Is the Jesus Story a Myth?

Is the Jesus Story a Myth? September 12, 2011

Every now and then I’ll hear from someone who has bought into the “Jesus Myth” hypothesis.  You can find this in books like Jesus Potter, Harry Christ, in the “historical” studies of Acharya S., or from your neighborhood atheist who heard that there are some similarities between the stories of Jesus and Mithras, and who finds it expedient to believe that the Jesus narrative was fabricated like a patchwork quilt from various other stories that might have floated through Palestine two thousand years ago.

Bart Ehrman is not at all a defender of the historically orthodox version of who Jesus Christ was and what he did and taught.  Our own Ben Witherington is a faithful documenter of the various things Ehrman gets wrong.  Yet there is no doubt over the fact that Bart Ehrman is a respected scholar who does his homework.  And here is Dr. Ehrman confronted with the “Jesus Myth” hypothesis on a radio program (HT Scott Rachui):

If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend the series from James Hannam which we published on the Evangelical Portal – in Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.  For other online sources of information on the pagan parallels theories, see this detailed examination of various pagan deities and whether their stories coincide with that of Jesus, this note from William Lane Craig, or (as a more specific example) this response to the Jesus-as-Mithras claim, or this article from Ronald Nash. For book-length responses, consult R. T. France’s The Evidence for Jesus or Nash’s The Gospel and the Greeks.

It’s difficult, of course, for a non-historian to know how to sort through these things.  If one historian (or at least a person who holds herself out as a historian) claims that the Jesus story is a composite of pagan myths while another historian says otherwise, how do you know whom to believe?

This is why responses like this from Bart Ehrman are so difficult for the Jesus Mythers.  It’s not as though the historians and New Testament scholars who affirm the existence of Jesus are ultra-conservative Christians who will defend their Jesus no matter what.  That’s not the case at all.  I’ve never met Ehrman, but I’ve met plenty of people in the field, plenty of historians and biblical scholars who are eager — truly eager — to overturn traditional views of Jesus.  They’re also eager to publish books that make a splash, get on the cover of Time magazine, and sell like hotcakes.  The fact that even they cannot bring themselves to say that Jesus never existed is devastating to the Jesus Myth hypothesis.

As Ehrman says, there is no serious historical scholar who believes that Jesus never existed.  In fact, for the longest time there was no scholarly response to the Jesus Myth hypothesis, just because there were no credible proponents of the hypothesis in scholarly circles.  Ehrman makes the reason plain.  We have more evidence for Jesus than we do for anyone else in the ancient world — and arguably (I would add) more than anyone up through the medieval period.  If the abundance of evidence for Jesus is insufficient, then the evidence for every other figure is even more insufficient and we might as well stop reading history books.

Simply put, if you can’t say that Jesus existed, then you can’t do history at all.  Dismissals of the existence of Jesus are not historical.  They’re ideological.

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  • DKeane

    There are two things in this post that seem to get smeared a bit:

    The question of did he exist? (which speaks to just plain historical investigation – for which there is no evidence outside the bible (with the possible exception of Josephus, I guess he may of existed and possibly said some stuff (none of which was written down at the time), but what does it matter?

    There is the second question of was he supernatural and how the stories seem to mirror previous stories. The problem here again, is extra-biblical verification does not exist. If we were to believe the bible, then we would need to believe other supernatural stories presented in writing that have no verifiable evidence – this could include J. Smith and the golden tablets through Hercules.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      DKeane, I strongly encourage you to read some of the resources that were linked and referenced. I think you’d find it very interesting, if you approached it with an open mind. Sincerely,


  • This is actually little to no evidence for a historical jesus. you may want to look at


    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Doherty’s been pretty thoroughly debunked. Hope you follow through to some of the resources I linked. Thanks!


