James McGrath on Skepticism and the Historical Jesus

by VorJack

You may know of Dr. James McGrath, a professor of religion at Butler University. He’s the author of two excellent books on the history of Christianity, The Burial of Jesus and The Only True God. He’s also a blogger at Exploring Our Matrix, where he blogs about religion, biblical history and the show Lost. He’s also an occasional commenter here at UF, so show some love.

McGrath has occasionally fenced with the mythicists on his blog. In a recent post, he noted that discussion of mythicism has cropped up on several atheist forums. (Actually, atheist sites like Internet Infidels have been arguing about this for years now.) McGrath called out to the skeptics and freethinkers to stay true to our first principles:

All I’ll say for now is that I encourage the atheists and freethinkers at these forums to live up to their principles and reputations. You rightly stand against pseudoscience in favor of mainstream science. Don’t be easily duped into discarding mainstream scholarship in history because a few fringe folks have made a plausible sounding case that appeals to what you’d like to be true. You know better than that. Inform yourselves about rigorous mainstream scholarship in history just as you’d want creationists to do with the natural sciences. It’s the right thing to do, and you know it. By all means, make up your own minds. But don’t just listen to fringe views expressed on the internet and in self-published books. You know where that road leads, and have surely criticized others for following that path. I don’t ask for any sort of special hearing for any particular viewpoint. I just ask you to be true to your principles!

When “for now” ended, McGrath stirred the pot by comparing mythicism to creationism, in a series of posts starting here.

For the record, I basically agree with McGrath, though I think a better comparison might be between mythicism and certain kinds of conspiracy theory. Most mythicists are content to poke holes in the existing model of the historical Jesus. At least for the moment, mythicism hasn’t really produced a coherent theory that explains the evidence we have, which is a requirement in history.

Of course, you may disagree. If so, Neil Godfrey over at the blog Vridar is responding to most of McGrath’s arguments.

The Dome Overhead
Bob Cargill on the Holy Grail
I Cannot Tell a Lie
Martyrs for Science
  • Custador

    While I am not absolutely certain that Jesus was not a real, historical person, I am unaware of any evidence to suggest that he was. The bible, I’m afraid, simply does not count as a reliable historical source.

    Frankly, I don’t see it as up to me to prove a negative. If Jesus really did exist, then please tell me: where’s the evidence?

    • Jeremy

      It may not be provable, but I’d suggest that claiming the character is complete fiction raises more questions than it answers. It seems to me far more believable to say there was a rabbi/teacher named Jesus from Nazareth, and he was probably executed by the Romans, and after his death the legends of miracles and a resurrection grew among those seeking salvation from the Romans.

      The bible is not an historical source in the sense that the fundies mean it, but it is an historical document that records the stories that were going around at the time. I think Hitchens has it right that while we can fairly easily throw out most of the fantastic claims of the life of Jesus, the fact that they exist tells us something was going on. Why invent a convoluted birth story unless the character you’re basing it on was actually real and from Nazareth, and you had to somehow make it so he was born where the scriptures prophesied.

      Charismatic Jewish teachers with followings were a dime a dozen at that time, particularly around Galilee. I find it much more believable to think the followers of one invented a Messiah and resurrection myth following his death, rather than have a following spring up around completely fictional character.

      • Peter Cross

        It may not be provable, but I’d suggest that claiming the character is complete fiction raises more questions than it answers.

        So then, do you think there really was a lumberjack named Paul Bunyan? Does it even matter if there was?

        • http://www.dctouristsandlocals.wordpress.com Gringa

          There was a Johnny Appleseed, no?

      • Ty

        I agree. Considering the number of apocalyptic rabbis that were probably wandering the countryside at the time, and considering how commonplace the Jewish name Yeshua was, it would seem pretty improbable that there wasn’t at least one rabbi of that name preaching against the Roman occupation in apocalyptic terms.

        I also think it’s pretty likely that King Priam of Troy was based on some historical figure. Doesn’t mean I think the god Mars strode the battlefield around Troy in a cloak made of human skin.

