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An Atheist Historian Examines the Evidence for Jesus (Part 1 of 2)


Scholars who specialize in the origins of Christianity agree on very little, but they do generally agree that it is most likely that a historical preacher, on whom the Christian figure "Jesus Christ" is based, did exist.  The numbers of professional scholars, out of the many thousands in this and related fields, who don't accept this consensus, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Many may be more cautious about using the term "historical fact" about this idea, since as with many things in ancient history it is not quite as certain as that.  But it is generally regarded as the best and most parsimonious explanation of the evidence and therefore the most likely conclusion that can be drawn.

The opposite idea—that there was no historical Jesus at all and that "Jesus Christ" developed out of some purely mythic ideas about a non-historical, non-existent figure—has had a checkered history over the last 200 years, but has usually been a marginal idea at best.  Its heyday was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when it seemed to fit with some early anthropological ideas about religions evolving along parallel patterns and being based on shared archetypes, as characterized by Sir James Frazer's influential comparative religion study The Golden Bough (1890). But it fell out of favor as the twentieth century progressed and was barely held by any scholars at all by the 1960s.

More recently the "Jesus Myth" hypothesis has experienced something of a revival, largely via the internet, blogging, and "print on demand" self-publishing services.  But its proponents are almost never scholars, many of them have a very poor grasp of the evidence, and almost all have clear ideological objectives.  Broadly speaking, they fall into two main categories: (1) New Agers claiming Christianity is actually paganism rebadged and (2) anti-Christian atheist activists seeking to use their "exposure" of historical Jesus scholarship to undermine Christianity.  Both claim that the consensus on the existence of a historical Jesus is purely due to some kind of iron-grip that Christianity still has on the subject, which has suppressed and/or ignored the idea that there was no historical Jesus at all.

In fact, there are some very good reasons there is a broad scholarly consensus on the matter and that it is held by scholars across a wide range of beliefs and backgrounds, including those who are atheists and agnostics (e.g. Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey, Paula Fredriksen) and Jews (e.g. Geza Vermes, Hyam Maccoby).

Unconvincing Arguments for a Mythic Origin for Jesus

Many of the arguments for a Mythic Jesus that some laypeople think sound highly convincing are exactly the same ones that scholars consider laughably weak, even though they sound plausible to those without a sound background in the study of the First Century.  For example:

1. "There are no contemporary accounts or mentions of Jesus.  There should be, so clearly no Jesus existed."

This seems a good argument to many, since modern people tend to leave behind them a lot of evidence they existed (birth certificates, financial documents, school records, etc.) and prominent modern people have their lives documented by the media almost daily.  So it sounds suspicious to people that there are no contemporary records at all detailing or even mentioning Jesus.

But our sources for anyone in the ancient world are scarce and rarely are they contemporaneous—they are usually written decades or even centuries after the fact.  Worse still, the more obscure and humble in origin the person is, the less likely that there will be any documentation about them or even a fleeting reference to them at all.

For example, few people in the ancient world were as prominent, influential, significant and famous as the Carthaginian general Hannibal.  He came close to crushing the Roman Republic, was one of the greatest generals of all time and was famed throughout the ancient world for centuries after his death down to today.  Yet how many contemporary mentions of Hannibal do we have?  Zero.  We have none.  So if someone as famous and significant as Hannibal has no surviving contemporary references to him in our sources, does it really make sense to base an argument about the existence or non-existence of a Galilean peasant preacher on the lack of contemporary references to him?  Clearly it does not.

So while this seems like a good argument, a better knowledge of the ancient world and the nature of our evidence and sources shows that it's actually extremely weak.

2.  "The ancient writer X should have mentioned this Jesus, yet he doesn't do so.  This silence shows that no Jesus existed."

An "argument from silence" is a tricky thing to use effectively.  To do so, it's not enough to show that a writer, account or source is silent on a given point—you also have to show that it shouldn't be before this silence can be given any significance.  So if someone claims their grandfather met Winston Churchill, yet a thorough search of the grandfather's letters and diaries of the time show no mention of this meeting, an argument from silence could be presented to say that the meeting never happened.  This is because we could expect such a meeting to be mentioned in those documents.

