Was there a historical Jesus?

Jesus and Nicodemus (H. O. Tanner)

People are seriously debating whether there ever was a historical Jesus. Some assert that Jesus himself never existed, that “Jesus is a legend, like King Arthur or Robin Hood or Paul Bunyan.” The best representative of this position is likely Dr. Robert M. Price (The Christ-Myth Theory and its Problems). Bart Ehrman wrote a book on the other side (Did Jesus Exist?). Bloggers have now weighed in both pro and con, for example Dr. R. Joseph Hoffman and the site Vridar.org. On top of that, many people among the “New Atheists” are getting involved, with even Richard Dawkins cautiously weighing in on the subject: “The evidence [Jesus] existed is surprisingly shaky.”

My initial reaction to this debate was that it was absurd. Of course there was a historical Jesus. To anyone who thinks otherwise, we need to ask: do you believe in the historical John the Baptist?  What about the historical James (the brother of Jesus), or the historical Paul?  Were they made up, too? How far does “mythicism” extend? I’ll bet that Richard Dawkins would admit that John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, and Paul all were real historically. And in any event, isn’t the historical existence of “Jesus” a straightforward empirical question, which can be resolved by reasonable, intelligent people?

Well, evidently not.  What is remarkable about this debate is how surprisingly nasty it is. These people are serious!  Dr. Hoffman (who thinks Jesus did exist) says, “I increasingly regard the ‘mythers’ or ‘mythtics’ or (more traditionally) ‘mythicists’ as belligerent yahoos who behave like sophomores at an all-city debating contest.” If you look at blogs on the other side, you can see that the feeling is evidently mutual.

And here is the underlying problem.  Both sides are coming from the perspective that it’s “obvious” that Jesus is (or is not) a historical person.  So they are struggling to find evidence to support their point of view.  When we are dealing with competing paradigms, there is always plenty of evidence, so they find plenty of it.  The competing camps both flourish, as they find plenty of both evidence and willing followers.  It’s true that very few professional scholars in Biblical scholarship buy the “Jesus myth” theory, but appeals to authority don’t carry much weight these days. How is all of this possible?

Because no one can come up with a good theory of who the historical Jesus was that will stick. People are still debating whether Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher or a wisdom teacher, whether he was a Pharisee or a Zealot, whether he was for or against temple worship, and so forth.  It’s not just the fundamentalists who are preventing consensus; liberal scholars can’t agree among themselves either.  The whole debate has hardly changed in the past century.

So the underlying world-view of the mythicists might very well seem “obvious” if you just ask the question, “if there was a historical Jesus, then who was he, and what did he stand for, and how come we know virtually nothing about him, that scholars can agree on?” Maybe no one can agree on any of this because Jesus never existed.

It is the unstated “obviousness” of the Jesus myth which is the problem.  If you are an atheist investigating the historical Jesus, you are used to dealing constantly with superstitious and hateful nonsense from fundamentalists anyway. Next, you notice a mass of mutually contradictory accounts of the “historical Jesus” from the so-called “scholars.” Finally, you see the countless clearly mythical aspects  of Christianity (the virgin birth, the miracles, and so forth). With this perspective, it is very easy to get from lots of individual mythical aspects to the conclusion “the whole thing, even Jesus’ existence, is a crock.”

Rather than look for a knock-down, killer argument for the historical Jesus, the historical Jesus people would do better to ask “how is it, that historical Jesus scholarship is so difficult, and there are so many different plausible contending theories?”

The origins of the diversity of views about Jesus arises with Christianity itself. It began with the split between Paul and the Jerusalem church, before any of the gospels were set to paper.  It continued with the shattering of the primitive church after the destruction of the temple in the disastrous first Jewish revolt against Rome.  The outcome of the revolt essentially destroyed the authority of the Jerusalem church — the church under James, the brother of Jesus, who took over as leader of the community after Jesus left the earth.  It did not wipe out the primitive Jewish Christian church (which continued to exist for several centuries afterwards), but afterwards, they were unable to exert decisive authority over the future of Christianity.  Gentile Christianity, by contrast, was scarcely affected by the revolt. This is a shattering of the church into countless different pieces, not just a “split” of the church into two, three, or four different factions.

