For almost two thousand years, Christians have revered Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. The gospel stories that tell of his life are familiar, at least in broad outline, to almost everyone, both believers and nonbelievers. According to these records, Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary in the town of Bethlehem, descended from the line of King David. When he came of age, they say, he established a ministry, taught people to love one another, healed the sick and the crippled, performed miracles, and drew crowds from far and wide to hear him preach. But, the gospels go on to say, he offended the corrupt and worldly Jewish temple elders of Jerusalem, and so they conspired to have him arrested on trumped-up charges and executed by crucifixion. But, the records conclude, he rose from the grave in triumph on the third day after his death and ascended to Heaven, proving his divine status. The church he founded, now widespread and immensely powerful, survives to this day; it has billions of followers and denominations all over the globe. Say whatever one will about Jesus and his teachings – for better or for worse, his effect on the world has been tremendous.
But did he ever really exist?
It is certainly a startling question; so startling, in fact, that for two millennia hardly anyone even thought to ask it. Christianity dominated Western scholarship for most of that time, and the historical existence of their savior was taken as a given fact which no one dared dispute.
However, that assumption is now being challenged. In the 20th century, the absolute power of religion over society finally began to wane, and the result has been something of a renaissance in academic circles, with critical textual analysis being brought to bear on the Bible for the first time. This approach has already brought us a wealth of understanding of the origins of the Bible, especially the Old Testament (see “Let the Stones Speak“). As of yet, however, the origins of the New Testament have not been as thoroughly explored. While the prevailing opinion among the community of scholars is that Jesus did exist, that opinion is based more on assumption and tradition than a thorough survey of the evidence.
In recent years, however, there has appeared a small but growing faction of dissenting voices challenging this conventional wisdom as well. These scholars point out, among other things, that the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus is extremely weak if not non-existent; that the story of his life closely matches the same mythic-hero archetype that appears in many cultures throughout history; and that many books and verses of the New Testament tell us strange and amazing things if we do not view them through a veil of preconceptions.
I am not a professional historian, but I consider myself one of these skeptics. It is my considered opinion that, as a historical person, Jesus Christ probably never existed at all. I contend, instead, that Christianity began as a mystical religion, an offshoot of messianic Judaism worshipping a savior-deity whose sacrificial death and resurrection were believed to have taken place in Heaven. I further contend that, over time, this belief structure was blended with parables and ethical teachings from ancient Hellenistic philosophers, and that this fusion of belief systems gradually mutated into a brand-new religion that had come to believe in a recent human being who embodied all these concepts.
Christian apologists confidently assert that such views are held only by a tiny minority of atheists, and that the evidence is overwhelmingly against them. Yet in recent years, they have launched a barrage of counterattacks, such as Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Christ. Why devote such effort to refuting these claims, unless they feel that these arguments are worth noting and responding to? Could it be they are concerned that there is some substance to them after all?
In the end, though, what ultimately matters is the evidence, and I am certain that the evidence is on our side. This essay will therefore now turn to the task of examining that evidence. Part 1 will examine the facts in support of a historical Jesus, or more specifically the lack thereof, detailing how the existing accounts fail to meet the standard of proof for a historical figure. Part 2 will offer a rebuttal to arguments commonly given by Christian apologists against mythical-Jesus theories. Part 3 will speculate on how Christianity may have originated if not as a response to a historical man, analyzing biblical verses that help us retrace the evolution of the fledgling Christian faith, and will wrap up loose ends such as the original purpose of the gospels.
(Note: Much of the material in this article comes from Earl Doherty’s excellent website, The Jesus Puzzle, and his book by the same name. I highly recommend this book to all interested parties, but in the meantime I have taken it upon myself to present a distilled version of Doherty’s arguments, with additions of my own, with the intent of raising the level of awareness of this debate.)