Some "Jesus Mythicists" have tried to argue that certain ancient writers should have mentioned Jesus and did not, and so tried to make an argument from silence on this basis.  In 1909 the American "freethinker" John Remsberg came up with a list of 42 ancient writers that he claimed "should" have mentioned Jesus and concluded their silence showed that Jesus ever existed.  But the list has been widely criticised for being contrived and fanciful.  Why exactly, for example, Lucanus—a writer whose works consist of a single poem and a history of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey (in the century before Jesus' time) "should" have mentioned Jesus is hard to see.  And the same can be said for most of the other writers on Remsberg's list.

Some others, however, are more reasonable at first glance.  Philo Judaeus was a Jew in Alexandria who wrote philosophy and theology and who was a contemporary of Jesus, and who also mentions events in Judea and makes reference to other figures we know from the gospel accounts, such as Pontius Pilate.  So it makes far more sense that he should mention Jesus than some poets in far off Rome.  But it is hard to see why even Philo would be interested in mentioning someone like Jesus, given that he also makes no mentions of any of the other Jewish preachers, prophets, faith healers, and Messianic claimants of the time, of which there were many.  If Philo had mentioned Anthronges and Theudas, or Hillel and Honi or John the Baptist, but didn't mention Jesus, then a solid argument from silence could be made.  But given that Philo seems to have had no interest at all in any of the various people like Jesus, the fact that he doesn't mention Jesus either carries little or no weight.

In fact, there is only one writer of the time who had any interest in such figures, who also had little interest for Roman and Greek writers.  He was the Jewish historian Josephus, who is our sole source for virtually all of the Jewish preachers, prophets, faith healers, and Messianic claimants of this time.  If there is any writer who should mention Jesus, it's Josephus.  The problem for the "Jesus Mythicists" is ... he does.  Twice, in fact.  He does do so in Antiquities XVIII.3.4 and again in Antiquities XX.9.1.  Mythicists take comfort in the fact that the first of these references has been added to by later Christian scribes, so they dismiss it as a wholesale interpolation.  But the majority of modern scholars disagree, arguing there is solid evidence to believe that Josephus did make a mention of Jesus here and that it was added to by Christians to help bolster their arguments against Jewish opponents.  That debate aside, the Antiquities XX.9.1 mention of Jesus is universally considered genuine and that alone sinks the Mythicist case (see below for details.)

3.  "The earliest Christian traditions make no mention of a historical Jesus and clearly worshipped a purely heavenly, mythic-style being.  There are no references to an earthly Jesus in any of the earliest New Testament texts, the letters of Paul."

Since many people who read Mythicist arguments have never actually read the letters of Paul, this one sounds convincing as well.  Except it simply isn't true.  While Paul was writing letters about matters of doctrine and disputes and so wasn't giving a basic lesson in who Jesus was in any of this letters, he does make references to Jesus' earthly life in many places.  He says Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother, and born a Jew (Galatians 4:4).  He repeats that he had a "human nature" and that he was a human descendant of King David (Romans 1:3).  He refers to teachings Jesus made during his earthly ministry on divorce (1 Cor. 7:10), on preachers (1 Cor. 9:14) and on the coming apocalypse (1 Thess. 4:15).  He mentions how he was executed by earthly rulers (1 Cor. 2:8) and that he died and was buried (1 Cor 15:3-4).  And he says he had an earthly, physical brother called James who Paul himself had met (Galatians 1:19).

So Mythicist theorists then have to tie themselves in knots to explain how, in fact, a clear reference to Jesus being "born of a woman" actually means he wasn't born of a woman and how when Paul says Jesus was "according to the flesh, a descendant of King David" this doesn't mean he was a human and the human descendant of a human king.  These contrived arguments are so weak they tend to only convince the already convinced.  It's this kind of contrivance that consigns this thesis to the fringe.

The Problems with a "Mythic" Origin to the Jesus Story

The weaknesses of the Mythicist hypothesis multiply when its proponents turn to coming up with their own explanation as to how the Jesus stories did arise if there was no historical Jesus.  Of course, many of them don't really bother much with presenting an alternative explanation and leave their ideas about exactly how this happened conveniently vague.  But some realize that we have late first century stories that all claim there was an early first century person who lived within living memory and then make a series of claims about him.  If there was no such person, the Mythicist does need to explain how the stories about his existence arose and took the form they do. And they need to do so in a way that accounts for the evidence better than the parsimonious idea that this was believed because there was such a person.  This is where Mythicism really falls down.  The Mythicist theories fall into four main categories:

1. "Jesus was an amalgam of earlier pagan myths, brought together into a mythic figure of a god-man and savior of a kind found in many cults of the time."

