Yeah, we’re going there. Strap in.
Ask almost any Christian if Jesus really existed, and you’ll get an immediate and absolutely positive “yes, oh yes, definitely he did.” With all the 41,000-some-odd denominations of Christianity, it’s just about the only thing most churches’ doctrines agree on. I spent my entire early life believing–and parroting–the tired old clichés Christians spout when the topic gets raised:
“We have more evidence for Jesus than for (insert real historical figure here).”
“We have source documents closer to the time of Jesus than the Homeric epics are to Homer.”
“Look at all these contemporaries of Jesus who mention him!”
And my favorite, the finger-waggling, singsong-voiced “Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence!”
Too bad everything I’d been taught was either a technical foul or flat-out untrue. Let us examine, unafraid of asking those tough questions, the portrait of Jesus so we may see how possible he is. Here are the ingredients of a Jesus as put forth by the New Testament, and why each ingredient fails:
* His parents had to do a census that involved them trekking from their home to the home of their ancestors to be counted.
Unlikely. That’s not how censuses typically work–even back then nobody was required to travel to his or her ancestral lands, and the only requirement to travel for census participants was intended for migrant laborers to return to their hometowns. Also, the timing is problematic–this census would place Jesus’ birth at around 6-7CE, but he had to be born during the reign of Herod, who died in 4BCE–almost ten years earlier. Worse, the author of Acts seems to be putting the census as occurring around the time of a revolt by a guy named Theudas, which we know took place around 46CE. It’s hard to escape the idea that the only reason the Gospel writers need this entire census idea is that they thought that ancient prophecies demanded their Savior figure be both a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23, from Isaiah 9:1-2) and born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1, from Micah 5:2). Worst of all, though, Jesus’ parents don’t show up on any actual census figures from any census recorded at the time. We have Tertullian almost two centuries later talking about the census showing Jesus’ family, but nothing contemporary.
* Born in Bethlehem.
Unlikely. Bethlehem probably didn’t exist as a populated village at the time of Jesus’ birth. It was populated well before it, and a century or so after Jesus’ lifetime it was resettled. By 300ish it was a well-venerated site with a decent-sized population. But there’s no archaeological evidence supporting its existence as a settled village at the critical time we need. If these were eyewitness accounts, you’d think they’d have noticed nobody lived there right then.
* Born under the Star of Bethlehem.
There are a whole series of problems with this idea–but the main one is that nobody else in the whole world seems to have noticed this amazing star. But do bear in mind that in myths, heroes’ and kings’ births are often preceded by amazing signs and wonders in the heavens. Of course Jesus had to have one of his own to fit into the expected narrative.
* Born of a virgin.
Almost certainly a mix-up due to some ancient writer’s misunderstanding of the Septuagint term “maiden.” Mary might not have been a virgin at all. The very idea didn’t gain popularity for centuries after Jesus’ supposed lifetime (that link also puts forth the idea that the story of her assumption into heaven got popular suspiciously close to the beginnings of a similar ending to the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s life). As a nice Jewish newlywed, it’s unlikely she stayed a virgin even if she had been one at the time of God’s impregnation of her because sex is a big part of Jewish spouses’ duties toward each other. Oh, and young women getting knocked up by gods was a well-known trope in mythologies of the time. Of course Jesus needed the same sort of origin.
* Almost killed by Herod, who slaughtered thousands of babies to eliminate him.
Herod was, by all accounts we have of him, not a nice person, but there is no evidence whatsoever that the Massacre of the Innocents happened. Christian sites that discuss this complete lack of contemporary documentation end up lamely insisting that “WELL HE MIGHT HAVE!” Yes, definitely he might have, and if he had, I don’t think it would even have been the worst thing he ever did. But his enemies, who had plenty of reasons to talk about all his other offenses, didn’t breathe a word about him killing babies like this. It’s hard not to think that the entire account is just a shoehorning of a misappropriated prophecy out of Jeremiah 31:15, an idea that gains even more credence when we realize that Matthew flat-out repeats part of the verse in his retelling of the Massacre in 2:16-18.
* Visited by some Magi from the “East.”
