Did Jesus exist?

Was there an actual historical figure that corresponds to the biblical Jesus? The debate on this question has been going on for some time in academic circles but has seen a resurgence with the recent publication of Bart Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.

It should be made clear at the outset that this debate has nothing to do with whether a divine Jesus existed, someone who did miracles and died and was resurrected. Both sides in the current debate dismiss that possibility. What is at issue is whether there is sufficient evidence to conclude whether there was a single person around whom the story of the biblical Jesus was constructed or whether Jesus was merely a fictional composite of the myths that were prevalent at that time. The group that holds the latter view is referred to as ‘mythicists’.

I have not read Ehrman’s book and do not plan to because it is somewhat tangential to my interests but he has an article that summarizes his case. He dismisses the arguments of the mythicists in quite strong terms, implying that they are dilettantes and not credentialed scholars, even lumping them with Holocaust deniers and birthers.

Why then is the mythicist movement growing, with advocates so confident of their views and vocal — even articulate — in their denunciation of the radical idea that Jesus actually existed? It is, in no small part, because these deniers of Jesus are at the same time denouncers of religion — a breed of human now very much in vogue. And what better way to malign the religious views of the vast majority of religious persons in the western world, which remains, despite everything, overwhelmingly Christian, than to claim that the historical founder of their religion was in fact the figment of his followers’ imagination?

Moreover, the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. The alleged parallels between Jesus and the “pagan” savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination: We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum in their propagandized versions).

One may well choose to resonate with the concerns of our modern and post-modern cultural despisers of established religion (or not). But surely the best way to promote any such agenda is not to deny what virtually every sane historian on the planet — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, agnostic, atheist, what have you — has come to conclude based on a range of compelling historical evidence.

Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.

The suggestion that his conclusions should be shared by any ‘sane’ historian, coupled with his strong rhetoric impugning non-scholarly motives to those who disagree with him, is unfortunate.

The vehemence with which he expresses his anti-mythicist views has aroused their ire. Richard Carrier is a mythicist and has written a response that critiques Ehrman’s position in equally strong terms. Carrier says that there is a lot of ‘bad’ mythicist literature out there that uses shoddy scholarship to buttress its case and in the process discredits the ‘good’ mythicist case that can and has been made. He says that he had looked forward to Ehrman’s book, hoping that it would provide a solid debunking of the bad mythicists but was disappointed that it consists largely of a poorly sourced attack on mythicists in general. Carrier says of the book:

I can officially say it is filled with factual errors, logical fallacies, and badly worded arguments. Moreover, it completely fails at its one explicit task: to effectively critique the arguments for Jesus being a mythical person. Lousy with errors and failing even at the one useful thing it could have done, this is not a book I can recommend.

Did Jesus Exist? ultimately misinforms more than it informs, and that actually makes it worse than bad. Like the worst of mythicist literature, you will come away after reading it with more false information in your head than true, and that makes my job as a historian harder, because now I have to fix everything he screwed up.

Those who are outside the world of academic scholarship might wonder why, if Jesus was not divine, the question of his possible existence is even important let alone rouses such passions. Who cares if some itinerant preacher lived around the time of Jesus who shared much of his life story? It helps to view this question the way we view the issue of whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays that bear his name. That too is unimportant in some sense since nothing tangible rests on the answer. We have the plays and poems associated with that writer and that would seem to be the main thing. But for scholars, issues of historical accuracy matter and matter deeply, enough to wage wars of words.

I have no position on this particular dispute and am nowhere near competent to venture an informed opinion. For me the lack of any evidence of a divine Jesus (which Carrier and Ehrman both agree on) is the key point. But that does not mean the historicity of Jesus is not an important question, at least in a negative sense. If there is no evidence for a historical Jesus, then the claims of Christianity are even weaker. But this will likely concern only academics and theologians. The average religious believer won’t care about this question. After all, if you think that Jesus rose from the dead and can manufacture reasons to believe that, then you are living in a different world from those who question whether he even existed.


  1. RW Ahrens says

    The average religious believer won’t care about this question.

    Probably not, but Carrier et.al., don’t care about the average religious believer, but are aiming at the folks on the fringes – the ones barely hanging on and looking for that final excuse to say good bye to the social club that claims to be a majority group, but isn’t.

    For many, to hear that real scholars, people who can read the original texts (or what pass for original) in the original languages, can find no evidence to support christian claims of the reality of the so-called founder of christianity, will be enough to kiss it off.

  2. slc1 says

    The analogy to Shakespeare is not too good. Unlike the dispute about whether Yeshua of Nazareth existed, there is no question that a man named Shakespeare did exist. The issue is whether that individual actually wrote the plays and the sonnets.

    The problem is that many of the alternative authors suggested by the anti-Stradfordians raise more questions then they answer. Christopher Marlowe died in 1593, long before most of the plays were written. Comparison of writings known to have been composed by Sir Francis Bacon and the plays seems to make it unlikely that he wrote them. The new favorite, the Earl of Oxford, William De Vere, left few compositions behind to compare with the plays so he can’t be utterly ruled out, which is why he is the new champion of the anti-Stradfordians. However, De Vere died in 1604, again before some of the plays were written.

    That’s the problem that the anti-Stratfordians have; their candidates are more unlikely then Shakespeare.