    • DarkMatter

      “Joh 14:12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father”

      I have not seen in my time any believer can to the works of jesus in the bible, let alone greater works, but lots of fake believers, all fake really.

      I am compelled also to say “no, not one”.

  • mikespeir

    It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. I suspect Jesus really lived. I also suspect that the Gospels don’t tell us much reliable about his life.

    • JohnMWhite

      As Custador asks, though, what evidence do we have to make us suspect Jesus really lived? I would agree with his stance that it is not up to the sceptic to prove a negative. I don’t think it is a zany conspiracy theory to see Jesus as mythology, it’s just that mythology is all we have to go on to suggest such a figure ever did exist. McGrath argues that we should not discount mainstream scholarship but I’d like to see what mainstream scholarship has in the way of evidence of the historicity of Jesus.

      • mikespeir

        You will notice that I said, “I suspect Jesus really lived.”

        Evidence? Well, the Gospels themselves are evidence. Good evidence? Hardly! And it sure wouldn’t break my heart to learn that Jesus was entirely fictional. I guess I just subscribe to the platitude, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” even though I know well enough that you don’t really have to have fire to have smoke. It’s just that they’re usually found together. So, if I have to guess, I’ll guess on that basis.

        • JohnMWhite

          I understand it’s a suspicion rather than you claiming to have definitive proof, but still, that some books written generations later say some guy existed seems very thin even to base a suspicion on. If we’re just guessing maybe someone existed because a book said so, then we may as well guess there was a real, historical Willy Wonka.

          • Len

            A good historical story mixes bits of history with bits of fiction. Just enough of real history to make the addition of the hero and his or her exploits kinda sorta possible (in terms of times and places), even if implausible in terms the real world we know today. Enough to make you think: well, maybe. Result (if you do it right) – a good yarn. In this case, mytheology.

            Anyway, Aragorn is real. So’s Gandalf. Everyone knows that.

            • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

              Yourtheology? What about mytheology?

          • mikespeir

            There’s not much smoke for Willy Wonka.

            • JohnMWhite

              There’s two books. He’s halfway to Jesus’ credibility.

            • mikespeir

              Do they represent him as a real person?

            • wintermute

              Fargo opens with an explicit declaration that it is a true story, ergo Jerry Lundegaard is as well attested as Jesus. (One movie is the same as four books, right?).

              Paul certainly wasn’t the only one of the early Christians who wrote about Jesus as if he was a mythological (rather than historical) figure, though he is the only one whose work became canon.

            • Custador

              Oh, yaaaaah?

            • mikespeir

              Okay. Jesus and Willy can duke it out. Whoever wins gets to be Messiah. I’m rooting for Willy, just for the sake of deliciousness.

            • http://www.dctouristsandlocals.wordpress.com Gringa

              maybe they’ll give out chocolate candies and fizzy drinks at mass instead of tasteless wafers and cheap wine!

          • Siamang

            So both Johnny Tremain and that mouse that helped Ben Franklin invent the Bifocal are historic figures.

            After all, it’s trivial to imagine that Ben Franklin did, at some time in his life, have a mouse living in his house. Of course, stories that tell of him wearing a waistcoat and climbing up to the kite in the thunderstorm are pure embellishment. But there nevertheless WAS a historic Amos the Mouse.

    • trj

      It’s also perfectly possible that the semi-biographical stories of several people were mixed together into one person.

      At the time, there was no shortage of messiahs travelling around in the area, giving speeches and performing miracles. The life and teachings of Jesus may be an amalgam of various noteworthy speakers, tall tales, and borrowed mythology.

    • http://www.dctouristsandlocals.wordpress.com Gringa

      What types of evidence could have survived from that time and place? Human bones perhaps, but since he conveniently rose from the dead, those are gone. Since he supposedly had no kids, there would be no DNA evidence that could be traced back.

      • Yoav

        One of our fundie friends have made the claim in a comment to a recent post (I’m too lazy to search for it right now) that the lack of bones is actually a proof that jesus rose from the dead.

        • Custador

          That was Jeff in the “Indianapolis Schools Ban Atheism Websites” thread. I have that man’s idiocy scarred into my brain.

