Jesus The Incredible

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The Country of Elvis and Jesus

I occasionally fly to the US, where I hear all those crazy Bible thumpers hang out. I've mentally prepared myself for being accosted by some self-righteous motherly twit with words like,

"Excuse me Sir, may I ask, have you found Jesus?"

The answer I'd been meaning to give was,

"No Ma'am, and I don't think anybody else has either. He's been dead for 2000 years now, and I'd imagine there's not even dust from his bones left to find."

Maybe it's just as well I never got a chance to try this little speech out. Because aside from the dirty looks I'd be likely to get, I've recently learned that I may have overstated the case for Christ.

Historical Jesus

The Christian churches have been working hard for many centuries to create and maintain a solid history of Jesus Christ. Even staunch atheists like Richard Dawkins consider Jesus a real ex-person. Apart from the much-thumped Bible, there are megatons of scholarly research behind this assertion.

Jesus' tireless PR crew have gone so far as to call into life the battle cry "there is more evidence for Jesus Christ than for Julius Caesar!" According to my link, this was asserted by someone's history teacher, so it has to be true, right?

Something to consider is that the majority of Bible scholars happen to be Christians. And if there's one thing characteristic of Christians, it's their unwillingness to entertain the idea that Jesus is a fictitious character.

The inconvenient truth remains that there's an embarrassing dearth of evidence for Jesus' existence. More on this in a bit. A number of historians, mostly atheists, have looked at what material exists, and concluded that a real living, breathing person, even 2000 years ago in the Middle East, would have left more of a trail than Jesus did.

If in doubt, ask Wikipedia!

A brief Wikipedia search reveals that this is not a cut-and-dried topic. There's enough to talk about that Wikipedia devotes no less than 8 separate articles to Jesus:

Main article: Jesus

  • Historicity of Jesus discusses disputes about the existence of Jesus and the reliability of ancient texts relating to him.
  • Historical Jesus discusses attempts to reconstruct Jesus' life using historical methods, such as critical analysis of gospel texts.
  • Chronology of Jesus discusses the attempt to establish a historical chronology for the events of Jesus' life as described in the four canonical gospels
  • Cultural and historical background of Jesus discusses some of the cultural influences and historical events that are a backdrop to the narrative of Jesus' life as described in the four canonical gospels.
  • The Quest for the historical Jesus describes the attempt, which began in the eighteenth century, to use historical-critical methods to construct a biography of Jesus.
  • Historicity of the Gospels discusses the historicity of the canonical gospels.
  • Jesus myth theory discusses the theory that Jesus was not a historical person, but is a fictional or mythological character created by the early Christian community.

Here, for your reading pleasure, are the highlights of Wikipedia's discussion of this topic:

The historicity of Jesus covers a spectrum of ideas that range from the "the gospels are inerrant descriptions of the life of Jesus" to "the gospels provide no historical information about Jesus' life including his very existence".

According to traditional Christian Church teaching the Gospels of John and Matthew were written by eyewitnesses, but a majority of modern critical biblical scholars no longer believe this is the case.

The evidence for the existence of Jesus all comes from after his lifetime. As a result, some critics argue that Biblical scholars have created the historical Jesus in their own image. A small number of scholars believe the gospel accounts are so mythical in nature that nothing, including the very existence of Jesus, can be determined from them.

The existence of Jesus as a historical figure has been questioned by some biblical scholars; among the earliest were Constantin-François Volney and Charles François Dupuis in the 18th century and Bruno Bauer in the 19th century. Each of these proposed that the Jesus character was a fusion of earlier mythologies

In the first half of the 20th century, the views of scholars who entirely rejected Jesus' historicity were based on a suggested lack of eyewitnesses, a lack of direct archaeological evidence, the failure of ancient works, like those of Philo for example, to mention Jesus, and similarities early Christianity shares with then-contemporary religion and mythology.

