Did Jesus Exist? And Does It Even Matter?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, answers the questions: Did Jesus exist? And does it even matter?:

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • corps_suk

    Did Hercules exist? And does it matter?
    It only matters to those who believe the myths they accept are true.

    The Caesars messiah story is a nice way of explaining why there is no contemporary evidence for Jesus but why so many Jews believed the story.

    • Jason

      Sorry, but the “Caesar’s Messiah” account is almost a bigger myth than the story in the Gospels. There’s a reason why no credentialed historian of the Roman Empire or early Christianity (i.e., one with a PhD) is on board with this view. This is another example of non-Christians promoting a problematic counter-theory in order to subvert the Christian story, but only discredits our (non-Christians’) larger message.

      • corps_suk

        Then by all means let us know why its a myth as opposed to the jesus myth that lacks any evidence.

        Funny, i would think a non-christian is much more suited for an objective discussion into the evidence and evolution of the “son of god” myth than a christian who already “knows” the answer and is looking for evidence to support it.

        • Jason

          I never said the Christian myth of Jesus was legitimate or valid, nor do I deny that objective examinations of the evidence are vastly superior than those based on the presupposition of faith.

          You cited, however, a specific non-Christian account for the Jesus story that amounts to a conspiracy theory, one rejected by objective scholars of many stripes, and one whose acceptance and promotion by atheists/agnostics does nothing but damage our own claims to credibility.

          • Greg G.

            To me, it’s not whether credentialed authorities reject Atwill, it’s that he attributes to malice aforethought what can more easily be explained by the hopes of a superstitous, pre-scientific group of people who felt oppressed by their government.

            I think Atwill is wrong but I’m appalled by the attacks on him. The credentials attack is an ad hominem which is thrown at those who question the historical Jesus in lieu of actual arguments.

            • Artor

              If the attacks were ONLY on his credentials, then it would be an ad hominem. But his credentials are only one of the many, many things wrong with Atwell and his hypothesis. As such, his lack of credentials is just another data point illustrating his lack of credibility.

              • Greg G.

                The initial attacks on Atwill focused on his credentials and a blurb, not his arguments. Carrier was familiar with Atwill’s arguments but most of the other complaints didn’t show the authors knew where Atwill was coming from – Verenna, McGrath, Hurtado, for example.

        • Jim Baerg

          Richard Carrier goes into some detail on why *this* version of the Jesus is myth idea is bunk.
          http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4664

  • jjramsey

    I would say that the question of whether Jesus existed isn’t that important in and of itself. However, if one believes that Jesus didn’t exist because of bullshit, that can be a problem for the same reason that believing in anything because of bullshit can be a problem.

    • Pseudonym

      This is precisely it, though I’d add that people you should be doubly skeptical of a fringe theory which also happens to fit with your personal prejudices. Bullshit that you’re already primed to fall for is bullshit you’re that much more likely to fall for.

  • grumpy_otter

    I’m a history professor, and I’ll give you the mini-version of my Jesus lecture. First, all historians are atheists. I love when I say that in class because of the gasps, lol. What I mean by that is that historians are not in the business of determining divinity–we leave that to theologians. I explain to my students that if you accept one god as true, you have to accept them all as true–so as historians, we stay out of that.

    Historians study people–the effect of their actions and how things develop. Therefore, to a historian it doesn’t matter if Jesus really existed because people behave as if he did. And certainly his life (or legend) had an impact.

    So when we look at religious texts, we look at them only as a reflection of what that group of people believed–not proof of the real existence of a god.

    However, my students do one major paper each semester, and I have found it necessary to ban them from choosing their own religion as a topic–it’s too hard for them to disconnect their faith and be good atheist historians.

    • Buckley

      This historian can attest that all historians are atheists…well at least this one.

      • Greg G.

        Your picture looks a lot like one of those rock formations on Mt Rushmore.

        • islandbrewer

          Oooh, I know, I know! Um….. William Henry Harrison?

          • Timmah

            “I died in 30 days!”

        • Buckley

          Nerd Lincoln from the Lincoln Presidential Library

        • JuneAbend

          Wikipedia says somebody actually carved Mt. Rushmore…who knew? I thought it was natural, and that “goddidit.” Damn, my faith’s been shaken like James Bond’s martini.

          • Greg G.

            Now who would be crazy enough to do that?

    • GubbaBumpkin

      “There are no historians in foxholes.”
      ;>

      • Buckley

        You are absolutely correct…I have never been in a foxhole…I’m a wuss.

        • Mike

          Actually, you’re probably just smart.
          Foxholes are reserved for children and morons who are easily duped into being pawns in the agendas of a handful of rich, powerful psychopaths.

          • JuneAbend

            Help me out here, Mike. Were the tens of thousands, like my Dad, who advanced from foxhole to foxhole, under fire, to free the survivors in the concentration camps…were they children, or morons? Now, gather up your Pop Tarts and Bosco, and head on down to your room in your Mom’s basement and fire up that video game. Geez.

    • primenumbers

      Good post – and what it comes down to is that the relevance of a divine Jesus only matters to followers of that religion, and it’s one thing that history cannot show them to be true.

    • joseph66

      Ignoring all that sophism in your comment, there is historical evidence Jesus existed, and virtually all serious historians agree. That does not happen inall religions.

      Does that mean he was God? No, but that’s a point when considering Christianity.

      Also, most rationalists agree history is not science, not even a rational fountin of knowledge. See Karl Popper. Sorry, history is based on testimonies, aas religions!

      • grumpy_otter

        I love trying to explain my profession to people who have no idea how historians work.

        First, if you read my comment again, you will see that I made no comment about whether or not I agreed that there was a historical Jesus. My point was that it doesn’t really matter–since people believed he existed, that idea is important in history.

        Second, you can send the rationalists to me and I’ll explain the method we use when assessing testimonies. It shares some methodology with science.

        Third, there is no consensus among honest historians that the historical Jesus is real. You are incorrect there.

        Fourth, “sophism?” Oh good lord–are you a philosophy student? Go away.

  • Castilliano

    There are many stages to this question:
    -Did Jesus exist at all?
    Arguably yes, in that there were many messianic figures leading cults at that time.
    -Did Jesus exist himself?
    No evidence outside of Gospels. (Christians, double-check those non-Christian sources and you’ll find they’re based on hearsay, are talking about Christianity, or, my favorite, equally support the existence of Hercules.)
    -Did Jesus exist and do miracles?
    No, really, miracles draw attention. Romans were pretty thorough about that stuff.
    -Was Jesus the Son of God?
    In light of the above, only in legend. But I ask this because why does this need to be the linchpin for believing in his values?
    If he was wise, his wisdom would stand on its own.
    See this for a breakdown of the hollowness of the Sermon on the Mount:
    http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Sermon_on_the_mount#Detailed_commentary

    If believing in Jesus’ existence and divinity is necessary to prop up his ethical and moral message, then his ethics and morals need work.
    Not to mention how much work it takes to harmonize those with the blatant abhorrent acts and strictures in the Bible.
    (Hmm…maybe that’s why Yahweh needs to be the only divine being to explain his genocide being “good”)

    Cheers.

  • C Peterson

    It matters because it’s an interesting historical question. It doesn’t matter to me theologically, since with or without an historical Jesus, religions still rest on the idea that some sort of god exists, and that is false beyond any reasonable doubt.

    I also find the matter interesting because there is no credible historical evidence that Jesus existed, but at the same time most historians choose to believe otherwise… something that tells me about the credibility of history as a rigorous discipline. Of course, most historians know nothing about the subject, and really do have no more credibility than anybody else. And amongst actual biblical scholars, only a small fraction are secular. Most were educated at religious institutions and have nearly insurmountable personal religious biases to overcome.

    Assuming no historical Jesus, or a prototypical Jesus who has little connection with the Jesus imagined in the Bible opens interesting questions about how Christianity and other religions actually develop, and supplement or replace their predecessors.

    Finally, it matters to Christians. While the existence of a human deity walking on the Earth probably wasn’t important to early Christians like Paul, it has certainly become central to modern Christianity. Much dogma hangs upon it. I believe that over the next few decades, scholarly history will recognized its biases, and more biblical historians will be secular, with the result that the mainstream view will be that the Jesus of the bible didn’t exist. I don’t expect it will change any Christian views, however. If you believe in God, you will believe in anything. Evidence isn’t really a factor to people with that mindset.

    • Jason

      Might it be significant, however, that someone like Bart Ehrman, an outspoken critic of the religious and mythologized Jesus of the New Testament, affirms the existence of a historical Jesus? Moreover, I find it telling that within early Christian studies (where there actually are a fair number of secular scholars), i.e., people whose job it is to answer these questions, there is a widespread acceptance that a man named Jesus actually existed, had a following, and was crucified. For many, deciding on this question has little value to them beyond trying to determine historical facts to the best of their abilities, so there may be good reason to weigh their opinions on this matter.

