Another Jesus Mythicism discussion

A little while back, I got into a discussion in a Reddit subthread with a poster by the name of MisanthropicScott. It started when MisanthropicScott claimed Jesus was a liar and I disputed the examples he gave (I make no claims for the overall honesty of Jesus, who might have been a liar for all any of us knows, but I found this particular argument wanting and the accusations unwarranted), and wandered rapidly into ‘Did Jesus exist at all?’ territory. So, we ended up with a long and rambling exchange of views, as you do, and, because I was drafting out my answers in bits and scraps of spare time, I eventually arrived at the point where I had a long and as yet unposted answer written to posts of his that had been written a couple of months previously in a long-dead thread.

(Yes, paragraphs like that do indeed make me wonder about my life choices. To which all I can say is: sometimes we all need a break from the serious stuff.)

Anyway… I don’t want to either waste what I’ve written or reawaken a Reddit thread no-one else cares about any more, so I went for Door Number Three; posting my answer on this blog. If MisanthropicScott still has any remote interest in the discussion, he can read it here and respond as he chooses. If not… well, it’s a discussion about Jesus mythicism. Experience tells me that, most likely, someone‘s going to be interested in responding.

Speaking of which, ground rules for any ensuing discussion:

  1. Stay polite. That includes starting with the assumption that the person disagreeing with you is not actually stupid or ignorant just because they hold a different viewpoint.
  2. Keep your comments directed at points actually raised in the post. Given how many points we’ve raised between us, that should give you plenty of scope.
  3. The historicist vs. mythicist discussion is a discussion between two different non-Christian views of Jesus (the belief that he was a human being with a following who was later mythologised, and the belief that he was entirely a mythical figure, like Hercules). If what you want is to have the somewhat different discussion as to whether Christian views of Jesus are actually the correct ones, then by all means do so, but you’re in the wrong thread for it; here is the post for people who want to have religious debates. If that’s what you’re after, read the rules in that post and jump on in.

Quoted portions are usually from MisanthropicScott; on a few occasions I had to include a bit of the preceding exchange for context, so in those cases I’ve indicated which bits are from me and which from MisanthropicScott. If there’s no attribution, that means it’s from Misanthropic Scott. I’ve also thrown in subheadings for the different portions to try to break things up a bit; these weren’t part of the original discussion, and are there purely as my attempt to break walls of text and show where one section of our discussion stops and another starts. OK; let’s go.

(Edited: I’ve realised that two of the points I made (fortunately both minor) are inaccurate, and it’s been pointed out to me that a third is based on insufficient evidence. I’ve therefore put in footnotes amending all of these. My apologies.)


The NT; does it give us any useable information?

What corroborative evidence do we have of anything in the New Testament?

Not much. Josephus tells us that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ (the Greek translation of ‘Messiah’ and the word we’ve transliterated into ‘Christ’), who had a brother called James who was executed, and that there was a John the Baptist who went round preaching and baptising others and who was put to death by Herod, though not in the way described in the NT. Tacitus tells us that Christianity was founded by someone called Christus who started a movement in Judea and was executed by Pilate. We also have evidence of the veracity of some of the things mentioned in the background setting (the existence of various places and famous people; basically, just what you’d expect if people who live in that place and time are writing about it, regardless of whether they’re writing truth or fiction). Can’t think of any others.


[me] Sometimes a particular story or statement seems to be flat-out against the author’s interests, in which case it’s probably not made up.

I disagree. We don’t know the authors’ (plural) interests.

By ‘interests’, I mean the various messages the authors were trying to get across with their writing. Every so often, there’s something in the gospels that they seem to be trying hard to gloss over, or that contradicts what they’re trying to tell us.

Example: It was clearly important to both Matthew and Luke to convince us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as both of them go to the trouble of making up a complicated and clearly fictitious story explaining why, even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem. So… why do they put Nazareth in the story at all? They both changed what Mark had to say on other points, so, if they were making up the story from scratch all they had to do was change that point as well, leave Nazareth out of it altogether, and just say that he came from Bethlehem as per the prophecy yadda yadda yadda. Why do we get all this ‘well, he was born in Bethlehem but then they had to flee this mass infanticide I just invented and an angel told them to go to Nazareth’ and ‘his parents came from Nazareth but here is a completely unconvincing reason why they had to go to Bethlehem right at that time’?