More recently, arguments for non-historicity have been discussed by Guy Fau, Prosper Alfaric, W. B. Smith, John Allegro, George Albert Wells, Earl Doherty (The Jesus Puzzle, 1999), Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy (The Jesus Mysteries) and Robert M. Price

The scholarly mainstream not only rejects the myth thesis, but identifies serious methodological deficiencies in the approach. As such, New Testament scholar James Dunn describes the mythical Jesus theory as a "thoroughly dead thesis". According to Stein, however, the issue is still far from settled.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell doubted the existence of Jesus and Peter Gandy argues that Jesus was derived from pagan gods like Dionysus.

I won't bore you with more cut-and-paste of stuff you can access for yourself in Wikipedia, but recommend reading the above mentioned article on Jesus myth theory, which summarizes the whole discussion, from classic to almost-up-to-date.

A History with no claim to authenticity

After all that academic studiousness, I'd like to take a break to recommend a darkly mischievous satire of the Jesus story, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by atheist fiction writer Philip Pullman. The "traditional" Jesus story takes a righteous bashing here that will bring joy to the hearts of many an anti-theist, no matter what they think of the historicity of Jesus.

Beyond Wikipedia: Jesus gets Nailed

Personally, I heard about the Jesus myth theory not from Wikipedia but from this excellent talk by David Fitzgerald at Skepticon III, where he plugs his book, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All.

Fitzgerald is an author, not a Bible scholar. But he's spent ten years researching for this book, i.e. collecting and summarizing the information that the scholars have dug up. Fitzgerald's contribution to the story is the creation of a very accessible little book that's mostly a tight compilation of the facts arising from the research of the front line scholars. Something else I like about Nailed is that Fitzgerald references scholars that haven't found their way into Wikipedia yet: An important source of Fitzgerald's stuff is Richard Carrier, another is Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God, which dissects the Bible as a whole. A summary of A History of God can be heard in this video by Evid3nc3 from his series Why I Am No Longer A Christian.

Not go give too much away, but here is a catalog of myths that Christian apologists like to establish concerning Jesus and which Fitzgerald systematically dispels in Nailed:

  1. The idea that Jesus was a myth is ridiculous!
  2. Jesus was wildly famous - but there was no reason for contemporary historians to notice him.
  3. Ancient historian Josephus wrote about Jesus.
  4. Eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels.
  5. The Gospels give a consistent picture of Jesus.
  6. History confirms the Gospels.
  7. Archaeology confirms the Gospels.
  8. Paul and the Epistles corroborate the Gospels.
  9. Christianity began with Jesus and his apostles.
  10. Christianity was a totally new and different miraculous overnight success that changed the world!

Fitzgerald diffidently plods through each of these assertions and demolishes them with factual evidence from scholarly history, providing lucid explanations. Part of the book reads a bit like a detective story, as we come to realize that the earliest Christians demagogues were lying and deceitful bastards to at least the same extent as modern televangelists, and that the still very weak case for a historical Christ is actually the result of centuries of ham-handed historical fraud. Fitzgerald introduces and maligns the villains (marvel at the chutzpah of one Eusebius!) and makes Jesus disappear into thin air.

So if Fitzgerald is right, why is Pat Robertson still making millions?


My unprofessional opinion: Jesus was handcrafted from baloney.

I'm definitely no scholar. I've presented you with a summary from secondary, maybe tertiary sources. If I knew what I'm doing, I'd be writing a book of my own rather than citing Wikipedia. The purpose of this piece is mainly to make people, especially fellow atheists, aware of the fact that there is indeed a scholarly controversy about the topic, and that some reputable eggheads believe that Jesus is a lie. That the "mythicists" are in the minority isn't very surprising, given the preponderance of Christians among Bible historians.

So... personally, I found Fitzgerald's arguments very convincing, and a mythical Jesus "clicks" well with my perception of things. Lots of head-scratching questions find a satisfactory resolution when you consider that the whole damn story is a lie. As far as I'm concerned, Jesus is every bit as real as Harry Potter.

But please see my update, below!

The Horse's mouth

If the foregoing has sparked your interest: Richard Carrier (Fitzgerald's main source) has done a series of talks that explain his reasoning with great eloquence and lots of detail. You may enjoy his video series; here's Part 1!