      • Art_Vandelay

        Bart Ehrman’s argument for an historical Jesus is that if you were to create a hero, you would never have him so defeated and persecuted. That people who make up heroes have them overcome and defeat their enemies and Jesus basically just got the shit kicked out of him and died. This of course is ignoring the central tenet of Christianity…the martyrdom. Christianity not only thrives on a persecution complex but tells it’s adherents that they are in debt to Jesus for the sacrifice he made for them. Not to mention, he neglects that whole part where he rose from the dead after like 36 hours to go sit on a cloud and judge humanity for eternity. Not exactly a raw deal.

        • GubbaBumpkin

          if you were to create a hero, you would never have him so defeated and persecuted.

          Spiderman, Batman, … at least half of the superheroes were persecuted. They usually win in the end, but they get defeated in some battles. Otherwise it would get boring. It’s a good thing Bart Ehrman is not a comic book artist.

          • SeekerLancer

            Exactly, one of the stock, cliche hero archetypes it the hero that is unappreciated or even hated for his actions by the majority. It’s been used so much because it makes a great story and it’s a cheap way to make readers feel for the character. It’s hard to empathize with a larger-than-life character with no weaknesses and no suffering.

            And look at it in the context of the writers of the New Testament. Christianity sprang from Judaism which at the time had suffered a lot at the hands of the Romans. A persecuted hero is the exact kind of character you’d want to create for the Jewish people of the time to relate to.

            Not to mention martyrdom and religion have always gone hand-in-hand.

            Ehrman’s assertion is just silly.

            • Pseudonym

              I don’t know if you’ve ever read Joseph Campbell on the topic, but he made the point that Jesus as good a fit for the monomyth archetype as similarly placed figures, which strongly suggests that the process of mythologisation was incomplete. If Jesus were pure myth, he would be better myth.

          • Jim Jones

            > It’s a good thing Bart Ehrman is not a comic book artist.

            Or a writer of pulp fiction – like L Ron Hubbard who didn’t even get that right (for Xenu).

        • jjramsey

          Bart Ehrman’s argument for an historical Jesus is that if you were to create a hero, you would never have him so defeated and persecuted

          That’s a straw man based on obscuring the difference between what a hero is supposed to be–which can range widely from showy and invincible to an underdog who barely makes it by the skin of his teeth–and the Messiah, whose role was to deliver Israel from its current low estate. True, Second Temple Jews had lots of ideas on how the Messiah would do that (and IIRC, some sects even supposed two Messiahs, one kingly and one priestly), but essentially the Messiah was a liberator who would rescue good Jews from their foreign occupiers, the Romans. Suffering is something that many heroes do, but it isn’t particularly what the Messiah is about. A martyred hero isn’t a contradiction in terms, but a Messiah who never defeats the people that he’s supposed to triumph over and gets killed by them instead? That’s almost a square circle.

          Given all that, Jesus didn’t do what a Messiah was supposed to do.

          This is essentially the early Christian message: “Um, you know that guy who’s supposed to kick out the Romans and save Israel. That’s our man Jesus, yessiree. What, you laugh at us because he got his butt kicked by the ones whose butts he was supposed to kick? Well, he meant to do that. He didn’t die because he was some pretender. Oh no, he died for our sins. And he’s gonna come back Real Soon Now(TM) to do all that Messiahy stuff like saving the world. No, really. Honest.”

          That message looks suspiciously like a rationalization produced by someone who had backed Jesus as the Messiah and then refused to admit that he was mistaken after things went pear-shaped.

          • Pseudonym

            That message looks suspiciously like a rationalization produced by someone who had backed Jesus as the Messiah and then refused to admit that he was mistaken after things went pear-shaped.

            That is pretty much the mainstream academic consensus on what Christianity is, yes.

          • Greg G.

            There are clear prophecies in the Old Testament of a Messiah that was supposed to come. The early Christians were reading the verses on suffering as history, the same ones that modern Christians read as fulfilled prophecy. They read them as revealed history and the fact that the mystery was being revealed to them at that point in time “proved” to them that it was nearing the time the Messiah would come.

            Romans 16:25-27 (NIV)
            25 Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith— 27 to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.

            • Jim Jones

              > There are clear prophecies in the Old Testament of a Messiah that was supposed to come.

              Which the Jesus character doesn’t match.

              • Pseudonym

                Exactly, which makes the claim that Jesus was a midrash on Hebrew prophecies all the more wrong.

              • Greg G.

                Right. My point is that there were many sects who belived those prophecies. One sect also began to read other verses as long-hidden, suddenly-revealed mysteries of the suffering Messiah as ancient history. By the late first century, people thought that mythic hero had lived in the early first century, after that society was demolished.

            • jjramsey

              There are clear prophecies in the Old Testament of a Messiah that was supposed to come.

              No, there aren’t. Rather, there are passages in the Old Testament that, though not referring to the Messiah, were taken out of context and interpreted as Messianic after the fact.

              • Greg G.

                After what fact?

                My wording is not quite precise. I blame too much blood in my caffeine stream. The Messiah was inferred from clear prophecies in the scriptures. “Old Testament” would be anachronistic in this context as it was not canonized as such in the early first century.

                The prophets predicted punishment for pissing God off but the blessings would be restored when they followed the rules and turned back to God. There are clear prophecies for that in Amos 9:14-15, Isaiah 10:20-27, and Jeremiah 19:8-9. Couple those with the clear prophecy that David’s kingdom would endure forever in 2 Samuel 7:16 and they inferred that the kingdom would be restored as well. There were apparently different ideas about how that would be accomplished.

                Paul didn’t know anything about a teacher, wise person, or miracle worker. He mocks the idea of a wise person, teacher or philosopher in 1 Corinthians 1:20. He tells us he doesn’t know of miracles in verse 22. All he knows about a crucified Jesus who was betrayed is what he gets from scripture such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 41:9. They all seem to be taking those verses out of context and pretending they are hidden mysteries and historical, and created a myth of Jesus.

                When later Christians assumed there was a real Jesus in the early first century, they continued to mine the scriptures for more details. The next generation of Christians took those connections as fulfilled prophecies.

                • jjramsey

                  He tells us he doesn’t know of miracles in verse 22.

                  Here is what verse 1 Cor. 1:22 actually says: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.” Yet another distortion of the facts from a mythicist. What a surprise.

                • Greg G.

                  The Greek word used for “sign” is sēmeion.

                  The definitions given by Strong’s Concordance are:

                  I.a sign, mark, token

                  A.that by which a person or a thing is distinguished from others and is known

                  B.a sign, prodigy, portent, i.e. an unusual occurrence, transcending the common course of nature

                  i.of signs portending remarkable events soon to happen

                  ii.of miracles and wonders by which God authenticates the men sent by him, or by which men prove that the cause they are pleading is God’s

                  Paul couldn’t perform any signs for them nor could he tell them about wonders performed by Jesus. Do you think “signs” refer to billboards?

                • Greg G.

                  Also, a mythicist would refer to someone who believes a myth was an historical figure.

            • Without Malice

              The Jews reject Jesus to this day exactly because he “failed” to fulfill the messianic prophecies. He did not defeat the enemies of Israel; he not bring about world peace, and indeed said that he had not come to bring peace, but a sword; he did not gather the Jews back to Israel; he did not bring about universal worship of the one God (Yahweh) of the Jews or universal acceptance of the Torah; he did not rebuild the temple according to prophecy. The early Christians knew of these failings and that’s why they invented the idea of the second coming so they could claim that even though Jesus had failed the first time, by golly, he’d get it all done on the second try.

        • Jim Jones

          > Bart Ehrman’s argument for an historical Jesus is that if you were to create a hero, you would never have him so defeated and persecuted.

          Except Incredible Hulk, Spiderman etc. etc. And almost every Western ever filmed. For a religion designed to appeal to slaves and the very poor, what else would you put in it?

          • Art_Vandelay

            Exactly. Trust me…it’s weird to see someone like Ehrman who seems like such a champion for the truth to assert such nonsense.

            • Pseudonym

              What I find weird is that people think it’s weird for a champion of the truth to uphold the mainstream secular academic consensus in the field that they’ve spent their life studying.

              If Ehrman championed the fringe theory for which there’s no evidence, that would be weird.

              • 3lemenope

                But the argument he’s advancing seems to have a fairly obvious flaw. If the historical mainstream cannot conceive of how a long-suffering hero might have appeal to an occupied people, that indicates a serious problem with the mainstream view.

                • Pseudonym

                  It’s fairly unusual in antiquity. We see a lot of it partly because our culture is influenced by the stories of Jesus.

                  Having said that this is not some crucial argument without which the huge edifice of mainstream academic consensus falls apart. That’s something that is more typical of mythicist theories, which rely on a large number of controversial or fringe details to be correct otherwise the theory doesn’t hang together.

                  The criterion of embarrassment is fairly reliable when you apply it to cases where the result is known, though of course no such rule is 100% accurate. I can’t recall how strongly Ehrman sells it, but it would be wrong to suggest that it’s anything but one piece out of many. When multiple, distinct lines of evidence all point to the same conclusion, that’s when you may have a winner.

