Did historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn’t add up

There are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence

By Raphael Lataster | 15 December 2015
The Conversation

The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional ‘Christ of Faith’. (Image: Charles Roffey / Flickr)

Did a man called Jesus of Nazareth walk the earth? Discussions over whether the figure known as the “Historical Jesus” actually existed primarily reflect disagreements among atheists. Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved.

Numerous secular scholars have presented their own versions of the so-called “Historical Jesus” – and most of them are, as biblical scholar J.D. Crossan puts it, “an academic embarrassment.” From Crossan’s view of Jesus as the wise sage, to Robert Eisenman’s Jesus the revolutionary, and Bart Ehrman’s apocalyptic prophet, about the only thing New Testament scholars seem to agree on is Jesus’ historical existence. But can even that be questioned?

The first problem we encounter when trying to discover more about the Historical Jesus is the lack of early sources. The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith. These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them. The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources – which they also fail to identify. Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.

The methods traditionally used to tease out rare nuggets of truth from the Gospels are dubious. The criterion of embarrassment says that if a section would be embarrassing for the author, it is more likely authentic. Unfortunately, given the diverse nature of Christianity and Judaism back then (things have not changed all that much), and the anonymity of the authors, it is impossible to determine what truly would be embarrassing or counter-intuitive, let alone if that might not serve some evangelistic purpose.

The criterion of Aramaic context is similarly unhelpful. Jesus and his closest followers were surely not the only Aramaic-speakers in first-century Judea. The criterion of multiple independent attestation can also hardly be used properly here, given that the sources clearly are not independent.

Paul’s Epistles, written earlier than the Gospels, give us no reason to dogmatically declare Jesus must have existed. Avoiding Jesus’ earthly events and teachings, even when the latter could have bolstered his own claims, Paul only describes his “Heavenly Jesus.” Even when discussing what appear to be the resurrection and the last supper, his only stated sources are his direct revelations from the Lord, and his indirect revelations from the Old Testament. In fact, Paul actually rules out human sources (see Galatians 1:11-12).

Also important are the sources we don’t have. There are no existing eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus. All we have are later descriptions of Jesus’ life events by non-eyewitnesses, most of whom are obviously biased. Little can be gleaned from the few non-Biblical and non-Christian sources, with only Roman scholar Josephus and historian Tacitus having any reasonable claim to be writing about Jesus within 100 years of his life. And even those sparse accounts are shrouded in controversy, with disagreements over what parts have obviously been changed by Christian scribes (the manuscripts were preserved by Christians), the fact that both these authors were born after Jesus died (they would thus have probably received this information from Christians), and the oddity that centuries go by before Christian apologists start referencing them.

Agnosticism over the matter is already seemingly appropriate, and support for this position comes from independent historian Richard Carrier’s recent defense of another theory — namely, that the belief in Jesus started as the belief in a purely celestial being (who was killed by demons in an upper realm), who became historicized over time. To summarize Carrier’s 800-page tome, this theory and the traditional theory – that Jesus was a historical figure who became mythicized over time – both align well with the Gospels, which are later mixtures of obvious myth and what at least sounds historical.

The Pauline Epistles, however, overwhelmingly support the “celestial Jesus” theory, particularly with the passage indicating that demons killed Jesus, and would not have done so if they knew who he was (see: 1 Corinthians 2:6-10). Humans – the murderers according to the Gospels – of course would still have killed Jesus, knowing full well that his death results in their salvation, and the defeat of the evil spirits.

So what do the mainstream (and non-Christian) scholars say about all this? Surprisingly very little – of substance anyway. Only Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey have thoroughly attempted to prove Jesus’ historical existence in recent times. Their most decisive point? The Gospels can generally be trusted – after we ignore the many, many bits that are untrustworthy – because of the hypothetical (i.e. non-existent) sources behind them. Who produced these hypothetical sources? When? What did they say? Were they reliable? Were they intended to be accurate historical portrayals, enlightening allegories, or entertaining fictions?

Ehrman and Casey can’t tell you – and neither can any New Testament scholar. Given the poor state of the existing sources, and the atrocious methods used by mainstream Biblical historians, the matter will likely never be resolved. In sum, there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence – if not to think it outright improbable.

Raphael Lataster is the author of There Was No Jesus, There Is No God.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Quoting John Marco Allegro….

