Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Did Jesus Actually Exist?

Atheists and skeptics sometimes like to argue that Jesus never actually existed.  They base this argument in part on the fact that there is no reliable evidence that he did--no reliable physical evidence has ever been found, and no historical records mention him.

There is a brief mention in the historical works of Josephus, but many scholars believe that this was inserted centuries later by a Christian scribe.  There are no early copies of Josephus' work to compare it with, the passage doesn't fit well into the context, and the writing style seems different. Of course, Christian apologists argue strenuously that "some" of the passage was Josephus' own writing.

What the skeptics really base their case on, however, is the extent to which the Jesus story was obviously borrowed from earlier religious traditions circulating in that part of the world at that time in history.  Among others, biblical scholar Robert M. Price has written several books on this subject.  You can find a bibliography of works on this subject at this site.

You will find that the essential elements of the Christ myth are repetitive of things alleged to be true of Buddha, Horus, Mithra, Krishna, Osiris, and Dionysius--in other words, many of the competing religions around the Mediterranean and Asia Minor at the time of the founding of Christianity.  Virgin birth,  royal or divine father, 12 disciples, miracles, sacrificial death and resurrection can almost be described as required aspects of a man-god at that time.

The fact that the myths were borrowed from elsewhere, however, does not disprove the existence of an executed cult leader. 

Although the idea that Jesus never actually existed is not ridiculous by far, I don't think this is an argument that non-believers should use in any serious way.  That is, I don't recommend that anyone actually try to prove the point or maintain that Jesus absolutely did not exist.  Doing so will merely give ammunition to the other side of the debate.  Use it to introduce doubt into the believer's mind instead.

An example of the best use of this notion is Bertrand Russell's in his famous 1927 lecture, "Why I Am Not a Christian"—delivered to the National Secular Society in Battersea Town Hall, London.  He said that "historically it is quite doubtful that Jesus existed, and if he did we know nothing about him..."

That's it. Just a brief mention that there is no reliable evidence that Jesus even existed.  Then drop the subject and move on to other things in Christianity that are far from certain.  Doubts as to Jesus' actual existence is only one of many such things, like the veracity and authorship of the New Testament and the exclusion of numerous other "holy" writings from the bible.

The point of mentioning these things is that Christians haven't managed to prove that their earthly foundation myths are true, much less the alleged supernatural background.  There is absolutely no reason to think that Christianity wasn't just something someone made up.  Just another of many cults that existed in that time and place.

If you strenuously maintain that Jesus never existed, you will lose credibility in the eyes of any religious observers and maybe some skeptics.  Even if the members of your audience can't articulate why they no longer take you seriously, they will sense that there is something fatally wrong with maintaining this position.

They may say that the reason is that you can't prove it, and you may reply with burden of proof type arguments as if the debate were about whether god exists.  But, there is a fundamental difference between those two debates.

God is a supposed supernatural entity--an extraordinary proposition.  Jesus was a man--not extraordinary at all.  Disproving god's existence is literally impossible.  Any hypothesis involving sentient beings with magic powers is impossible to disprove and therefore the burden of proof must be on the proponent.  Disproving Jesus' existence as a historical human being may be practically impossible but not theoretically impossible as in the case of god.  Therefore the usual assumptions about assuming the burden of proof when proposing a hypothesis will apply.  You, the skeptic, will be implicitly assumed to bear that burden and you cannot meet it.

There is a better way to approach this issue.  We atheists like to whip out Occam's razor when arguing with the religious, and I would do so when analyzing whether Jesus actually existed.  Occam's razor is the name given to the logical principle that the simplest explanation for something is more likely to be true.

The simplest hypothesis is that there was a radical rabbi named Jesus, or something like that, who started his own sect and then got himself killed by the Romans for being uppity.  After which his stunned followers tried to put the best face on it that they could and started grafting all those other god myths on to Jesus' story and trying to fit him into the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah.  His followers clearly went to a lot of trouble to try to make the actual facts of his life "fit" the prophecies he would need to have fulfilled to actually be the Messiah.

Trying to pretend that a person was actually a deity implies that there was a person to begin with.  There would be no reason to go to all that trouble if there weren't.  If there hadn't been an actual person, then it would have been possible to make sure that the "facts" about the life of the fictional founder of the religion fit the prophecies perfectly rather than very badly.

I think, too, that the reason they concocted for his death shows how desperate they were to make an actual event seem to make sense in their twisted world.  The idea that god was so mad at us for being human that he just had to kill somebody so he sent a part of himself to earth as a person and then killed that person is insane--yet not uncommon at that time.   Furthermore, the stories and quotations in the bible sound just like the stories of the leader of a small cult. 

The idea that a bunch of people just got together and decided to make him up doesn't fit the facts as well and requires more suppositions.  For instance, there seems to have been a whole group of followers.  Religions made up out of whole cloth are usually created by one person for various reasons (i.e., Joseph Smith).  Usually that one person is a twisted soul who wants power and wouldn't want to share it with co-conspirators.  Besides, complicated conspiracies are hard to pull off, and the greater the number of co-conspirators, the greater the likelihood of failure.  I can think of no reason that explains in a convincing way why a group of people would decide to make this particular story up--unless it were to make sense of real events that didn't fit their view of their recently deceased guru.

The conspiracy theory is more complicated than the idea that a radical rabbi started his own sect, got himself killed by the Romans, and then his followers tried to make the best of it by claiming his death was a "sacrifice" for them and added new "details" over the years to make him seem more wonderful.  That sort of thing was known to happen; this particular sect just happened to be the one to survive and prosper.

James Carroll in his book "Constantine's Sword" makes the case for this simpler scenario very well--along with a good exploration of violence and intolerance inspired by Christianity.


A documentary version of the book came out a couple of years ago:


Personally, I don't care whether he existed.  If he did, he was nothing more than the David Koresh of his day.  Koresh was born to an unwed 15 year old mother (virgin birth?) and never knew his father (holy ghost?).  He took an offshoot of an established religion and turned it into his personal cult.  His ego eventually caused him to run afoul of the authorities, who killed him.  The difference is that Jesus didn't get most of the others in his cult killed the way Koresh did.  Most important is that Koresh's life occurred very recently, which allows us to see him objectively.

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