I sometimes hear other atheists making the claim that Jesus never even existed, and that everything written about Jesus in the New Testament (not just the miracle claims, but even Jesus’ basic existence) is a complete fabrication. But not only is this almost certainly incorrect, and almost completely irrelevant (does it really matter if Jesus is 100% mythical/legendary, as opposed to 99%?), it’s ultimately counterproductive and even self-defeating to the atheist position.
By making an affirmative claim for Jesus’ non-existence, it voluntarily and unnecessarily shifts the burden of proof to the atheist, and even worse, sets the bar unnecessarily high (about as high as it can possibly go) for the position that the atheist is trying to support. Instead of the Christian trying to prove a position which is virtually (if not completely) impossible to prove, suddenly the atheist finds himself arguing for a position which is extremely difficult (although probably not impossible) to prove.
Consider that even Robert M. Price, Professor of Biblical Criticism and perhaps the most well-known advocate for the “mythical Jesus” theory, never actually makes the affirmative claim that Jesus did not exist; instead, he simply argues that the evidence for Jesus is so flimsy, and that so many aspects of the Jesus story share characteristics with other mythological stories, that we have no way of ever knowing if there was ever a “historical Jesus” to begin with.
But perhaps the biggest problem of claiming Jesus never existed is that, ironically, the strongest arguments for Jesus’ existence are also arguments against his divinity. And by taking up the position of absolute Jesus mythicism, you forego (or at least weaken) the opportunity to point out some of the most glaring problems in the entire Bible—particularly those which cast most doubt about Jesus’ status as the Messiah, as recorded in the Bible itself.
-The Old Testament prophecies said the Messiah would be named Emmanuel, not Jesus. If Jesus were a complete fabrication, there would have been no need to name him Jesus instead of just calling him Emmanuel.
-According to the New Testament, Jesus was unable to perform miracles in his hometown (other than faith healing, which as we all know does not require any supernatural abilities to perform), and he avoided Nazareth during his ministry despite visiting several of the towns surrounding it. The Bible makes clear that those in his hometown (i.e. those who knew Jesus as he grew up, well before he rose to prominence) were skeptical of his abilities. Obviously this would make any objective observer wonder: Just what was it that made them so skeptical of him? What was it that they knew about him growing up that others did not? And why would such skepticism affect his ability to perform miracles–IF they were truly authentic? This is clearly not a detail of Jesus’ life that his followers would willingly fabricate, so the fact that it came to be recorded in the Gospel of Mark suggests that it was a legitimate historical detail about Jesus–one which was sufficiently well-known that it managed to be passed down and come to eventually be recorded in the Bible, even though it actually casts serious doubt on his divinity.
-According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus was raised in Nazareth but born in Bethlehem; however the two gospels give completely different (yet equally convoluted, implausible, and ahistorical) reasons for why this occurred. In Luke, we have the familiar story of the Census, which required Joseph to report back to the home of his ancestors (Bethlehem) since he supposedly descended from King David centuries if not millennia prior (I could spend all day talking about the absurdities of this story, so I’ll just link to this article which does a good job of addressing most of them). On the other hand the Gospel of Matthew makes no reference to the census whatsoever, and gives an even more fantastical account of Mary and Joseph fleeing Nazareth to avoid the “massacre of the innocents” (whereby all young male children in the entire town were systematically exterminated in order to eliminate the future King of the Jews based on ancient prophecy). As before, if Jesus never existed there would have been no need to develop not just one, but two clearly fabricated accounts in order to reconcile the reality of his actual birthplace (Nazareth) with the prophesized birthplace of the Messiah (Bethlehem). Had the character of Jesus been pure fiction they could have simply said he was from Bethlehem.
The Christ Conundrum: The Skeptic’s Guide to Jesus by Andrew Carruth
Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman
The Historical Jesus by Bart Ehrman (MP3 lecture series)
Photo by Termin8er (Creative Commons)