If they were making their stories up from scratch, about a totally mythical person, it’s very hard to see why they’d do that instead of just leaving out Nazareth and saying he came from Bethlehem. However, if they were making up stories about an actual founder of their movement who was known to have come from Nazareth, it makes total sense; they had to leave in the bit about him coming from Nazareth and then explain it away, because they couldn’t just ignore something about him that was that widely known.

There are other examples. Why would anyone invent a leader who was a crucified criminal and by all appearances a dismal failure at his mission, when that was so obviously going to be the exact opposite of a selling point? Why, given that the writers clearly wanted to put as much blame as possible on the Jews for Jesus’s death and to gloss over the Romans’ role in it as much as possible, did they not just write the story to portray Jesus as executed by the Jews rather than the Romans? Why, when the writers were painting Jesus as the enemy of the Pharisees, did they cite him as using teachings (such as his teachings on Sabbath healings) that we now know were in fact Pharisee teachings as since recorded in the Talmud? Why did they include the embarrassing detail about Jesus being unable to pull off much in the way of miracles when he visited his hometown?

Sure, you can think of explanations for those, or speculate that maybe there’s some reason we just don’t know. But that does leave us with a lot of points that are really hard to explain away if Jesus was invented, but easy to explain if the authors were working from stories about an actual Jesus and couldn’t completely disregard things that were common knowledge about him among his followers.


Problems with a mythical crucifixion story

So, to say that having Jesus die a horrific death is inconsistent with a story line that works really well to sell the religion does not make sense to me.

The ‘humiliating execution’ story line didn’t work well at all to sell the religion. Paul comments in one of his letters on how it’s a problem. The ‘Alexamenos’ graffiti mocks the idea of a crucified god, and that seems to have been the general overall attitude of the culture. Christianity grew very slowly in the first few hundred years, prior to Constantine getting involved and making it the state religion(1). The fact that it did grow – and eventually struck it lucky with Constantine and took off – was in spite of the crucifixion story, not because of it.

[The founders] had the evidence of the Old Testament having caused people to believe deeply in Judaism. Maybe they figured this would work even better, especially if the stopped telling people not to eat yummy pigs and stopped telling men they needed the tips of their dicks cut off.

Firstly, the original church weren’t telling people that. Paul did, and we know from Galatians and from Acts 21:18 – 24 that this was actually something on which the original group disagreed with him. (They agreed with having Gentiles as part of their group on those terms, because Judaism never expected non-Jews to follow those rules anyway; however, they certainly don’t seem happy to have gone along with saying that Jews could abandon those rules as well.)

Secondly, Judaism has always been much more about action than about belief. Circumcision and dietary rules were key parts of the religion. What you’re essentially describing here is a situation where some Jews decide that the best way to get other Jews to become more Jewish is for them to throw some really key parts of Judaism out of the window; it’s the equivalent of Christians saying “I really want more people to become Christian, so I’m going to start a church in which you don’t have to believe in Jesus so that I can persuade more people to come to it”. I’m not saying that’s impossible, because people do come up with really bizarre justifications sometimes; but it’s certainly improbable.

And thirdly, above all; there is absolutely no way anyone of that time would have thought that inventing a character who was supposed to be the Messiah but had been executed by the Romans would have worked well to sell their religion. A Messiah who died before bringing about the end times was a hard sell for Jews, and an executed criminal as leader was a really hard sell for Gentiles. Yes, we know from hindsight it eventually worked spectacularly; but we also know that was due to factors completely other than the fact that it was based on asking people to follow someone executed as a criminal. If someone at that time was deliberately setting out to figure out what would win over as many people as possible, the answer would not have been ‘Hey, a Jewish Messiah who gets arrested and executed with zero signs of having actually done anything to overthrow the Romans! That’ll definitely do it!’


Messianic prophecies and ‘I come to bring not peace but a sword’

(MisanthropicScott) [Messianic prophecies] sure as hell don’t say anything about him starting wars! Please correct me if I’m wrong.

(Me) As I recall, they actually say surprisingly little about the messiah at all, when you read them.

People will beat their swords into plowshares. Nation shall not rise up against nation. Neither shall they know war anymore. (from memory)

Exactly! That’s not describing the Messiah himself or his backstory. It’s talking about what the world is going to be like when that time comes. The prophecies hardly say anything about the actual Messiah. He’s going to be a king of David’s line who rules over Israel in this marvellous future time, and… that’s about it.

Here’s a site for Judaism that explains quite well why Jesus completely and utterly fails to meet the messianic prophesies. There are specifics in there.