        • Sunny Day

          I love that sort of “proof”.

          The fact you can’t find my bones buried ANYWHERE is proof that I rose from the dead.

          I’m MAGIC!

  • Cletus

    The Jesus story has obviously been touched by many dirty hands. As with any story first communicated orally and then recompiled (for political purposes) from a variety of disparate cultural sources (all of whom did their best to jazz-up the plot), what’s left of the real person at the center is unknowable. Hell of a good job of marketing/propaganda, though.

  • Igor

    As I understand it, the Jewish historian of the time, Josephus, does mention a Jesus of Nazareth once or twice, and mentions that he was crucified. That’s about it. As Jeremy says, charismatic Jewish preachers were abundant around Galilee at this time in history, as was the concept that the kingdom of God was at hand. With the According to the Gospels, this is what Jesus preached – it was Paul who mythologized Jesus’ message into the dying/rising saviour who washed away sins – a common Greek/Egyptian myth.

    • Siamang

      Josephus was born around the year 37, and the account, if genuine (and there are doubts on that) were from about the year 100.

      To be blunt, Josephus is writing about the existence of Christians, not the existence of Christ.

  • Igor

    Sorry, I wasn’t finished – I accidentally posted…

    As I understand it, the Jewish historian of the time, Josephus, does mention a Jesus of Nazareth once or twice, and mentions that he was crucified. That’s about it. As Jeremy says, charismatic Jewish preachers were abundant around Galilee at this time in history, as was the concept that the kingdom of God was at hand. With the Roman occupation of Palestine, this was a popular message, giving the Jews hope of overthrowing the Roman domination. According to the Gospels, this is what Jesus preached – it was Paul who mythologized Jesus’ message into the dying/rising saviour who washed away sins – a common Greek/Egyptian myth he was able to sell to the gentiles outside Palestine.

    • Custador

      “Josephus, does mention a Jesus of Nazareth once or twice, and mentions that he was crucified”

      My understanding is that the document you’re talking about was proven to be a fake several hundred years ago.

      • Revyloution

        The entire document wasnt faked, it was embellished. They found a copy that showed words were added to make the person Josephus was talking about sound more like the messiah. Im off to work now, but Ill try and dig up some info later, but my memory is telling me that Josephus did mention Jesus in an offhand way. Something like “And they killed James, the son of Jesus”.

        He also wasn’t a contemporary of Jesus, he was writing in 70 AD, 30 years after the supposed death. Thats pretty close, but not eye witness.

        Off the top of my head, I also remember Pliny and TItus mentioning a Jesus in Jerusalem, but no mention of miracles or any of that nonsense.

        I was convinced by John Loftus over at Debunking Christianity. He laid out a good case for a historical, but non-divinical Jesus.

        • wintermute

          Pliny mentions the existence of Christians in the 2nd Century, and says that they believed that Jesus was a historical figure. He also says that they were more than willing to give up Christianity in favour of Emperor-worship, if the alternative was martyrdom.

          Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshiped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

          I suspect that you’re thinking of Tacitus, rather than Titus. He said that a group calling themselves “Chrestians” took their name from a leader called “Chrestus” who (they claimed) had been executed by Pontius Pilate.

          Nero fastened the guilt of starting the blaze and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [Chrestians] by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius 14-37 at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

          So, in short, we have two historians that lived a hundred years after Jesus died telling us that Christians existed, and that some of them thought that Jesus was a historical figure. Hardly compelling evidence.

          • Mike

            Can’t remember where I read that the reference to ‘Chrestians’ is not an alternative spelling of Christian, but something else entirely.

            • wintermute

              Well, “Chrestus”, I understand*, was a rare but not unheard of Latin name, and may well not have been a mispelling of the Greek word “Christos”. But, even if it wasn’t, “Christos” simply meant “teacher”, and was used by all manner of Hellenic-inspired cults, not just Christianity.

              *I’ve been known to understand incorrectly before, and I’m not sure how reliable this is.

      • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

        I think the wiki article has a pretty good bibliography on the Josephus passage in question.