Probably not. Not all denominations really think this happened–I read recently about a Lutheran church that doesn’t put magi in their manger scene at Christmastime–but who were these “wise men”? The Bible doesn’t actually say there were three, incidentally, and it doesn’t give their names or nationalities. (Fun fact: Renaissance jewelry often featured their supposed names carved into the metal bands of rings and whatnot.) Whoever they were, they left no account of their journey or their findings with any foreign contemporary kingdom or court, which is odd considering it was a great astronomical/astrological event that led them to Jesus’ birthplace.
* Taught rabbis in their own temple. Knocked over money-changers’ tables in front of the temple. Had a rock-star entry into Jerusalem (after stealing a horse). Did tons of neat miracles all over the place.
There’s not a single contemporaneous account of any of this occurring at any time during the period he was supposed to have been alive. This part right here is the most damaging part of the case for a historical Jesus. Josephus wrote 20 or so books full of all sorts of trivia about his time, and not only was he not contemporaneous with Jesus (he was born well after Jesus’ supposed death), he didn’t mention Jesus at all. Surely a rock star like Jesus would have been discussed still, especially if his followers were doing miracles like crazy and speaking in tongues and everything described in Acts. But Josephus doesn’t mention any of it. The one thing that Christians often point to, the supposed “Testimonium” in which he fawns all over Jesus, is now regarded by most historians as a total fraud. One Christian bishop even called the Testimonium “a rank forgery, and a very stupid one, too.” Other accounts are written even later than Josephus’. It’s not like there weren’t tons of ancient writers living during Jesus’ supposed lifetime! Just none of them said a single word about Jesus, not even the men whose job it was to record absolutely everything that might be of importance. There simply aren’t any contemporary accounts at all of Jesus–or for that matter of his followers. It’s a glaring and painful absence that demands explanation. Amusingly, one non-contemporary but very early account of Jesus that has mysteriously been lost detailed the rumor that Jesus was the bastard of a Roman soldier named Pantera and there were other stories postulating that his mother had fled to Egypt to raise her illegitimate son, who learned magic tricks and con games there before returning to his mother’s homeland to try out for Jerusalem Idol. But there’s as much evidence for these rumors as for anything else Jesus was, said, taught, or did–which is to say none at all.
* Put on trial before both the Roman courts and the Jewish ones, and found guilty and put to death.
No records exist of any of these trials. They weren’t legal trials anyway, and feature aspects that are obvious frauds and lies–like the idea that every Passover Pilate always released one prisoner of the Jews’ choice. Uh, no.
* Rose from the dead, prompting huge miracles, a zombie uprising in Jerusalem, and post-resurrection appearances to the faithful.
No records exist of any of these events and incidents either. You’d think the dozens of historians living in Jerusalem at the time might have noticed the zombies of dead Jews getting up from their graves and wandering around the city talking to people (Matthew 27:53). You’d think that at least might get someone’s attention. But no, nothing, not about this dramatic event nor anything else regarding the Crucifixion and Resurrection. We also have no idea just where his tomb was supposed to have been–centuries after his death, some sites were suggested and quickly became popular pilgrimage destinations, but nothing contemporary was mentioned. None of the later miracles in Acts got mentioned either–the infilling of the Spirit that the Pentecostals love to consider, the earthquakes, the martyrdoms, the miracles–nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Well. Here we are, 2000 years later, considering the wreckage of rumors and wondering what can be salvaged from the echoing absence of any evidence whatsoever for Jesus.
Josephus does mention a number of other Jesus-like heroes running around the area at the time. It does seem clear that there was a precedent for semi-divine sons of gods in the pagan myths of the era. And the Jews were definitely getting annoyed with the Roman intrusion into their lives so one might well suspect that they were ripe for a hero. All told, it doesn’t seem farfetched to imagine the entire story as a sort of theological robe slipped over the narrow shoulders of one of these apocalypse-crying wizards.
But we may never know which one of them it is who inspired the legends and myths. If there’s anything we can infer from the thin and watery soup that is what we can reasonably suspect about a “real” Jesus, it’s that whoever he was, he was insignificant historically–utterly and completely without noteworthiness to anybody who mattered during his lifetime. The one true god, the creator of the universe, the dude who parted the seas, drowned the whole world in a fit of pique, and shot pillars of flame from the heavens whenever he felt like it, had a son who didn’t ping the radar of a single writer or personage of his time. That’s depressing.