No argument from me on that point. Hell, it’s possible to sum up in one sentence why Jesus wasn’t the Messiah: We don’t have the global situation that the prophecies foretold. That’s it. But I find it interesting that that site doesn’t say anything about the ‘come to bring not peace but a sword’ line as a disqualification, so I’m not sure why you think it supports your point here.

(me) They leave a lot of scope for individual interpretation of the details.

(MisanthropicScott) Not enough for the messiah to be a warmonger.

What, you think no-one throughout history has ever believed that the best way to end up with peace is to violently crush all your enemies first? I mean, there are good reasons to disagree with that as a strategy, but your specific claim was that claiming to be the Messiah yet bring a sword makes Jesus (if he really claimed that) a liar. The holding of beliefs with which you disagree, or even of beliefs which are actually incorrect, is not the same as being a liar.

By the way, as far as Messianic expectations in particular are concerned, the belief that the Messiah will take up arms against Israel’s enemies as part of his job description is very common. If you want to read more about that, this page is about military expectations of the Messiah around Jesus’s time, this is an extremely famous rabbi’s list of Messianic expectations, still considered the main go-to list to this day, which clearly includes the expectation that the Messiah will be a military leader, and this page is about one failed Messiah who had a substantial following amongst Jews who were quite happy with his military approach (2).

And, it is absolutely certain that there must be peace before the messiah’s death.

Actually… no. There is nothing whatsoever in any of the Messianic prophecies saying he can’t be killed and miraculously resurrected prior to bringing peace.

I know, I know. The reason no-one put that in the prophecies was not because anyone actually expected this to happen, but the reverse; because ‘And this will happen within one lifetime, not after a death and resurrection’ is so far off expectations that it doesn’t ever occur to anyone to add that subclause. However, fact remains that there’s nothing at all in the Messianic prophecies saying that this can’t happen. So that left a loophole via which Jesus’s followers could not only keep believing in him after his execution but actually gain new adherents; they’d found a way to give him, as you rather nicely put it in one of your previous statements, a mulligan.

(It also had the probably unplanned side-effect of making Jesus’s messianic claims effectively unfalsifiable. Once you allow for the idea that someone can miraculously come back to get things done after their death, you can go on forever saying that they just haven’t come back yet but are totally going to do it any day now. I mean, here the Christians still are with that line, two thousand years later.)

There was talk recently of Schneerson being the messiah. There may be a small contingent who still think so. But, when he died in a world that still did not have world peace, almost everyone who thought so accepted that he wasn’t the messiah.

‘Almost’ everyone. Exactly. Some people still haven’t accepted that, in spite of his death. There is a small group of people who don’t accept that his death disqualifies him from being the Messiah. Two thousand years ago, that was how Christianity got started.

No peace. No messiah.

Agreed (apart from the get-out clause the early Christians came up with about how he was coming back to do it all after his death). So, since your claim is that Jesus probably never existed, I have a question for you here:

If Jesus was an entirely mythical character invented by his followers, how does that fit with ‘no peace, no Messiah’? Did someone come up with the idea ‘Hey, let’s pretend the Messiah did come to Earth but then got crucified without fulfilling any of the prophecies; we’ll just tell people he was miraculously resurrected and that’ll be fine’? How? Why? What do you think anyone was hoping to gain by that?

I can totally see a situation where a bunch of people had put their faith so much in a real person they thought was the Messiah that they just could not shift gears when he died and accept that he wasn’t. That’s how cognitive dissonance works; people get so sold on believing what they believe that, when evidence comes along disproving it, they find weird ways of explaining that evidence away rather than taking a step back and realising they were wrong in the first place. And, as you pointed out, that’s exactly what happened with Schneerson in modern-day times; a few people could not accept his death and went on thinking he was the Messiah. So it’s totally plausible that that could have happened with a first-century rabbi as well. But, if the movement that would eventually become Christianity didn’t start with a real rabbi but with an invented one, how and why do you think that happened?


Reasons to believe in a historical Jesus

If neither of us believes the Bible is accurate, neither of us has any reason to think that a person named Jesus ever existed. […] So, as soon as we say the Bible is unreliable, I fail to see why you say Jesus ever existed.