A century after the revolt — after a second and third Jewish revolts, after the letters of Paul, after Marcion — what do we find?  We find a church in a life-and-death struggle with gentile gnosticism.  The church cannot even agree on how many Gods there are, and the church fathers count literally dozens of competing sects.  The primary purpose of early Christian literature is not propagating the faith among the pagans; it is to refute the heretics.  Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Epiphanius, and others wrote volumes on the heretics.  Occasionally you see someone, like Arnobius, actually taking on the pagans, but for the most part the Christians are taking on each other.

It is the LACK of authority in the early church which is the problem, rather than a tyrannical church suppressing deviant doctrines.  The diversity of views on Jesus is not something that came along in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It is tied to the shattering of the church in the wake of the dispute between Paul and the Jerusalem church, and the destruction of the authority of the church about 15 years later, in the Jewish revolt against Rome.

So if you are looking for the historical Jesus, or evidence that there even was a historical Jesus, don’t start with the Sermon on the Mount, the birth stories, the “Q” gospel, or anything in the gospels at all.  Start with the dispute at Antioch, when Paul angrily denounces Peter to his face.  It is there that Christian diversity began.

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7 Responses to Was there a historical Jesus?

  1. Drew Hensley says:

    I can honestly say one has to have a strong desire to debunk Christianity to make themselves believe that Jesus and other biblical people did not exist. To do so, you would have to have a strong theory for the emergence of Christianity abruptly in the first century without its founders. You would have to posit some sort of other founders and explain why their real identities were hidden. You would have to explain why they fabricated a story about peon construction worker from Nazareth as opposed to someone more exalted. Even John The Baptist was more famous than Jesus and would have made a better someone to deify. You would almost have to late date every book in the NT and discredit Paul’s early witness. By the second century there was a truck load of literature about Jesus which would be very odd if people weren’t sold on his existence. As for Dawkins, he has no credibility AT ALL in my eyes. He enters into debates not even understanding the opposition’s positions. And he clearly hates Christianity which does not speak well for his level of objectivity. I’m trying to figure out whether he really resurrected. I think there is no serious doubt about his existence. Curiously these scholars (and there aren’t many of them) don’t deny the existence of Muhammed or Buddha – so I think their bias and motive is fairly transparent.

  2. markgil says:

    Although I do not identify as Christian but as a spiritual agnostic, to me, this is a moot point. The important thing is the message of non-violence and peace. This theme, however, is the one most overlooked and indeed ridiculed by Christians and followers of other religions who choose to consume the flesh and other products of enslaved, brutalized farmed animals. I believe Will Tuttle said it best: “To meditate for world peace, to pray for a better world, and to work for social justice and environmental protection while continuing to purchase the flesh, milk, and eggs of horribly abused animals exposes a disconnect that is so fundamental that it renders our efforts absurd, hypocritical, and doomed to certain failure.”

  3. Dorienne Robinson says:

    I think the whole thing is very simple and doesn’t have to hang on whether someone actually lived or did not, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a bit like arguing about what has caused climate change instead of dealing with the issues of living with it. “It’s humans”, “No it’s natural rhythms”, “No it’s sun spots”.
    The fundamental ‘Jesus’ message coming through is what is important. Live as a pacifist, (this takes great strength), be vegetarian, live as simply as possible and believe that love for all things is the feeling to have in your heart.

    • davidbrainerd2 says:

      Where did Jesus say “be a vegetarian”? He ate fish. Maybe you don’t count fish as meat? He apparently ate lamb, since he ate the passover and that’s what they’re supposed to eat then. He tells parables where fathers kills fattened calfs. I don’t see anything to suggest he was a vegetarian, or taught such a thing. He also asks parents: Which of you if your child asks for an EGG will give him a scorpion? So he’s ok with eating eggs.

      • Keith Akers says:

        This comment is off topic, but I’ll respond anyway. The evidence that Jesus was vegetarian is overwhelming; look at the rest of the web site, or read “Disciples.” The Jewish Christians were vegetarian and quoted Jesus as indignantly refusing the passover lamb.

