I recently expressed my views on Jesus mythicism and my position was quite robustly critiqued, which is great. I mean, that’s why I do this. However, I was only expressing my conclusions rather than giving a full run-down of my analysis.
Let me, for those who missed it, remind people:
To give a massive subject a very short and simplistic summary, I think Jesus existed because there is more probability, given all of the evidence, that a real Jesus figure existed than didn’t. I think to create someone entirely out of thin air is fairly uncommon in history (as opposed to myth). Yes, this is where it gets a bit tricky. Why can Jesus not be seen as myth, as a genre almost, like so many other deities? Am I assuming a historical reality merely on account of the cultural milieu in which I find myself.
But I think that, with reference from contemporaneous sources, and given the rise of the Christian cult, and given the pushback from Jews and Jewish thinkers, Jesus existed. It’s rather like David Koresh; he existed, but I wouldn’t exclusively go to his remaining followers for good historical accounting of who he was and what he did.
What differentiates me from the Christian is the notion that Jesus was God and the things claimed of him in the Gospels were in any way true. I don’t think the Gospels contain any significant truths and he was not divine, more likely an itinerant and charismatic preacher who garnered a good following who themselves believed him to be the Messiah….
What the Gospels have done is effectively create a mythical character from reality, overlaying the real Jesus (a human) with so much myth that the end result (the Gospels) are so far removed from the truth that you might as well call them myth. Jesus existed alright (I believe), but he was nothing like what you read in the Gospels. A human mythologised.
It is really important to stress that I don’t strongly commit to this. This isn’t an 80-85% belief. This is somewhere in the 50-60% range. I am partly fairly non-committal on this because it doesn’t really affect any other belief I have, so I don’t really need spend too much time concerned with the question. The Gospels are mostly bunkum, whether the real nugget of Jesus existed or not.
Here are the reasons why I believe in the historical Jesus (just), but remember, these themselves are weak reasons (as in, alone, they are arguable and will not get you to a sure-fire belief in the historical Jesus):
- The evidence of Paul, the earliest source on Jesus.
- The evidence of Josephus (much has been interpolated, but there is some reference to Jesus).
- The evidence of Tacitus.
- Other sources, such as Suetonius.
- The rise of the Christian cult – unlikely to be based on a complete fiction.
- Jesus being known as Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, all of these can be attacked, and this is why I only marginally believe in a historical Jesus. On balance, I think the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus has a genuine historical claim that was almost certainly later embellished with interpolations. I know there is debate ongoing on the other thread, but Josephus’ other claim “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” I think is also genuine. I do understand that a lot of scholars who work on these issues have their own agenda and baggage and so we must be wary of blithely accepting the consensus. After all, most scholars working on such things will most likely be Christian and interested in finding a historical basis for him.
Paul doesn’t really mention a lot about Jesus in terms of any useful facts and details of his life, but does reference him and his crucifixion quite a lot. This can itself be used to support a mythicist position. However, I would find it really hard to accept someone like Paul either lying outright about his knowledge and experiences and belief, or being so duped by countless other supposed (but apparently fake) eyewitnesses and early Christians.
Assuming we can all agree that his knowledge of Jesus really didn’t come from the Holy Spirit, it had to come from somewhere. One can assume that he could either make it all up out of nothing, or that he genuinely knew friends and family of Jesus from whom he could get information. After all, he spent his time hunting down Christians to persecute them, and this in the time directly after the death of Jesus.
The other sources are secondary at best, but show that there was common knowledge of the crucifixion of Jesus within the same sort of period as (arguably) the writing of the later Gospels.
Again, there is lots of argument to be had here, and, as some commenters have pointed out, these things tell us nothing about the real Jesus. Indeed, the Gospels tell us almost nothing about the original Jesus, and this is why I think I am closely aligned to mythicism, because the Gospels, to me, are mythic overlay.
Christianity rose fairly quickly once a tipping point in momentum was gained (see James Crossley’s very good, if a little dry, Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian for more information on this). I think this is better explained when you have something real as a nugget, when the very first people to believe in this person knew the person, and were thus willing to lay down their lives for this person. Yes, it can all be explained mythologically, I just think it is better explained with reference to a real person.
Finally, Jesus of Nazareth. As I set out in The Nativity: A Critical Examination, Jesus’ name is problematic for the Christian, and was problematic for the Gospel writers. In poring over the Old Testament, they figured that they needed the Messiah to come from David’s city (which in itself was an incorrect reading, but more on that another time). They needed Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. If you were making this stuff up from scratch, you would have “Jesus of Bethlehem”, and have his ministry based there. Instead, we have these two contrived stories that seem to have to get Jesus from Bethlehem at birth and back up to Nazareth, where he lived most of his life. One has his parents living in Nazareth (Luke) and coming down to Bethlehem for the birth, and then shooting back to Bethlehem. The other (Matthew) has his family starting in Bethlehem and then running away to Egypt to later move for the first time to Nazareth. Matthew also trawls through the OT to get the Nazarene quote and misapply it to someone from Nazareth.
The two Gospels make a hash of it, and this makes the most sense if Jesus was incontrovertibly from Nazareth as per his common name, and as he would have been known by all of his extant followers. The writers couldn’t rename him from Bethlehem because everyone knew him as Jesus of Nazareth.
Incidentally, I am not wholly taken by the “Nazareth didn’t exist at the time” thesis of Rene Salm. I said as much in my book, though there are some interesting things that come out of the work he did. Indeed, I remember speaking to Richard Carrier by email about this. It must be noted that Salm and Carrier, both mythicists, disagree a great deal about this, as can be seen here. Ehrman agrees with Carrier about that here (I am struggling to find Carrier’s original writing on the subject since his FreethoughtBlogs work has been arhived…somewhere). David Fitzgerald was even more damning of Salm’s work in a private email to me when writing the foreword to my nativity book. Either way, I don’t want to derail this with endless back and forth about whether Nazareth was properly inhabited at the time of Jesus.
To add to my previous point, there are the interesting Gospel accounts of Jesus returning to Nazareth and being unable to do
magic miracles in his hometown. Something rings true about this to me, though I can’t put my finger on it – perhaps I want it to be true that Jesus made a mess of showing his true powers to the people whom he needed to prove it to the most. I can imagine this supposed miracle healer travelling around and gaining a reputation that outdoes reality, returning home only to face the reality of falling short of his miraculous name.
Having said all of this, I think that the person of Jesus existed, but we know little to nothing of the reality of this man. We only know what the Gospels mislead us with.