Was Jesus a Historical Person? Answering Justin Best’s Claims

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on davidwilber.me. Tabernacle of David considers this ministry trustworthy and Biblically sound.

Author: David Wilber

Justin Best of the popular J. Breezy YouTube channel (formerly Christian Truthers) said he is “questioning the authenticity of the NT [New Testament] and the existence of a historical ‘Jesus’ character.” This article will look at and answer some of his claims.

Before we get started, you might recall a previous article I wrote addressing Justin, in which I answered his objections to the apostle Paul. In that article, I pointed out that if you reject Paul, you would “eventually end up rejecting the entire New Testament and Yeshua.” While it is tragic, this outcome was entirely predictable. Justin is merely following his premises to their logical conclusion. As I demonstrated in my article, however, his premises were utterly false, so his conclusion is wrong. I wish he had been willing to reexamine his views in light of the challenges from others and myself, but instead, he doubled down and ignored offers to privately or publicly discuss the issue. Once again, it is sad that it has come to this, but it was to be expected.

I decided to address Justin’s more recent claims because of his enduring popularity among believers. My hope is to prevent others from following this same path.

So, why does Justin doubt the authenticity of the New Testament and the existence of a historical Jesus character? In a recent comment, he said this:

“I question everything, and then only speak to what I believe can be supported. At this time there is very little to support the New Testament’s writing until long after the Messiah would have walked the earth. Please review the Dionysian cults that were already emerging in the several hundred years just before the arrival of “Jesus” (Iησοῦς), I recommend reading the Bacchae, by Euripides in 410 BC, and also looking for comparisons between Homer’s writings and the gospels. You’ll find that the Eucharist pre-existed the first century among pagans as did many other Christian / neo-platonian ideas. Dionysus, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, the demigod of wine, who called himself the vine, teaching his own gospel with many more comparisons. Watch the Ceasar’s Messiah to get started on understanding the Flavian influence (Roman) and why they would want to create a new “peaceful messiah” to quell the Jewish revolts that kept occurring under the “warrior messiahs” of that time. There’s just so much more…TLDR; Yes, I am questioning the authenticity of the NT and the existence of a historical ‘Jesus’ character.”

There is a lot to unpack here, but Justin’s assertions are common among Internet atheists. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Zeitgeist,” some of Justin’s claims might sound familiar. Zeitgeist attempts to make the case that Jesus “is a fictional character created out of older myths, rituals, and symbols,”[1] such as the Dionysus myth, among others.

Let’s address Justin’s assertions one-by-one. 

“At this time there is very little to support the New Testament’s writing until long after the Messiah would have walked the earth.”

Is it true that there is “very little” to support the New Testament accounts of the Messiah’s life? Were the New Testament authors just stealing ideas from pagan myths and fabricating a peaceful Jesus character to quell Jewish revolts? No.

According to William Lane Craig, “No modern scholar thinks of the gospels as bald-faced lies, the result of a massive conspiracy. The only places you find such conspiracy theories are on atheist Web sites and in sensationalist books and movies. When you read the pages of the New Testament, there’s no doubt that these people sincerely believed in the truth of what they proclaimed.”[2]

There is simply no reason to believe the NT authors fabricated the “Jesus” about whom they wrote. They really thought the events about which they wrote happened—enough that some of them were willing to be tortured and killed for those beliefs!

In his book, On Guard, William Lane Craig lists five reasons we can trust the New Testament’s historical reliability and what it says about Yeshua. Let’s quickly go through each of them.

First, there was insufficient time for legendary influences to erase the core of historical facts. According to scholars, the time gap between the New Testament events and when they were written down is just too short for legendary tendencies to blot out the historical facts. For instance, Greco-Roman historian, A. N. Sherwin-White, says that the ancient writings of the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived between 484-425 BCE, help us learn the rate at which legend accumulates. He writes:

Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.[3]

For some perspective, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written down more than 400 years after his death. Yet, historians still have the utmost confidence in their reliability. In contrast, the gospel accounts were completed before the close of the first century and written by eyewitnesses or under the guidance of eyewitnesses to the events they describe. If virtually everyone trusts Alexander the Great’s earliest biographies as historical, how much more should we trust the gospel accounts? In any case, the possibility that myth had crept into the gospel accounts to make them untrustworthy isn’t reasonable.

