Did Jesus Exit? – Part 1

Let me lay my prejudices out on the table, before I get into the pros and cons about Bart Ehrman’s case for Jesus being an actual historical person.

My current opinion is that it is very likely that Jesus existed, but I don’t think that anything about Jesus is certain, so I would allow for about one chance in ten that Jesus was NOT a real person.

I am a skeptic about the claim that “Jesus rose from the dead”, so although my current opinion favors an historical Jesus, I have an interest in the correctness of the view that Jesus is a mythical, i.e. non-historical, person. If there was no Jesus of Nazareth, then there was no resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. So, if a good case can be made for Jesus being a myth, that helps my case against the resurrection.

If Jesus did not EXIST, then Jesus did not EXIT this life by dying on a cross in Jerusalem on Good Friday. If Jesus did not EXIT this life, then Jesus did not rise from the dead.

On the other hand, if a good case can be made for the view that Jesus was a real hisorical person, that impacts my skeptical case against the resurrection of Jesus. However, there are many good reasons to doubt the basic historical claims that are used in support of the resurrection, so I don’t really need to have a strong case for the view that Jesus is a myth.

If in  his book Did Jesus Exist? Bart Ehrman makes a strong case for Jesus being an historical person, then my opinion might change, but only slightly.  Perhaps, I would be willing to bump up the probability that Jesus was a real person from .90 to .95, but I doubt that even a strong case would change my probability estimate that much. A probability of .9 seems fairly high for a ‘fact’ about ancient history, even for a basic assumption such as the existence of Jesus.

On the other hand, if I find out that Bart’s case is as weak as the mythicists claim it to be, and if I find that one of the leading mythicists makes a strong case for Jesus being non-historical, then my opinion would go the opposite direction. There is a lot more room heading downward from a probability of .9. So, I might revise the probabilty down to .8 or .7 or .6 or .5 or .4, etc., depending on how weak Ehrman’s case is and on the strength of the best mythicist case.

I have read some of what Earl Doherty and G.A. Wells and Richard Carrier have said on this topic (not yet familiar with Robert Price’s stuff), so I doubt that a closer examination will move me to the complete opposite position (.1 probability that Jesus existed and .9 probability that Jesus is a myth). So, barring an unlikely radical shift in my thinking, I expect that a careful examination of this issue will leave me somewhere between a probability of .9 that Jesus is historical (my current view) and a probability of .3 that Jesus is historical.

In general, anyone who claims to be confident that the probability that Jesus existed is greater than .9 (on the historical Jesus side) or less than .1 (on the mythicist side) will lose credibility as an historical thinker in my view.

Given that I am a skeptic and have firmly rejected Christianity for a variety of reasons, I have an interest in the correctness of the mythicist point of view. But my current opinion is that Jesus was probably an historical person. So, those are my main prejudices on this issue, and since they point in opposite directions, I believe that I am open to giving serious consideration to the arguments and cases both for and against the view that Jesus was an historical person.

Since the main disputants in this issue talk about who has appropriate credentials and who does not, I should lay out my own credentials, or lack of them. I am not an historian. I am not an NT scholar. I don’t know Greek or Latin or Hebrew or Aramaic. My educational background is in philosophy, with a focus on ethics, philosophy of religion, and critical thinking. Like the issue of the resurrection, I see the issue of the historical Jesus as an interdisciplinary issue, so philosophy has a role to play here, as it does with the resurrection issue. Critical thinking is relevant to any issue whatsoever.

Furthermore, though I’m not a scholar, Bart Ehrman is an NT scholar, Robert Price is an NT scholar, Richard Carrier is an historian, and Earl Doherty clearly knows a ton of facts and arguments on this issue. So, we have a lot of knowledge and expertise in the writings of these people to draw upon.

If Ehrman makes a mistake in asserting some historical fact, one of the well-informed mythicists will likely point that error out. If one of the mythicists makes a claim or assumption that is questionable from the point of view of NT scholarship, Ehrman will likely point that out. They are all capable of pointing out errors of logic and reasoning in each others arguments, so there is lots of help there from these experts.

Finally, Jesus is not the property of NT scholars nor of historians. The issue of whether Jesus is the divine Son of God belongs to every thinking person, at least every thinking person in the West, where Christianity has been the dominant religion for many centuries.

The issue of whether Jesus rose from the dead thus belongs to every thinking person, as does the issue of whether Jesus existed. If Jesus did not EXIST, then Jesus did not EXIT this life on the cross, and did not rise from the dead, and thus was not the divine Son of God.

