I seem to have had a few comments on here in recent weeks about the Jesus mythicism question (for those who are unfamiliar with the argument, this is the question of whether a real Jesus actually existed in the first place or whether Christianity started with a belief in some kind of celestial being). For the record, I’m on the ‘historical Jesus’ side of this particular debate, meaning that I believe that the whole thing did start with an actual Jewish preacher and founder of a Messianic cult. This is something I’d like to post a series of posts about at some point, but it’s a long way down my to-do list at the moment, so look out for those in about… 2030, maybe? However, one particular comment I got did catch my attention as raising an important point. I started writing a comment in reply, and realised it was actually long enough to be a post. So here we are.
I have to admit, it is weird no matter which way things are supposed to have gone: How a Son/Christ who supposedly had no earthly incarnation could have suddenly gotten one in the specific time and place of Judea in the 30’s. Or the other way; how a Jesus who was presumably real and taught in the 30’s could be so easily ignored/erased by those who came later.
Which is an excellent point. If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers. If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as an actual person who walked the face of the earth and did normal (as well as miraculous) things. And this, as it happens, gets to the nub of why I believe in a historical Jesus; I’ve found other reasons as I looked into the topic more, but my initial reason is simply that I believe the former scenario is a lot easier to explain with the data we have than the latter. So, I want to explain why.
First, here are some key points to bear in mind:
- We have four official accounts portraying Jesus as a real person, which have been established as having been written within a century (the earliest probably within a few decades) of the events alleged in them.
- These accounts include quite a few things which were clearly quite awkward for their authors. Jesus was supposed to have been the Messiah – despite this being a Jewish title that referred to someone who would rule over the country in an era of peace and prosperity, which Jesus clearly hadn’t done. He apparently came from Nazareth – even though this was another big problem for his followers’ claims that he was the Messiah, requiring two of the gospel authors to make up complicated and contradictory accounts about how, despite having grown up in Nazareth, he had actually been born in Bethlehem. He was executed by the Romans for sedition – which would have made the cult widely unpopular and could have got them into real trouble (if you read the gospel accounts, you can see the writers coming out with some wildly implausible stuff intended to paint a picture of Pilate as really innocent in the matter and the Jews really being the ones to blame for the whole thing). And apparently, despite the gospels painting a very anti-Pharisaic picture, his teachings as portrayed were in fact rather typically Pharisaian (Maccoby, Revolution in Judea and The Mythmaker). So… these things all got included, and we need to ask why.
- These accounts also show signs of getting increasingly fantastical over time, suggesting the stories are getting embroidered as they go along.
- In the early years of the Church, the person who seems to have been doing more than anyone else to spread this new belief to Gentiles in far-flung places was someone who joined only after Jesus’s death, showed astonishingly little interest in finding out about the doctrines of this new group, thought it quite OK to spread teachings that he believed to have come to him through personal revelation rather than from others in the group, and clashed with the existing group over the things he was teaching, of which they didn’t approve at all. Which gives us a rather bizarre situation where this man has gone off at a complete tangent and is energetically spreading his version of this new belief, which ends up being extremely influential despite being quite different from what the original grou believed.
- All this was happening within a society where the majority of the population came from cultures other than the minority culture from which Jesus supposedly came, whose beliefs, and hence their interpretation of stories and events, might be very different from that of the culture in which the beliefs originated. On top of that, it was a society with widespread beliefs in amazing happenings, including the possibility of gods visiting the earth in human form.
Against this background information, how does the above question look?
Firstly, let’s look at the hypothesis that Jesus was actually a historical person. How does the above evidence fit with this? Well… according to this theory Jesus creates a bit of a splash in his local area, gets killed, and his local followers reach the belief he’s miraculously risen from the dead and thus keep his cult alive. A few years later, along comes Paul of Tarsus, who appears to have converted dramatically to the faith but has in fact converted dramatically to his own rather peculiar version of it, which he then energetically preaches to other communities over the next several years. Meanwhile, the existing stories about Jesus are getting embroidered as they get passed on. Some of those stories are getting passed out to the groups of converts in other cities, and some of the theology that those converts hold is filtering back to the original Jerusalem community, and a lot of people are ending up with a mixture of ideas that’s moving away from what was originally intended.
