Did Jesus even exist?
The question may seem absurd, but years ago some radicals treated him as an imaginary figure. Today's experts don't take the canard seriously.
But surprisingly, the issue is revived in Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which claims to examine evidence rationally as it seeks to debunk religions and hoaxes, ancient and modern. It's published by the secularist Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
Reviewing Mel Gibson's "Passion" film, committee senior researcher Joe Nickell asserts: "Historically, apart from later Christian sources, there is virtually no evidence for Jesus' crucifixion - or even his very existence."
Perhaps Skeptical Inquirer needs to be more skeptical about its skepticism.
Consider: Could a non-person whose crucifixion was a non-event be seen as real, not in "later" sources but within 20 years (see Paul's early letters)? The four Gospels appeared in succeeding decades, the equivalent of 2004 books looking back at the Depression, World War II, school desegregation or the Kennedy assassination.
But Nickell indicates we must reject all New Testament evidence. He doesn't explain why, but such writers typically complain that the Gospels were written by partisans and insiders. True enough, but under that standard, scholars must erase much of secular history as well.
But even if all New Testament records are thrown out, nonbelievers also provided early evidence of Jesus' existence.
Such references are scarce, but that doesn't surprise E.P. Sanders of Duke University, author of "The Historical Figure of Jesus" and no fundamentalist. He says "it is sometimes hard to believe how unimportant Jesus was during his lifetime, especially outside Palestine."
The most important non-Christian source is "Jewish Antiquities," completed in A.D. 93 by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
One passage cites the execution in A.D. 62 of "the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, James by name."
A longer reference to Jesus poses a famous problem. Christian and non-Christian scholars agree that it was retouched by later believers, who added pious phrases that no Jew employed by pagans would have written.
But scholars say the additions are obvious. If they are deleted, Josephus provided at least these bare facts: Jesus was thought to be a "wise man" and "doer of wonderful works," attracted followers, was crucified by Pilate and started a movement that remained in existence decades later.
Any records the Roman occupiers kept about Jesus would have been lost during the devastating Jewish rebellion that began in A.D. 66, Sanders figures.
It took time for awareness of this tiny religious movement to reach other Romans, but three early references have survived:
-Pliny the Younger was sent as imperial legate to Bithynia (in present-day Turkey) starting in A.D. 111. One of his reports to the Emperor Trajan described a policy of executing Christians who refused to curse Christ and worship Roman gods. He said believers would sing an "antiphonal hymn to Christ as God," followed by a meal.
-Tacitus, who loathed the Christian "plague," recorded around A.D. 115 in "Roman Annals" that Jesus "was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius."
-Suetonius wrote about A.D. 120 that the Emperor Claudius banished all Jews from Rome because they were continually rioting "at the instigation of Chrestus." Historians think this misspelling of "Christ" means Suetonius mistakenly thought a troublemaker with that name lived in Rome. The comment indicates that by A.D. 49, belief in Christ had reached Rome and was dividing Jews.
Nickell cites support for his skepticism from "Incredible Shrinking Son of Man" by humanist colleague Robert Price, a member of the left-wing Jesus Seminar who teaches at the Universal Foundation for Better Living seminary in Carol City, Fla.
Price's seminary, founded by a Unity School minister, promotes the sort of New Thought spiritual healing Skeptical Inquirer might debunk - and treats Jesus as though he actually existed.