          • Without Malice

            Exactly. Jesus fits the mold of mythic hero exactly. He only appears to be defeated, but rises up out of the dust of the street – with only a flesh wound – and gains the final victory before riding away, like Shane, into the sunset.

            • Jim Jones

              The really interesting part is that Jesus is to the Romans like Superman is to the Nazis. Obviously either could have destroyed their foes but didn’t. Clearly the authors didn’t know how to handle this and did it poorly in both cases.

              Superman doesn’t punch through the bunker, grab Hitler and hurl him into the sun.

              Jesus doesn’t destroy the Romans. After a few days he leaves promising to “BRB” – but never comes.

      • Greg G.

        I accepted that there probably was an historical Jesus because Ehrman continuously made the claim. When I read Did Jesus Exist? , I saw he had nothing.

        When you spend years in college and $100,000 on books and tuition to become a theologian only to realize that the theological Jesus was bunk, you can still call yourself an historian if you maintain that there was a real Jesus.

        • http://ma-sblog.blogspot.com/ Alice

          I haven’t read it, but I wonder what proofs (in a nutshell) he used for proving Jesus existed. Can you name a couple?

          • Greg G.

            The standard stuff – inferred documents such as Q, Matthew’s independent source, Luke’s independent source, verses that seem to come from Aramaic, Galatians 1:19, 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16, incredulity that it could all be invented, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger… I don’t recall any original arguments but it’s been a year and a half since I read the whole thing.

            • http://ma-sblog.blogspot.com/ Alice

              Sounds like scholarly stuff. I’ve been doing tons of reading, especially interesting in this topic, but haven’t looked into all these things, thanks for giving me homework to do:)

          • Art_Vandelay

            Among a few are…

            1. Nobody questions whether or not Pontius Pilate or Marcus Aurelius or Cleopatra existed.

            2. Non biblical sources from historians that were born well after Jesus’ supposed death. As already pointed out by someone else, these historians also confirmed the existence of Hercules.

            3. As I pointed out above, he thinks that if people were to make up a hero, they wouldn’t have him face such adversity. He’d just be born and kick ass his entire life. This of course is complete and utter nonsense as Jesus’ story practically mimics some of the stories from other literary gods and prophets around that time.

            • http://ma-sblog.blogspot.com/ Alice

              Thanks Art (love the screen name…no offense if that is your real name)

              3. makes no sense, of course, the suffering hero? Come on, that’s everywhere. I’ve done so much reading this past summer and have a general idea of what the arguments are that he didn’t.

            • ShoeUnited

              Number one is the easiest to slap down. We’ve got coins, written accounts, receipts, and even a damn mural proving those people exist.

              That’s not to say some things weren’t exaggerated…

              https://farm8.staticflickr.com/7022/6691466069_0e7a2cbdd0_b.jpg

              • Art_Vandelay

                To be fair, she probably looks closer to Liz Taylor than Jesus looked like a hippie, stoner from Berkley.

              • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                Nothing really looks exaggerated to me. That nose is a very Semitic one- I’ve seen real people with noses like that. The hook and narrowness are real genetic features on real people primarily from the Middle East.

                • ShoeUnited

                  The part I meant that was exaggerated was her fame for being most beautiful. While certainly her power and position could have acted as an aphrodisiac, she was actually pretty plain and (depending on the coin) arguably kinda ugly.

                • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                  Power is attractive, and from what I’ve read of ancient sources, her personality completely overpowered anything so mundane as looks. Plus, you’d be shocked what some makeup can do to just about anyone, and Egyptians were makeup masters.

                  I certainly don’t find the woman in the picture unattractive at all. She’s not today’s ideal of beauty, but that doesn’t mean much.

                • NG

                  The whole Ptolemy family was really inbred as well, so Cleopatra doesn’t look too bad, considering.

                • C.J. O’Brien

                  Cleopatra was of Macedonian descent, not ethnically Egyptian, not Semitic at all.

                • GubbaBumpkin

                  The slight mustache shadow is just mean, though.

              • Pseudonym

                Actually, there is surprisingly little evidence for the existence of Pilate. Practically nothing is known about him.

                • C.J. O’Brien

                  There’s an inscription, found at Caesaria Maritima in 1961. And Philo and Josephus both have extensive discussions about his tenure as provincial governor of Judaea. There’s no doubt he existed.

                • Pseudonym

                  My apologies, I was in the middle of an edit and that came out wrong. I was planning to mention a bunch of people on the Jewish side during the First Jewish-Roman War, whom we only know because Josephus mentioned their names.

                  Nobody doubts their existence because there must have been people on the Jewish side. Even though there’s very little evidence, there’s no serious reason to doubt it.

                  Nobody doubts that Pilate existed and what his job was, but practically nothing is known about him. Josephus was writing some time after. Philo largely mentions things that happened under his tenure, and the few mentions of his character are best described as being from a hostile source.

                  There is basically no reliable information about Pilate’s life and character.

                • Jim Jones

                  We only care about Pilate because of Jesus. It’s an irony like the fact that Josephus writings were only preserved because of the forged TF.

                • Pseudonym

                  The evidence is against Josephus being “only preserved” for that reason. We still have Plutarch. More to the point, despite the supposed mention of Jesus, we only have fragments of Thallus.

                • Jim Jones

                  Preserved by people who had very poor judgment. It’s possible there was good evidence for some sort of protoJesus and they destroyed it because it didn’t fit with their views.

                  So we judge by what is left and what is left says “No Jesus”.

          • Pseudonym

            Alice, you can look at my other comments on this thread if you like. However, one important misconception is that this is not actually about “proof that Jesus existed”. This is about explaining the known facts.

            The gospels exist. Some non-canonical Christian writings exist. Some authentic writings of Paul of Tarsus exist. There is a window of time during which these writings must have been written. There is linguistic evidence of editing, and translation of some parts from Aramaic to Greek. There is evidence from history about some things that early Christians believed at various times. There are credible historical reports of itinerant apocalyptic rabbis that are very like Jesus, suggesting that people like him were not uncommon.

            The Bible is the most analysed book of all time, ever. As a result, there is a lot of evidence to weight up, and a lot of things that we can reasonably call “facts”.

            What this is really about is: What coherent theories exist that explain all of the known facts? Don’t look for “proof”, because this is ancient history and you probably won’t find it. What’s important is coherence, how well it explains the evidence, and parsimony.

            (That last point is important because you could always posit a conspiracy theory, or some similar sequence of events that are implausible based on everything else we know about history.)

            At the time of writing, all coherent theories which explain all of the known facts require a historical figure on which the stories of the sayings and deeds of Jesus are based. There does not exist a theory not involving such a historical figure, which either fits the known evidence or has even close to the explanatory power.

            There is no reason at this time to think that Jesus didn’t exist, and plenty of reason to think that he did. The inevitable conclusion is that a historical Jesus probably did exist. This is not “proof”, but it’s the best we have.

            • http://ma-sblog.blogspot.com/ Alice

              Thank you for your comment, I will read through some more of your responses.

        • Pseudonym

          Sigh. Look, I don’t expect most people to know about the methodology of history. I’m certainly no expert. But Ehrman has a point, which is that if you judge undisputed historical figures (Aesop is probably a better example than Marcus Aurelius) by Richard Carrier standards, then very few of them existed.

          This is ultimately a balance of probabilities argument. What historians require is a consistent theory which explains all the known evidence, as I mentioned above.

          As a simple example of this, let’s just consider the gospels. We can broadly define three positions:

          1. The gospels are 100% journalistically accurate, based on a real historical figure who did miracles and stuff. We will call this the “fundamentalist position”

          2. The gospels are 100% made up or legend, and there is no historical figure whose words and deeds eventually came to be in the gospels. We will call this the “mythicist position”.

          3. The accounts in the gospels are of varying accuracy. There was a real historical figure, and some of the accounts of his sayings and deeds are preserved in the gospels. Sometimes the accounts are fairly accurate, sometimes they are extremely inaccurate, and some are pure myth or legend. We will call this the “mainstream position”.

          So we will say that you probably adopt position 2 (broadly construed; I’m sure your position is slightly more nuanced than this), and Bart Ehrman adopts position 3.

          Now let’s look at the burden of proof.

          Position 1 has a very high burden of proof. There are a lot of sayings and deeds in the gospels. If even one of them is in any way false, then this position is wrong. Position 1 is a claim about all the evidence, and if any one piece of evidence doesn’t fit the theory, the theory is wrong.

          Position 2, interestingly, has an even higher burden of proof, leaving aside the miracle accounts. This is also a claim about all the evidence. Not only are there are a lot of sayings and deeds in the gospels, but this time we also have to take into account the sayings and deeds in non-canonical Christian literature, and things like the reports of Paul of Tarsus who claimed to know one of Jesus’ brothers. This is all evidence which needs to be explained. Non-existent people don’t say or do things (or have brothers!), and if even one of these can be better explained by the existence of a real historical figure than not, then the theory is probably wrong.

