Given all the religious writing I do for HuffPost and Patheos, it’s only natural that I am frequently attacked and insulted in comments sections for being absolutely, positively Wrong with a capital W. Not just wrong, but stupid, too, for believing whatever it is I’m writing about on that particular day.
It’s fine. Really, it is. In fact, why don’t you scroll down and comment that I’m an idiot right now to get it out of your system? I’ll wait.
There. Fun, right? Now that that’s out of the way, sit down and open your ears, because I’m about to drop a hot sticky load of knowledge all over your face.
By far the most irritating comments are those from people claiming that everything I write about Christianity is pointless because Jesus is a fictional character. Here’s the basic gist:
These are the worst not just because of the infuriatingly smug, know-it-all attitude these armchair historians take, but because they are so painfully ignorant you wonder if they’ve ever actually done any amount of reading on the subject.
So here we have the three most basic claims supposedly refuting the historical Jesus. Let’s explore this, shall we? We’re going to do it in reverse order, since that way we go from the simplest to the one that requires the most probing.
Mark, the earliest gospel, was actually written just 40 (ish) years after Jesus’s death around 30 CE. You know who else died 40 years ago? Richard J. Daley, the hilariously corrupt former mayor of Chicago and chair of the Cook County Democratic Committee. So I guess if someone today published a biography of Daley, it would be immediately suspect because he died four decades ago, right?
But Christian, that’s not fair, you might be saying. A gospel is not the same thing as a biography.
That century-long time frame might seem damning to you, but that’s only if you don’t understand how history works. This idea that we must have an eyewitness account of Jesus’s life for him to have existed is absurd. If we applied those standards to every historical figure, Alexander the Great would vanish, among others.
Ancient peoples did not preserve their historical documents for our convenience thousands of years later. Countless volumes have been lost, mistranslated, destroyed, and otherwise corrupted. Part of why history is a discipline is because of these factors. Combined with the fact that Jesus was not very important during his lifetime and that his followers believed the world was about to end (meaning keeping records wasn’t high on their to-do list), it’s not surprising at all that our sources are so scarce. Historians have to work with whatever’s available, which is why in this case there is such a vibrant field of study devoted to the Historical Jesus.
But what about that claim that “plenty” of legitimate historians doubt the existence of Jesus? Our noted Facebook scholar lists none of them, so I had to actually do some digging into this. What I found was that his claim was a gigantic crock.
We’ll have to limit our discussion of these historians to ones active in the last 60 years or so, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran (as well as the Nag Hamaddi library). Before these discoveries, even devout Christian historians were unable to confidently discuss the life of the historical Jesus. So, sorry, but Bertrand Russell is out.
There was John M. Allegro in the late 70’s, who argued that the aforementioned Dead Sea Scrolls proved that Jesus was a myth. Oh, wait. The publisher of his books issued a formal apology and Allegro resigned in disgrace. There goes one.
George Albert Wells (who is a professor of German, not a historian) argued in several books that Jesus was a mythical figure, and his scholarly credentials remain intact. Convinced yet? You shouldn’t be, because he later recanted and admitted that the gospels are based on “reminiscences of an itinerant Cynic-type Galilean preacher.” That’s your historical Jesus right there.
There are the people like Alvin Boyd Kuhn and Tom Harpur, who argue that Jesus Christ is an amalgam of ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian gods (familiar to fans of Bill Maher’s 2008 documentary Religulous). Shockingly, Bill Maher got some details wrong, and Harpur’s book was criticized even by other proponents of the Christ Myth Theory.
Finally, we’re left with people like Richard Carrier and this guy, militant New Atheist activists whose entire reason for being seems to be to criticize all religious people for whatever they can come up with. They would absolutely love for Jesus to have been a myth, because it lends credence to their “religion is delusional” narrative. Their arguments are based on the historical fallacies I’ve already mentioned, such as unrealistic source criticism and flat-out misrepresenting the Pauline epistles (Paul does actually mention a few scarce details of the life of the historical Jesus, such as the crucifixion).
Look, I’ll level with you. You can’t trust the gospels as unbiased factual accounts. They aren’t. And you definitely can’t take everything in the Bible at face value (I’ve written about this before, actually). To say that there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth who might have done or said some of the things in the gospels is not to make a value judgement about religion or the existence of God.
Make no mistake: I am not saying Jesus was God, or that he could perform miracles, or that he was born of a virgin, or literally anything else besides the fact that there once was a dude named Jesus who started some kind of movement and was later written about in what we call the gospels. Figuring out literally anything else about him is an arduous and contentious task with a high degree of uncertainty.
But the idea that there was literally no person any of those stories are based on, that some dudes got together in the middle of the 1st century CE and were all like, “Know what would be cool? If we just straight-up invented a dude,” is preposterous.
The greatest irony of all is that the people who champion “reason” and “fact-based thinking” above all else are the ones most likely to deny the overwhelming historical consensus about the historical Jesus, simply because it affirms their prejudice against religion. Not so above it all, are we?
I actually wrote a 5-piece introduction to the Historical Jesus over on Unfundamentalist Christians. Here’s part 1 if you’re interested. Part 5 has some suggested reading if you’d like to go in-depth with it.