While one cannot say for sure that anything didn’t exist, it does seem quite damning that there is not a single shred of credible evidence in favor of the existence of a man who would be, if he had existed, arguably the most important being in the entire cosmos. I’ve already written about how God didn’t have any trouble proving his existence to people at all–he did it over and over again in both the Old and New Testaments–so it’s hard to imagine why he wouldn’t have ensured that at least one record of his son made it to the modern age. I’d accept just about any shred of evidence at all–a census record we can determine fits the timeframe, a trial record, a letter we know for sure was written by a contemporary about Jesus’ teachings (I don’t even require miracle accounts–just teachings would be fine with me). But the Gospels’ writers face not only a total lack of a single bit of corroborating evidence for their claims, but also guilt for making claims about their hero that are demonstrably false, like his date and place of birth, his near-death at Herod’s hands, and the zombie uprising after his death, things that one would expect the Gospels, if they really were eyewitness accounts at all, to get right.
All that said, Christians aren’t thinking this whole historicity thing through any more than they are miracles or parables or, well, anything.
Jesus’ historicity does not impact, even in the slightest sense, the general validity of the Bible. If I found out tomorrow that we’d finally found a guy who fit the Gospels’ descriptions to a tee, it would not make Christianity any more valid. Knowing that we have no evidence whatsoever for any person who did fit those descriptions doesn’t make Christianity’s main message any less valid.
No, what impacts Christianity’s validity is the fact that Christians themselves make the question into such a life-or-death issue. It is the fact that they twist and kick against the evidence and contort so much to try to force a literal historical Jesus into history and archaeology that just doesn’t support it. It is that Christians have, over the centuries, been content to lie through their teeth about his existence–making up relics of the True Cross and other such things, writing accounts that absolutely contradict what we do know about history, and worse–rather than just tell the truth. It is the deeply-set deception over Jesus’ existence, not Jesus’ non-existence as a literal human being, that undoes Christianity. I don’t require my religions to be 100% historically accurate or my god-men to have actually been living people who literally passed through our beautiful world. But I draw the line at lies. Homie don’t play that.
When I realized the truth, I had the same choice before me that Christians all through the ages have been forced to make: would I embrace reality and shatter my faith, or deny it and embrace my faith instead? For many Christians, the choice is quite clear. I’ve seen creationists write that when reality contradicts the Bible, the Bible is what should be chosen. I reject such an idea utterly. When we start down the path of believing things that contradict reality, we don’t ever see the end of that trip. The very fact that Christians have created and insist on perpetuating such a cruel and pointless dilemma is part of why I reject this religion as firmly as I do. I see why they must–without a literal Jesus dying on a literal cross, a lot of Christianity’s fear tactics just don’t work the same way. But once a Christian understands that Jesus’ existence shouldn’t matter, that Christian is well on his or her way to a far more nuanced and balanced view of the faith. You can’t be a fanatic and embrace reality.
And that nuanced, balanced view of the faith is essential if that Christian is going to interact with rational skeptics and present a faith that is affirming and sane. If Christians let themselves get caught up in the “is he real?” debate, they’re missing the entire point. That question shapes a Christian’s entire approach to evangelism and theology. It informs the worldview and alters the entire thinking process. But it’s not a compelling argument to use against a non-believer. Even if a Christian manages to win that argument with a poorly-educated or badly-equipped non-believer, s/he still hasn’t demonstrated that Jesus was really divine or that his religion is something modern audiences should consider. I don’t get why Christians even waste time on the question when there are a lot bigger theological fish to fry!
So. Was Jesus historical? No, not in the form presented in the New Testament. Might there not have been some other historical figure who became the Jesus of the New Testament? Maybe, but in that case, he’s not the Savior but just another apocalyptic failed prophet who made predictions that didn’t come true and got killed for opposing the wrong people. Does it matter at all to Christianity’s claims that he didn’t exist? No, it really doesn’t, but the insistence that there is evidence that he did when there is in fact no such evidence does, itself, matter quite a bit, as does the insistence on making the question such a make-or-break issue for Christians that discovering the truth forces a choice between living a lie or keeping one’s integrity. That matters much more to me, at least.