          Position 3 has a comparatively low burden of proof, because it is a claim about some of the evidence. New research is coming in all the time. If any one reported saying or deed is, believed to be more or less historical based on new evidence, then this adjusts the theory but never contradicts it.

          Richard Carrier, as I noted above, has produced what is probably the first non-crackpot theory which attempts to explain a large part of the evidence. His book is currently not peer reviewed and not even published, so it’s difficult to draw any conclusions yet as to whether or not it all hangs together.

          Just as how pseudoscience tends to rely on other pseudoscience (e.g. “intelligent design” biology tends to rely on pseudoscientific geology and cosmology as well), Carrier’s theory seem to rely on a bunch of other fringe theories in history. At least this seems to be the case from what we know so far. When you multiply all the improbabilities together, you get something that’s extremely improbable indeed.

          If you didn’t like Ehrman’s explanation, try R Joseph Hoffmann’s succinct explanation. I’m going to quote him, because this is the bottom line:

          An argument for historicity is not an argument for the divinity of Jesus—at least the kind of argument I am making. It is simply a way of making the best sense of the evidence.

          Nothing can be “proven”, but a historical figure is simply the only coherent explanation we currently have for all the facts. Some day an alternative theory may come along. That day is not today.

          • Greg G.

            Instead of looking at the ambiguous evidence that Jesus might have existed, look at the evidence that Jesus was fictional. Several scholars have independently traced the writings of Mark to Old Testament literature (the miracles mimic Moses, Elijah, and Elisha), the most popular Greek literature (the first ten chapters follow the Odyssey as Jesus putt-putts around the Sea of Galilee), and the later chapters follow the Iliad (specifically the death of Hector). Individually, the studies are compelling. Combined, they leave no events ascribed to Jesus to be from oral traditions. The other gospels are dependent on Mark’s fictions, including John, and their sources can also be identified. So the gospels cannot be used as evidence for Jesus.

            Now when you go back to the early epistles without reading the gospel fictions back into them, we find they don’t support the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis or the Maximal Jesus Hypothesis. All they know about Jesus seems to come from Old Testament scripture, some of it read with a new twist. They thought that Jesus had been crucified in the distant, perhaps mythical, past. Paul laments that the Jews want signs and the Greeks want wisdom but all he preached was Christ crucified. He doesn’t know about a miracle working Jesus nor a wise teacher.

            • Pseudonym

              It’s interesting that you bring up John, because it illustrates a point that mainstream historians make consistently.

              John is the last gospel, written decades after the other gospels, and it is the only one in which Jesus claims that he is God. This is evidence that the belief that Jesus was something other than a man was not there from the beginning. The idea that Jesus started off as a mystical dying-and-rising god-man is completely unsupported by the evidence.

              • Greg G.

                John may come from a whole different influence. It seems to draw on Philo with the Logos idea.

                Luke and Acts are very much dependent on Josephus. Josephus tells about talking with scholars when he was 14 in his autobiography. Luke has Jesus doing that but mythicizes it to age 12 for three days. The Josephus autobiography is dated to the very end of the century, which puts Luke most likely in the 2nd century. What date do you put on John?

                • Pseudonym

                  Luke and Acts are very much dependent on Josephus.

                  Is there actual evidence of this? If not, it’s likely to be yet another case of mythicist parallelomania.

                • Pofarmer

                  there are words and phrases that were originated by Josephus that show up in acts. The scirilli( I know thats not the right word) or assasins with daggers was a term Josephus made up that is misused in Acts.

                • Anat
                • Greg G.

                  You can point to things like Luke and Josephus getting the wrong distance between Jerusalem and Emmaus as a coincidence, even if it’s the exact same wrong number. You can say it’s a coincidence five or six times. After you say it a couple of dozen times, you’ve established a pattern. If you maintain that course, you’ve become a mythicist parallelophobe. (mythicist = someone who believes a myth actually existed or exists)

                  Many of the details are important in Josephus but meaningless in Luke-Acts. Luke confuses father and son. He lists by name the same characters that Josephus lists when J says there were many others.

                  Then there is a big smoking gun in Acts where Paul is thought to be the Egyptian who led the Sicarii into the desert. That one sentence conflates three details from three different, but nearby, accounts in Jos. Also, sicarii seems to be a word invented by Josephus.

                  Carrier wrote a review of Mason’s work titled “Luke and Josephus” on infidels.org.

                • Without Malice

                  Not only does Acts borrow from Josephus, but from other stories as well. The story of the conversion of Paul is nothing but a rewrite of the conversion of Heliodorus in the book of Maccabees who while on his way to do some Jewish persecuting sees an angel, get knocks off his horse, is blinded and then cared for by good Jews and then converts.

                • Greg G.

                  Acts 26:14 (NIV)
                  14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’

                  This is one of my favorites. “Kick against the goads” seems to be a cliche from The Bacchae. Perhaps Luke didn’t even realize it just as we often use sayings from Shakespeare without knowing it. So we have Luke quoting Paul in Greek quoting Jesus speaking Aramaic and coming down out of heaven to quote Euripides quoting the Greek god Dionysis from fiction.

                • Pseudonym

                  That’s interesting, and I will read the review. I will point out one rather crucial point, though: You said “Luke and Acts”, but all of the examples you gave were from Acts.

                  This fits with the current best-guess dating, which places Luke around the time of the publication of the Wars and Acts a couple of decades after. Parallels between Josephus and Acts are arguable, but I don’t see anyone claiming parallels between Josephus and Luke.

                • Greg G.

                  The Road to Emmaus problem comes from Luke 24:13.

                  Also see The Reliance of Luke-Acts on the Writings of Flavius Josephus.

                  An argument against Josephus copying Luke is that it would be hard for him to only take stuff from the parts of Luke that are not in common with Matthew and Mark.

                  The correspondences are not limited to Wars, though. They come from Antiquities and Life of Josephus, which shows the assumptions made in dating Luke earlier are wrong. Some put Luke after 120.

          • Anat

            While non-existent people don’t do or say anything, fictional characters may do and say quite a lot. And if they are initially characters in an orally transmitted story their deeds and words can change in interesting ways.

            • Pseudonym

              OK, so Jesus could be fictional. Fine, let’s run with that.

              So who wrote the gospels and non-canonical writings about Jesus? When did they write them? Under what circumstances? Please answer these questions in a way that does not contradict facts that we know about the early days of Christianity.

              You see, it’s easy to make claims like this, but they all tend to raise more unresolved questions than they answer, or fall back to something with no explanatory power, like Last Thursdayism.

              • Jim Jones

                Who wrote the LDS gospels? The Scientology gospels? If Scientology hadn’t been copyrighted (which could never happen in ancient Greece) there would be 100 varieties of it today, just as there are now varieties of Mormonism.

                The people who wrote so many gospels are those who wanted it to be true. They simply couldn’t agree on what they believed, something the canonical gospels still evidences.

                • Pseudonym

                  Who wrote the LDS gospels? The Scientology gospels?

                  My point exactly! For those, we have a plausible, parsimonious, coherent theory as to who wrote them which fits all the known facts.

                  We also have such a theory for the gospels. The details are a little sketchier, but it’s still there. We don’t have a plausible, parsimonious, coherent theory for who wrote the gospels, the epistles, and non-canonical early Christian texts which involve a non-historical Jesus.

                • Jim Jones

                  Robinson Crusoe.

          • Jim Jones

            > Nothing can be “proven”, but a historical figure is simply the only coherent explanation we currently have for all the facts.

            Nope. That’s still wishful thinking.

        • Without Malice

          Especially if he wants to keep selling books except to a few atheist and agnostics.

      • C Peterson

        To me, it is significant only in terms of what qualifies as evidence in the the world of scholarly history. Speaking as a physicist, as a scientist very focused on evidence-based thinking, I find Ehrman’s standards of evidence inadequate, as I do the standards accepted by most biblical historians.

        • Pseudonym

          History is, for the most part, not an experimental discipline. Even evolutionary biology is an experimental discipline these days, thanks to bioinformatics.

          CERN did not rule that a boson had been “discovered” until they had 5-sigma significance. Do you honestly think that anything in history can be established to that level of confidence, even in principle?

          When historians talk about a “historical Jesus”, they are really talking about theories that explain historical facts that we more or less know, including many facts about the early days of Christianity, and the history and literature of the Ancient Near East, and the writings of known historical figures like Paul of Tarsus.

          There is, at the time that I am writing this, no coherent theory which explains all of the known facts where there is no historical figure on whom the gospels and other early Christian writings are based. None. Not a single one. And any such theory has an uphill battle, because it has to explain a lot.

