Debate over the historical Jesus (4)

Before we look at the evidence, it is important to look at the nature of the conflict. People have been arguing about the historical nature of Jesus since the very beginning of the Christian era. That this conflict exists at all is a clue that the evidence for the historical Jesus is lacking vitality. In this article we will briefly explain the “debate” over the historical nature of Jesus Christ, and the reasons why Jesus’ historicity begs to be questioned.

The idea of a physical founder of Christianity is so intrinsic to our society that nowadays any opposing theory is simply discarded. Already in response to this website, I’ve gotten many emails saying things like, “Everybody has always believed in the historical Jesus,” or “It’s ridiculous to consider that everybody has just been wrong about Jesus for so long.” One of the major writers in the field of the mythical Christ, Earl Doherty, got so much criticism for his book, “The Jesus Puzzle,” that he wrote an entire article called, Responses to Critiques of the Mythicist Case.

Some of the quotes he cites in this article, which is posted on his website, demonstrate that there is a bias against the idea of a mythical Jesus, which overshadows any research done in the area. He says:

“In my critique of Mike Licona, I reproduced his quotes from 20th century scholars in regard to those who put forward the mythicist theory. They include:
– Gunther Bornkamm: “to doubt the historical existence of Jesus at all…was reserved for an unrestrained, tendentious criticism of modern times into which it is not worthwhile to enter here.”
– Rudolf Bultmann: “Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement.”
– Paul Maier: “The total evidence [for the existence of Jesus] is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence. And yet this pathetic denial is still parroted by “the village atheist,” bloggers on the internet, or such organizations as the Freedom from Religion Foundation.”

Is the theory of the mythical Jesus really a modern concept? Actually, it’s as old as Christianity, and has had plenty of resurgences. In the 19th century, many historical scholars were convinced that Jesus had never existed and wrote dozens of books to that effect. Just like today, however, the theory was met with incredulous disdain and scorn. Rev. Robert Taylor, arguing against the historical Jesus in 1829, found himself in much the same position as Earl Doherty: surrounded by critics, who denounced his findings even while refusing to consider his evidence.

“And from the apostolic age downwards, in a never interrupted succession, but never so strongly and emphatically as in the most primitive times, was the existence of Christ as a man most strenuously denied. So that though nothing is so convenient to some persons as to assume airs of contempt, and to cry out that those who deny that such a person as Jesus of Nazareth ever existed, are utterly unworthy of being answered, and would fly in the face of all historical evidence, the fact of the case is, that the being of no other individual mentioned in history ever labored under such a deficiency of evidence as to its reality, or was ever overset by a thousandth part of the weight of proof positive, that it was a creation of imagination only.” Reverend R. Taylor, Diegesis

Today, the debate over whether or not Jesus really existed has been completely ignored for the debate over Who Jesus Really Was. The controversial website, The Jesus Police, challenges every assumption about Jesus Christ and supplants them with new ideas, based on the latest evidence. However, they over-looked the one, most significant assumption: that Jesus actually lived at all. Not only has his existence never been proven, but for a guy whose historicity is apparently beyond question, he is notoriously hard to find. Even Christian scholars will admit that there are virtually no acceptable references to Jesus outside of the New Testament accounts. On his website, Mark D. Roberts, author of “Jesus Revealed”, examines the evidence for the historical Jesus. He quickly dismisses the main Jewish and Roman sources used to support the historical Jesus, (as we will do later) and even makes the early Christian writings dispensable. In the end, he finds in the Bible plenty of evidence for the historical Jesus.

“If all we had were the second-century Christian writings, we’d have a hard time sorting out what Jesus really did and said. The gulf between orthodox and heterodox treatments of Jesus was wide and growing wider in this century as Gnostics claimed Jesus as their heavenly redeemer while orthodox Christians insisted that his ministry included far more than revelation. At its core, they argued, it had to do with his death and resurrection, something the Gnostics rejected, preferring a revealer who didn’t really suffer. But, I’m glad to say, we don’t have only the second-century writings. In fact we have access to texts from the earliest days of Christian faith, writings which are collected in the New Testament.” Mark D. Roberts, How can we know anything about Jesus?

But is the Bible a historical document that can demonstrate the physical reality of Jesus Christ? In 1986, a man named Robert Funk created the Westar Institute with the aim of exploring this question. He organized the Jesus Seminar, an inter-disciplinary panel of top scholars, to investigate the historical accuracy of the New Testament sayings of Jesus. In 1993, the seminar published the findings of their vote-based investigation, in a work called, “The Five Gospels.” Their conclusion? Only 16% of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels may have actually been spoken by him.