Because otherwise we need to explain why anyone thought it was a good idea to invent a story about a failed, crucified Messiah when such a story would be highly unlikely to gain followers, why they went to the lengths of naming the person who supposedly crucified him and spreading that story about as public knowledge when it was about the worst advertising you could imagine, why one person mentioned meeting this supposedly imaginary man’s brother and argued about a privilege given to his other brothers, why a historian remembered this imaginary man as having a real brother who was executed, why some of the things he’s claimed to have said are now known to be Pharisean arguments even though the authors were trying to claim he was anti-Pharisee, and why, even though two of the people writing about him clearly really wanted to portray him as coming from Bethlehem, they somehow seemed unable to break free from the idea that he was actually known as coming from Nazareth.

That’s quite a lot of stuff to find explanations for. If you can find explanations for all those things that are better, simpler, and more obvious than ‘the movement actually was started by a real Yeshua and the above stuff about him/his brothers all actually happened’, then be my guest. But they’re going to have to be a lot better then ‘well, maybe they just made it all up’. People make a lot of things up, but it doesn’t make sense that they’d make those particular things up. Occam’s razor -> most likely a real Jesus existed.

Have you considered that it was embroidered from stories that had nothing to do with anyone named Jesus? Maybe a bit of Horus and other myths were all thrown together.

I’m sure other myths did get incorporated into the central story as time went by; but how would it have started out that way? Jesus’s original followers are described as a bunch of poor, rural, Jewish illiterates. That means, in practice, that they wouldn’t have known Egyptian myths, or other non-Jewish myths. It’s not as though they could hear these things on television or pop into the local library for a browse on their way home. (Conversely, if the followers weren’t actually poor illiterates, that raises the question of why the authors consistently present them that way when that, again, only made this new group less attractive to most potential followers.)


Lack of extrabiblical documentation

This is one of the big inconsistencies in the story. Was Jesus extremely famous or virtually unknown?

You do realise that those extremes aren’t the only two options? Someone could easily be well-known amongst Jews in Judea/Galilee and insignificant to the kinds of people who were writing things that would survive the next two thousand years.

But, why did the Romans care about some unknown nobody?

Being a nobody in the eyes of the more elite social classes isn’t the same as being unknown, or as not being a problem. Jesus had crowds of Jews calling him Messiah, which meant they thought of him as the king who’d kick out their oppressors (i.e. the Romans) and become their new ruler. That’s the kind of situation that existing rulers are not too happy about and like to get nipped in the bud before it develops into an actual rebellion.

[me] [T]he priestly families were more of a pro-Roman party and might well have collaborated in turning over a Messianic claimant if they thought that might avoid bringing down retribution on the heads of ordinary Jews.

[MisanthropicScott] Why would there be retribution?

If the Jesus-led movement got as far as actually attempting a rebellion against the Romans, then the Romans wouldn’t be too happy about it. At the very least, they’d end up killing off the people who were actively involved in the rebellion, and there was also the risk that they’d then respond by clamping down harder or otherwise making the Jews’ lives more difficult.

And, then it gets harder and harder to explain why no one wrote a thing about him.

Whom would you expect to be writing about a Jewish troublemaker who was arrested and executed for insurrection? Of those writings, which would you expect to have lasted two thousand years?

Jesus’s followers were from a strata of society where literacy levels were very low; even if you were one of the few who could write, not many people around you would be able to read what you wrote. Plus, ink and papyrus were expensive luxuries. If you wanted to get your message out to a lot of people in your part of society, open-air preaching was a much better way to do it than spending time and money on a hand-written manuscript that most other people wouldn’t be able to read. So, little or nothing was going to get written down by his followers. As for the people who weren’t following him… well, if you had to handwrite everything on expensive papyrus, would you spend time doing that just to write about some peasant who was creating a stir among a bunch of other superstitious peasants?

Of course, even with those problems there likely would have been a few things written about him at the time. If we could wave a magic wand and get back every single thing that was written in the early decades of the first century, then somewhere in there there probably would be some mentions of Jesus. But, of course, we actually only have a tiny fraction of everything that was written at the time, because this was two thousand years ago. Even those letters and records that get saved don’t last for that long; the papyrus they’re written on eventually crumbles. For example, we have no remaining copies of the one newspaper that was published in that time.