I have been assuming here that ‘If Jesus was not an historical person, then Jesus did not exist’. But it occurs to me that, strictly speaking, this assumption is not true. Perhaps this is hair-splitting, but what appears to be hair-splitting often leads to a significant conceptual point, so I’m going to briefly consider this objection…

One way in which it could be true that Jesus was NOT an historical person but was instead a mythical person, is if Jesus were the product of visions or hallucinations. Both Paul and Peter, the great original evangelists of Christianity, experienced ‘visions’ according to the NT.

Also, Gospel scholars take seriously the possibility that some of the sayings of Jesus were generated as prophecy: early Christian believers having ecstatic experiences that they took to be experiences of Jesus or the Holy Spirit resulted in utterances of wisdom that were taken to be the words of Christ from heaven. Such prophetic messages from Christ could have been later interpreted to be words spoken by the historical Jesus. If some of the sayings of Jesus were produced this way, then it is at least theoretically possible that ALL of the sayings (and doings) of Jesus were produced by means of visions and prophecy.

If the Gospel stories about the historical Jesus originated in visions and prophecy from early Christians, this could explain why we have the Gospel accounts of Jesus, when Jesus was not an actual historical person. In this case Jesus would literally be a myth, in that the term ‘myth’ is most properly used of stories of alleged experiences of angels, spririts, and gods.

In this case, though, it is still possible that Jesus existed. If God or angels or spirits are only manifested to humans through visions and prophecy, it is still possible that God exists, that angels exist, or that spirits exist.

We skeptics are not likely to be persuaded by the “evidence” of visions and prophecy. We skeptics are likely to take such experiences to be hallucinations or purely subjective experiences with no supernatural cause or object behind them.

But, if someone claims to have had a vision of Jesus, it is at least theoretically possible that the vision was veridical and that there was a Jesus who existed and was the object or cause of that experience. In this case, there would be no historical (flesh-and-blood) Jesus of Nazareth, but there would be an actual Jesus, an existing Jesus, a supernatural Jesus or Christ who resides in heaven.

However, if the Gospels are mostly or entirely the product of visions and prophecy, and not the product of people interacting with a flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth, then the Gospels are myths in both senses of this word. The Gospels would be about a heavenly Jesus/Christ rather than an earthly flesh-and-blood Jesus, and the Gospels would NOT be historical but rather fictional, at least when read as biography. They would be fictional biographies filled with false historical claims, and the project of Christian Apologetics would be dead.

  • Keith Parsons

    This should be a fun discussion.

    Actually, “Did Jesus Exist?” needs to be clarified. I would put it this way: “Was there a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in the early first century, who can be identified with the ‘Jesus’ of the canonical Gospels?” To be identified with the Jesus of the Gospels, this putative Jesus would have to have SOME of the characteristics of the Biblical Jesus. If there were a “Jesus” who lived in Nazareth at the time and ran a used camel lot and never had any interest in religious matters, then this person, obviously, could not be identified with the NT Jesus. It seems, then, that we should ask three questions:

    1) Was there a Jesus minimally like the NT Jesus? It may be objected that there are so many differences between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John that there is no coherent depiction of a “New Testament” Jesus, and I should instead ask whether there was a historical person identifiable with the Jesus of the Synoptics or identifiable with the Jesus of John. I will assume that the differences (which are real) between the depiction of Jesus in the Synoptics and the John are not THAT different and that they agree on enough points to permit a general, core depiction of Jesus to be gathered from the Gospels. What I am asking, then, is whether there was someone who was to some minimal degree like the Jesus of the Gospels. Let’s say someone who was a wandering rabbi from Galilee, who attracted a following, and somehow fell afoul of the Romans and got crucified.

    2) Was there a Jesus moderately like the NT Jesus? Was there someone who did many or most of the non-miraculous things attributed to him in the Gospels? That is, was there a wandering rabbi from Galilee, eventually crucified by the Romans, who taught or most of the themes of his preaching as recorded in the Gospels? For instance, would the “Sermon on the Mount” be a fairly good record of the teaching of this rabbi?

    3) Was there a Jesus maximally like the NT Jesus? That is, was there a person who did all, or nearly all, of the deeds, miraculous and non-miraculous, attributed to him in the Gospels, and who was born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, and who was miraculously raised on the third day?

    Let’s call these Minimal Jesus, Moderate Jesus, and Maximal Jesus. I think that an atheist could be quite happy admitting that Minimal Jesus–or even Moderate Jesus–existed. Moderate Jesus seems to be the one most liberal Christians accept, and Maximal Jesus is the one evangelicals and fundamentalists would endorse.

