Please stop saying Jesus never existed…

 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.

For example:

-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.

Call me Jesus.

-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.

               I suck in my hometown.

-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.

Further reading:
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)

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15 thoughts on “Please stop saying Jesus never existed…

  1. “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.”

    Not necessarily. They could have simply inherited earlier myths about “The Nazorean” and confused that with the city of Nazareth, and then further confused the issue by later finding the “prophecy” of Micah 5:2 in which a “ruler” (not the Messiah) over Israel would come from Bethlehem.

    There are lots of possibilities here. Applying 21st Century critical standards to 1st Century mysticism presupposes that the people forging these myths wrote and thought in ways that are logically comprehensible to us. I don’t have faith that they did.

  2. “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 … 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.”

    Jesus’s “followers” didn’t write the gospels, being illiterate. The question is, did the highly literate, Greek-speaking evangelists who did write them invent this story, and if so, why? The over-arching theme of the gospels is that the Jews in general don’t have faith, have forsaken their god and killed all their prophets, and refuse to believe that Jesus is their Messiah, so to have even people in his family and his hometown — presumably the people whom the reader is made to think knew him the best — also express doubt about his divinity actually *supports* the whole Jesus mythos that the evangelists were constructing.

    So, yes, properly analyzed in context, this anecdote appears to have been willingly fabricated by the evangelists, no different from their fabricating a hundred other things in the gospel legend.

  3. “-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.”

    Yes, there would have. Emmanuel means “God is with us,” while Jesus means “Yahweh is Salvation.” Matthew is very careful to explain both names. The “prophecy” was to have him named Emmanuel, which Matthew acknowledges, but an angel appears to explain that he also needs to be named Jesus, because he was sent to “save people from their sins.” A salvific new religious mythos needs such a name for its figurehead: Jesus Christ, aka The Saving Messiah.
    He cannot be called Emmanuel, because there is no salvific function to that name. This is well within the realm of complete fabrication.

    Matthew 1:21-23 “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

  4. Good points Andrew, all of those could certainly be considered possibilities, and my wording should have probably reflected as such, i.e. there are certainly other *possible* explanations for how such stories could have made their way into the Bible without a “historical” Jesus ever existing. On the other hand when we try to assess which is the most historically probable explanation, I have a really hard time seeing how any of the mythical Jesus hypotheses could ever be more probable than the very basic, very mundane explanation that there was simply a man named Jesus who was born in Nazareth, preached, and was crucified, and around whom the legends and miracle claims later grew.

    We know, for example, that there were numerous other so-called Messiahs, and there were numerous other Jewish teachers similar to Jesus during that time period. We know that many people were crucified by the Romans for even rather minor offenses. We even know that “Jesus” was a pretty common name in those days (Richard Carrier did an interesting analysis where he concluded that, based solely how common the names were, there were almost certainly several families in ancient Galilee around that time in which a “Joseph” and a “Mary” gave birth to a “Jesus”, just from mathematical chance alone).

    In other words, when you consider the core of the “historical Jesus” story, there wasn’t really anything exceptional or improbable about it, and it requires one to accept nothing more than mundane events, the likes of which we know happened with some regularity. I know Occam’s Razor tends to get thrown around a little too often in skeptical circles, but I’d say it’s a principle which applies pretty well to the issue of the historical vs mythical Jesus; many aspects/discrepancies of Christianity and the Bible are explained through the mere existence of a man (albeit a very “human” man, and one who did not conform to everything his eventual followers wished he did), as opposed to muliple possible yet improbable explanations which must collectively be true in order for the purely mythical Jesus hypothesis overall to be true.

  5. BTW, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the gospel writers were direct followers of Jesus, much less the authors that the gospels were attributed to. Whether Jesus’ followers were all illiterate is debatable, but certainly the idea that they wrote the gospels has been thoroughly discredited (speaking of which, that would probably make for a good future post…)

    • I think people, in this case my fellow atheists, should honestly state their beliefs (e.g. Jesus never existed) and not alter them just because someone (i.e. you) suggests it hurts our argument. This is disingenuous and I will not take part. I’ll leave that to the religious right, thank you. For the record, I don’t know whether I believe Jesus existed or not.

  6. “On the other hand when we try to assess which is the most historically probable explanation, I have a really hard time seeing how any of the mythical Jesus hypotheses could ever be more probable than the very basic, very mundane explanation that there was simply a man named Jesus who was born in Nazareth, preached, and was crucified, and around whom the legends and miracle claims later grew.”

    That is certainly possible. My point was that the Criterion of Embarrassment that is so often applied to these tales as “proof” is so utterly arbitrary as to be useless in establishing whatever historical reality may be hiding underneath the legends. “People in his hometown denied his divinity, therefore it must be true” is often cited as an example, but properly analyzed sans apologetic lenses, one can reach the opposite conclusion. We have no reason to presume a historic core to narrative theology. As the evangelists themselves tell us, Jesus lived and died “according to the Scriptures” — his “life” could be found within the Septuagint. Inserting that “life” in the real historical context of their time may have served a purely literary function.