We do, of course, still have books that were written around that time, but that isn’t because we have the original copies – we don’t – but because scribes copied them over the years. So, if something was considered to be important literature, it was preserved and hand-copied. However, people were hardly going to do that for, say, newspaper reports about some troublemaker from Nazareth getting executed. Having no surviving contemporary writings about you two thousand years later is completely normal, and was the case for people far more important in their own time than Jesus of Nazareth actually was in his. (For comparison, here’s one historian blogger(3) pointing out that the only existing reference to Hannibal that dates back to his own time is one passing mention in an inscription. Not because people didn’t write about Hannibal at the time – they did – but because the writings just didn’t survive. If that was the case for a highly famous and influential general, how much more would it be the case for a rabbi from the backwaters who made a brief stir as a would-be Messiah but was then ignominiously executed?)

So… having a couple of passing mentions from historians several decades later, plus writing preserved by your followers, is actually excellent going for someone from that day and age. Having that amount of writing still preserved two thousand years later isn’t ‘harder and harder to explain’; it’s better than we’d expect.

So, you’re shoe-horning in sort of a Goldilocks theory that Jesus was just annoying enough to get the attention of the Romans but not annoying enough for anyone to write anything about him.

Theudas. First-century Jewish rebel, executed for his attempts. Total surviving contemporary mentions (i.e., dating from the time he lived): zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: one short paragraph in Josephus.

Athronges. Rebel from the end of the first century BCE, led a rebellion that took the Romans two years to defeat. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: several paragraphs from Josephus.

Unnamed Samaritan. Rebel from the first century, led a mob that required armed Roman warriors to defeat them. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: one paragraph in Josephus.

Simon of Peraea. Rebel from the end of the first century BCE, burned down the king’s palace and many of his other houses, had a mob of followers who had to be defeated by Roman soldiers. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: two paragraphs in Josephus, one line in Tacitus.

Unnamed Egyptian. Rebel from the first century, had a group of followers who were defeated rather rapidly by Roman soldiers. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: two different paragraphs in Josephus.

Jesus of Nazareth. Rebel from the first century, had a group of followers, kicked up some sort of fuss in the Temple, arrested and executed by Roman soldiers. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: one passing mention of his brother’s execution by Josephus, possibly one other short paragraph in Josephus, one line in Tacitus.

Notice a pattern? There’s usually very little surviving information about the people who, two thousand years ago, kicked up enough of a problem at the time to get executed. That’s not ‘Goldilocks’ and doesn’t have to be shoehorned. That’s the normal result of us being two thousand years on from a time that had very poor literacy levels and no printing presses. Lots of things didn’t get written down in the first place, and most of what was written down at the time didn’t survive for two thousand years. Having little in the way of independent information about Jesus isn’t strange; it’s exactly what we’d expect.

What we do have is a mention of a James’s execution from Josephus that identifies the executed person as ‘the brother of Jesus called Christ’, and a mention from Tacitus that Jesus was executed under Pilate (and, yes, the latter might just have been what Christians were saying at the time… but why on earth would they be making it such widespread public knowledge that the leader they followed was an executed, humiliated criminal, when that fact was so awkward and counter-productive for them?) While those are very brief and passing mentions, they’re still mentions that are very difficult to explain satisfactorily if Jesus was entirely an imaginary character, but easy to explain if he was a real preacher about whom some factual details were retained alongside the legends that grew up around him.

Added footnotes

(1) ‘Christianity grew very slowly in the first few hundred years, prior to Constantine getting involved and making it the state religion.’

Sorry; the last six words of this sentence are actually a myth, and one I really should have known better than to repeat. I stand by the rest of the sentence; the evidence is that Christianity did grow very slowly in the first centuries, and I’m sure that having the most powerful person in the Empire become a Christian must have been of at least some help to them. However, it is incorrect to say that Constantine made Christianity the state religion. My apologies.

(2) ‘…and this page is about one failed Messiah…’

Neil Godfrey has pointed out to me that we don’t know for sure that Bar Kokhba was considered by followers to be the Messiah. That’s fair; although it’s a good assumption that some people would have assumed this, we don’t have definite confirmation that this is so. However, I don’t believe that affects my main point in that section, which was that the belief that Messiahship included bringing war against Israel’s enemies was a widespread one that doesn’t make someone dishonest.

(3) ‘For comparison, here’s one historian blogger…’

The blogger in question, Tim O’Neill, states explicitly on his ‘About’ page that he is not a historian. He does, however, have training and experience in history; his undergraduate degree was in History and English combined, and his Master’s specialism was in historical analysis of medieval literature. I meant to indicate that he was someone with good knowledge and qualifications in the area of history and historical analysis, and used the word ‘historian’ too loosely. (If anyone does have an appropriately succinct way of putting forward that concept in case I cite O’Neill in future, I’d be grateful!)