  • http://www.religico.com fregas

    What is mythicism?

    • JohnMWhite

      The idea that Jesus was a myth rather than a historical figure.

  • Jethro Christ

    One thing we can be almost completely certain of is that Adam and Eve never existed. Because of what science tells us about the history of the Earth and the history of life on Earth, we can reasonably and logically be as certain of Adam and Eve’s non-existence as we can be of the non-existence of the Easter Bunny, or Dwarves living in vast underground cities.

    If Adam and Eve never existed, then there was no Garden of Eden, no snake, no apple-eating, no fig leaves, and no original sin. If there was no original sin, there was no need for Jesus’ blood-sacrifice suicide/redemption, and therefore no need for Jesus.

    So, in reality, since we know that Adam and Eve didn’t exist, and that there was no original sin and that there was no need for redemption, then it really doesn’t matter if some historical Jewish rabbi named Jesus (or several) existed or not. Unless, of course, you’re an apologist/theologian who is trying to justify the existence of your rather useless field of study.

    • Jeremy

      So, in reality, since we know that Adam and Eve didn’t exist, and that there was no original sin and that there was no need for redemption, then it really doesn’t matter if some historical Jewish rabbi named Jesus (or several) existed or not.

      It “matters” in the same sense that any study of history matters. It’s worthwhile to discover what really happened underneath the myths and legends.

      Your “it doesn’t matter” post reminded me of a conversation I had with a fundy about evolution. When it became obvious to everyone that he didn’t know anything of the subject, he dismissed it with a wave saying “This doesn’t help us get to heaven.”

      • JohnMWhite

        I think that’s a bit harsh. He’s not saying we shouldn’t bother studying the historicity of Jesus, just that, in theological terms, if we accept evolution then there’s no point in there having been a Jesus.

    • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

      That is some tortured reasoning, Jethro.

      • LoveBunny

        I’m not sure what you mean by “tortured reasoning”. His argument makes perfect sense to me. If there was no Adam and Eve then there was nothing for Jesus to redeem, and no reason for a character named Jesus (whether he be historical or mythical) to exist at all.

        • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

          His argument does require an explanation for Jesus’ sacrifice. A mythicist would probably say that though the Adam and Eve story is not literally true it is an allegory for a real condition, the sinful state of man, which is in need of redemption. This redemption is achieved in the passion of Christ (which itself may be an allegory).

    • trj

      Original Sin may be interpreted allegorically as a gap that separates humanity from God, even if one at the same time views the Garden of Eden as a myth.

      For that matter, some Christians believe the salvation Jesus offers is not salvation from Original Sin, but from various other things, like death, living in a world of sin, or spending their afterlife in Hell.

      As an aside, it’s interesting to note that many Christians (maybe even most?), when asked, don’t know exactly what Jesus saves them from. They’ve been told “Jesus saves!” and they believe this and tell it to others, but on closer inspection they aren’t really sure what it is Jesus saves them from. That’s my experience, anyway.

      • JohnMWhite

        I do believe the bible says that Jesus’ sacrifice was to save us from death, and death was the result of original sin.

        • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

          Was it the Bible that says this or was it the church fathers? At any rate, it’s really the wrath of God that Jesus saves believers from.

      • John C

        “As an aside, it’s interesting to note that many Christians (maybe even most?), when asked, don’t know exactly what Jesus saves them from”.

        Self. the self lived, self loved life which mankind is captive to. Offers eternal life which is a kind and quality of life in the here and now relationally based in the spirit, ie “this is eternal life, that you know (intimate meaning) the Father and the Son” (John 17:3 & 1 Jn 1&2) as it was in the beginning, before the fall in man’s original. pristine, undefiled, edenic,paradaisical state, ie “heaven”.

        In the beginning, man was “made in the very image and likeness of God” but in the fall mankind received within his own being, and now passes to his progeny a dark, foreign “seed” or nature as a result of having believed/ingested the lie that is not of the God-kind, although there remains a latent residue of sorts, an internal image and remembering of his first, pre-fall state in his consciousness. He sometimes call this high state, this latent image “morality”, good deeds, etc and is always attempting to “do-good”, a sort of self justification and self righteousness apart from God. (can one really be good w/o God) ha.