          Richard Carrier’s new and currently unpublished and un-peer-reviewed book probably represents the first non-crackpot theory which doesn’t involve a historical figure (though his “1 in 12,000″ figure borders on mathematical crankery; a physicist like yourself would no doubt be dubious about so precise a figure). However, from all reports, it is based on a number of assumptions (e.g. the prevalence of “dying and rising gods”) which are considered fringe at best.

          • C Peterson

            I didn’t suggest for a second that history was an experimental discipline. Indeed, not all of science is experimental, either. What distinguishes science isn’t experiment, but the requirement that evidence be critically weighed. That standard is not present in a good deal of historical biblical research, including that of Ehrman.

            Not only do biblical scholars tend to place far too much emphasis on evidence that parsimony alone would suggest is weak, but they fail to properly consider the lack of evidence… which is powerful evidence in its own right. You don’t tend to see this kind of sloppiness in most other areas of historical research, but most other areas don’t involve researchers with such deep biases.

            • Pseudonym

              Actually, the lack of evidence is very much considered, and is usually judged to be unsurprising. The non-biblical evidence for Jesus is pretty much the same as the non-biblical evidence for every other apocalyptic allegedly-miracle-working rabble-rousing rabbi from first century Judaea.

              • C Peterson

                Actually, the lack of evidence is very much considered, and is usually judged to be unsurprising.

                Indeed. Judged by very poorly justified reasoning.

                Every other itinerant messiah of the time didn’t have the run-ins with large crowds or with the Roman bureaucracy or judiciary claimed for Jesus. Plenty of petty criminals and Jewish rabble-rousers from the time are found in Roman records, however. Why not this Jesus guy, who if you believe the bible, was a very public figure?

                • Pseudonym

                  For the record, Jesus probably didn’t have those run-ins either. Those accounts were likely to be highly exaggerated.

                  The fact that you fall back on the “believe the bible” thing is, IMO, quite telling. That’s not the mainstream historical position, as I think you know full well.

                • C Peterson

                  Exactly. No run ins. No public presence. No crucifixion. No resurrection.

                  Maybe, just maybe, the people who made up the stories (well, they didn’t really make them up, just put different names onto mythical characters who had already been around for 1000 years) had some vague recollection of one particular fellow named Jesus. It was a common name, after all.

          • Jim Jones

            > There is, at the time that I am writing this, no coherent theory which explains all of the known facts where there is no historical figure on whom the gospels and other early Christian writings are based.

            There is. As a modern example, the ‘saint’,Cassie Bernall. This happened in our lifetime with all of our modern communication. (And yes, I know she existed).

            Older examples: John Frum, Ned Ludd, Robin Hood, William Tell and King Arthur.

            People like to tell stories. Most stories have a hero or villain.

            For more on Jesus: http://www.pocm.info/

            and

            http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/

            • Pseudonym

              I think you misunderstood what I said. There is no coherent theory which explains the known facts about early Christianity and early Christian writings.

              BTW, I can’t believe that you seriously send me to two web sites that perpetuate alleged “parallels” between Jesus and Osiris, and Jesus and Mithras. Both are completely made up.

              Admittedly it’s more excusable in the case of Mithras, because in that case it was made up a long time ago. (The nonsense about Osiris is quite recent.) The only source for parallels between Jesus and Mithras are from Christian sources (i.e. they post-date the gospels), and take the form of alleging that Mithraism is a demonic copy of Christianity. Moreover, the allegations contradict archeological evidence that we have about Mithraism.

              Please don’t fall for that.

              • Jim Jones

                > Jesus and Osiris, and Jesus and Mithras. Both are completely made up.

                All three are made up, just like the gospels. And all religion.

      • Jim Jones

        > Might it be significant, however, that someone like Bart Ehrman, an outspoken critic of the religious and mythologized Jesus of the New Testament, affirms the existence of a historical Jesus?

        No. It shows even he can be fooled by wishful thinking.

        • Pseudonym

          Yeah, just like those so-called climate scientists or evil-utionists! Mainstream academic consensus is just one big conspiracy theory.

          • Jim Jones

            Oh dear. How sad. Too bad.

            • Pseudonym

              Reality has a well known anti-my-personal-prejudice bias.

  • Timmah

    One thing I hear over and over again when I state that I don’t belive he existed because “Why isn’t such an important person found outside the Bible?” is the phrase “There is tons of HOSTILE testamony that he existed!”

    I have seen this literaly dozens of times and of course nobody can cite a source. I’m guessing its just something they say to each other that sounds really good. Is there even a remote speck of evidence that supports this? From what I’ve read they can’t even find an execution record.

    • Greg G.

      All of the mentions of Jesus outside Christian literature establish that there were people who believed that Jesus existed by the late first century. After the destruction of Jerusalem, they wouldn’t have been able to verify it.

      Records and ossuaries so that about 6% of the males were named Jesus. If there were records of crucifixions in Jerusalem, there would be lots of men named Jesus, so even that would be inconclusive.

    • Buckley

      It’s part of the religious fundies martyrdom complex. They cannot be satisfied in THEIR belief. They have to have viable enemies for their faith to be justified. When reports of the growing number of Nones and Atheists came out, the amount of anti-atheist and christian persecution articles have increased. Check Real Clear Religion some time, especially over the course of a few weeks. They spend quite a bit of time talking about atheists. I believe it actually comes from a LACK of faith, rather than simply defending the faith. If one truly had faith, one would not spend so much time talking about the other side.

      On Oct. 15, Real Clear Religion posted an article from The Christian Post by Stoyan Zaimov entitled “Christian Apologist: 10 Reasons for the Fall of Atheists.” The article talks about Gary Habermas and quotes some of his more ludicrous claims about the “truth” of Christianity v. other religions and atheists. For example he states that “The naturalistic argument is starting to break.” His evidence: a number of atheists who have become theists. Of course he names no one. The opposite could be said if one wanted to prove that the christian argument is starting to break.

      The other problem is that the article failed to report the “10 reasons” that atheism will fall and instead ends with 6 reasons “people can use for specifically believing in the Christian faith: 1. modern documented miracles, 2. double-blind prayer experiments, 3. Jesus preformed “real” miracles in the bible, 4. Jesus said before he was resurrected that he would be resurrected…all in all his arguments are only based in faith and not on reason derived evidence.

    • Andrew G.

      There is no useful non-Christian source for Jesus’ existence – there are sources for the existence of Christian belief in the later first and early second century, but that’s it. Josephus would have been an exception to that, except that it has clearly been tampered with by Christians and the attempts to recover an “original” text are little more than speculation.

      Until Carrier’s book comes out, the best reference is probably Jesus Outside the New Testament by R. E. Van Voorst – a slim volume, with conclusions which are possibly overly credulous, but which appears to cover everything which is taken at all seriously by mainstream historians.

      • GubbaBumpkin

        Josephus would have been an exception to that…

        No. Even if the few purported mentions of Jesus in the writings of Josephus were not outright fraudulent, or mistaken mentions of other Jesuses (Jesii?), Josephus was not born until 37 AD, several years after the purported death and resurrection of Jesus H. Christ. By the time he got around to the writings in question, it was after 90 CE. It would be like someone writing about John F. Kennedy today; it would all be second hand or third hand information.

        • Andrew G.

          Being second or third hand wouldn’t invalidate it as a source; that’s the kind of bad argument that Christian apologists love to pounce on.

    • C.J. O’Brien

      That’s silly. We don’t have some chronological stack of execution records that we could even check. We don’t expect to have that kind of evidence, for anybody’s existence in antiquity, and we don’t for Jesus. That doesn’t weigh on either side of the debate, it’s just the fact of the matter.

  • Greg G.

    If you reject the miracle stories, you reject the heart of Christianity so the historical Jesus is an academic question, not a theological question or an atheist issue.

    The Gospel of Mark appears to be the product of the Greek method of mimesis. It combines the most popular Greek literature of the day with Hebrew and Christian writings. The first 10 chapters have Jesus doing the Odyssey around the Sea of Galilee, performing the miracles like those of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. The Passion week draws on the Iliad and the death of Hector.

    Most of the parables don’t seem to come from the classic literature of the day but most correspond to sayings found in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. If there was know Jesus, Gnostic Christianity is more likely to have arisen first.

    Mark also seems to have been influenced by Galatians. The three pillars that Paul shows disdain for are the main characters besides Jesus. We also find “Abba, Father” and “Love your neighbor”. Paul’s side of the argument with Peter is put in Jesus’ mouth in chapter 7.

    The other gospels show their sources so they cannot be said to come from oral tradition and do not support an historical Jesus. When you read the early epistles without backreading the gospels into them, it doesn’t appear that they know anything about Jesus that they didn’t get by reading their scriptures as new revelations, a la the last three verses of Romans 16. Even if you grant that the Gospel of Thomas sayings come from someone named Jesus, a common name of the time and place, the epistles aren’t talking about him.

    So if we have no reliable evidence for Jesus and evidence that he was made up from new interpretations of old literature, it favors that there never was that Jesus.

    • Pseudonym

      If you reject the miracle stories, you reject the heart of Christianity [...]