  4. Steve Bastasch says:

    Just some general thoughts. If mythicists can prove that Paul’s “seven authentic letters” are not, well, authentic, then we will have lost a major “window into the times”, as even the anti-Paul scholar Robert Eisenman has written. But I do not believe that Paul has been mythicised, and from reading his authentic letters, it becomes a virtual certainty that Jesus existed because:

    Paul thinks of Jesus as a recently crucified human being. Had he been preaching the mythicist Christ, Paul would not have complained that his message of a crucified Messiah was met with pagan scoffing and Jewish scandal. After all, at that time, new religions about dying-rising gods were all the rage, and a new one coming out of Palestine would probably have been more accepted than mocked. And Jews could not have cared less had Paul been talking about a distant spirit-Christ rather than a real crucified Jesus. It is clear that Paul was preaching about a real crucifixion victim, not a phantasmic cosmic Christ who was crucified “mythically”, or about some heavenly Messiah’s irrelevant escapades.

    Paul says that Judea was undergoing a scourge for executing Jesus – a claim he would not make about a docetic Christ’s misadventures in a Gnostic Pleroma. In Paul’s mind, Judea’s real-world sufferings were consequent to Judea’s real-world rejection of a real-world Jesus.

    Paul specifies that Jesus was “crucified in Zion”, i.e., Jerusalem – not in some celestial realm.

    Paul thinks of Jesus as “born of a woman, under the Law”. This of course could not apply to a cosmic spirit being who by nature cannot be born and be forced to live under the human rule of national religious law.

    Paul mentions Jesus’ “meekness” and “simplicity” – hardly traits of a Gnostic archetype (or, for that matter, a warrior-king Messiah).

    Paul thinks that Jesus had a final meal with his disciples (although Paul says he got the scenario and Jesus’ words from a special revelation “from the Lord”). Again, the mythicist Christ would not be likely to have a last meal in Jerusalem with his disciples (or to hide from the soldiery and sweat blood in Gethsemane as the Gospels depict).

    Paul claims to know Jesus’ close disciple Kephas-Peter, as well as Jesus’ brother James, thus rooting Jesus in both family and history. That Paul’s words about these luminaries are usually descriptive of his profound conflict with them, so much the more indicates their historicity, and the historicity of Jesus.

    Paul agrees with Synoptic Gospels’ reports that Jesus’ mission was “only to Israel”, thus pointing to Jesus as a real preacher.

    Paul knows and cites two of the historical Jesus’ teachings, one on divorce, and one on the worthiness of discipleship. Paul even boldly adds his own modifications to Jesus’ divorce teaching. Paul’s citation of two of Jesus’ teachings shows that he viewed Jesus as a real, relatively recent preacher who had specific views on divorce and discipleship.

    Other examples could be invoked, but from these alone it is obvious that Paul’s views about Jesus – although enhanced (and many would say distorted) by his experience of the inner mystical Christ – presume that Jesus had been a teacher in Israel, the Messiah, whose life ended on a Roman cross, and whom God raised from death. The mythicists simply have gotten it all wrong.

  5. Jack says:

    Drew asks how the Christianity movement could appear so suddenly if it was a fabrication. There might be an easy answer to that:

    the prophet Daniel predicted that in “70 weeks of years” (490 years) the Messiah would be “cut off”. One hardly needs to be a genius to do the math that puts 490 years from the restoration of Jerusalem right at 30 AD. History does tell us that numerous “Jesuses” were competing to be the crucified Messiah around this time. Nearly everyone would have known about this prophecy and awaiting the appearance of anyone who could even remotely “fill the bill”.

    I believe, even as a Christian, that the odds of either side being right are 50%–there is not enough concrete evidence to say without a doubt that Jesus was a real person who was the Son of God and that He was crucified, resurrected and ascended anymore than there is enough concrete evidence to say that He wasn’t. In the end, like almost all controversies of this magnitude it will boil down to faith in one or the other. If we haven’t got the proof one way or the other by now we never will.

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