If you’re not familiar with it, the “Jesus Myth” hypothesis suggests that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, or at least the Jesus described in the New Testament never existed, but his story was composed as a kind of pastiche with bits and pieces from other legends and myths.
It’s a silly hypothesis, really, but don’t take my word for it. See Oxford’s R. T. France in The Evidence for Jesus, Ronald Nash’s The Gospel and the Greeks, or Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? if the first two are too conservative for you. Or you can see the series I published in 2010 from Cambridge scholar James Hannam, and the sources cited there (at the end of part two).
The Jesus Mythicists — which include a fair number of New Atheists, and a high proportion of neo-Pagans are Jesus Mythers as well, led by the likes of the gobsmackingly silly Acharya S — have always complained at the absence of a serious scholarly response to their claims. They’ve suggested this is because the biblical scholarship establishment is afraid to confront their arguments, or determined to protect historical Christianity.
Larry Hurtado, a professor emeritus in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, explains why he has never gotten around to writing a book refuting the Jesus Myth, apart from general busy-ness:
…another reason for feeling it less than necessary to spend a lot of time on the matter is that all the skeptical arguments have been made and effectively engaged many decades ago. Before posting this, I spent a bit of time perusing my copy of H. G. Wood, Did Christ Really Live?, which was published in 1938. In it, Wood cites various figures of the early 20th century who had claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was a fiction, and patiently and cordially engages the specifics of evidence and argument, showing that the attacks fail.
So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot.
When examined carefully and critically, the arguments in favor of the Jesus Myth hypothesis really are that bad.
But let me add another point. Anyone who has actually spent time at elite universities amongst the leading biblical scholars and historians of early Christianity will know that it’s patently absurd that these scholars would avoid the Jesus Myth hypothesis because of its supposed potential to prove devastating to traditional Christian belief. The leading scholars in those fields are actually over-eager to latch onto theories that challenge traditional Christian belief. This is not just because some of them are former Christians who have left their faith and wish to prove themselves justified in doing so, and because others are Jews or atheists who really have no interest in playing footsie with traditional Christian belief, and because still others are former conservative Christians who are now quite liberal and wish to show the traditionalists how foolish they are — although all of those things are true. It’s also because the dynamics of publication and (therefore) tenure are such that they reward people who challenge convention, reward people who tear down the old certainties, and reward those who make sensationalistic claims — if they can do those things while meeting at least minimal scholarly standards.
But the fact is, you cannot make the Jesus Myth argument in a way that meets minimal scholarly standards. If it could be done, there would be a bunch of doctoral students and young professors on tenure track trying to make their careers on it. The fact that there are not droves of such over-eager, looking-to-debunk-traditional-Christian-beliefs scholars who think they can make a plausible argument for the Jesus Myth hypothesis really tells you something.