Earlier this month many atheists on social media were credulously sending around an article pumping up the work of Joseph Atwill that claims that Roman aristocrats invented Jesus out of whole cloth and wrote the New Testament in order to pacify the then rebellious Jews. Read Tom Verenna and Richard Carrier give lots of explanations for why that hypothesis is wholly implausible. Richard Carrier, who has his PhD in History from Columbia University, himself believes that there was no historical Jesus, but with much different accounts of where the idea of Jesus and where the Gospels came from than Atwill’s. [UPDATE: You can also listen here to Robert Price explaining why even though he also thinks there was no historical Jesus, Atwill's hypothesis about how he was invented is utterly preposterous.] This spring he gave a worthwhile hour long lecture explaining his reasoning, answered questions from Seth Andrews at The Thinking Atheist in an interesting interview, and also explained why he classifies the gospels as mythic literature. I recommend you check out all or most of these links as there’s a wealth of helpful information and it is good to be informed about these discussions if one is going to interact with atheists, as this question about the historicity of Jesus is something a lot of active atheists take great interest in.
I personally want to take this chance to discourage my fellow atheists who are not historians from publicly making a big deal out of the historicity of Jesus, especially when engaging with Christians. Why? Because the historical consensus is that there was a historical Jesus. Responsible, mainstream, qualified history scholars who judiciously disregard supernaturalistic claims about Jesus and have no agenda to promote Christianity nonetheless, as a matter of academic consensus, believe there was a historical Jesus. Could they be wrong? It’s possible. But if they are, that is for qualified historians to prove, not laypeople. And it is for the field of ancient history to be persuaded to change its consensus before laypeople go around making claims that Jesus did not exist. I think it’s perfectly fine that Richard Carrier thinks he has a good case to make to the scholars of ancient history that there never was a historical Jesus. I enjoy listening to his arguments and am happy to pass his work on as a resource. But that is a debate for him to have with other historians and for secular historians to at least become widely divided over before atheists start advocating for one side or the other routinely and prominently. In the meantime, we should either be agnostic on the issue (as I am), defer to historical consensus, or, if we really find Carrier’s arguments compelling still be cautious and qualified in our declarations, acknowledging that we are agreeing with a minority view (and one that even Carrier seems far from certain about.)
Personally, ever since I became an atheist in college, I have remained supremely agnostic about all things historical Jesus. I have been steadfastly leery of anyone’s abilities to untangle the myths, facts, and their own ideological or cultural understandings when looking at Jesus. George Tyrell, once famously criticized the great pioneer in critical biblical scholarship and liberal theology Joseph von Harnack by writing, “The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of ‘Catholic darkness’, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.” That criticism has always struck me as applicable more widely and ever since I deconverted I have listened to everyone who talks about Jesus with an ear to learning about them and their own worldview and expecting to learn little that is precise about the facts of a historical man. When people approvingly say that “Jesus meant” I usually hear “I say”. Or when people like Nietzsche say approving things of Jesus without actually agreeing with him unqualifiedly, I just look at what kind of character type they are interested in finding and emphasizing within the myriad number of elements present in the text.
Jesus is just too controversial, self-contradictory, mediated through the words of others, distanced from us culturally and historically, and important to people theologically and philosophically to take anyone’s reading as totally unbiased and straightforward. The stakes involved in interpreting him are too high and there are too many divides between us and the ancient world for me to have much confidence that any one can pull out an authoritative account of what he did or thought. And now I am even amenable to the possibility that he didn’t exist at all.
So, with so much darkness and confusion and uncertainty surrounding the figure, I am happy to be agnostic about most things historical Jesus. All I know is that the notion of a godman who performed miracles and rose from the dead is preposterous. And I am happy to engage with the Gospel texts at face value and explore all the problems with believing in their supernatural claims or taking them as a moral guide that scream clearly from the surface.
But besides considerations of how atheists should be properly cautious, disciplined, patient, and deferent to scholarship before committing strongly to beliefs one way or the other about the historical Jesus, there are overwhelmingly clear strategic reasons not to get into fights about the issue with Christians. Quite simply, there are so many easier and clearer cut ways to debunk Christianity’s claims to truth that it is a terrible idea to get distracted trying to make a case that is at best just probable that Jesus didn’t exist. Even if you could convince a Christian that he likely didn’t exist, I can’t imagine very many Christians at all who would take that as a good reason not to believe in him. Christians will routinely seize on minuscule probabilities to believe even wilder propositions if it suits their faith. If there’s even a 20% chance there was a historical Jesus, if we have even Richard Carrier being careful to point out that he just thinks there was no Jesus but he can’t really know for sure, then to people already desperate to believe in Jesus that is tantamount to total vindication that Jesus is real. It’s just not the kind of thing I see as persuading them into disbelief. At all.
And, much worse than just being not convincing to Christians, it actively threatens to psychologically aid them in several ways. When we stake a lot on the question of whether Jesus ever existed during an argument, we set it up as a decisive issue. That means that if the result is inconclusive or (worse) if we are wholly unpersuasive to them that he didn’t exist, then the Christians leave feeling vindicated that on a central issue atheists are either guessing just as much as they are in other things or have outright lost a crucial point of contention for proving our side. We shouldn’t be giving the impression that disproving Jesus’s historical existence is at all integral to disproving Christianity. We should be making abundantly clear that Christianity is just as obviously false if Jesus did exist as if he didn’t and so the possibility or even great likelihood (if it’s demonstrated) that Jesus did exist does not hurt the core atheist arguments one bit. Arguing to them as though this is a central issue gives the opposite impression and makes our position seem way way more uncertain and vulnerable than it is.
It also pits us, for the time being, against the consensus of historians which makes us look willing to discard scholarship out of prejudice against Christians and, for the time being, leads us into guilt by association with a number of cranks. Many atheists wind up picking up sloppy claims from dubious mythicist sources and repeating them and making themselves easy targets for informed Christian scholars and apologists. If we ever as a broad community want to make a full frontal assault on the historical Jesus it has to be only after historical consensus has substantially shifted from where it is today. In the meantime, I think it best for the great majority of us to leave it to qualified ancient historians like Richard Carrier or Robert Price to make those kinds of arguments.
UPDATE (10/23/13): Richard Carrier has endorsed the foregoing in a post called: Fincke Is Right: Arguing Jesus Didn’t Exist Should Not Be A Strategy.
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