This is the explanation offered by the New Age writer who calls herself "Acharya S" in a series of self-published books beginning with The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold(1999).  Working from late nineteenth and early twentieth century theosophist claims, which exaggerate parallels between the Jesus stories and pagan myths, she makes the typical New Age logical leap from "similarity" to "parallel" and finally to "connection" and "causation".  Leaving aside the fact that many of these "parallels" are highly strained, with any miraculous conception or birth story becoming a "virgin birth" or anything to do with a death or a tree becoming a "crucifixion" (even if virginity or a cross is not involved in either), it is very hard to make the final leap from "parallel" to "causation".

This is particularly hard because of the masses of evidence that the first followers of the Jesus sect were devout Jews—a group for whom the idea of adopting anything "pagan" would have been utterly horrific.  These were people who cut their hair short because long hair was associated with pagan, Hellenistic culture or who shunned gymnasia and theaters because of their association with pagan culture.  All the evidence actually shows that the earliest Jesus sect went through a tumultuous period in its first years trying to accommodate non-Jews into their devoutly Jewish group.  To claim that these people would merrily adopt myths of Horus and Attis and Dionysius and then amalgamate them into a story about a pagan/Jewish hybrid Messiah (who didn't exist) and then turn around and forget he didn't exist and claim he did and that he did so just a few decades earlier is clearly a nonsense hypothesis.

2.  "Jesus was a celestial being who existed in a realm just below the lunar sphere and was not considered an earthly being at all until later."

This is the theory presented by another self-published Mythicist author, Earl Doherty, first in The Jesus Puzzle (2005) and then in Jesus: Neither God nor Man (2009).  Doherty's theory has several main flaws.  Firstly, he claims that this mythic/celestial Jesus was based on a Middle Platonic view of the cosmos that held that there was a "fleshly sub-lunar realm" in the heavens where gods and celestial beings lived and acted out mythic events.  This is the realm, Doherty claims, in which it was believed that Mithras slew the cosmic bull, where Attis lived and died and where Jesus was crucified and rose again.  The problem here is Doherty does very little to back up this claim and, while non-specialist readers may not realise this from the way he presents this idea, it is not something accepted by historians of ancient thought but actually a hypothesis developed entirely by Doherty himself.  He makes it seem like this idea is common knowledge amongst specialists in Middle Platonic philosophy, while never quite spelling out that it's something he's made up. The atheist Biblical scholar Jeffrey Gibson has concluded:

"... the plausibility of D[oherty]'s hypothesis depends on not having good knowledge of ancient philosophy, specifically Middle Platonism. Indeed, it becomes less and less plausible the more one knows of ancient philosophy and, especially, Middle Platonism."

Secondly, Doherty's thesis requires the earliest Christian writings about Jesus, the letters of Paul, to be about this "celestial/mythic Jesus" and not a historical, earthly one.  Except, as has been pointed out above, Paul's letters do contain a great many references to an earthly Jesus that don't fit with Doherty's hypothesis at all.  Doherty has devoted a vast number of words in both his books explaining ways that these references can be read so that his thesis does not collapse, but these are contrived and in places quite fanciful.

Finally, Doherty's explanations as to how this "celestial/mythic Jesus" sect gave rise to a "historical/earthly Jesus" sect and then promptly disappeared without trace strain credulity.  Despite being the original form of Christianity and despite surviving, according to Doherty, well into the second century, this celestial Jesus sect vanished without leaving any evidence of its existence behind and was undreamt of until Doherty came along and deduced that it had once existed.  This is very difficult to believe.  Early Christianity was a diverse, divided, and quarrelsome faith, with a wide variety of sub-sects, offshoots, and "heresies", all arguing with each other and battling for supremacy.  What eventually emerged from this riot of Christianities was a form of "orthodoxy" that had all the elements of Christianity today: the Trinity, Jesus as the divine incarnate, a physical resurrection etc.  But we know of many of the other rivals to this orthodoxy largely thanks to orthodox writings attacking them and refuting their claims and doctrines.  Doherty expects us to believe that despite all this apologetic literature condemning and refuting a wide range of "heresies" there is not one that bothers to even mention this original Christianity that taught Jesus was never on earth at all.

Doherty's thesis is much more popular amongst atheists than the New Age imaginings of "Acharya S" but has had no impact on the academic sphere partly because self-published hobbyist efforts don't get much attention, but mainly because of the flaws noted above.  Doherty and his followers maintain, of course, that it's because of a kind of academic conspiracy, much as Young Earth Creationists do.