    Hence, “Did Jesus Exist?” is actually several questions that admit of a range of levels of belief and skepticism.

    What should be the default hypothesis here? Mythicists would probably say that the non-existence of any identifiable Jesus is the default hypothesis and that the burden of proof is on anyone who makes any historical claim at all. Evangelicals would say that you should trust the Gospels and that the burden of proof should fall on anyone raising skeptical objections.

    I would plump for Minimal Jesus as the default hypothesis. This one seems the simplest to me in the sense of requiring the fewest gratuitous assumptions. From what we know of the composition of the Gospels, they were written down by second-generation Christians based on the oral traditions of the first-generation Christians. Of course, as is well known, the Gospels contain much that is ax-grinding, confused, contradictory, or obviously fictitious. Still, I will (non-dogmatically) suggest that the Gospel records indicate a memory, obviously with much overlay of interpretation and distortion, of a remarkable personality who preached, gathered followers, and was executed by the Romans. Giving this minimal degree of credulity to the Gospel records seems prima facie more reasonable to me than to assume total fabrication or verbatim truth.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Keith Parsons said:

      What should be the default hypothesis here? Mythicists would probably say that the non-existence of any identifiable Jesus is the default hypothesis and that the burden of proof is on anyone who makes any historical claim at all. Evangelicals would say that you should trust the Gospels and that the burden of proof should fall on anyone raising skeptical objections.

      I would plump for Minimal Jesus as the default hypothesis.

      ====================
      Response:

      The Minimal Jesus hypothesis would be the easiest to defend for an advocate of the view that Jesus was an historical person. The mythicists, I believe, reject the Minimal Jesus hypothesis, so this seems like the issue to focus in on.

      I’m not sure this should be the ‘default’ position though, especially since it seems so plausible and supportable. No need to give this simple hypothesis any extra advantage. Ehrman probably intends something like the Minimal Jesus hypothesis anyway (I will look for indications of this as I review his arguments).

      If Ehrman is asserting this simple and apparently plausible hypothesis, then let him bear the burden of proof. If he is unable to make a good case for the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis (MJH), then we ought to doubt that hypothesis.

      The Evangelical position you describe is not plausible, because there are so many OBVIOUS issues with the Gospels, even without getting very deeply into NT scholarship:

      Who wrote the Gospels? Were the authors of the Gospels eyewitnesses of some of the events they describe? If so, which events? When were the Gospels written? What do we know about the honesty and credibility of the authors of the Gospels? Are the authors of the Gospels neutral and objective historians or did they have religious and ideological motivations for writing the Gospels? What sources were used by the authors of the Gospels? How reliable were ancient histories and biographies? How skeptical are we towards other non-Christian literature that is filled with stories of miracles or supernatural events?

      Just a little bit of reflection and a little bit of reading on the subject of the Gospels and all sorts of Red Flags should be waving. One could give the Gospels the benefit of the doubt only if one steadfastly refused to even briefly ponder such questions as those mentioned above.

      • Keith Parsons

        Yep. Obvious indeed. In “Why I am not a Christian,” written in 2000, I put it this way:

        What confidence can we have in documents, (1) authored by persons unknown (with the possible exception of Luke, who admits he was not an eyewitness), (2) written four or more decades after the events they purportedly describe, (3) drawn upon oral traditions, and hence subject to the unreliability of human memory, (4) each with a clear theological bias and apologetic agenda, (5) containing many undeniably fictional literary forms, (6) inconsistent with each other (except where one gospel plagiarizes another), (7) at odds with many known facts, (8) with virtually no support from independent sources, and (9) testifying to events which, in ordinary circumstances, we would regard as unlikely in the extreme?

        Pretty much the same as the problems you list.

        Last term I had my logic/critical thinking class do a project on “Flight Nineteen.” This was the flight of TBF Avenger dive bombers that took off from the Ft. Lauderdale Naval Air Station in December of 1945 and disappeared. Over the years many spooky and sensationalist stories sprung up around these events and got a lot of publicity in potboilers about the “Bermuda Triangle.” Stories were spread about wild reports received from the air crews about weird phenomena and unnatural events. These stories spread like crazy, even influencing Steven Spielberg, who opened Close Encounters of the Third Kind with the reappearance of the dive bombers in the Sonoran Desert. I saw a “documentary” narrated by Vincent Price about the “Bermuda Triangle” that highlighted the supposedly inexplicable disappearance of Flight Nineteen.