  7. To say that the Jesus of the bible is historical is almost the same as saying God existed. The bible asserts Jesus had divine God-like supernatural powers, making him a God. But aside from all that. If the Jesus of the Bible is truly historical, then, why all the silence by all the historians who lived during his alleged lifetime make no mention of him at all? A conspiracy of silence perhaps? I think not. The Jesus of the Bible is nothing more then obvious fiction. He is not a real person who existed in historical times two thousand years ago.

  8. “If the Jesus of the Bible is truly historical, then, why all the silence by all the historians who lived during his alleged lifetime make no mention of him at all?”

    Hey Jim. If the question is whether the “Jesus of the Bible” was real (miracle claims and all), then I agree completely, the silence of omission is deafening and of such magnitude that absence of evidence is obvious evidence for absence.

    On the other hand is Jesus were simply a man–one of many such men who existed, traveled the country, and preached his particular brand of Judaism–then it should surprise nobody that no one bothered to write a single word about until decades after his death.

    After all, countless unremarkable men have existed who failed to be recorded in history. And the overall consensus among non-evangelical biblical scholars is that Jesus was almost certainly a real man, albeit one who accomplished very little of note in his rather unremarkable life before meeting an equally unremarkable death (and probably would have been completely forgotten if Saul of Tarsus hadn’t come along…)

  9. “To say that the Jesus of the bible is historical is almost the same as saying God existed. The bible asserts Jesus had divine God-like supernatural powers, making him a God.”

    Well the Gospel of John certainly equates Jesus to God, but a great deal of the Bible does not, and a good deal of it arguably doesn’t even consider Jesus to be “a” god (e.g. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day), much less “the” God.

    Of course, most people assume that the books of the Bible agree on Jesus’ divinity, in large part due to misunderstandings of certain terms associated with Jesus which meant something very different back then than they do now (“Son of God”, “Son of Man”, “Christ”, “messiah”, etc).

    We generally think of those as being in some way synonymous with divinity or of having Godlike status, yet the original meanings of those terms was very different and in many cases was understood (or expected) to refer to someone who was fully human.

  10. It doesn’t shift the burden of proof onto Atheists just because we say their Jesus didn’t exist, any more than it does when we say their god doesn’t exist either. They are still the ones asserting existence for both, therefore they are still the ones with the burden of proof. You don’t have to prove non-existence.

    • I beg to differ. To make an affirmative claim of non-existence is not the same as rejecting the claim of existence, and to say that “X does not exist” is not the same as saying “I do not believe that X exists”. It’s a subtle difference, but to say the former is to claim the negative is true (thereby placing the burden onto yourself to prove the negative), whereas the latter is to simply reject the affirmative claim in favor of the default position, i.e. that there is insufficient evidence to accept it.

      It’s the difference between saying “There is no man standing in the dark outside my bedroom window spying on me right now” and “There is no evidence to indicate that a man is outside my window spying on me right now, and it’s incredibly unlikely that at this very moment there is a man spying on me outside my window right now, so I do not believe there is a man spying on me outside my window right now”.

      If you’re going to say the former, well you’d better be ready to go out there and prove he’s not out there… but even if you do, who’s to say he wasn’t there, but ran off when he saw you coming? It’s a virtually impossible proposition, unless you have the means to empirically exhaust every one of nearly infinite possibilities to rule out the possibility that there was indeed some guy out there.

      Likewise, to say that the evidence for Jesus’ divinity is sorely lacking and that there is no credible evidence that Jesus was anything more than a normal man, that places the burden on the believer to prove the supernatural, which obviously is impossible for him to demonstrate. But to make the claim that Jesus never existed, even as a normal man? That’s a pretty bold claim, and one which is likewise impossible to prove in the same way that negatives are typically impossible to prove (even something as basic as whether or not there is a man standing outside your window right now).

      At the very least, advocates of the mythicist position are better off taking the approach of prominent mythicists like Robert M. Price and Richard Carrier, who affirm that the Jesus figure bears many of the hallmarks of a mythical figure, and that the evidence for his existence is so lacking that we really have no way of knowing whether there was a real man at the center of the stories or not. However, to my knowledge, neither Carrier nor Price has ever made the explicit declaration that “Jesus never existed”–likely because they realize full well the logical fallacy of making such a claim, as well as how completely unnecessary it is to do so (even when advocating the mythicist position).

  11. Also, at the time Jesus was supposed to have been born, Nazareth was nothing more than a graveyard of rough hewn rock tombs. This is further proof that the stories were fabricated.

    • There is actually some disagreement over this claim, even among non-Christian and atheist scholars. The aforementioned Robert M. Price supports it, for example, while the aforementioned Richard Carrier disputes it.

      In any case, regardless of whether Nazareth was populated at the time of the Jesus story, we’re already in agreement that the birth narratives are complete fabrications. But on the question of whether there was ever a normal human being around whom the Jesus story developed, whether Nazareth was populated or not doesn’t answer that question, it just establishes whether that specific aspect of his life was fabricated (and we’ve already established that countless aspects of his life were fabricated).

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