Did Jesus Really Exist?

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.

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  • DougH

    I saw a video of Bart Erhman reading excerpts from his book on Jesus’s historicity, and the only reason he wrote the book was because he kept meeting people that had heard he supported the “Jesus as Myth” hypothesis. He’d probably agree with Hurtado about it being a settled question scholarshipwise, but got dragged into it anyway.

  • Steven Carr

    How come Professors at noted universities write articles such as the following http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/dav368029.shtml

    Everybody knows that such scholars simply do not exist!

    Beside, Bart Ehrman proved Jesus existed. When the Gospels tell the story of Jesus raising a child from the dead, some of the words are in Aramaic. How much more proof do these people want that Jesus existed!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      What he writes: “a recognition that his existence is not entirely certain would nudge Jesus scholarship towards academic respectability.”

      I absolutely agree with that. Nothing terribly controversial there. We cannot prove the existence of Abraham Lincoln either, for that matter, since historical arguments can only give you approximations. Kierkegaard wrote about this, and this kind of conversation has been going on for three hundred years, about the uncertainty of historical knowledge and the question of how do you essentially stake your life and the way you choose to live your life on an objectively uncertain proposition. Kierkegaard had a great answer to that.

      But that’s a far cry from saying “Jesus did not exist and all the stories are just composites from other ancient myth stories,” for which the arguments are dreadful, ridiculous, and in many cases completely misinformed.

      • Steven Carr

        ‘ We cannot prove the existence of Abraham Lincoln either, for that matter, since historical arguments can only give you approximations’

        I don’t quite grasp your sense of humour here. I’m sure this is my fault.

        You mean we can’t prove that all those old newspapers mentioning him aren’t some sort of giant hoax?

        I must be taking you way too literally. I apologise.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          No joke. You’re interpreting me correctly. Historical evidence is always probabilistic, even if it’s 99.99 percent. At some point, though, we say “I know that there was an Abraham Lincoln.” I’m giving an extreme example, of course, because Abraham Lincoln was more recent and was the President of the US, so there’s an abundance of evidence, including photographs. But it’s always possible — incredibly astronomically unlikely, but possible — that some of the people we’re sure existed were actually some kind of hoax or composite or so on.

          In actually practice, we don’t require 100% certainty to say that we “know” something. We both know there was an Abraham Lincoln, even though historical arguments are always probabilistic (and become more so, the further back you go, and the fewer sources you have for evidence). The point is: if we say that we cannot know that Jesus of Nazareth existed, either we need to abandon history as practiced or we need to say that we don’t really know anything about history past, say, two hundred years ago. The canon of historical inquiry would fall apart.

          • Of course it’s a matter of probability, but surely the probability that Jesus didn’t exist isn’t anywhere near as remote as the probability that Abraham Lincoln didn’t exist or the moon landing didn’t occur or the Holocaust didn’t occur. Nevertheless, historical Jesus scholars routinely resort to these kind of comparisons.

            If the historical Jesus of mainstream secular scholarship existed, it is entirely possible that he was an obscure itinerant preacher whose life attracted little notice outside a relatively small group of illiterate peasants until such point when he irritated the Roman authorities sufficiently that he became one of countless victims of crucifixion. Such a person would likely as not have come and gone without leaving any mark in the historical record that would still be discernible 2000 years later. How can it threaten our knowledge of history to question the existence of someone whose life wouldn’t be expected to have left a significant historical footprint?

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            It doesn’t threaten our knowledge of history. The point is, there actually is a good amount of evidence for Jesus’ existence, and if we determined that that evidence was insufficient, then we could say next to nothing about anyone in the ancient world.

          • It all depends on why we decided that the evidence of Jesus’ existence was insufficient. From what I can tell, the overwhelming majority of people in the ancient world about whose existence historians are certain left their mark in the historical record as a result of things that they said or did during their lives that had an impact on the literate and prominent people of their day. Jesus of Nazareth is unique in that his existence is known to us as a result of supernatural events that were believed to have taken place after he died. Had it not been for the belief that arose in the resurrection, it seems unlikely that any stories about Jesus would have been preserved. I think that this poses unique problems for establishing the historicity of the Jesus with which scholars have not adequately engaged. If I am correct, then there is no reason that questions about the existence of a historical Jesus should cause doubt about anything else that historians think they know about the ancient world.

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            This is an intelligent response, Vinny, but the evidence for Jesus’ existence (remember we’re talking about his existence here and not his miracles – but I understand your point) is pretty straightforward historical evidence, and pretty compelling. Have you had a chance to look at Ehrman or R. T. France or someone along those lines? Even N. T. Wright, though he’s not writing specifically about Jesus’ existence, is a great example of what a responsible (albeit Christian) historian does with the evidence. I might also recommend one or our own bloggers, Mark T. Roberts, who has some interesting series on these things. He’s a Harvard PhD in the subject. They’re blog posts, and so they don’t go to the same depth as a book, and should be read with that understanding. But they’re still helpful, I think.


          • I read Did Jesus Exist?, but I was very disappointed. I thought that if anyone could push me off the fence of historical Jesus agnosticism, it would be Ehrman. It’s not that I don’t think that one might reasonably believe it more likely than not that Jesus existed, it’s just that when someone insists that it can be known “beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt,” I have my doubts that he has really thought through all the problems.

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            Well, I’m not a fan of Ehrman, and haven’t read that one, so I can’t say much for it, to be honest.