Approximately one year ago I caused a bit of a stir over at The Washington Post, daring to question whether the so-called Historical Jesus existed; apparently a verboten exercise for a scholar. Now, with the help and support of numerous other academics, itself quite noteworthy, I have become more assertive in declaring that Jesus’ non-existence is not merely possible. It is probable.
Scholarly responses to the increasingly popular activity of questioning Jesus’ existence have been quite telling. We can overlook the Christian scholars, as they are not invited to the debate over the mundane Historical Jesus; to this debate among atheists. Mainstream secular scholars purporting the Historical Jesus have largely remained silent, as if they are hoping that this will all blow over. More sceptical scholars – usually in History, Philosophy, and in my own field of Religious Studies – have lent me their support, either privately, or outwardly.
With this wave of support, I have since managed to do the ‘impossible’ in publishing several peer-reviewed journal articles (one with Cambridge University Press) on this idea that so many biblical scholars consider ‘refuted’ and ‘dead’, and have just released a bulky book on the matter, with historian Richard Carrier (Jesus Did Not Exist). We examine the main arguments for and against that have been made in recent years, and conclude that the Historical Jesus most probably did not exist.
After explaining why the discussion should not be limited to specialists of the New Testament, and that it may even be ideal that the investigators be a little more removed from the sources (for instance, even secular New Testament scholars tend to be directly or indirectly funded by Christians, and Jesus’ historicity tends to be a paradigm to them, like God’s existence to a theologian), we thoroughly examine the arguments put forth by scholars on both sides of the debate, in recent times.
First up is Bart Ehrman, whose case essentially relies on his inexplicably monolithic views concerning Judaism, such as that there weren’t many diverse Jewish sects at the time, and a reliance on hypothetical foundational sources, like Q, M, L, and oral traditions. That is, sources that don’t exist. Unfortunately, while beset with numerous other problems, this approach is idiosyncratic, and also inconsistent. Imaginary evidence somehow doesn’t work if you’re a Christian or a denier of the Historical Jesus.
Next is the now late Maurice Casey, whose case is even worse than Ehrman’s. Like him, Casey relied on non-existing sources to prop up the obviously unreliable Gospels, but also manages to offend readers with vulgarity, anti-religiosity, libel, and homophobic slurs. It should be suspicious that insults, lies, and imaginary sources are the best that such scholars can offer, when it comes to the apparently easy task of proving Jesus’ historicity.
The section that bears my name starts off with a comprehensive critique of the methods scholars do and ought to use in determining what parts of the Gospels are historically accurate. An example of a bad method is the use of speculative criteria, especially when combined with hypothetical sources. An example of a good approach would be to apply a transparent and probabilistic method that weighs up prior and consequent probabilities (i.e. Bayes’ Theorem).
Moving on to the sources, I conclude that they are all highly questionable (with forgery quite rampant), and that the earliest sources – namely the epistles of Paul – indicate that the original belief in Jesus was not of a man that was recently on Earth, but a purely celestial messiah that sent revelations to figures like Paul and Peter. Like Moroni (think Mormonism). Like Gabriel (think Islam). Like YHWH (think Judaism).
That mainstream scholars increasingly recognise that some Jews before and around the time of nascent Christianity already believed in celestial and messianic figures (as even Ehrman now concedes, and as implied by the crucial and oft-overlooked Jewish intertestamental literature) and that the first Gospel, Mark, is an allegory of Paul’s earlier writings (such scholars include Dykstra, Tarazi, Goulder, and Adamczewski), only bolsters this theory.
I then thoroughly review the largely ignored work of Carrier, who put this intriguing hypothesis to a proper probabilistic (Bayesian) test, in a scholarly book that has been properly peer-reviewed. He finds that this controversial hypothesis is superior (i.e. p>0.5) to the alternative. Really quickly, the prior probabilities work against historicity, as Jesus happens to be portrayed in a way that overwhelmingly applies to fictional characters. i.e. Jesus fulfils many criteria that – together – overwhelmingly apply to fictional characters, such as being portrayed as having a miraculous birth, his having had a mysterious childhood, and his body having gone missing after his death. Not all figures who score well on these criteria may be fictional, but most are, leading to a low (but non-zero) prior probability.
The consequent probabilities, relying on the more direct evidence, could in principle overcome the low prior, but they don’t. The sources are too problematic, and often support the alternative view. For example, the Gospels generally work on both theories, but the lack of even one unambiguous mention of a recent and Earthly Jesus in Paul’s earlier writings is unforgivable on historicity; though it is perfectly expected on the alternative, the Celestial Jesus theory.
In other words, it is more likely that Jesus was an entirely ‘mythical’ figure that was later historicised, and not a mundane historical figure that was later mythicised. In other words, Jesus probably didn’t exist.
This initially unpopular and controversial view is becoming increasingly accepted, by layperson and scholar alike. The tide is turning. And the only real ‘argument’ that the typical New Testament specialist presents against all this is that there are non-existing sources that prove that much of the Gospels (i.e. the non-supernatural bits, though the mainstream scholars even concede that much of those are fictional) is historically accurate.
Nobody should be utilising imaginary sources with such certainty. In nowhere but the insular and parochial field of New Testament research is such a ‘method’ deemed appropriate. I’ll leave you to consider the logic of proving that Jesus exists, by appealing to sources that don’t. If you’re anything like the appreciative attendees at a recent historical conference where I discussed these hypothetical sources in detail, you’ll probably find it absurd.
Raphael Lataster lectures for the Studies in Religion department at the University of Sydney, and regularly writes about scepticism concerning God, the Christ of Faith, and the so-called Historical Jesus.
The Jesus Myth Theory with Richard Carrier and Raphael Lataster
The True Core Of The Jesus Myth
The ‘Jesus of history’ – Memory or Myth?
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