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.