    "Thousands of years before Christianity, secret cults arose which worshiped the sacred mushroom — the Amanita Muscaria — which, for various reasons (including its shape and power as a drug) came to be regarded as a symbol of God on earth. When the secrets of the cult had to be written down, it was done in the form of codes hidden in folktales. This is the basic origin of the stories in the New Testament." http://www.mushroomstone.com/fleurdelisorigin.htm

  2. Well Matthew 1 vers 23 says Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. If you believe the bible to be true then this verse is all you need. God was with us through His Son Christ Jesus. Worldly evidence will probably not be found. He was taken away to heaven and we will not find His body. The cross is probably splintered and sold as relics or burned or any other way disposed of, to the romans Jesus was just a criminal. However in the old testament there are so much references to the birth of Jesus Christ, that one can not make the assumption that Jesus was never here without calling the entire bible false. It all comes down to faith. Sometimes people do something very stupid and we say: i can not believe you just did that. But they did. We saw it with our own eyes. If there is no heaven and hell it was stupid of Jesus to go on and die. But if there is a heaven and hell and Jesus made the difference by givin His life so you can be saved from hell, one can still say, i cannot believe it . But he Did

    • Unfortunately, this comes from the Septuagint's bad interpretation of a passage in Isaiah referring to Cyrus the Great (whom many of the "Messiah" passages in Isaiah are really about), that said, "and a young woman shall conceive and bring forth a son…" As to other "passages" that predict Jesus' birth, these can easily be explained by the ancient Jewish practice of midrash, the retelling of OT stories in new contexts. It is far more likely that the writers of the gospels tailored the "facts" around Jesus life around certain OT passages. The Crucifixion story in Mark, for example, is a line by line retelling of the 22nd Psalm.

      As to the reliability of the history of the Old Testament, most biblical scholars and Rabbis for that matter, will agree that the stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Issac, Jacob/Israel, Joseph, and Moses are all fiction.

    • The story of a messiah living in the flesh seems to be a recycled story. Not to get to deep, but if you discount the story of Horus, then you must also discount the story of Jesus, one came before the other and yet some only believe one story. Question is this, how can you discount what is written in stone and except that which is written on paper, which can be edited and it's a fact the the bible has been edited many times over.

  3. The problem with Carrier's theory is that it's not supported by hard historical evidence either. The epistles of Paul–at least as we have them–do make it clear that Paul thought Jesus was an actual historical event, although Paul is clearly off in his own little theological world. And I've yet to find an adequate explanation of how we get from (purely hypothetical) mystical cult which is sort of like other existing cults but not really to a thriving church where everyone believes Jesus was a historical being. Mythicists are fond of invoking the docetists, who believed Jesus existed but was a being of energy, light, or vapor, not flesh–but without exception the docetists believed that there was a historical figure who did the things attributed to him in the extant sources.

    The theory that there was a historical leader of a cult which continued beyond his death and who was seen post-death by his followers (even if they were only hallucinating) is a far better fit to the existing sources. And the hypothetical source documents are not nearly as elusive as you would think. The most important, Q, is simply defined as material that is in Luke and Matthew but not in their other main source, Mark. Speculating about who wrote Q is much less uncertain that speculating about the unknown cult of the non-human Jesus.

  4. Folks, anyone maintaining a historical person existed has to prove it; it’s not up to others to have to disprove it. And they haven’t proved it.

  5. I personally conducted research on documents written 70 AD to 200-250 AD and chronicled 205 texts that reference Jesus.
    The number refers to the texts themselves and not to the number of times that Jesus is referenced in each text.
    Counting each reference would take us well beyond the 205 total.
    Furthermore, the number refers to the texts and not to each manuscript behind each text.
    Counting each manuscript would also take us well beyond the 205 total.
    My evidence is here: http://www.truefreethinker.com/articles/historica

    • How come there are NO documents from Other sources, like by the people who supposedly put him on trial and killed him, from the time he supposedly lived?

      • I think I discern the tactic: 205 texts is not enough. Well, then I suppose that 100 more would not be enough either. But to the specific issue: how come there are NO documents…by the people who supposedly put him on trial and killed Him, from the time He supposedly lived? Well, one reason is that His locus of operations and where those people lived was razed in 70 AD. This does not prove that there are sources that were lost to us but it is important to keep in mind. Now, if the claim is that there must be documents from Other sources…from the time He supposedly lived and you apply this to anyone that supposedly lived, say prior to 500 years ago then you have just discredited ancient history and that is part of the reason that historians do not use the subjective criteria that you propose.

  6. In the attached video, why does the scholar keep mispronouncing the names of New Testament epistles? Sounding like Donald Trump, whose showed his lack of familiarity with the Bible by doing the same thing, is distracting.

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