Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Did Jesus Really Live?

Early icon image of Jesus
It’s almost comical that people these days are still trying to “prove” Jesus lived some 2,000 years after he supposedly walked through ancient Jerusalem.  You’d figure that, by now, scholars would have come up with an answer.  Yet, on Facebook, a true believer posted four documentaries that supposedly prove that Jesus lived.

Four films were needed for that task?  Sounds like overkill.  After all, there’s not much to say.  Evidence of a real Jesus is hard to come by. 

The only writers who lived in Judea at the time Jesus must have lived never mention him.  In all of Philo of Alexandria’s voluminous writing, Jesus never makes an appearance, although the  famed Jewish-Egyptian philosopher  desperately sought evidence of God on Earth and created the concept of “logos” (the word) that John picked up for his Gospel.  More significantly, Philo died in the 40s and lived through all the years Jesus had to have been alive.

Josephus, the renowned Jewish historian of the first century, also did not mention Jesus, but did cite other would-be messiahs.  At least 16 earlier church fathers are known to have commented on Josephus without noting a strange paragraph in his text that begins “At about this time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one might call him a man...” That's because the passage was added later.  If such a passage had existed in the original, they would not have complained, as they did, that Josephus overlooked Jesus.

A later Christian author, presumed to be church historian Bishop Eusebius, was so upset by Josephus’ omission that, in the fourth century, he forged a paragraph about Jesus and inserted it into the text.  He is thought to be the author because he's the first to mention it.  Unfortunately for him, earlier versions of Josephus’ works do not contain the fraudulent addition.

Some historians claim that Josephus knew more about Jesus and early Christianity, but didn’t want to offend the Romans.  Besides being an attempt to read Josephus’ mind, they ignore the uncomfortable fact that he wrote extensively about other would-be messiahs, lambasting their pretensions and accusing them of fostering unrest.

Artist's image of Paul
Paul, the first true missionary for the religion that grew up around Jesus, did include mentions of the historical Jesus in his epistles:  he was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) and was “descended from David, according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3).  He also tells us Jesus was Jewish, devoted his ministry to Jews and was crucified. He doesn't even indicate when Jesus lived or cite a single teaching.

Modern Christian apologists have claimed that Paul omitted the biographical details because he was writing to people who knew the life of Jesus and had no reason to elaborate.  That can’t be true.  Paul founded small colonies of believers around the Mediterranean – his epistles mostly are addressed to the different groups – and was forced to respond when other evangelists went to the same people with a different message.  The authentic history of Jesus would have been a very strong asset for him.  He simply didn’t include any.

In Paul's view, Jesus was a common man of little distinction until chosen by God on the cross as the messiah and messenger to mankind.  That, of course, is not the later dogma of Christianity, which believes in Jesus as God incarnate.

Other documents that mention Jesus are equally limited.  For example, one early document called the Didache began as a sectarian Jewish document, probably written around 70 C.E.   The original version contained moral teachings and predictions of the destruction of the current world order.   Later Christians revised it, adding a story of Jesus and rules of worship for early Christian communities. 

Still, the Didache makes no mention of a virgin birth or miracles.  Jesus is called the “son” of God in the Didache, but only in a figurative sense.  In Jewish thinking, everyone is a son of God anyway.  There’s no account of the crucifixion of Jesus, although the Didache does mention a cross in the sky as a sign of Jesus. The twelve apostles are referred to as representing the 12 tribes of Israel. 

Extant Roman histories provide even less information about a human Jesus.  Here are all the known comments about Jesus in Roman literature:

Cornelius Tacitus (55-120 A.D.):
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.  Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered under the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”

That would seem to be a big help, but for the date of the text.  Writing long after the death of Jesus, Tacitus could have gotten any information about Christians from members of the religion, rather than from actual historical document.  His phrasing, “suffered under,” which is inherently Christian, seems to indicate that.  Moreover, early Church fathers did not cite his comment nor does the reference to Christians show up in Tacitus' writing until a translation was issued hundreds of years later.

Actually, no reference to Jesus by a non-Christian author is mentioned by Church fathers until the 4th century.

Lucian, a second-century Greek satirist:
The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. … You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.  All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.”

The late date suggests Lucian got his information from a Christian and not from an historical source.

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillas, chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian. 
There are two references, appearing in his books from 117-138 A.D.  In his account of Emperor Claudius’ reign, Suetonius wrote, “Claudius banished from Rome all Jews who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestos.”  Then, on the reign of Nero: “Nero likewise inflicted punishment on the Christians, a sect of men who held a new and maleficent superstition.” 