Second, the gospels are not analogous to folk tales or contemporary “urban legends.” Unlike folk tales about imaginary people and events, such as Paul Bunyan and others, the gospel accounts concern actual historical individuals and events. For instance, people like Pontius Pilate, Joseph Caiaphas, John the Baptist, and even James, the brother of Yeshua, can be found in the first-century Jewish historian Josephus’ writings.[4] The fact that the claims of the New Testament are confirmed in outside historical sources supports the New Testament’s historical reliability.

Third, the Jewish transmission of sacred traditions was highly developed and reliable. The Jewish disciples of Yeshua first passed on His teachings orally before they were eventually written down. Ancient Jews were known for memorizing large amounts of Scripture. This is also true of ancient Greek storytellers who were able to memorize the entire Iliad or Odyssey. The high value placed on memorization might sound odd to us today, but that’s because our culture is immersed in written information. It wasn’t like that in the ancient world. Skeptics might argue that it would be easy to change or distort information transmitted through oral tradition, but this is simply false. For instance, oral tradition was transmitted publicly in front of entire communities, and it was repeated over and over for everyone there to memorize. Therefore, if someone misstated information, the whole community would have been present to correct errors.

Fourth, there were significant restraints on the embellishment of traditions about Jesus, such as the presence of eyewitnesses and the apostles’ supervision. As Dr. Craig explains:

Those who had seen and heard Jesus were still on the scene and could be asked about what Jesus had said and done. Moreover, the traditions about Jesus remained under the supervision of the original apostles. These factors would act as a natural check on tendencies to elaborate the facts in a direction contrary to the one preserved by those who had known Jesus. In fact, in the case of the gospels, it would be more accurate to speak of “oral history” rather than “oral tradition,” since the living eyewitnesses and apostles were still around.[5]

Fifth, the gospel writers have a proven track record of historical reliability. In the places we are able to verify the New Testament’s historical claims against other historical sources, we find that the New Testament authors’ accounts were incredibly accurate. For instance, many of the historical rulers mentioned in the New Testament have been discovered in archaeology.[6] Many of the historical places mentioned in the New Testament have been found in archaeology.[7] Additionally, numerous examples demonstrate that the New Testament authors were intimately familiar with the ancient culture about which they wrote.[8] The evidence in favor of the NT’s historical reliability is overwhelming.

Let’s move on to Justin’s next claim:

“Please review the Dionysian cults that were already emerging in the several hundred years just before the arrival of ‘Jesus’ (Iησοῦς), I recommend reading the Bacchae, by Euripides in 410 BC, and also looking for comparisons between Homer’s writings and the gospels. You’ll find that the Eucharist pre-existed the first century among pagans as did many other Christian / neo-platonian ideas. Dionysus, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, the demigod of wine, who called himself the vine, teaching his own gospel with many more comparisons.”

Did the NT authors steal from the Dionysus myth to fabricate their Jesus character? No. Again, Justin seems to be regurgitating common unsubstantiated claims from Internet atheists. For instance, the Zeitgeist documentary claims the following regarding Dionysus:

Dionysus of Greece, born of a virgin on December 25th, was a traveling teacher who performed miracles such as turning water into wine, he was referred to as the “King of Kings,” “God’s Only Begotten Son,” “The Alpha and Omega,” and many others, and upon his death, he was resurrected.[9]

All of these claims are false. There is no reference anywhere to a December 25th birthday for Dionysus, and even if there were, it wouldn’t matter. Even though December 25th later became the traditional date that most Christians celebrate the birth of Yeshua, the Bible doesn’t make any claims of a particular birthdate for Him.