      • Actually apologists say that quite often, but it’s not actually the case. In fact, support for his view is on the rise. But popularity is not really the issue. First, the folks that believe that myths about jesus to be historical have not been able to come up with any supporting data, so their hypothesis has just not panned out. For so many years, even considering alternative ideas for how the myths began was not allowed. People lost their lives, and even into the late 1800s their jobs for even publishing idea that might explain the myths. It is only recently that real work has begun on the subject. So, that in itself is at least an encouraging sign.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          I generally find that people who say things like this have not really read the opposing views. Of course, you might say you have, and I have no way of knowing. But if you haven’t, at least for the sake of intellectual integrity, I strongly encourage you to read the books I mentioned. Please.


      • Gabriel

        I am not a mythicist (Jesus agnostic) but you are wrong there. In fact I would say Doherty’s theories are gaining momentum. Some of the points he raises in the book, in my opinion, are not that well argued but the main theories have all withstood the attacks from James McGrath and other biblical scholars. In fact I am eager to read Tom Verenna’s and Bart Ertman’s books coming this winter about the historical/mythical Jesus.

        To Eric Chabot
        Nature considers Wikipedia to be on par with Encyclopedia Britannica. I would say that Wikipedia is above your links which link to blogs?!

        In any case, the existence of Jesus doesn’t mean he was the son of God, did all the stuff the bible say he did and so on. The majority of the mainstream ancient history scholars agree that whilst Jesus most probably existed he wasn’t who the bible said he was.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Gabriel, your penultimate sentence is of course correct. Your final sentence is so simplified it’s practically useless.

          Doherty is not taken seriously. Nor should he be. Gabriel, have you read R. T. France’s book? I highly recommend it.


          • Gabriel

            Thanks for your comment.

            I haven’t read anything by R.T France. He is a New Testament scholar and not an ancient history scholar. You will find that my last sentence is actually correct.

          • Dear Gabriel,

            Yes, I am noticing that the hypothesis that a jesus existed is becoming less and less accepted.


          • “no one knows if this Jesus Christ existed, and if he did, nothing is known about him!” Bertrand Russell

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            The great historian and scholar of ancient Palestine, Bertrand Russell. Oh, wait…


  • Mark

    What is most troubling about the infidel guy’s confusion is his inability to follow Bart Ehrman’s basic logic. Okay, we get it, you’re not a biblical scholar or historian, but you should still be able to follow the progression of premises to conclusion. I’ve heard Ehrman speak at SBL a few times, and while I disagree with him on some important points, it’s never because he doesn’t speak with clarity and with attention to historical data. (This is true of his books as well.)

    The inability of the typical person in 21st century Western society to grasp what constitutes historical evidence from antiquity is another requirement for the sort of confusion the infidel guy in particular and the Jesus Myth types in general demonstrate. I suspect it’s difficult for someone like Ehrman to remember how to explain the basic principles of ANE historiography to our video/entertainment saturated culture.

  • Eric Chabot

    DKeane, I would not use WIKI as a resource. There is no need to go outside the Bible. Once we go over historical method which is overlooked, we will see there is an abundant of evidence. You are welcome to read my post that was a response to a lecture I saw at OSU… or my post on the Historical Bedrock here- Also, the reality is that many punt to the Jesus not existing stuff (which is silly) because they don’t want to be accountable to him. End of story!

  • Richard Bauckham’s work, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” makes a very strong case for the idea that the gospels were compiled from eyewitness accounts. The idea that the New Testament cannot be trusted as an historical source for the life of Jesus is silly. There are many ancient sources with far less credibility that go unquestioned. Found myself cheering for Ehrman – something I certainly never imagined myself doing.

    9 min – Apr 7, 2010 – Uploaded by ofreshartist2
    This clearly shows that Jesus is not the only begotten son of God the Almighty. … Show the verse where God says, Jacob is only begotten …

    More videos for Prove Jesus is not a myth »

  • J

    Caesar and Christ, by Will Durant (an atheist), pretty much destroyed the Jesus Myth theory as any realistic alternative back in 1944. Check it out. 🙂

  • A essay worth reading would be;

    Cheers! religion.RichGriese.NET