This post by Stephen Van Eck originally appeared at World Union of Deists.
If you want to look like a lunatic or an idiot to the average Christian, there’s no better way than to claim that Jesus never existed. They’ll look at you like you sprouted a new head.
But if you hold your ground and can back it up, these same Christians can be sent their way flummoxed. Here are the three essential arguments supporting the claim of non-existence:
1) The lack of historical evidence that this crowd-drawing, wonder-working sensation ever existed;
2) The suspicious similarity of the Jesus story to that of earlier Mystery cult god-men, who were born of virgins on December 25th, who died on a tree, and who rose from the dead; and
3) The consistent distortion of Old Testament passages that are alleged prophecies, and the strong indication that many of the details of the Gospel stories were simply concocted to match what those passages seemed to suggest.
The last two arguments are highly specialized, and need a lot of research and preparation to fully defend. But when it comes to the first one, all you need to do is establish that you’re not a lone wacko, as they might assume. Fact is, many scholars have come to the same conclusion, something most Christians are completely oblivious to.
Many scholars have undertaken “The Quest for the Historic Jesus”. And they’ve come up empty, if they’re intellectually honest. Albert Schweitzer, for one, wrote a similarly-titled book in 1906. Here’s his conclusion: “The question which has so much exercised the minds of men—whether Jesus was the historic Christ—is answered in the sense that everything the historical Christ is, everything that is said of him, everything that is known of him, belongs to the world of the imagination, that is, the imagination of the Christian community, and therefore he has nothing to do with any man who belongs in the real world.”
Schweitzer was not alone. Here’s what another scholar, GRS Mead, wrote: “It has always been an unfailing source of astonishment to the historical investigator of Christian beginnings that there is not a single word from the pen of any pagan writer of the first century of our era which can in any fashion be referred to the marvelous story recounted by the Gospel writers. The very existence of Jesus seems unknown.”
Or, taking a patriotic tack, you might cite the redoubtable Tom Paine, who made the following determination in a supplement to his “Age of Reason”:
“These repeated forgeries and falsifications create a well-founded suspicion that all the cases spoken of concerning the person called Jesus Christ are made cases, on purpose to lug in, and that very clumsily, some broken sentences from the Old Testament, and apply them as prophecies of those cases; and that so far from his being the Son of God, he did not even exist as a man—that he is merely an imaginary of allegorical character, as Apollo, Hercules, Jupiter and all the deities of antiquity were. There is no history written at the time Jesus is said to have lived that speaks of the existence of such a person, even as a man.”
Some of the leading Protestant theologians, though unable to let go of their attachment to Jesus, were still honest enough to admit that there’s no real evidence of him. Rudolph Bultmann concluded that Christianity is based on the legendary Jesus, not the historic one, and that the historic one was unrecoverable. “I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either and are, moreover, fragmentary and often legendary.”
Paul Tillich came to a similar conclusion:
“Historical research has made it obvious that there is no way to get at the historical events which produce the Biblical Jesus who is called the Christ with more than a degree of probability.”
What this amounts to is sheer guesswork for those who maintain this irrational belief.
Mediocre apologists who’ve read the ever-popular Josh McDowell books are fond of touting historical evidence for Jesus. Don’t let them get away with it. This “evidence” always turns out to be non-contemporaneous, as in Tacitus’s 2nd century reference to Christians (which does nothing to prove that there was an actual Christ), and especially Josephus, who not only was born after the putative time of Christ, but whose purported mention of him has been determined by scholars—not pious apologists—to be an interpolation. The arguments in defense of this are overly technical for an impromptu oral argument.
But for us the conclusion is inescapable. Jesus never existed. It might shock the average Christian, but as you see, it’s not so ridiculous an assertion after all. Proclaim it with confidence and frustrate a Soul Winner.
The ‘Jesus of history’ – Memory or Myth?
The True Core Of The Jesus Myth
In Humanity We Trust (on behalf of the Giordano Bruno Foundation, 2014)
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