  3. slc1 says

    In addition, I might add that the anti-Stradfordians have to explain why Shakespeare is cited by writers whose careers overlapped his, namely Ben Jonson and John Milton.

  4. amenhotepstein says

    It’s similar to many of the intra-faculty disputes I’ve observed at the small, liberal arts college where I work: the animosity is so great because the stakes are so small.

  5. stonyground says

    The thing that makes me tend toward the Mythicist position is the fact that there are nothing but the vaguest references to Jesus in the Epistles. These are the earliest writings in the NT and have almost nothing to say about the life of Christ. Then several decades on, up pops Mark and writes a story of his ministry in Greek, no-one knows who wrote it or why. Matthew and Luke then copy Mark and add new material and John produces another biography that totally contradicts the other three.

    The thing that I find most convincing is the tortured reasoning that the Historicists have to use to explain away the Epistle writers’ total lack of interest in Jesus.

    Having said all that I still remain agnostic, I don’t think that the matter is provable either way.

  6. M.Nieuweboer says

    Sounds almost like “we should accept the Jesus-myth theory to help people to de-evangelize. That’s pretty lame, so I don’t immediately accept your point on Richard Carrier.

  7. says

    It should be made clear at the outset that this debate has nothing to do with whether a divine Jesus existed

    But is that even coherent? That is a question that must be asked. If you take away all the properties of this thing people call Jesus except for the banalities, do you still have Jesus?

    Consider if we didn’t know how magic tricks worked–if we thought that Penn and Teller actually had supernatural powers (as so many people did/do for Uri Geller). If they were then debunked, wouldn’t we consider them to be frauds and not what we thought they were? In the same way, should some man who did some of the banal things Jesus is said to have done, like getting his life taken by the state, really be seen as one and the same as Jesus?

  8. says

    “The average religious believer won’t care about this question.”

    I respectfully disagree. There are many reasons why the average religious believer will ‘care’ about this question.

    First off, their gut reaction will be to reject the question outright, deeming it off-limits for anyone to ask. They will care so much about the question as to try to quash it completely.

    Second, they will care because it will keep getting brought up, the more and more people talk about this topic (and I should point out that this topic has suddenly gotten much more popular, and will gain in popularity over the next couple of years, as Ehrman’s book, Carrier’s current book, and Carrier’s forthcoming book, all play out in the bibliosphere, along with dozens more by less cogent but no-less-popular authors, spilling over into more mainstream conversations). They will care because it will be a constant thorn in their side, constantly being raised, despite their efforts to ignore it. It will set up a great deal of cognitive dissonance.

    Thirdly, they will care (some of them, anyway), because they will slowly but surely come to realize that they have no answer to such a basic question as “How do you know Jesus even existed?”. They will be exposed to the realities of how Christianity developed historically, and the contradictions between what they were taught about it, and what we now know as facts. The surety they were told they had will be shown to be illusory. They will be shown that the foundation of their faith has a crack in it that cannot be sealed. And if there’s one crack, there may be others. Many will be able to paint over the cracks in their own minds, but many others will not be able to do so. Many of those will begin on a path of intellectual inquiry into their own beliefs. And we all know where that leads.

    Fourthly, they (those who remain faith-inflicted) will care because they will recognize the threat that this information has to their religious groups and organizations. There will be additional efforts put forth towards evangelism and keeping the flock in line. It will be a polarizing issue. Those who are extreme will remain behind, and those on the fringes and outskirts will slowly but surely drift away from the dogma.

    As these extreme dogmatists gain more prominence in their religious groups, religion will become less and less relevant to real life, and its inner guts will be revealed as the dogmatic core of the faith is exposed in more sharp relief against our modern world. More reasonable people will have more reasons to point at religion and go, “Yuck! Who needs that?!”

    This is a heliocentrism moment. So the Sun doesn’t go around the Earth. So the Earth actually goes around the Sun. Who cares?! It makes no difference in my daily life. There’s still apparent sunrise and sunset. The crops still grow. We don’t get flung off into space by the Earth’s rotation. “What difference does it make?”

    The difference is that it undermines a key element of their dogma (that there’s lots of evidence for Jesus) in an undeniable way (no, actually, there just isn’t). It creates a permanent gap between what we know about reality, and what their book says about reality. If we don’t even have good evidence for a man, and lots of good reasons to say it was made up as other myths are, and we can show this confidently, it will rob them of one more element of their egocentric/anthropocentric worldview. Just like Heliocentrism did, just like Natrual Selection does, just like Germ Theory does, just like Cognitive Neuroscience is doing, etc. This is a big one. So big, they won’t even see it coming until it’s too late. Just like usual.

  9. says

    “If you take away all the properties of this thing people call Jesus except for the banalities, do you still have Jesus?”

    Yes, if there was a person named Jesus who said some of the things we think of Jesus as having said, who was crucufied on Pilate’s orders and to whose biography supernatural elements were added. This is what Ehrman and carrier are arguing about. (It’s difficult for me to grasp why some people seem to find this so difficult to grasp.)

    “if we thought that Penn and Teller actually had supernatural powers (as so many people did/do for Uri Geller). If they were then debunked, wouldn’t we consider them to be frauds and not what we thought they were?”

    Yes. But we wouldn’t then say that Penn and Teller never existed.

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