A nighttime story

For anyone who managed to stay awake through my rambling, here's a little story I wrote about Jesus some years ago: The Devil went home crying and Jesus never even showed up. If you enjoy blasphemy, you may enjoy the story. If you wonder why the story makes so little sense, please consider that the title was a given, and I undertook to write a story to match the title.


The mark of a decent skeptic is his willingness to discard his pet beliefs in the face of better contrary evidence. I must admit at this point that I've changed from the "Jesus never existed" camp to the camp of

"Jesus may or may not have existed, but we don't have sufficient evidence or decent arguments to decide."

Why this change of course? Well, enough people whose opinions I respect have presented me with enough arguments for the questionable quality of Fitzgerald's work that I'm no longer willing to let it push me off the fence of agnosticism on the Jesus question.

Here are a few scraps of information to supplement what I assembled above:

  • Bart Ehrman believes in the historicity of Jesus. OK, Ehrman isn't God (hehe) but he's a very well regarded scholar, he's an atheist or at least an agnostic so he doesn't have the usual "Christian Bible Scholar Blind Spot" and he came up with the (admittedly not very strong) argument Hitchens likes to quote:

    "The jumbled 'Old' Testament prophecies indicate that the messiah will be born in ... Bethlehem. However, Jesus's parents were apparently from Nazareth and if they had a child he was most probably delivered in that town. Thus a huge amount of fabrication - concerning Augustus, Herod, and Quirinius - is involved in confecting the census tale and moving the nativity scene to Bethlehem.

    But why do this at all, since a much easier fabrication would have had him born in Bethlehem in the first place ... The very attempts to bend and stretch the story may be inverse proof that someone of later significance was indeed born, so that in retrospect, and to fulfill the prophecies, the evidence had to be massaged to some extent."

  • Another argument I enjoy is the Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Christian Origins which explains how a dead Jesus became a resurrected Jesus in the minds of his followers, and this is how they ended up rescuing the movement. The theory makes a lot of sense to me, but it requires a formerly existing Jesus.

  • I mentioned that there are people whose opinions I respect. Tim O'Neill is not one of them. No matter his qualifications as an educated though not professional historian, he foams at the mouth far too hard, and he's too obviously agenda-driven (claiming to be an atheist while usually taking a strong pro-apologist stance) for me to consider credible. He's easily a bigger asshole than I am, and that's saying something. However, he has produced, for whatever reasons, perhaps the most detailed refutation of Fitzgerald's book. That epic blog post reads like O'Neill would have preferred to jet over and strangle Fitzgerald personally but then settled for pounding his rage into the keyboard. Still, I present his criticism of Nailed as an overstatement of some of the arguments against it.

  • Personally, I had a moment of doubt when Fitzgerald pointed out the similarities between Jesus and some earlier pagan gods like Mithra, Osiris and others. "This is amazing!" found myself thinking, but later saw that only the horrible Zeitgeist video espouses those ideas. Many of those similarities are overstated or simply made up, and those that remain are pretty much irrelevant to the argument.

So... Fitzgerald is interesting but can't be considered entirely authoritative. Where does that leave us?

Of the handful of stalwart champions of the "Jesus Myth Theory," the most reputable is former preacher Robert M. Price. Someone else who gets some grudging respect even from O'Neill is Earl Doherty.

In a recent discussion I came across this defense of Jesus Myth-ism, which you may be interested in mining for some of its references. Something I found interesting is that it summons Justin Martyr, an early Christian Church elder, as a witness for the similarities (see my flame against Zeitgeist, above) between Jesus and earlier gods:

The pre-Christian cult of Mithra had a deity of light and truth, son of the Most High, fought against evil, presented the idea of the Logos. Pagan Mithraism mysteries had the burial in a rock tomb, resurrection, sacrament of bread & water (Eucharist), the marking on the forehead with a mystic mark, the symbol of the Rock, the Seven Spirits and seven stars, all before the advent of Christianity.

Even Justin Martyr recognized the analogies between Christianity and Paganism. To the Pagans, he wrote: "When we say that the Word, who is first born of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven; we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter (Zeus)." [First Apology, ch. xxi]

In summary: all this is very confusing. I think the only safe conclusion is: we don't know.

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changed October 6, 2011