for the preservation and observation of the law of their fathers; since they would also acquire an everlasting fame and commendation; since they would be both commended by the present generation, and leave an example of life that would never be forgotten to posterity; since that common calamity of dying cannot be avoided by our living so as to escape any such dangers; that therefore it is a right thing for those who are in love with a virtuous conduct, to wait for that fatal hour by such behavior as may carry them out of the world with praise and honor; and that this will alleviate death to a great degree, thus to come at it by the performance of brave actions, which bring us into danger of it; and at the same time to leave that reputation behind them to their children, and to all their relations, whether they be men or women, which will be of great advantage to them afterward.

3. And with such discourses as this did these men excite the young men to this action; and a report being come to them that the king was dead, this was an addition to the wise men's persuasions; so, in the very middle of the day, they got upon the place, they pulled down the eagle, and cut it into pieces with axes, while a great number of the people were in the temple. And now the king's captain, upon hearing what the undertaking was, and supposing it was a thing of a higher nature than it proved to be, came up thither, having a great band of soldiers with him, such as was sufficient to put a stop to the multitude of those who pulled down what was dedicated to God; so he fell upon them unexpectedly, and as they were upon this bold attempt, in a foolish presumption rather than a cautious circumspection, as is usual with the multitude, and while they were in disorder, and incautious of what was for their advantage; so he caught no fewer than forty of the young men, who had the courage to stay behind when the rest ran away, together with the authors of this bold attempt, Judas and Matthius, who thought it an ignominious thing to retire upon his approach, and led them to the king. And when they were come to the king, and he asked them if they had been so bold as to pull down what he had dedicated to God, "Yes, (said they,) what was contrived we contrived, and what hath been performed we performed it, and that with such a virtuous courage as becomes men; for we have given our assistance to those things which were dedicated to the majesty of God, and we have provided for what we have learned by hearing the law; and it ought not to be wondered at, if we esteem those laws which Moses had suggested to him, and were taught him by God, and which he wrote and left behind him, more worthy of observation than thy commands. Accordingly we will undergo death, and all sorts of punishments which thou canst inflict upon us, with pleasure, since we are conscious to ourselves that we shall die, not for any unrighteous actions, but for our love to religion." And thus they all said, and their courage was still equal to their profession, and equal to that with which they readily set about this undertaking. And when the king had ordered them to be bound, he sent them to Jericho, and called together the principal men among the Jews; and when they were come, he made them assemble in the theater, and because he could not himself stand, he lay upon a couch, and enumerated the many labors that he had long endured on their account, and his building of the temple, and what a vast charge that was to him; while the Asamoneans, during the hundred and twenty-five years of their government, had not been able to perform any so great a work for the honor of God as that was; that he had also adorned it with very valuable donations, on which account he hoped that he had left himself a memorial, and procured himself a reputation after his death. He then cried out, that these men had not abstained from affronting him, even in his lifetime, but that in the very day time, and in the sight of the multitude, they had abused him to that degree, as to fall upon what he had dedicated, and in that way of abuse had pulled it down to the ground. They pretended, indeed, that they did it to affront him; but if any one consider the thing truly, they will find that they were guilty of sacrilege against God therein.

4. But the people, on account of Herod's barbarous temper, and for fear he should be so cruel and to inflict punishment on them, said what was done was done without their approbation, and that it seemed to them that the actors might well be punished for what they had done.

This Matthias the high priest, on the night before that day when the fast was to be celebrated, seemed, in a dream, (7) to have conversation with his wife; and because he could not officiate himself on that account, Joseph, the son of Ellemus, his kinsman, assisted him in that sacred office. But Herod deprived this Matthias of the high priesthood, and burnt the other Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive. And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon. (8)

6. Now any one may easily discover the temper of this man's mind, which not only took pleasure in doing what he had done formerly against his relations, out of the love of life, but by those commands of his which savored of no humanity; since he took care, when he was departing out of this life, that the whole nation should be put into mourning, and indeed made desolate of their dearest kindred, when he gave order that one out of every family should be slain, although they had done nothing that was unjust, or that was against him, nor were they accused of any other crimes; while it is usual for those who have any regard to virtue to lay aside their hatred at such a time, even with respect to those they justly esteemed their enemies.