Moreover, Dionysus was not born of a virgin. According to the ancient Hymn to Dionysus in the Homeric Hymns, Dionysus was conceived from the union of Zeus and Semele: “I am loud-crying Dionysus whom Cadmus’ daughter Semele bare of union with Zeus.”[10]

Some sources say that Dionysus traveled the world spreading civilization, but this true of any divine religious teacher and is thus way too general to force a parallel to Yeshua. There is a story of Dionysus turning water into wine, but the account comes from a source dated much later than the first century.[11] Thus, if there were any causal connection, the pagans would have gotten it from the gospel accounts.

There is no evidence that Dionysus was referred to as “King of Kings,” “Alpha and Omega,” or any of the other titles that are applied to Yeshua in the Scriptures. Regarding the claim that Dionysus was resurrected, the closest thing we have that might resemble the resurrection of Yeshua is a legend recorded in Diodorus Siculus 3.62 (1 BC). It is said that titans kidnapped Dionysus and boiled him. When Zeus found out, he killed the titans and brought Dionysus back to life. As we can clearly see, there is no parallel whatsoever between this legend and the story of Yeshua’s resurrection. 

Anyone can read translations of the primary sources and verify this information for themselves. If Justin wants to say that Jesus was copied from the Dionysus myths, he must cite actual sources that demonstrate some clear parallel. In reality, no such parallel exists in the primary sources—these are all just baseless assertions popularized by Internet memes posted on atheist Reddit boards.

Let’s move on to Justin’s next claim:

“Watch the Ceasar’s Messiah to get started on understanding the Flavian influence (Roman) and why they would want to create a new ‘peaceful messiah’ to quell the Jewish revolts that kept occurring under the ‘warrior messiahs’ of that time.“

Caesar’s Messiah is a documentary based on the book written by Joseph Atwill. The premise of the book and documentary is that the New Testament authors were actually Romans who wanted to pacify the Jews so they would stop fighting against Rome. They did this by inventing a “peaceful messiah” as a non-threatening, alternative expression of Jewish Messianism.[12] Atwill’s perspective, like the Dionysus claims, is part of the “Jesus Mythicism” genre—that is, the idea that Yeshua never actually existed historically but was fabricated by the NT authors. In short, Rome invented the Jesus character to quell the Jewish revolts, as Justin now seems to believe.

There are numerous problems with Atwill’s thesis. First, Atwill claims that “the imperial family, the Flavians, created Christianity” sometime after the Jewish revolt between Ad 66-73.[13] One obvious problem with this idea is that Christianity clearly existed before 73 AD. Tacitus mentions an “immense multitude” of Christians living in Rome during Nero’s reign, between AD 54-68.[14] Seutonius similarly mentions Christians suffering persecution under Nero.[15] Additionally, most scholars date Paul’s letters no later than 68 AD.[16] This early evidence demonstrates Atwill’s idea that “Christianity” didn’t exist until after 73 AD to be false.

Second, let’s also not forget that Rome didn’t have any incentive to pull off such a conspiracy. They could have “quelled” any Jewish revolts by force, and they did.

Third, it’s absurd to think that there would be any Jews who would fall for such a hoax. Isn’t it much more likely that the earliest Christians followed Yeshua because they really believed—enough to be tortured and killed for it!—that Yeshua rose from the dead? That’s what actual scholars and historians, like N.T. Wright, think: “That is why, as an historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.”[17]

There is a reason that actual scholars universally reject “Jesus Mythicism.”[18] It’s nonsense that is easily debunked when you take five minutes to look at the primary sources.

I hope we can learn some lessons from Justin Best’s path of heresy. Here are a couple things…

First, heresy will lead to more and worse heresy. Some people were angry that I wrote an article refuting Justin’s arguments against Paul. Even if they disagreed with Justin, they dismissed his grave theological error and said, “Well, it’s not like he has denied the Messiah, only Paul! You don’t need Paul to be saved!” Some of those people have now said they wish they hadn’t defended Justin’s destructive path, and they regret denying the obvious fact that his error would lead to rejecting the Messiah. This is why it’s so important to make sure our doctrine is sound and to stop treating heresy lightly.

Second, not everyone with a popular YouTube channel is a reliable teacher. In fact, most probably aren’t. We need to get our information from credible sources. Check out my teaching, Why We Need Scholars, for more on that.