        In the 1970′s skeptic Larry Kusche did an extensive study of this event and found a number of people who were in the control tower monitoring the incoming calls from Flight Nineteen on the day it disappeared. They flatly contradicted the weird reports saying that nothing even vaguely like that was heard on that day.

        Another notable incident was the Darwin deathbed story. As historian James Moore documents, soon after Darwin’s death and continuing for decades after, a false story spread that the dying Darwin had repudiated evolution and called upon Christ for salvation. This story spread and grew despite the repeated vigorous and explicit denials by the Darwin children who were present during their father’s final illness.

        I have to laugh, then, when i hear Christian apologists claiming that no false stories could have gotten into the Gospels, because the eyewitnesses were still alive and would have repudiated those tales. Nothing stops a good story that lots of people want to believe, least of all the testimony of those who were there.

  • Chris

    “One way in which it could be true that Jesus was NOT an historical person but was instead a mythical person, is if Jesus were the product of visions or hallucinations.”

    I believe that is pretty much the gist of what Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier believe. (You may already know that.)

    • Bradley Bowen

      Prophecy and visions were part of the explanation, but for Doherty the basic explanation of the Gospel stories is two-fold: the Galilee tradition and the Jerusalem tradition. Both were Jewish religious traditions, but the Jerusalem tradition combined “Jewish and pagan traditions”.(The Jesus Puzzle, p.4). So, pagan myths and ideas are an important part of the basis of the Gospels.

  • MNb

    “so I would allow for about one chance in ten”
    Nice – I once did a very simple and rough calculation and arrived at 12,5 %.

    “that impacts …”
    Sorry, I don’t understand this. Especially during Antiquity all kinds of myths were attached to historical figures. There is no reason to make an exception for Jesus.
    As for the resurrection I think the natural sciences have something to say about it as well.

    A somewhat childish question: does this imply you might not take yourself seriously in the future?
    “bump up the probability… from .90 to .95″
    “greater than .9… will lose credibility”
    It doesn’t sound particularly consistent.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Do you recall how you setup the calculation? What sorts of factors/considerations did you use? I would be interested to hear more.

      I think your second comment is about this statement in my post:

      “On the other hand, if a good case can be made for the view that Jesus was a real hisorical person, that impacts my skeptical case against the resurrection of Jesus.”

      The impact is very straightforward. If you assign a probability of .9 to the assumption that Jesus was an historical (i.e. flesh-and-blood) human being. Then the probability of the claim “Jesus rose from the dead” CANNOT be any higher than .9. Furthermore, given that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is obviously less than compelling, the probability (supposing that Jesus did exist) is going to be no more than .9 at best. Best case imaginable for the resurrection: .9 probability that Jesus existed and .9 probability that (assuming he existed) Jesus rose from the dead; therefore: best case probability of “Jesus rose from the dead” would be .81, rounding to one significant figure: .8.

      But, suppose that the evidence for the assumption that Jesus was an historical person was weak, and the evidence for the myth theory was at least as strong as the evidence for historicity. We woudl then drop the probability of Jesus being historical down to .5. Given this lower probability for the existence of Jesus, the best case scenario would become probability of Jesus existing .5 and the probability that he rose from the dead .9; therefore the maximum probability of “Jesus rose from the dead” would also drop down to: .45, or .5 rounded to one significant figure.

      My point is that the lower the probability of the assumption that Jesus existed, the lower the probability will be that “Jesus rose from the dead”.

      As for your third point, it does look like I was being inconsistent. I could say that .95 would be reasonable, but anything higher would not be. But this is too precise to be plausible. In any case, the closer one gets to a claim of certainty, the harder it is to make a compelling case, especially when the question at issue is one of ancient history.

    • MNb

      It’s really very simple. We have three independent sources for a historical Jesus:
      1. The New Testament;
      2. Flavius Josephus;
      3. Bishop Polycarpus, Bishop of Smyrna, historicity 0,9999 (ie beyond reasonable doubt; European usage of decimals) has been assumed to be the pupil of an apostle, which implies a messiah. This claim has been made by two independent sources and thus has to be taken seriously.

      Now all three sources could be wrong for one reason or another. According to the mythologist though they all three must be wrong. Only one has to be correct and we will conclude that Jesus was historical indeed. So if we assign a probability of 0,5 to each source the probability that they all three are wrong is 0,5 * 0,5 * 0,5 = 0,125. This means a historicity of 0,875. The margin of inaccuracy is quite wide of course. It’s still close to your 0,9. The main point though is that the mythologist has a lot of work to do.