        The remedy (Christ, the second adam albeit w/o the sin seed/nature) was prophesied in Genesis 3:14&15, that holy Seed that would come through the woman (Mary, a type of the soul of mankind) that once received/believed/lived from, would spread its roots (that root & stem of Jesse”s lineage, ie Christ’s line) through our entire being in a regenerative manner resulting in a perfecting (Col 1:27&28) or restoration back to the original, pre-fall nature, ie no more stain of self, whole, re-aligned as in the original state.

        The true gospel message is all about getting the wrong man (our adam) out and the right man, the second adam (Christ) in again resulting in a whole new creation. We start out by receiving the Truth (Christ) and then the Father undertakes in us a process (this is where most fall away) of purging out the old nature and establishing the new, ie Christ who is the “exact image” of the Father. This mysterious process is symbolized by the children of Israel in the wilderness story in the OT.

        That foreign, dark seed infection in man’s heart (innermost being) is responsible for all the evils, etc in the history of mankind. That’s why JC said “out of a man’s heart comes all manner of evil, adultery, greed, etc”. Man needs a new heart, a new nature altogether but wont receive the Remedy, wont take the Medicine offered so, he continues to wander in the desert of human reasoning…lost in himSELF.

        • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

          The seed was sown 2000 years ago. What kind of fruit, if any, has it produced?

          • Custador

            The Batshit Crazy Fruit if John’s evidence is anythign to go by.

    • Question-I-Thority

      And without Eden there is no second Adam and Paul’s theology falls apart as well.

  • Ryedo

    I take two views on the “historical” Jesus.

    1) As proto-Christianity(the Judaic reform movement) developed during the Hellenistic period, it was mixed with Greek ideas of god. As with most Greek mythology, it has its demi-gods; it wasn’t long before proto-Christianity received its demi-god[Jesus]. If I was to go down this path, I could assume Jesus never actually existed – or some guy was touted as a living demi-god to support the movements agenda.

    2) Jesus did exist, but he was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill religious fanatic – little different from today’s Nigerian preachers – who takes advantage of the populations fear of “demon possessed child witches”.

    I see no reason to believe Jesus – if he existed – was anything other than the above.

    • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

      Hmm. I wonder if there’s any evidence for #2? I think you can make a historical case for at least parts of #1, but I am unaware of any support for position #2, other than a highly anachronistic reading of the Gospels, which also assumes at least some credibility of the Gospel accounts.

      • Ryedo

        Well, I guess #2 could be tied in with 1#. I think at the end of the day, I’m willing to give believers the benefit of doubt, and say, OK, a man named Jesus existed. Of course, they then have to convince me why I should take the so-called eyewitnesses accounts seriously. So far, they’ve failed to convince me that Jesus was anything other than a religious fanatic who took advantage of peoples fears and other emotional needs.

  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

    McGrath is probably my favorite blogger. I admire his courage and his honesty about epistemology, faith, and science. I am probably a bit biased, because our spiritual journeys (for lack of a better term) are quite similar, but regardless, he’s definitely written some great stuff on his blog that I think people from all different viewpoints would find interesting.

    • Question-I-Thority

      I don’t share his life-path but I also admire him as a fair minded scholar.

  • Siamang

    I think that it’s interesting argument from a theological standpoint that an all-knowing God would lock up salvation within belief in a person that it’s very hard to find actual evidence for even the mundane aspects of his existence.

    That’s, I think, what drives some of the mythism. The feeling that it pokes a hole in the apologetic case that Jesus is a rock-solid historical figure on par with Julius Caesar.

    BTW, I have had (reasonably educated) religious people try to claim that we have MORE evidence for the existence of Jesus than we have of Julius Caesar!

    I asked him if we have any documents written by Jesus. Any sculptures of him made in his lifetime. I asked if we have millions of coins minted with his likeness declaring him the king during the time of his life.