Again, the information is scant.  Is Chrestos a misunderstanding for Christ or another person altogether?  After all, Chrestos was a term often applied to pagan gods.  Besides, “Jews” actually may be “god-fearers,” people who mixed Jewish beliefs with pagan beliefs and who were not typically of Jewish descent.

Suetonius, a prominent historian in his day, is actually referring to a time period close to when the false messiah Theudas was crucified.  The passage may be a nod to Theudas' followers in Rome, who did riot in protest to his death at Roman hands.

The text also seems to imply that Chrestus was in Rome, spearheading the uprising.  Christians claim that the passage refers to Jesus, and unrest began after Paul brought news of him to Rome and that Suetonius was only mistaken about Jesus himself being in Rome.  Regardless, the information is too limited and too removed from Jesus’ time to be of any historical help.

There are simply no other works to turn to outside the New Testament that deal with Jesus. As you can see, few of the comments actually contain even a shard of information about the historical Jesus.  They simply verify that Christian belief existed by the time of the writing.

Even the Gospels aren’t much help determining if Jesus ever lived. “Although (the New Testament accounts are the chief records, they are neither clear nor complete,” noted the Dartmouth Bible (pg 844).

Artist's concept of Ebionites
Nevertheless, there are some inferences that can be made that support the existence of an historical Jesus.  In the first place, Paul only met Jesus in a reverie outside Damascus.  He would have been far better off insisting that his otherworldly meeting with Jesus was far more valid than anyone else’s experience with the living person, but he didn’t.  Instead, Paul accepted that the people he called “the pillars of the church” had known the real person.

Then, too, there really was a group of believers in Jerusalem.  They called themselves Nazarenes, but are better known historically as Ebionites, which means “poor ones." They were given that insulting nickname because of their impoverished condition.  The Nazarenes, who are also labeled Jewish-Christians by modern historians, viewed themselves as a reform movement within Judaism. 

They organized a synagogue, and, like all Jews, worshiped and brought animals for ritual sacrifice at the Temple.  They observed the Jewish holy days, circumcised their male children, followed Kosher dietary laws, and practiced the teachings of Jesus as they interpreted them to be. They saw Jesus as a prophet and sage, but not as a deity.  The Ebionites also disliked Paul and insisted he was not Jewish.  In their extant writing, they claim the apostle distorted their beliefs.

Caught between Judaism and Christianity, they soon faded away.  However, they did exist and were not likely to venerate an imaginary person.

Finally,  the Talmud, the Jewish collection of laws, rabbinical discussion and stories, mentions Jesus.  The sages of that day did not cite imaginary people.

On that basis, there’s no hesitancy on the part of most historians to agree that Jesus lived.  Four documentaries won’t enhance that.  However, historians divide quickly over the question if Jesus is God.   That’s belief, requiring no historical foundation, which is fortunate since none exists. 

The reality is that we know next to nothing about the true life of a man who may have been the most influential human who has lived in the last 2,000 years.

As Charles Guignebert, Sorbonne professor of Christianity, wrote 80 years ago in his epic book Jesus:  “Jesus was born, he lived, he was crucified and he died.  Everything else is pure conjecture.”

Note:  Much of this blog is drawn from the book, The Gospel Truth, available on Amazon, Twitter and other sites.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

Monday, October 19, 2015

Sing Along: The 20 Greatest Songs

Know any great songs?  I’m sure you do.  At least, you think they are great songs. 

Are they?  What constitutes a great song?

I decided to come up with a list of the greatest songs ever written based on my experience and research.  I’ve studied music history for most of my life.  I’ve loved music and took several music history courses in college and have continued to learn about music ever since.  I even speak about the topic.  My next presentation on American music will be to the Daughters of the American Revolution chapter in DeLand in January.

After a lot of thought, I came up with 20 songs that have entertained listeners for, in one case, close to 500 years and will likely continue long into the future.

I created a simple criteria to generate my list.

1) The song had to be popular in its day.
2) The song has to be popular today.
3) The song has to have some significance, not just a “silly love song” like those cherished by Paul McCartney.
4) It has to be in English.  Translations are fine.