By the time people get as far as writing the stories down, a few decades later, the stories they have to work with are a mishmash of things that actually happened, embroidered versions of things that actually happened, stories that people have made up out of whole cloth because they sound good, and some rather strange mythology around the whole thing. So that’s what gets written down. Some of the stuff is pretty awkward for them, but, because it goes back to things that did actually happen, it’s firmly embedded in the traditions and can’t just be erased or ignored, so the gospel authors include those bits but do what they can to sugar-coat them or explain them away. We end up with an odd mix of stories, many of which are clearly embroidered or mythicised but many others of which seem to be describing a historical Jesus. Which, as you have probably spotted, pretty much describes the NT.
So far, so good; the historical theory fits well with what we have. Now, time to look at the other hypothesis; the idea that Jesus was originally a myth about a celestial being, and the stories about him were historicised later. How does that fit with the evidence we’ve got?
Well, the epistles seem to fit reasonably well, purely as far as theology goes; the theological descriptions of the Lord in the epistles could plausibly fit with a group who believe in a spiritual leader somewhere up in the heavens. (Even then, there are a lot of lines that wouldn’t plausibly fit with this; the epistles do contain several lines about Jesus having existed according to the flesh, or being born of a woman, or being of the seed of David, or having brothers, one of whom Paul mentions meeting, all of which is rather difficult to reconcile with mythicism and requires some highly strained logic on the part of mythicists. But if we ignore all that – which mythicists do, on the whole, tend to prefer to do – and focus just on the theology, then that seems at first glance to fit.)
However, once we get to the gospels, things get a lot more difficult to explain. If the group at this stage believed that the person they held so dear was in fact a celestial being who had never visited this world as a human, how did we end up with multiple books telling detailed stories about his time living in this world as a human?
Of course, explanations exist. Earl Doherty, in The Jesus Puzzle, presents the first gospel as being written as a deliberate attempt to give a group an apparent historical founder that would appeal more to converts. Richard Carrier, in On the Historicity of Jesus, explains it as being an example of euhemerism, a practice of the time in which historicised stories were written about mythical beings. Adam Lee from the Daylight Atheism blog, in this essay, suggests the gospel writers might have been following the precedent of midrash, a rabbinical method for analysing verses from the Jewish scriptures and coming up with further explanations and illustrative stories about them. All these explanations have their problems, but I can certainly see how any of them could explain the existence of a few historicised stories about a Jesus who was originally thought to have lived, died, and risen on a heavenly plane only.
But what do we actually have? Multiple different books describing a historical Jesus. (While the gospels are not independent in terms of what information they give us, each one does nevertheless represent a different person sitting down and putting a lot of effort into writing a detailed and lengthy story.) Highly awkward claims – that the authors seem to be desperately trying to soft-pedal, but nonetheless include – that a specific and powerful public figure was responsible for the death of this founder. Further highly awkward claims that the revered founder was making claims that got him (rightly, under the prevailing Roman law) executed for sedition. Complicated and contradictory stories attempting to explain how a man from Nazareth was actually born in Bethlehem, when it would surely have been so much simpler to leave out the Nazareth claim and write Jesus as coming from Bethlehem in the first place.
What would lead people to make all this stuff up – all of it – from scratch? Not just embroidering or adding to existing stories about an existing person, but inventing all of the above, including the bits that clearly work against their purposes? So far, I have not heard an adequate explanation for this. Of the two theories, therefore, the theory that Jesus did actually exist – that, at the start of the story of Christianity, there was an actual Yeshu or Yeshua who preached and had a following and was executed by the Romans – fits the available data a lot better.
And that’s why I believe in a historical Jesus.