    So while I don’t think that mythism is actually supported, the fact that a case can even be made at all is pretty damning of the point of view that Jesus is more real than Julius Caesar.

    • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

      Still, if he doesn’t exist. he is the most influential of all fictional characters, with the possible exception of Satan.

    • Pseudonym

      Incidentally, I have also had (reasonably educated) Atheists make the claim that it’s important to disprove Jesus’ existence because this undermines Christianity.

      The evidence for a historical Jesus is obviously much worse than that of a historical Julius Caesar, but roughly the same as that of a historical Aesop, and slightly better than that of a historical Pythagoras.

      (Before anyone objects “but we have a book written by Aesop”… no we don’t. We have a collection of stories attributed to a historical Aesop dating from a century after he was supposed to exist.)

  • Jenny Brien

    “For the record, I basically agree with McGrath, though I think a better comparison might be between mythicism and certain kinds of conspiracy theory. Most mythicists are content to poke holes in the existing model of the historical Jesus. At least for the moment, mythicism hasn’t really produced a coherent theory that explains the evidence we have, which is a requirement in history.”

    I’m not sure /why/ you prefer this comparison. Are you suggesting that creationists have produced such a coherent theory? If so, where can I find it?

    (BTW, I agree with McGrath too.)

    • VorJack

      Are you suggesting that creationists have produced such a coherent theory?

      *snort* Not really.

      For starters, some mythicist theories are explicitly conspiracist. Joesph Atwill’s Caeser’s Messiah claims that the Jesus legend was concocted by the Flavian dynasty of Rome, along with their lackey Josephus, in order to create a version of Judaism that would help pacify Palestine.

      But mainly because the argument is a completely historical one, while creationism jumps between history and different schools of science.

      Also, because both mythicists and conspiracists seem to prefer complicated theories to the simple, parsimonious established theories. A simple theory (Oswald was crazy and shot JFK) is rejected for a theory that endlessly spirals into greater and greater complexity (Oswald was a patsy who didn’t actually hit JFK who was actually shot by someone on the grassy knoll who was hired by the CIA who also suppressed all the media accounts … and so on).

  • Peter Cross

    At least for the moment, mythicism hasn’t really produced a coherent theory that explains the evidence we have, which is a requirement in history.

    Do other accounts which (I hope) you have no trouble writing off as myth have coherent theories to explain them? Just what is the standard being applied, and is it being applied uniformly to all potential myths?

  • http://www.BestChurchofGod.org Mike D

    John C’s interpretations of biblical meaning are fascinating, elaborate, and honestly quite elegant. But where is the basis for that interpretation in the actual text of the bible? When I read this kind of absolutist concoction of biblical meaning, I can’t help but picture a person staring at a Rorschach test and confidently proclaiming the one and only true interpretation of the ink blot.

    For example, here’s what the KJV text of his cited Gen 3:14-15 actually is:
    “And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

    And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”

    Do you see any prophecy of holy seed coming through Mary? Where exactly is the foretelling of the coming of Christ in that passage? All that’s actually in the text is God cursing a talking snake for tricking the woman.

    Our interpretations of the bible are always so much more creative, profound, and reflective of the human condition that the text itself. Yet Christians unfailingly worship this bare-bones, 2,000 year old pseudo-historical drivel. Where could we be if our imaginations were untethered from The Book? What myths, meanings, and art might we dream up? What realities might we consider?

  • Steve

    Jesus is a figure like Robin Hood, King Arthur, or Jason (of the “Argonauts” story). It is interesting to speculate about possible real historical figures behind such legends, but there is simply no evidence any of them actually existed. The same can be said for many founders of religions, such as the Buddha, Mohammed, Moses, Confucius and Lao Tzu. We in the West have a habit of thinking in terms of ‘it’s either Christianity or Atheism,’ but Jesus is just one among many such characters. No one (well, probably not many) get upset when you claim there’s no evidence Robin Hood existed. People (Muslims) do get upset if you say Mohammed never existed, but many scholars are coming around to the realization that there’s no evidence for even him, who used to be claimed as the one founder of a major world religion about which we supposedly knew something. I personally don’t find it hard to believe that people could invent a founder for their movement out of thin air – people will believe just about anything.