As a result, I did not include the “Star Spangled Banner.” It is old, written in 1814, and very familiar.  However, it is only known because of its status as the national anthem. Besides, there’s even a small movement to have it replaced by “God Bless America.”  For the same reason, I didn’t include any of the anthems of the Armed Forces.

‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame” isn’t included either, even though it was written in 1908, is well known and widely sung.  It just has no significance.  Besides, the only part of the song still remembered is the chorus.

Few of our great singers and songwriters made my list.  Their songs were often beloved, but they typically are not sung today except by people like me although some songs do have wide audiences.  For example, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” is the Boston Red Sox theme song, but it doesn’t have the same resonance in other places.

I also looked at the Rolling Stone magazine’s 2012 list of top 500 songs of all time.  I respectfully reject virtually all of the choices, which were heavily weighted toward rock groups like the Rolling Stones, U2 and the like.  They may still be playing, but their songs have little meaning and less staying power.

I also avoided any current hits simply because they clearly fail any test for longevity. 

The songs are numbered based on time, not as ranking.  Great songs are all number one in my book. 
1. Greensleeves.  This may be the oldest popular song still widely known.  Usually associated with Shakespeare, he didn’t write it, but did mention it in two plays.  It is listed as a traditional English folksong and dates to around 1580.

2. Auld Lang Syne.  Written by Irishman Robert Burns in 1788, it was set to the music of a traditional folk song and has become the most wildly known English song in the world.  

3. Yankee Doodle Dandy.  Another English folk song from the 1700s, its lyrics were meant to mock the Colonists during the Revolutionary War, but it quickly was adopted by Americans despite its sexual innuendo.

4. Rock of Ages.  Written in 1763 by an English minister who sought shelter in a rocky cleft when caught outdoors in a storm, it remains one of the most popular hymns ever written.

5. Amazing Grace.  A hymn written in 1773 by ex-slaver turned clergyman John Newton, it was later set to music.  It never fails to buoy spirits and emotions.  Judy Collins’ version in more recent times remains a classic.

6. Silent Night.  Written in 1816, this perennial favorite Christmas carol was first performed in 1818 and was named a cultural heritage by the United Nations in 2012. 

7.  Dixie.  No song elicits more emotional response.  Lincoln said it was actually “captured” during the Civil War.  Probably written by Daniel Emmett – there is some debate over authorship – it appeared in the 1850s and quickly became the Southern anthem.

8. The Old Folks at Home.  Stephan Foster’s 1851 class continues to be sung.  He may have died an alcoholic, frustrated by being unable to write the classical music his wife desired, but his songs originated American music. This song, even with altered PC lyrics, evokes a time now long gone,

9. The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  This rousing anthem, written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861, borrowed the music from an existing song and has remained extraordinarily popular.

10. Over There.  Written by George M. Cohan in 1917 to encourage young men to enlist in World War I, it has continued as a militaristic anthem that reflects our ideals.  Americans “won’t be back” until the job is done.

11. Old Man River.  Perhaps the greatest of all Broadway songs, it was a late edition to Showboat.  While the producer hesitated to present a show in 1927 that dealt with racism, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein came up with this song.  It has remained a centerpiece of American music ever since.  Showboat itself inaugurated Broadway’s role as the heartbeat of American culture, a position it held into the 1960s. The song humanized African-Americans at a time of extreme racism.

12. White Christmas.  Still the best selling record of all time, the song was written by Irving Berlin in 1940.  He supposedly told his secretary: "Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!"

13. Summertime.  This Gershwin classic first appeared in in the 1935 musical Porgy and Bess.  It remains one of the most covered songs in American music.  An estimated 33,000 versions exist.

14. Night and Day.  Written by Cole Porter for his 1932 Broadway show The Gay Divorcee, it has become the signature song of such performers as Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra, and the consummate love song in American music.

15. This Land is Your Land.  Woody Guthrie wrote this in 1940 to counter Irving Berlin’s saccharine “God Bless America.”  The words usually not sung are bitter and rebellious, reflecting the Guthrie disgust with the split between haves and have-nots in this land of plenty.

16. Over the Rainbow.  Written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg for the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, the song has remained an American standard, evoking a place of peace and harmony.

17. Blowin’ in the Wind.  Written in 1962, this Bob Dylan ambiguous classic galvanized an entire generation and remains as fresh today as then.

18. Moon River.  Johnny Mercer’s 1962 classic continues to haunt American airwaves and instantly evokes a peaceful image filled with promise.