As I said in my previous article, I do pray that Justin repents and comes to his senses. I’m more than willing to have a conversation with him on this or any other topic. In the meantime, however, I’m more worried for those over whom he has influence. I hope people will be able to see Justin’s false teaching for what it is and that they will not follow him into this pit of damnable heresy.

[1] Acharya S, The Companion to Zeitgeist: Part 1 (Seattle, WA: Steller House Publishing, 2009), p. 8

[2] William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010)

[3] A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Eugene OR: Oxford University Press), p. 190

[4] For more on this, see this teaching I wrote for 119 Ministries: Josephus and the New Testament.

[5] Craig, On Guard

[6] Ancient coins dated to the time when the New Testament confirm the existence of Herod the great. Excavations at ancient Tiberias confirm the existence of Herod Antipas. Fragments of a letter written by the Roman emperor Claudius in 52 C.E. confirm the existence of Gallio the Proconsul, the Roman senator mentioned in Acts 18. A recently discovered 2,000-year-old burial ossuary bears the name of a relative of the high priest Caiaphas, confirming Caiaphas’ existence during the time of the events described in the gospels.

[7] Bethlehem and Nazareth have been confirmed archeologically. In Jerusalem, Archaeologists have found the remains for the Pool of Bethesda, mentioned in the gospel of John (John 5:2-9). Archaeologists also believe to have found the place of Yeshua’s trial prior to His crucifixion in the old city of Jerusalem.

[8] In his book, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, scholar and historian Colin Hemer points out eighty-four historically confirmed facts just in the last sixteen chapters of Acts. Some examples include the proper names of ports (Acts 13:4-5, 13; 14:25; 27:5-6), the appropriate travel routes to take in view of certain weather conditions (Acts 21:3; 27:7), the specific languages spoken in certain regions (Acts 14:11), the proper titles for local and regional government officials (Acts 16:6-8, 20-22), the proper locations where travelers would spend successive nights on the journey from Philippi to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1), the use of correct Athenian slang terminology (Acts 17:18-19), that the Ephesian theater was the meeting place of the city (Acts 19:29), the suitable distance between certain cities (Acts 21:8), the precise names of rulers of particular regions during the times they ruled (Acts 23:2, 34; 24:27), whose jurisdiction Cilicia was in during the time described (Acts 23:34), the specific superstitions held by local peoples of the day (Acts 28:4-6), etc.

[9] Peter Joseph, Zeitgeist

[10] Hymn to Dionysus, 1, 55 (The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White)

[11] Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 2.2.1 (Second century AD)

[12] “When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare. They surmised that the way to stop the spread of zealous Jewish missionary activity was to create a competing belief system. That’s when the ‘peaceful’ Messiah story was invented. Instead of inspiring warfare, this Messiah urged turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and encouraged Jews to ‘give onto Caesar’ and pay their taxes to Rome.” Ancient Confession Found: ‘We Invented Jesus Christ’: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/10/prweb11201273.htm

[13] Joseph Atwill, Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus, p. 2

[14] Tacitus, Annals, 15.44

[15] Suetonius, Nero, 16

[16] Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), pp. 480-481

[17] N.T. Wright, “The New Unimproved Jesus,” Christianity Today (Sept. 13, 1993), p. 26

[18] “Now I am normally a cordial and collegial chap, but to be honest, I have little time or patience to invest in debunking the wild fantasies of ‘Jesus mythicists,’ as they are known. That is because, to be frank, those of us who work in the academic profession of religion and history simply have a hard time taking them seriously […] The Jesus mythicists are a group of enthusiastic atheists who through websites and self-published books try to prove the equivalent of a flat earth. I serve on the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, where we have an editorial team of people from all faiths and none, celebrated experts in their fields; and I can tell you that the Jesus mythicist nonsense would never get a foot in the door of a peer-reviewed journal committed to the academic study of the historical Jesus.” —Michael Bird, Yes, Jesus existed…but relax, you can still be an atheist if you want to, www.ridley.edu.au

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