      “My point is that the lower the probability ….”
      Yes, but I’m not sure the relation can be inverted. In math it automatically follows that the higher the historicity the higher the probability for resurrection. But I’m not sure that this math can be applied here given the fact that resurrections contradict some laws of natural sciences. The correlation historicity – resurrection seems to go one way to me.

      • Bradley Bowen

        MNb said:

        It’s really very simple. We have three independent sources for a historical Jesus:
        1. The New Testament;
        2. Flavius Josephus;
        3. Bishop Polycarpus, Bishop of Smyrna…

        ==================
        Response:

        Not quite that simple.

        Ehrman, who firmly believes and defends the historicity of Jesus says of Josephus:

        “the Testimonium of Josephus…is only marginally relevant to the question of whether Jesus existed.” (DJE, p.66)

      • Bradley Bowen

        MNb said:

        “My point is that the lower the probability ….”

        Yes, but I’m not sure the relation can be inverted. In math it automatically follows that the higher the historicity the higher the probability for resurrection. But I’m not sure that this math can be applied here given the fact that resurrections contradict some laws of natural sciences. The correlation historicity – resurrection seems to go one way to me.

        =================
        Response:

        You are correct that the probability of the resurrection does NOT automatically go up with the probability of the existence of Jesus.

        However, I was talking about the MAXIMUM limit of the probability of the resurrection, and if the existence of Jesus is a necessary condition for the resurrection of Jesus, then the probability of Jesus’ existence places one constraint (a maximum limit) on the probability of the resurrection of Jesus. The MAXIMUM that is imposed by this constraint rises or falls with the probability of the existence of Jesus.

        There are other considerations and constraints that also apply to the resurrection of Jesus, so the probability all-things-considered will presumably end up significantly lower than the maximum limit imposed by the probability of the existence of Jesus.

      • gregorius XXI

        So if we assign a probability of 0,5 to each source the probability that
        they all three are wrong is 0,5 * 0,5 * 0,5 = 0,125. This means a
        historicity of 0,875.

        I see some problems with the math. Suppose we decide not that Josephus was “wrong” but irrelevant. For example, that Jesus (Yeshua) was a common name, and that Josephus wrote about 20 different blokes named Jesus (Wikipedia) and that a couple of passages construed to be about Jesus H. Christ were either 1) forged or 2) mistakenly interpreted, and that even if it did mean Jesus H. Christ, that a passage written ~ 90 CE does not constitute independent evidence for the existence of anything, but merely hearsay.
        Suppose all that, the what happens to the probability you assigned to Josephus as a historical source? Does it go to 0.5 (no information) or to 0.0? If it goes to 0.0, the way your equation is constructed, that would wipe out any other contribution. It neutrality mean 0.5, then we could raise dozens of other potential sources (e.g. various later Greco-Roman writers) and claim they contribute a probability of 0.5 also.

        What if we were to decide that some of these source were not independent? (e.g. Josephus got his idea of Jesus H. Christ by seeing an early copy of the NT) Then the whole construction of your equation has to change.
        In short, I question your mathematical construct.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Most of us, being atheists, agree that the NT is not good evidence for a supernatural Jesus H. Christ. But still you think that the probability of a historical Jesus H. Christ is 0.9 or so.
    But the NT does a very poor job of supporting any details of the life of Jesus H. Christ beyond his teachings and miracles. Most details of his birth were fabricated to fulfill alleged OT prophecies. Link to Bethlehem – check. Flight to Egypt – check. Nicknamed Emmanuel – check. Er, no wait; no one ever called him Emmanuel. His paternal lineage fabricated – in two different ways! – to rig up a link to the “House of David.”

    If you throw out the miracle stories, which are ridiculous for reasons beyond the scope of this post, and the teachings, which are a collection of parables and proverbs both unoriginal and inconsistent enough to question whether they all came from a single source; then what the heck is left? There is no ‘there’ there.

  • KacyRay

    One possibility not discussed here is that there was a real Jesus, who was a real preacher, who really lived during the time frame of the “Jesus” talked about in the gospels, who really was crucified, none of whose actual story has been told.

    In other words… he’s not historical (because the stories told about “Jesus” in the gospels weren’t actually about him but rather an invention), yet he was flesh-and-blood real.

    Not that I believe such a scenario… but since you were discussing possibilities, I thought it was wroth mentioning. I suppose it’s a pretty useless possibility, but no less useful than the “vision” hypothetical.

    It’s all equally arbitrary, I suppose.


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