Did Jesus Ever Exist?

JesusWe have discussed the veracity of the stories contained in the Gospels and even the possibility that Jesus was a real person, but according to an article on Alternet, Valerie Tarico writes that a growing number of scholars are openly or actively arguing against Jesus’ historicity. The article, reprinted at Salon is titled

5 good reasons to think Jesus never existed

Most antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are “mythologized history.” In other words, they think that around the start of the first century a controversial Jewish rabbi named Yeshua ben Yosef gathered a following and his life and teachings provided the seed that grew into Christianity.

At the same time, these scholars acknowledge that many Bible stories like the virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and women at the tomb borrow and rework mythic themes that were common in the Ancient Near East, much the way that screenwriters base new movies on old familiar tropes or plot elements. In this view, a “historical Jesus” became mythologized.

For over 200 years, a wide ranging array of theologians and historians—most of them Christian—analyzed ancient texts, both those that made it into the Bible and those that didn’t, in attempts to excavate the man behind the myth. Several current or recent bestsellers take this approach, distilling the scholarship for a popular audience. Familiar titles include Zealot by Reza Aslan and How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman.

But other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually “historicized mythology.” In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places and other real world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received.

JesusThe notion that Jesus never existed is a minority position. Of course it is! says David Fitzgerald, author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All. For centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were Christians themselves, and modern secular scholars lean heavily on the groundwork that they laid in collecting, preserving, and analyzing ancient texts. Even today most secular scholars come out of a religious background, and many operate by default under historical presumptions of their former faith. …

The arguments on both sides of this question—mythologized history or historicized mythology—fill volumes, and if anything the debate seems to be heating up rather than resolving. A growing number of scholars are openly questioning or actively arguing against Jesus’ historicity. Since many people, both Christian and not, find it surprising that this debate even exists—that credible scholars might think Jesus never existed—here are some of the key points that keep the doubts alive:

The article goes on to enumerate and further discuss each of the arguments suggesting that Jesus never existed. I will only show the arguments and will urgently request that you go to the AlterNet article (at Salon) for the complete discussion.

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.

3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.

4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.

5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.

jesusJesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord’s Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors’ longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions. …

We may never know for certain what put Christian history in motion. Only time (or perhaps time travel) will tell.

5 responses

  1. I read a lot about the question of the historical Jesus. I enjoyed your article very much and the interesting comments that followed. I’m presently exploring Bart Ehrman’s ideas. I think you’re right on the mark about Paul and his mystery message.

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  2. I read through this and also the link and was thoroughly not impressed.

    Both bandied around claims like “a growing number of scholars believe” “most antiquities scholars” while doing nothing to substantiate such claims. Yes, Tarico does mention two individuals who have “popularized” that scholarship for a wider audience. Ehrman I will accept. Aslan is a sociologist who teaches creative writing. Zealot simply demonstrates he is qualified to teach creative writing.

    Now, for the claims:
    No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.
    A) Josephus mentions him twice in Antiquities. That was written in the first century and even though the content of what he wrote was likely edited, the fact he wrote something on the man is incontrovertible.
    B) I take umbridge to the word “secular”. It is incredibly arrogant to dismiss a particular work or writing as “evidence” simply because it has an agenda.
    C) There were roughly 240 million people on earth during the time of his ministry. How many have anything written on them. The lack of evidence is a bad piece of evidence. This is especially true once you throw out an abundance of evidence as in (B)

    The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.
    Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.
    The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.
    I am lumping these three for brevity and also because they are all three angles of the same misunderstanding. None of the gospels, canonical or not, qualify as biographies as we understand the term today. To try and hold them to our twenty-first century standards of what qualifies as history is disingenuous.

    Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.
    There are over five hundred biographies of Winston Churchill. The man these biographies portray vastly differs based on the perceptions, biases, and personal viewpoints of the authors with their regards to the man and their interpretation of what he said and did. How much more would this be true of a man who 1) had a far greater impact on his world 2) existed at a much wider difference in time from current biographers and 3) for whom there is less source material (but certainly not none) from which to draw their interpretations.
    No idiot would say “because Churchill’s biographers differ so widely in their interpretation of who the true Churchill was, he must not have existed.” No, that kind of idiocy is reserved for articles on Alternet.

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    • The basis of the article was the argument of whether a real historical person was aggrandized with the myth and magic of the day in order to create a new and mystical religion or whether the myths and magic were collected and real events and persons were inserted into the stories to make them appear more believable.

      Either way, the origins of Christianity probably flow more from the public relation skills and imagination of Paul than the mythological stories of Jesus, whether he was real or not.

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      • Sorry. For some strange reason, I thought the article was questioning if Jesus ever existed. Don’t know where I got that strange notion.

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      • The article clearly states that questioning the historicity of Jesus is a minority position. We all know that Jesus is at least as real as Tyler Durden.

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