      This thread is about the historical Jesus, not the theological one, and I don’t want to derail that discussion. However, I will note for completeness that this is a controversial statement, and one that’s far from universally held among theologians. Rudolf Bultmann, for example, took the position that the only historical fact required of Christianity is that Jesus was crucified.

      As to mimetic criticism, I will note that a) it is a minority position among mainstream secular scholars, and b) every mainstream academic that I’m aware of who holds that position still agrees that there was a historical Jesus, albeit a minimalist one. It’s an interesting and slightly plausible theory for at least the origin of some of the biblical literature, but it does not constitute a complete and coherent theory.

      I also note that it is flatly incompatible with Richard Carrier’s new theory, which is part of the problem. While I’m not accusing you of this specifically (I barely know you), going by the non-academic blog-and-YouTube discussions, mythicists who are not historians tend to cherrypick fringe historical theories which are mutually contradictory to build up a picture of a purely non-historical Jesus which has exactly zero explanatory power.

      • Greg G.

        Robert Price collected the works of several scholars and combined them to show there’s nothing in Mark’s account of Jesus that doesn’t come from fiction:
        New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash

        Some of the authors are Christians and most accept that Jesus existed. But their combined efforts show that Mark and the other gospels don’t support that.

        Have you read Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle?

        • Pseudonym

          First you said mimesis, now you’re saying midrash. Do you now understand what I mean by mythicist theories being incoherent and cherrypicked?

          Have you read Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle?

          I’ve read the paper of that title. I haven’t read the book of that title. I started reading Jesus, Neither God nor Man, but couldn’t finish it. It kind of put me off Doherty as a credible source of anything.

          This is another large part of the problem. Even “respectable” mythicists occasionally resort to nonsense which, if it were any other field of academia, anyone of a skeptical nature would consider a huge red fag.

          Just look at Carrier’s appeal to Bayesian statistics crankery. How is that not setting off everyone’s bullshit detector kit?

          • Greg G.

            Midrash is the word Price used in the title. As far as I know, the oldest examples of midrash are a few centuries later than the gospels. I would expect that midrash comes from mimesis just as Roman imitatio does.

            Mark was educated in Greek composition and was well-read in the literature so it is unlikely that he was not trained in mimesis.

            Do you understand Doherty’s argument? Do you understand Bayes Theorem? Are you in a position to critique them?

            • Pseudonym

              I’m a mathematician by trade with a research interest in information theory. Yes, I understand Bayes’ Theorem. I’m in a fairly good position to critique his use of it, but thankfully, you don’t have to listen to me. Plenty of critiques have already been done, even by people who actually sympathise with Carrier’s conclusions.

              You see this all the time in pseudoscience. People who think that evolution is one big con also have to believe stuff like the speed of light isn’t constant, because that’s that’s the only way to maintain consistency. Homeopaths often play the quantum woo card. When someone has to build nonsense arguments on top of nonsense arguments, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong in their conclusion, but it is very much a red flag. Carrier’s invocation of Bayes’ theorem is exactly as mathematically justifiable as evolution deniers’ “biological information” argument.

              As for Doherty, I didn’t actually have an argument that I could find in Jesus, Neither God nor Man. It was all unfounded speculation. If he had an argument in his earlier book, then that’s a different book.

              One point that Carrier does make, in fairness, is that the biggest problem with the mythicist case is mythicists. I really would like to see the case made, and I hope that Carrier is the one to do it. For a debate to happen, there first needs to be a position worth debating. I hope that Carrier’s as-yet-unpublished book makes that case.

  • mgm75

    I hope you don’t mind me sharing a post I did for my science blog a few years ago about the serious problems with the historicity of Jesus http://2012andallthat.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/the-historicity-of-jesus-serious-problems/

    • TnkAgn

      I read it. Good, as far as it goes, but you should follow up.

    • Greg G.

      The one commenter says he can prove Jesus existed by using the standard historical methods. Those methods seem to be calibrated to ensure that they confirm Jesus as historical. The Jesus character just barely meets the criteria and they have to pretend Mark and John are independent.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

    Yet another video, from a channel to which I subscribe, that isn’t listed on my YouTube subscriptions page.

  • FlyingFree333

    The idea that the Jesus character in the bible taught some beautiful enlightened philosophy is utter crap. The Jesus character in the bible was a violent, psychotic, racist megalomaniac who demanded people abandon their families to grovel at his feet, he promoted war, slavery and torture, but like all cult leaders, couched his evil dogma in flowery rhetoric to make it more palatable.

  • TnkAgn

    “Jesus” is most likely a composite of many radical itinerant rabbis of that politically-charged period of Roman History, IMO.

    Here’s an excellent monograph on the topic “Did Jesus Exist:”

    http://www.nobeliefs.com/exist.htm

    • Pseudonym

      I don’t agree that this is “most likely”. The “composite” theory doesn’t explain Paul of Tarsus claiming to know Jesus’ brother.

      It’s possible in the sense that some sayings and deeds from other rabbis may have, over time, become attributed to Jesus. However, the claim that “Jesus was nothing more than a composite” is different from “Jesus was a real figure who was also the target of misattribution”.

      You’re right about one thing, though: Figures like Jesus were very common. Jesus was not exceptional, which makes the theory that he didn’t exist at all carry an extremely high burden of proof.

      • Greg G.

        Paul was very sarcastic in Galatians. In Gal 5:12, he wishes the circumcisionists would go the whole way and emasculate themselves. In the opening, he emphasizes that he was sent by the Lord, but not by a man. In chapter 2, he mentions that James sends men places. He refers to James, Cephas, and John as those reputed to be pillars but shows disdain for the title. A few verses later, he refers to James as “the brother of the Lord”. If the Lord sends people and James sends people, then James must be placing himself at the Lord’s level so Paul mockingly calls him “the brother of the Lord”. Remember, Paul is not happy that Peter and James have been preaching works instead of faith.

        In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is defending himself as an apostle, his right to work as an apostle and his right to be paid for it. He refers to the Lord’s brothers in verse 5. He is using “brothers” as an epithet here, too.

      • Steven Carr

        ‘Figures like Jesus were very common. Jesus was not exceptional….’

        I wonder why Josephus listed the death of this ‘very common’ , ‘not exceptional’ figure in a section devoted to national calamities the Jews had suffered, comparable to many priests being crucified, massacres, the banishment of 4000 Jews from Rome to Sardinia etc etc.

        Perhaps Josephus didn’t regard the death of this ‘very common’, ‘not exceptional’ character as a great national calamity for the Jews.

        That’s a thought.

        • Pseudonym

          I wonder why Josephus listed the death [...]

          If you’re referring to the reference in book 18, 3:3, then first off it’s known to have been exaggerated by later editors. Secondly, he explains why he mentions it at the end of the section: he’s explaining the origins of the Christian sect.

          • Steven Carr

            I see you just ignored everything I wrote.

            Why did Jesus put the death of Jesus in a section devoted to national calamities the Jews had suffered?

            Your non-answer. He was explaining the origins of the Christian sect.

            I’m sorry that was the wrong answer.

            Try to take the discussion seriously.

            Next contestant please….

            • Pseudonym

              Why did Jesus put the death of Jesus in a section devoted to national calamities the Jews had suffered?

              If that’s the section you’re referring to, then it’s in the middle of a section devoted to the acts of Pilate at the time. Executing Jesus was one of the things that happened around that time.

            • Pseudonym

              By the way, the reference in book 20, 9:1 is believed not to be a forgery, and as such, is evidence that Jesus had a brother.

            • Steven Carr

              You carefully gave us the section, so we can see the context, proving I was correct in everything I said.

              You know, if you accuse people of lying, it is not clever to post yourself the evidence showing they were telling the truth.

              That section is about national calamities affecting the Jews.

              I said it.

              You backed me up by posting a link to that very section.

              Thanks for proving me correct. I appreciate that.

              • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                Actually, I’m with Rob on this one. I went to read it. It’s entitled “SEDITION OF THE JEWS AGAINST PONTIUS PILATE. CONCERNING CHRIST, AND WHAT BEFELL PAULINA AND THE JEWS AT ROME”, which is not in fact about national calamities affecting the Jews. The whole section is about Pilate and his family and political struggles, with some asides on other things happening.

                Shockingly, if you read a text convinced it says what you want it to say, you won’t actually have an open mind when approaching it.

                • Pseudonym

                  Now that you mention it, Feminerd, I’m not certain that the section headings are original. Nonetheless, that’s clearly what some editor translator thought the section was about.

                • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                  Fair enough.

                • Steven Carr

                  Amazingly, some people deny what is in black and white.

                  The section by Josephus features Pilate ordering a massacre of a crowd of people, 4000 Jews banished from Rome to Sardinia, and priests being crucified.

                  I guess the banishment of 4000 Jews from Rome can all be lumped under ‘with some asides on other things happening.’

                  So this discussion is a waste of time, as there are people who deny what is written in black and white.

                  I shall remember in future only to discuss historicity with people who are able to read.

