Jesus Did Not Exist. Probably.

By Raphael Lataster | 12 April 2016
Church and State

(Photo: Jim Forest / Flickr)
(Photo: Jim Forest / Flickr)

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.

Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists
By Raphael Lataster w/ Richard Carrier
CreateSpace, 1 edition (November 12, 2015)
ISBN-10: 1514814420
ISBN-13: 978-1514814420

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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  1. In Mormon belief, Moroni was a human (a military leader of the Nephites) before he became an angel. In other words, he was not just a celestial being. You might want to correct this inaccuracy in your article.

  2. Hi Rafael
    I'd suggest you to read about Jesus in Islam , read about him in the translated version of the holy Qura'an . It will definitely give u the final answer to your search

    Dr HATIM

  3. So funny, someone decides to promote Islam as an alternate to Christianity when it's shown that Christ is a mythical figure. What a joke, "Dr Hatim".

  4. This is one opinion on Islam & Muhammad. I'm still not sure either way.

    Prophet Muhammad never existed

    > *Prof. Kalisch traded ideas with some scholars in Saarbrücken who in recent years have been pushing the idea of Muhammad's nonexistence. They claim that "Muhammad" wasn't the name of a person but a title, and that Islam began as a Christian heresy.*

  5. This article is purely ignorant of the scholarly consensus on Jesus historicity. It's very selective of the minority on the subject that happens to agree with what people with an obvious vendetta want to believe.
    There's plenty of well known ancient historians who wrote about Jesus, one of which being Luke who also wrote a gospel. There's about 42 documents saying something about Jesus, a lot of which are either hostile or indifferent to Jesus and Christianity. Some historians also mentioned a few of the miracles recorded in the gospels or just mention Jesus as being famous for miracles that they dismiss as illusionist tricks, or otherwise sorcery. An example is a record from Thallus in the 50's A.D. mentioning the darkness that occurred during Jesus crucifixion and attempting to explain it as a solar eclipse. Africanus, who quoted this record about 2 centuries later, mentioned that an eclipse wouldn't be possible because it happened during the Jewish Passover, when the moon is full and diametrically opposite from the sun. both of these historians records only survive as quotes in other historical writings, like in the records of Eusebius, from what was still left of their respective work during the time. Tacitus references in 115 A.D. in his Annals that Christians who were killed for saying Jesus was resurrected. He recorded "Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular". Suetonius recorded "After the great fire at Rome . . . . Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief". The only way that many people would believe that Jesus was resurrected was if they actually saw him. Even his first disciples doubted him until they saw him. There's no way other Jews or Romans would want to make something up that would challenge their religious customs especially when the only good it seemed to do anyone was get them killed for professing it. The witnesses couldn't have hallucinated it because group hallucinations don't happen. And it's recorded that one of the disciples touched Jesus after he appeared to them and Paul records having met about 500 witnesses. These new testament accounts are consistent with the Roman historical records talking about the teaching of Jesus resurrection. Hardly any scholar, regardless of background, doubts Jesus was a real historical figure, it's mostly the miracles that are controversial, but with no evidence against them, just skepticism that miracles can even happen.
    No one who ever wrote about Jesus was ever questioned by anyone about if he actually existed. People who knew anything about Jesus would be around to say how accurate these claims were that were being recorded. There were plenty of people who hated his teachings who would have loved to refute that he was real, if he was made up. The problem is he was seen by many people in person. There are over 5000 copies of the new testament in it's original language, all of which are mostly consistent with each other and modern translations. The only differences are the story of Jesus and the prostitute not being in the oldest copies and textual variants.
    We know the new testament was completed before the second century because Clement of Rome quotes it in the late first century. The gospels would be some of the earliest of the new testament compilation.

    • Sheesh, are you ignorant, son. "Luke" is a historian who also wrote a Gospel? Bwa ha ha ha haaaaaaaaaa! You don't seem to know that the "Gospel of Luke," like all 4 canonical Gospels, was ANONYMOUS. NO ONE knows who wrote it. Your "Luke" is a figment of your imagination and here is NO such "historian." Jesus, why do I bother with people who don't know WTF they are talking about and just make shit up??? The rest of your post is equally made-up bullshit. Go read some peer-reviewed works to educate yourself, starting with On the Historicity of Jesus by Carrier. Here's a little info from his peer-reviewed book for you that is actually true, unlike the crap you espouse:

      We have not a single contemporary mention of Jesus–apart from, at best, the letters of Paul, who never even knew him, and says next to nothing about him (as a historical man), or the dubious letters of certain alleged disciples (and I say alleged because apart from known forgeries, none ever say they were his disciples), and (again apart from those forgeries) none ever distinctly place Jesus in history (see Chapter 7 and 11). p. 22

      History concerns not what scholars subjectively think 'must' have happened, but what the evidence allows us all to claim actually did happen. p. 25