In what must surely come close to the modern-day equivalent of having committed career suicide, journalist Joe Hildebrand has converted to Roman Catholicism. And to make it even worse, his confirmation was “not as a child like almost all others but as a fully sentient, self-aware and informed adult.” The reason is, according to Hildebrand, because:
Son of God or not, there is simply no human being in all of human history who has had a bigger or more lasting impact on the human race. Not bad for someone whose only existence outside the Bible is a passing mention by a Roman historian called Josephus offhandedly trying to explain who his brother was.
But, somewhat strangely, Hildebrand then went on to lecture those whom he labels “conservative Christians”, regarding their social responsibilities in exercising free speech, especially those who were offended at a blasphemous Facebook post by Mary’s Newtown—a pub and hamburger joint in Sydney—which regularly hosts 666 nights and especially over the Easter long weekend encouraged patrons to get ‘hammered’ because, apparently, that’s what Jesus did.
While it took Mary’s longer to take down their post than it did for Jesus himself to come back from the dead, those on social media saw through the hollowness of their subsequent apology. One Jennifer Tanios wrote on Facebook:
How is this an apology?? “Jokes” like that would never be made to Muslims, Buddhist’s or Jews. Instead of taking responsibility and apologising you turn it around and act like you are the ones being attacked. You didn’t take your post down “for the safety of staff” – you took it down because you were shocked at the backlash you received. Your ratings went from 4.5 to 3.6 – before making a post like that, maybe think about how Christians contribute a large amount to your income. What a joke. Can’t wait to go to Big Daddys Burgers and Burnett Street Burgers this weekend.
Alternatively, the now spiritually woke Hildebrand concluded that, “As for Jesus himself, he probably wouldn’t have given two sh!ts about whatever Mary’s posted on Facebook but he almost certainly would’ve liked the name.” Hmm, using language like that makes me think that Mr Hildebrand might need to go to confession. Because if I’d written something like that when I was at school, the nuns would have literally washed my mouth with soap.
But what of his more serious claim that no other ancient writer mentions Jesus except for one offhanded comment by Josephus? Well, besides the scriptural testimony of doubting Thomas, as well as more than five hundred others whom Jesus appeared to after his resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15:6), what Hilderbrand is stating is simply not true. For example, Tacitus (110 AD) mentions both the time and place of Jesus’ execution:
Christus, from whom the name [Christians had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty, during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate [in] Judaea. The deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, broke out afresh not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City [of Rome], where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.
What’s more, Pliny the Younger, another Roman historian (110 AD) mentions the practices of some of Jesus’ followers:
They [the Christians] affirmed, however, that the sum of their ‘guilt’ or ‘error’ was that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god. They then bound themselves by a solemn oath not to do wicked deeds., but rather never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up.
But what of the supposed “passing mention” of Jesus by Josephus? Well, for a start, Josephus was not a Roman—as Hildebrand falsely asserts—but actually a Jew (37-100 AD). But even more significantly, Hildebrand fails to mention the more famous, and controversial, reference Josephus makes in his work The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, Paragraph 3:
Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that love him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and then thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Now, this highly debated reference even has its own fancy name: “The Testimonium Flavianum.” And scholars continue to argue over its veracity and authenticity. Regardless of the precise outcome of their discussions, this reference from Josephus still provides significant historical evidence for both the existence and significance of Jesus. So much so that Reverend John Dickson—formerly of the Centre for Public Christianity—has repeatedly issued the following challenge:
I will eat a page of my Bible if someone can find me just one full Professor of Ancient History, Classics, or New Testament in an accredited university somewhere in the world (there are thousands of names to choose from) who thinks Jesus never lived.
Now, last I heard, Dickson’s Bible was still intact. But as for Hilderbrand’s grasp of history, as well as the logical consistency of his argument regarding free speech…well, I’m not so sure. One thing I do know, though, and that is just as the historical reliability of Jesus is stronger than Hilderbrand understands, Big Daddy’s Burgers and Burnett Street Burgers look a whole lot better than their demonic alternative.
Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.
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