    • Custador

      I really, really hate it when people make me defend anything about religion, but…

      There are lots of contemporary writings about Buddha. I myself have a book called “The Way of The Buddha” which details a lot about his family history prior to his “spiritual awakenings”. We know who he was; there is little doubt that he was a real person.

      Mohammed, similarly. You could trace his family tree back through the leader of the Arab revolution in World War 1 (see: “Lawrence of Arabia”). There are also a lot of contemporary writings about him (not all of them complimentary – a Greek described him in writing as “a false prophet”).

      Confuscius. You’re doubting Confuscius existed? Seriously? Hate to tell you this, but like Buddha we know who he was, who his family were and more importantly we have lots and lots of his own writings to go on.

      I’ll give you Lao Tzu, though. It means “Old Master” and could well be an amalgamation of lots of different people.

      • Francesc

        Yes, other religion founders did exists. And we have plenty of evidences about their existence. Why we don’t have any about Jesus’ life? We are not speaking about a philosopher who had a little bunch of followers, we are speaking about someone who allegedly was performing great miracles while traveling.

        But let’s say that someone named Jesus existed in that time and he was preaching in Jerusalem. Let’s accept that he was killed by the romans. We deny him doing miracles, as to believe that we would need a lot of supporting evidences for them. We know that his teachings where written time after his death and were picked between a bunch of contradictory documents, so we should doubt their veracity. So… what’s left then about the “historical Jesus”?

        • Custador

          Oh, don’t get me wrong Francesc, I am still unconvinced of the existence of an historical Jesus – I think that, if anything, the evidence which we have for the rest of the bunch just throws more doubt on it. Why should other religious figures, some even more ancient than Jesus, be so well documented and yet Jesus not be?

          • Steve

            If you’ll look into it, you’ll find out that actually those stories about the Buddha, Confucius, and Mohammed are not at all contemporary, but were written long after those figures were supposed to have lived. In the case of Muhammed for example, the biographies were written a couple of hundred years after he was said to have been alive, and the stories about Mecca and Medina not only have no evidence to support them, they in fact are historically impossible.

            See (for Muhammed):
            - “The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History”
            - “The Quest for the Historical Muhammad”
            - “Crossroads to Islam: The Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State”
            - “Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam”

            (for Confucius):
            - “Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization”

            (for Buddha):
            - http://religionnewsblog.blogspot.com/2007/06/historicity-of-buddha-is-buddha-legend.html

          • Francesc

            Then we agree :-)

            @Steve, I’ve only looked for the arguments of those books, I haven’t read them, but…
            “The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History” is written by a theologian, and it is an auto-edited book. No peer-review. I love his point when he defends that Islam didn’t was intended to be a new religion. I am just asking myself why he doesn’t say the same about christianity as Jesus “was” (if he existed) not preaching for a new religion, he was preaching as a jew.
            Anyway, are we listening to that theologian because of his arguments or because he is arguing against a popular religion?
            “Zeitgest” was very popular in his moment even in left-wing circles, though it was produced by the far right, because it cryticized governments and religion. A pity their arguments against religions where not true at all.

            “The Quest for the Historical Muhammad” (wikipedia) got those reviews:
            “In his review, Daniel Pipes praised the book as a “fascinating collection of essays” that raises “basic questions for Muslims concerning the prophet’s role as a moral paragon”.[8] Other well-known American scholars such as Fred Donner criticize the selection of essays, describing it as a “monument to duplicity.” Donner writes that Warraq unduly favors revisionist theories in order to advance “anti-Islam polemic,” forwarding that “this lopsided character makes The Quest for the Historical Muhammad a book that is likely to mislead many an unwary general reader.”[9]

            Alfons Teipen, a professor of religion at Furman University, criticized the editing: “The two introductory articles… are one-sided, rather polemical overview[s] of… scholarship on the life of Muhammad.”[10] Asma Afsaruddin described the book as a “partisan work,” but added that Warraq “clearly has an ideological axe to grind.”