                  So goodbye.

        • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

          Isn’t that the interpolation (aka forgery) that everyone knows is a forgery?

          • Steven Carr

            But if you take away everything that is an obvious forgery, then what is left is not an *obvious* forgery,

            Such is the logic of a Bart Ehrman.

            • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

              That made no sense whatsoever. If we remove everything that is an obvious forgery, then what we’re left with is either a better forgery or the original manuscript.

              The interpolation of Jesus is a known forgery, which was added by some random Christian and definitely not written by Josephus. In other words, it’s not evidence that Josephus thought Jesus was anyone special or that Jews as a whole thought Jesus was anyone special.

              EDIT: You’re clearly trying to build up the Josephus reference as being evidence for the historicity of Jesus. It’s just too bad you can’t do that.

          • Steven Carr

            Thank you for putting the passage in context.

            The context is a section devoted to national calamities that had affected the Jews, such as banishing 4000 Jews to Sardinia, massacres, diversion of ‘sacred money’

            Oh, and the death of Jesus.

            That doesn’t fit the context, unless somehow the death of Jesus was a national calamity for the Jews, comparable to Pilate ordering soldiers to massacre a crowd of demonstrators.

            • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

              Actually, it’s devoted to interesting things going on during Pilate’s reign. And that little section on Jesus is clearly there to explain the rise of Christianity, which was a funny cult that was gaining numbers at the time. The praise stuff is the interpolation (forgery) part.

  • L.Long

    Define JESUS???
    Gawd dud who rose from the dead?? BS big time!!
    Some possible jew preacher?? Sure why not & don’t care. Except as a good intellectual exercise in history development of a myth.
    Whether he was an actual guy does not change the lying BS people claim he said.

  • Ron

    I’ll believe Jesus is real when he shows us his long-form birth, death and resurrection certificates.

  • Bradley Bowen

    I enjoyed the video. Thank you.

    I think it does matter whether Jesus existed or not.
    Rather, I think it does matter what probability one assigns to the existence of Jesus.

    Given the problems that you note about determining whether Jesus existed or not, it is unreasonable to hold a belief on this question with certainty. The only reasonable position is one that assigns some sort of probability to Jesus’ existence.

    For example, the most reasonable position might be that it is very probable that Jesus existed. However, it might be the case that the most reasonable position is that it is very probable that Jesus did not exist. Or, the most reasonable position might be somewhere in between those extremes, such as that there is a 50/50 chance that Jesus existed.

    I like to think of probabilities on this issue in terms of a scale from 0 (certainly false) to 1.0 (certainly true). We can eliminate 0 and 1.0 from the start. The incriments I suggest are in tenths: .1, .2, .3, etc. A 50/50 chance would be a probability of .5.

    Why does it matter whether one assigns a probability of .1 or .9 to the existence of Jesus? Because if one assigns a low probability (say .1 or .2) to the existence of Jesus, then this sets an upper limit on the probabilty that Jesus rose from the dead. In order for Jesus to rise from the dead, Jesus must first die. In order for Jesus to die, Jesus must first exist as a flesh-and-blood human being. Thus, the existence of Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human is a necessary condition for the resurrection of Jesus. So, if the probability that Jesus existed is .1 (for exiample) then the probability that Jesus rose from the dead must be something less than .1.

    Because the existence of Jesus is a necessary condition for the resurrection of Jesus, the probability of the exisence of Jesus sets an upper limit on the probability of the resurrection of Jesus.

    Now, if it turns out that the probabilty of the existence of Jesus is high, such as .8 or .9, then the upper limit on the probability of the resurrection will also be high. But even if the probability of Jesus’ existence were as high as .8, this would knock down the probability of the resurrection a significant degree.

    So, suppose that someone determines that the evidence for the resurrection is fairly strong, making the probability of the resurrection about seven chances in ten, assuming that Jesus existed. Suppose this person also believes that the probability that Jesus existed was about eight chances in ten or .8, then the two probabilities would have to be multiplied together to yield .7 x .8 = .56

    This person might then decide to adopt or maintain belief in the resurrection of Jesus, but he or she would be much less dogmatic about this belief than your typical bible thumping Christian, because the probabilty would be only a little higher than .5, which means it is only a bit higher than a 50/50 chance.

    • GoingBig

      “Now, if it turns out that the probabilty of the existence of Jesus is high, such as .8 or .9, then the upper limit on the probability of the resurrection will also be high. But even if the probability of Jesus’ existence were as high as .8, this would knock down the probability of the resurrection a significant degree.”

      A guy named Jesus existing is high. There were probably vast herds of Jesuses roaming ancient Palestine/Middle East. But the # of Jesuses does not have any relationship with the supernatural event of resurrection because that supernatural event does not increase in a linear relationship with respect to the # of people or # of Jesuses.

      When looking at the stories in that region that refer to resurrection, they all referred to mythical beings or mythical gods(as viewed by Christian thought.) So going by resurrection stories, it is a higher probability that a resurrection story is a myth rather than a real guy named Jesus getting supernaturally resurrected.

      • Greg G.

        Bradley is doing an interesting series over at Secular Outpost titled “Did Jesus Exit?” Note that “Exit” is not a typo. Last time I checked, he was at #16.

      • Bradley Bowen

        A high probability that Jesus existed does not imply a high probability that he rose from the dead but a low (or moderate) probability that he existed does imply that the upper limit of the resurrection is a low (or moderate) probability.

  • Mike

    2013
    Still talking about Jesus.
    Sad stuff.

    • TnkAgn

      It is sad stuff, but the very fact that you cite the year “2013″ speaks volumes about the impact the Jesus myth has had on the western world, no?

      • baal

        no.

        • TnkAgn

          You’re on a tear, baal. Give us you reasoning please.

          • baal

            no.

      • http://springygoddess.blogspot.com/ Astreja

        No, TnkAgn — The year “2013″ has more to do with the impact that Dionysius Exiguus had on the world. If you follow the link to the Wikipedia article on the Anno Domini system, it quickly becomes apparent that Dionysius was rather arbitrary in his selection of a birth date for Jesus, rounding it off to the nearest 500 years.

        • TnkAgn

          I do know that, and I own Steven Jay Gould’s “Questioning The Millennium.” Technically you are correct, but that has little to do with my intent. The important thing here is, what compelled “Dennis the Small” to devise the calendar we still use today? Why have an Anno Domini system at all? Answer: the impact of the Jesus myth.

          • http://springygoddess.blogspot.com/ Astreja

            I can accept that. The Jesus myth does have rather remarkable persistence, and it’s not immediately obvious what gives it that persistence. It can’t just be the promise of eternal life, as many other religions offer some sort of paradise.

            It might, however, be the emotional tug-of-war between “Look how much he had to suffer for you, you worthless sinner!” and “He’s alive, and you’re forgiven and going to heaven. Now tell everybody so they don’t go to hell.” An adrenaline rush like that can be quite addicting.

            I can also see it gaining favour among the population as the Roman Empire was overrun by Visigoths, Vandals and Huns, providing hope when everything around them was in chaos.

  • Anna

    I think it’s completely irrelevant. Whether or not there was a historical Jesus doesn’t affect atheism one way or the other. He’s no more relevant to the question of deities than Buddha or Muhammad is.

    • TnkAgn

      There is a difference that may or may not be much of a distinction: Neither Gautama the Buddha nor Muhammed are generally considered “deities” in the traditional sense.

      • Anna

        Well, they’re both considered to have had special supernatural knowledge and connections. Muhammad is supposed to be the biblical deity’s most important prophet, bringing the truth about that deity to the world. I don’t think claiming to be a deity or the son of a deity is that different from claiming to be the messenger of a deity. It’s all irrelevant to atheism since we have no evidence that deities actually exist.

  • Leanne Gray

    For me, it seems more likely that there was a historical Jesus than that there wasn’t. Most charismatic cult leaders (and Jesus totally acts like one in the gospels – “leave your home and families, hate your mother and father, and follow me!”) inspire their followers to worship themselves. It makes more sense to me for Paul to be a sort of Brigham Young to Jesus’s Joseph Smith, than for Paul to have made up the figure of Jesus entirely. That said, “likely” is not proof. There is no more than circumstancial evidence for a historical Jesus, and there’s *no* evidence for a divine Jesus at all. It’s an interesting historical question, but even if Jesus was 100% proven to have existed, I would still be an atheist.

  • Mario Strada

    I have been doing a lot of reading on this issue lately. I have also watched a lot of seminars from both sides of the issue and so far I can honestly say I am just as confused as I was before.

    One reason for my confusion is that I don’t feel I can trust modern (meaning the past 300 years or so) scholars on the issue.
    Even non-christian, agnostic or atheist scholars regard the argument of the existence of Jesus as a self evident truth. I disagree. I actually believe that a lot of these scholars HAVE to say that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person simply to remain in academia.
    Anyone that has ever postulated Jesus didn’t exist tends to be treated as a pariah in academic circles, even in the progressive ones. Even by the very same people that won’t bat an eye in proclaiming that half the NT was fabricated and the few references outside of it inserted by later scribes.