19. Yesterday.  Written in 1965 by Paul McCartney, it was voted the top song of the 20th century in both England and the United States.  By one measurement, it was played 7 million times in its first 35 years of existence.

20. Imagine.  John Lennon essentially wrote this in one sitting.  Even though it speaks against religion and capitalism, it has captured the hearts of successive generations who sing the words and ignore the meaning.

Maybe you could think of a few more.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history along with excursions into American culture.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sing a Song of Cheer Again

Trump doesn't "Dream On" these days
In the latest sour note emanating from the Republican presidential campaign, singer Steve Tyler asked front runner Donald Trump to stop using “Dream On” at campaign stops.  Tyler had to send two cease-and-desist orders before Trump complied.

Trump should have been familiar with the process.  R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe asked him not use “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” which was played at an anti-Iran-deal rally attended by Trump and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Trump is hardly the first candidate to run into such problems.  Musicians are typically more liberal minded than Republican conservative politicians.  As a result, Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen objected to Ronald Reagan using “Born in the USA” in the 1984 campaign. In 2008, Sen. John McCain used tunes by John “Cougar” Mellencamp, inciting an enraged response from the singer.  McCain also ran into trouble that year with Palin when the song "Barracuda" was used to mark their entrance.  The title referenced Palin’s high school nickname, but the band Heart, which owns the rights to the song, strenuously objected.

Somalian-born rapper K’Naan responded with anger when Mitt Romney used his “Wavin’ Flag” in his failed 2012 campaign. George W. Bush outraged Tom Petty for playing his “I Won’t Back Down.” When hit with a legal notice, Bush promptly failed to live up to the words of the song and chose another tune.

Nevertheless, every candidate seeks to find the right music to animate voters.  That’s been going on since the 1840 campaign when William Henry Harrison, the military hero of the battle at Tippecanoe, Ohio ran with John Tyler against incumbent Martin Van Buren and three possible vice presidential candidates.

The song was written by Alexander Ross and sung to the music of the folk ditty “Little Pigs.”  It contained the immortal words:

Who has heard the great commotion, motion, motion
All the country through?
Old Tippecanoe

It is the ball a-rolling on
For Tippecanoe and Tyler too
And with him we'll beat Little Van, Van
Van is a used up man
And with him we'll beat Little Van

The success of the song, which became extremely popular, caught the attention of other candidates.  As a result, songs have become a requirement of almost every campaign. So, in 1864, Abraham Lincoln won re-election with support from the rousing “Battle Cry of Freedom,” a song that is still current.

New York Gov. Al Smith picked a well known lilt from the 1890s, “The Sidewalks of New York,” to underline his failed 1928 try for the presidency against Herbert Hoover.  That song remains familiar today, too.

Broadway musical
Perhaps the best know campaign song is “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which was Franklin Roosevelt’s theme song in his success 1932 run for the White House.  It wasn’t the first choice – “Anchors Aweigh” was -- but at a campaign stop, a previous speaker was so boring, Roosevelt’s advisers asked for something livelier.  Someone selected “Happy Days” from the 1930 musical Chasing Rainbows.

The song has almost become a Democratic Party trademark in the intervening years.

Another popular song, the Beatles’ “Come Together,” was actually written by John Lennon to support Dr. Tom Leary’s quixotic attempt to become governor of California in 1969.  When Leary, a former Yale professor well known as an advocate for the use of  LSD, lost the race, Lennon added some nonsense lyrics and released the song to better success than Leary enjoyed.

In the 1992 campaign, challenger Bill Clinton went with Fleetwood Mac’s "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)" while incumbent George H.W. Bush started with "Don't Worry, Be Happy,” a successful 1988 a cappella hit by Bobby McFarren, and then shifted to Woody Guthrie’s anthem "This Land is Your Land." Ironically, given Bush’s conservative roots, Guthrie wrote the song to protest the rosy view of this country expressed in Irving Berlin's "America the Beautiful.”

That same year, independent candidate Ross Perot appropriately chose Patsy Cline’s 1962 smash hit, “Crazy,” which was written by Willie Nelson.

Today, music remains intricately entwined with the candidates, who often borrow sings without checking with the musicians first.  However, as president, no candidate has to worry about a theme song.  That role is already taken by “Hail to the Chief,” which was written in around 1812 and first used to introduce a president in 1829.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with occasional forays into American history.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons. His latest novel, Ice Flow, describes how one woman destroys a Massachusetts town in 1876.   His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at