3.  "Jesus began as an allegorical, symbolic figure of the Messiah who got 'historicized' into an actual person despite the fact he never really existed"

This idea has been presented in most detail by another amateur theorist in yet another self-published book: R.G. Price's Jesus: A Very Jewish Myth (2007).  Unlike "Acharya S" and, to a lesser extent Doherty, Price at least takes account of the fact that the Jesus stories and the first members of the Jesus sect are completely and fundamentally Jewish, so fantasies about Egyptian myths or Greek Middle Platonic philosophy are not going to work as points of origin for them.  According to this version of Jesus Mythicism, Jesus was an idealisation of what the Messiah was to be like who got turned into a historical figure largely by mistake and misunderstanding.

Several of the same objections to Doherty's thesis can be made about this one—if this was the case, why are there no remnants of debates with or condemnations of those who believed the earlier version and maintained there was no historical Jesus at all?  And why don't any of Christianity's enemies use the fact that the original Jesus sect didn't believe in a historical Jesus as an argument against the new version of the sect?  Did everyone just forget?

More tellingly, if the Jesus stories arose out of ideas about and expectations of the Messiah, it is very odd that Jesus doesn't fit those expectations better.  Despite Christian claims to the contrary, the first Christians had to work very hard to convince fellow Jews that Jesus was the Messiah precisely because he didn't conform to these expectations. Most importantly, there was absolutely no tradition or Messianic expectation that told of the Messiah being executed and then rising from the dead—this first appears with Christianity and has no Jewish precedent at all.  Far from evolving from established Messianic prophecies and known elements in the scripture, the first Christians had to scramble to find anything at all which looked vaguely like a "prophecy" of this unexpected and highly un-Messianic event.

That the center and climax of the story of Jesus would be based on his shameful execution and death makes no sense if it evolved out of Jewish expectations about the Messiah, since they contained nothing about any such idea.  This climax to the story only makes sense if it actually happened, and then his followers had to find totally new and largely strained and contrived "scriptures" which they then claimed "predicted" this outcome, against all previous expectation.  Price's thesis fails because Jesus' story doesn't conform to Jewish myths enough.

4. "Jesus was not a Jewish preacher at all but was someone else or an amalgam of people combined into one figure in the Christian tradition"

This is the least popular of the Jesus Myth hypotheses, but versions of it are argued by Italian amateur theorist Francesco Carotta (Jesus was Caesar: On the Julian Origin of Christianity: An Investigative Report, 2005)), computer programmer Joseph Atwill (Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus, 2005) and accountant Daniel Unterbrink (Judas the Galilean: The Flesh and Blood Jesus, 2004).  Carotta claims Jesus was actually Julius Caesar and imposed on Jewish tradition as part of the cult of the Divius Julius.  Atwill claims Jesus was invented by the Emperor Titus and imposed on Judaism in the same way.  Neither do a very good job of substantiating these claims or of explaining why the Romans then turned around, as early as 64 AD (fifteen years before Titus became emperor) and began persecuting the cult they supposedly created.  No scholar takes these theories or that of Unterbrink seriously.

No scholar also argues that Jesus was an amalgam of various Jewish preachers or other figures of the time.  That is because there is nothing in the evidence to indicate this.  These ideas have never been argued in any detailed form by anyone at all, scholar or Jesus myth amateur theorist, but it is something some who don't want to subscribe to the idea that "Jesus Christ" was based on a real person resorts to so that they can put some skeptical distance between the Christian claims and anything or anyone historical.  It seems to be a purely rhetorically-based idea, with no substance and no argument behind it.
NOTE: Stay tuned for Part 2 on Friday, where we'll examine the actual evidence for the existence of historical Jesus.
Originally posted at Armarium Magnum. Used with permission.

Tim O'Neill

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Tim O'Neill is an atheist blogger who specializes in reviews of books on ancient and medieval history as well as atheism and historiography. He holds a Master of Arts in Medieval Literature from the University of Tasmania and is a subscribing member of the Australian Atheist Foundation and the Australian Skeptics. He is also the author of the History versus The Da Vinci Code website and is currently working on a book with the working title History for Atheists: How Not to Use History in Debates About Religion. He finds the fact that he irritates many theists and atheists in equal measure a sign that he's probably doing some good. Follow his blog at Armarium Magnum.

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