1. AT this time also it was that some of the Jews got together out of a desire of innovation. They lamented Matthias, and those that were slain with him by Herod, who had not any respect paid them by a funeral mourning, out of the fear men were in of that man; they were those who had been condemned for pulling down the golden eagle. The people made a great clamor and lamentation hereupon, and cast out some reproaches against the king also, as if that tended to alleviate the miseries of the deceased. The people assembled together, and desired of Archelaus, that, in way of revenge on their account, he would inflict punishment on those who had been honored by Herod; and that, in the first and principal place, he would deprive that high priest whom Herod had made, and would choose one more agreeable to the law, and of greater purity, to officiate as high priest. This was granted by Archelaus, although he was mightily offended at their importunity, because he proposed to himself to go to Rome immediately to look after Caesar's determination about him. However, he sent the general of his forces to use persuasions, and to tell them that the death which was inflicted on their friends was according to the law; and to represent to them that their petitions about these things were carried to a great height of injury to him; that the time was not now proper for such petitions, but required their unanimity until such time as he should be established in the government by the consent of Caesar, and should then be come back to them; for that he would then consult with them in common concerning the purport of their petitions; but that they ought at present to be quiet, lest they should seem seditious persons.

2. So when the king had suggested these things, and instructed his general in what he was to say, be sent him away to the people; but they made a clamor, and would not give him leave to speak, and put him in danger of his life, and as many more as were desirous to venture upon saying openly any thing which might reduce them to a sober mind, and prevent their going on in their present courses, because they had more concern to have all their own wills performed than to yield obedience to their governors; thinking it to be a thing insufferable, that, while Herod was alive, they should lose those that were most dear to them, and that when he was dead, they could not get the actors to be punished. So they went on with their designs after a violent manner, and thought all to be lawful and right which tended to please them, and being unskillful in foreseeing what dangers they incurred; and when they had suspicion of such a thing, yet did the present pleasure they took in the punishment of those they deemed their enemies overweigh all such considerations; and although Archelaus sent many to speak to them, yet they treated them not as messengers sent by him, but as persons that came of their own accord to mitigate their anger, and would not let one of them speak. The sedition also was made by such as were in a great passion; and it was evident that they were proceeding further in seditious practices, by the multitude running so fast upon them.

3. Now, upon the approach of that feast of unleavened bread, which the law of their fathers had appointed for the Jews at this time, which feast is called the Passover (13) and is a memorial of their deliverance out of Egypt, when they offer sacrifices with great alacrity; and when they are required to slay more sacrifices in number than at any other festival; and when an innumerable multitude came thither out of the country, nay, from beyond its limits also, in order to worship God, the seditious lamented Judas and Matthias, those teachers of the laws, and kept together in the temple, and had plenty of food, because these seditious persons were not ashamed to beg it. And as Archelaus was afraid lest some terrible thing should spring up by means of these men's madness, he sent a regiment of armed men, and with them a captain of a thousand, to suppress the violent efforts of the seditious before the whole multitude should be infected with the like madness; and gave them this charge, that if they found any much more openly seditious than others, and more busy in tumultuous practices, they should bring them to him. But those that were seditious on account of those teachers of the law, irritated the people by the noise and clamors they used to encourage the people in their designs; so they made an assault upon the soldiers, and came up to them, and stoned the greatest part of them, although some of them ran away wounded, and their captain among them; and when they had thus done, they returned to the sacrifices which were already in their hands. Now Archelaus thought there was no way to preserve the entire government but by cutting off those who made this attempt upon it; so he sent out the whole army upon them, and sent the horsemen to prevent those that had their tents without the temple from assisting those that were within the temple, and to kill such as ran away from the footmen when they thought themselves out of danger; which horsemen slew three thousand men, while the rest went to the neighboring mountains.