    Basically, right now if you want to publish a paper on Jesus being a mythical figure, you have to run through a long gauntlet first and only then make the turn and hope you still have a job the day after.

    The other thing I find puzzling is how for many scholars the theme of the resurrection is regarded so highly. I often hear the argument “But the tomb was empty” or “Guards were posted and they swear no one went by”. As if we had never heard before of corpses being smuggled, stolen or disappeared and as if Roman guards were incorruptible.

    Assuming Jesus was an actual person that was crucified, is it really that far fetched that his followers (it only takes a couple at the most) bribed the guards and stole the corpse?

    Let’s remember that even according to the OT, Jesus was very aware of the prophecies, going so far as following a script to show he was the Messiah. How crazy would it be if the “play” continued after his death?

    And I am not even going to go into Saul/Paul and all the craziness there, or the church having to explain away the parallel between Jesus and other prophets or gods as the devil planning the confusion ahead of time.

    I have not made up my mind yet, but so far the faction that does not consider Jesus a real historical person but a spiritual construct is winning for me. Or at least it seems to have the more plausible argument.

    One thing that amuses me is that according to the OT, if Jesus existed more or less in the form Christians believe, he would have been very surprised that he was the founder of a gentile religion.

    • Pseudonym

      One reason for my confusion is that I don’t feel I can trust modern (meaning the past 300 years or so) scholars on the issue.

      I think that it’s unreasonable to put all that under one umbrella. The last hundred years or so is much more reliable than the 200 before that. That’s really when modern historical method came into its own.

      Even non-christian, agnostic or atheist scholars regard the argument of the existence of Jesus as a self evident truth. I disagree. I actually believe that a lot of these scholars HAVE to say that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person simply to remain in academia.

      This is the cry of conspiracy theorists everywhere. They have to say that the twin towers came down because of the planes hitting. They have to say that Obama was born in Hawaii. They have to say that natural selection is real. They have to say that climate change is being driven by human activity.

      They are either part of the conspiracy, or are so intimidated by it that they have to repeat the lies or lose their job. Who’d want to give up all that grant money?

      It’s pretty much nonsense. It would make a historian’s career if they could show that it’s more likely that Jesus didn’t exist than that he did. After all, showing the likely origin of the Ancient Hebrews (contrary to the biblical account) made Israel Finkelstein’s career.

      People have been trying for ages, and nobody has yet succeeded.

      • Steven Carr

        ‘ That’s really when modern historical method came into its own.’

        All these modern historians are unable to find a single character flaw in Jesus.

        Fancy that! Jesus is the only person in modern secular historical study without a single character flaw.

        What are the odds, eh?

        Could there be a tiny bit of bias operating here on the part of these ‘historians’?

        • Pseudonym

          All these modern historians are unable to find a single character flaw in Jesus.

          [citation needed]

          • Steven Carr

            Well, there’s a task for me.

            Cite things which don’t exist.

            Modern scholars never find any flaw in what Jesus says or did , apart from his claiming the world would end soon (which it didn’t).

            How does anybody cite books which don’t exist? How do you cite a book pointing out that Jesus was a flawed human being like anybody else, when modern historians of Jesus never write such books?

            Still, if somebody is unable to tell us his real name, I see no reason to cite these imaginary books he has dreamed up where scholars produce a balanced portrait of Jesus pointing out his flaws.

            • Pseudonym

              How about the whole Jesus Seminar? How about Bart Ehrman?

              Having said that, it’s a bit of a bizarre accusation. It’s difficult to identify a personality flaw when Jesus’ followers had an obvious incentive not to record any, and that’s pretty much all we have on his character.

            • Pseudonym

              Incidentally, the reason why I asked for a citation is that you made a claim about all those modern historians. To make that claim requires, at the very least, a systematic review. I figured you might know of one.

            • Erp

              Given the time theologians have spent explaining away Jesus cursing a fig tree for not producing fruit when it wasn’t time for fruit or calling a non-Jew a dog, I would say some faults have been found. I also very much doubt Bart Ehrman thinks Jesus is flawless or any Jewish scholar of that era such as Amy-Jill Levine; however, they also know we have very little reliable information about Jesus’ character (other than he attracted followers). Remember what we know about Jesus has been whitewashed (it is a bit like depending on Parson Weems and David Barton for information about George Washington).

          • Steven Carr

            http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/ava358013.shtml

            A citation provided.

            Guess what? I always back up what I say.

            And I give my real name, unlike people who hide behind anonymity, who cannot put their own name to their opinions.

            • Pseudonym

              So I read your link. You claimed “historians”, but the link you provided only talked about theologians, and Christian moral philosophers specifically.

              Remember, the context is that we aren’t talking about theology. We are talking about mainstream secular academic historians of the Ancient Near East.

  • GCBill

    I really like these videos. Because of your body language and speech inflections, the “friendly” really comes across better than in your writing. I always find that people read me (and most people) as “angrier” when they don’t have access to these cues.

    • GubbaBumpkin

      I don’t care for the videos. I peruse the site while at work, and Hemant is disturbing my coworkers.

  • Without Malice

    Did Jesus actually exist? Well, who knows for sure? The answer is, of course, nobody knows for sure. I’ve heard the often repeated remark that most historians believe that he did, but I doubt whether more than one or two percent of historians have really studied the matter so that really isn’t much of an argument. I’m rather neutral on the issue myself, although I find it very hard to believe no historians or politicians of the time mentioned anything about that a man named Jesus going around performing all kinds of miracles, including raising the dead; especially since he was supposed to be famous throughout the middle east in his own lifetime – according to the gospels. Even the gospels are rather threadbare when it comes to his life. We are told by believers that the man was God incarnated, yet we know nothing of what this man/God was doing during 95% of his life, and everything the man/God said in any gospel can be read easily in less than an hour. And to be honest, I don’t find most of what he had to say all that wise or intelligent. Most of it’s a bunch of harem-scarem about how one should always be on guard for his coming, like he’s some stern parent telling his kids they better behave while he’s gone for the day because they don’t know when he’ll come back and find them doing something naughty. And since he told quite a few folks that he’d return to set up the kingdom before they died, or before the went over all of Judea with the message of the gospel, etc., and that didn’t come to pass, why put much store in anything else he had to say.

  • Phillip Moon

    There are so many comments and so little time, but I will comment and hope that this point wasn’t made in the 50 or so comments I didn’t read.

    I am conflicted as to what I accept as the case with Jesus. At this point I would equate him with Sherlock Holmes. The character is fictional, having no real existence, but is based on one or more real individuals who provide an outline and some detail, but little else. The stories incorporate elements of known events and historical individuals, plus details of places that add a bit of reality to them.

    Currently, this is how I see Jesus. The pictures of Jesus as presented in the various Bible stories are fictional. There may have been some real people, maybe none of whom were named Jesus, that provided a little framework and meat on which to base the fictions. Events and people, as well as places, were added to provide a firmer base, and the stories were tailored to Old Testaments stories to ground them with the existing “histories.” As this was done by multiple authors and editors, the job becomes easier as each gets to attach their personal story elements to sweeten the pot and make Jesus more “real” to those who will read these tales.

    Please pardon the mixed metaphors. I have enjoyed reading comments. It shows that there are people who, even in the atheist communities, find the subject of interest. I’ll never be a Christian again, but it’s a fun puzzle to play with and drives my extended family nuts.

  • MorAvFire

    I am seriously “fan girliing” over Hemant Mehta! His videos are well spoken and precise. I love his relatable nature and willingness to discuss everyday topics that Atheists face.

  • Beerman

    I follow quite a few atheist blogs and sites via twitter but I’m not inclined to leave comments. But after watching Hemant’s clip and reading many of the comments I was surprised not to find any mention of Joseph Atwill’s recent book Caesar’s Messiah. I haven’t spent my life studying the bible, but I was confirmed a MS lutheran in my youth so I’m pretty familiar with the new testament. Atwill has provided what appears to be a reasonable explanation for the origin of the NT- it’s a satire of Titus Flavius military campaign through Judea. Titus is Jesus. Atwill makes sense out of the bizarre stories contained in the NT. Has anyone else read this book? BTW I enjoy your blog Hemant.

  • Steve

    There was no historical biblical Jesus. The default position is that the entire bible, not just the tall tales about Jesus, is fiction. The events and characters are not verifiable, so there is no reason to take such fantastic stories seriously. The stories are so ridiculous that one cannot suspend disbelief long enough to discuss debating the historicity of any of the bible. Samson was strong because he had long hair. Uh huh. No need to go to gym then, is there. Jonah swam around inside a big fish for a couple of days and emerged none the worse for wear. Sure.
    Talking animals, bodies of water opening for the Chosen People, god speaking to an assortment of people, etc. etc. Really now. What kind of minds accept this obvious fiction?.


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