            Are you sure that Ibn-Warraq (a pakistani secularist) is not a little biased?

            “Crossroads to Islam”
            “Crossroads to Islam is a work of profound historical and religious revisionism, based on the research and ideas of the eccentric Israeli archaeologist Yehuda Nevo, collected and completed by Judith Koren after Nevo’s death in 1992″
            Still, It may be the better work of those you recommend -from the methodologic point of view.

            the last book, from Patricia Crone, seems to be the least revisionist:
            “An exhaustive examination of all available evidence and sources leads Crone to conclude that Mohammed’s career took place not in Mecca and Medina or in southwest Arabia at all, but in northwest Arabia”
            There is an answer from an islamic professor here:
            who claims that “Crone has changed and substituted some of the
            words mentioned in historical texts. She introduced other
            detached texts, and intentionally ignored the sources
            which contradict her opinions; otherwise, her idea would
            collapse. Also, she stated conclusions without mentioning
            the references she depended upon. Furthermore, she
            accused certain orientalists who disagreed with her of
            trusting Islamic sources despite all their defects.”
            Of course, that professor is a muslim.

            In short, those four books have been written by Hagarists, a revisionist current followed by very few historians. Maybe it’s enough to have a doubt about the existence of Mohammed, but until there is a lot more proves of his existence than about the existence of jesus, and till mainstream scholarship opinion changes i’m going to accept that Mohammed did exist.

            By the way, thanks for the references, some of them seems to be pretty interesting!

  • JonJon

    So, maybe someone can explain something about secondary sources? I know they are privileged less highly than primary sources, but I thought that historians could still, you know, use them for anything at all? I’m curious.

  • Boz

    I am quite conflicted about the jesus real/myth debate. I see persuasive arguments on both sides, and intelligent rational skeptical people (e.g. ebonmuse/daylight atheism supporting myth, and vorjack supporting real) on both sides. And yet, the realists claim that the mythicists are conspiricy theorists.

    How am I to resolve this dilemma? Are there online resources/articles looking at this from a nonbiased perspective?

    • Francesc

      McGraths point is that, given to choose without being an expert (“How am I to resolve this dilemma?”) in any other situation we would simply assume the scientific opinion. So we must accept the mainstream scholarship opinion. If not, we are pretty much like the climate change deniers. If the reason is that we don’t trust those scholars because we think they don’t want to challenge the accepted hypothesis, we are pretty much like the IDiots. Unless, of course, we could prove that they don’t follow the scientific method (and keeping in mind that history is not an experimental science!!)

      • Custador

        “history is not an experimental science”

        I was going to add that if you didn’t :-) A lot of history study really is best-guess with limited evidence; that makes it a lot more open to interpretation than hard science. I don’t think that comparing people who are skeptical about a historical Jesus with creationists is either fair or justified.

        • Francesc

          Ok, maybe creationists were not the best exemple, as we know a lot of proofs about evoultion and they are pretty easy to understand. but what about people who argue against MMGW? Outside the field, we have to thrust the experts. Again, If we have to argue against the mainstream scholarship we have to prove that a hidden agenda motivated all those scholars or that they aren’t doing their work properly, wich is, in fact, a conspiracy theory (I’m not saying that it is false, it may be that some conspiracy theories were not far from the truth).

          I can prove that any test favourable to homeopathy hasn’t been done correctly, I have the support of real medecine, chemics and physics to discard their principles as irrational; so even if some countries consider (or would consider, sic) homeopathy a medecine it doesn’t matter. But I don’t have those instruments when I have to choose between two historical hypotheses, have I?

        • Francesc

          Oh and by the way yes, the only point against McGrath’s position I can think of is that unlike biology history is not an experimental science (or hard science, or real science, you pick wich one suits best for you) and their hypotheses are scientific only in a wide sense as they are not always testable

  • Steven Carr

    Let’s accept that he was killed by the romans.


    How does Jesus being killed by the Romans explain the data?

    1 Thessalonians 2
    You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.

    Historicists have to explain why Paul says the Jews killed Jesus, when their pet theory is that the Romans killed Jesus.