This may seem like a low number, but as critics of the Jesus Seminar point out, most of the members of the Jesus Seminars weren’t Christian, and disregarded all of the supernatural, miraculous events because they couldn’t have possibly happened. This harsh skepticism was used to remove the veil of divinity from Jesus Christ and reveal his humanity, but for spiritual persons who believe in the possibility of miracles, the findings of the Jesus Seminar are worthless as an investigation into the historical Jesus. After all, if the miracles recorded in the Bible really happened, they would surely be recorded in eye-witness accounts, which is what the New Testament gospels are believed to be. Just because they seem unlikely or impossible doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. (Skeptics will argue with me on this, but I promise to explain more later.)

Secular researchers who are seeking critical evidence about the historical Jesus come up empty-handed, and those who find plenty of evidence for the historical Christ in the Bible, have to begin from a point of faith that accepts miraculous events at face value. At this point, many people will say, “Well, it all happened a long time ago, and I guess there’s no proof either way. People will just go on believing what they will.” This is true in one sense: regardless of research, most people will go on believing what they want to.

However, there is proof in the mythical Jesus. Lots of it – and more is coming to light all the time. First of all, it is easy to see from early Christian writings that the controversy over the historical Christ is very old. Early Christians who believed in a historical Jesus faced two big problems, the first were the similarities between Jesus and other Pagan gods, who were also born of a virgin, died for the sins of their followers, (often on a cross), and later rose from the dead. Since these other saviors were readily identified as mythological beings, everyone assumed that Jesus was just the newest version of an old story. These similarities were so obvious that Christian fathers never denied them.

“When we say that the Word, who is first born of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven; we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter (Zeus).” Justin Martyr, First Apology (Chapter 21)

The second problem was that, for as long as there has been the idea of a historical Jesus, it has been strenuously contested by others who denied that Jesus Christ had ever physically lived or died as a real man – and not only by Pagans, but Christian communities as well!

“I have learned that certain ministers of Satan have wished to disturb you, some of them asserting that Jesus was born only in appearance, and was crucified in appearance, and died in appearance.” Iraneaus, Against Valentinus (Chapter 2)

It may be easy to understand how someone could get confused 2,000 years later, but how could the historical nature of Jesus be doubted so soon after his alleged resurrection? St. Ignatius, writing around 110AD, was already arguing against those who denied that Jesus really existed. This is within 30 years of the dating of Mark, which Christian tradition holds as the first gospel, written around 70AD. How is it that the Mark, disciple of Jesus, after waiting 40 years to publish his testimonial about Jesus Christ, finally writes the first account of his savior’s words and deeds, and within 30 years there are people not only denying that Jesus existed, but worshiping that same non-existent Jesus? Did they read Mark’s gospel about the ministry of Jesus, accept Jesus Christ as their savior, and then suddenly decide he wasn’t real? If not from Mark, who wrote the first testimonial, how did they find out about Jesus? Certainly not from Jesus himself, nor from any eye-witnesses or 2nd or 3rd references; all of whom would have been sure to tell them of the miraculous deeds recently performed by the actual, physical Jesus Christ.

When you read through the letters and writings of the Church fathers for the first several centuries of Christianity, a strong theme emerges, which shows just how large the “heresy” of the mythical Jesus really was. They all seem to be making the same point, that regardless of what everybody else was saying, Jesus had really existed. Unable to offer their enemies any proof for their faith in the historical Jesus, many church leaders resorted to name-calling.

“For everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is the antichrist; and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is a devil, and whosoever perverteth the oracles of the Lord (to serve) his own lusts, and saith there is neither resurrection nor a judgment, this man is a first born of Satan.” St. Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians (Book 7, Chapter 1)

Who were these other communities, who didn’t believe a historical Jesus had physically completed the central motifs of Christianity? History has labeled them Gnostics due to their search for Gnosis, or Wisdom. After their version of Christianity became heretical, they were systematically exterminated, and nearly lost to history. In recent times, however, many of their original texts and scriptures have been recovered, translated and made available to the public. The Naq Hammadi Library alone, found in 1945, is a collection of Gnostic gospels and letters considerably larger than the New Testament. Some researchers count as many as 80 Gnostic gospels, and more, such as the Gospel according to Judas, continue to make headlines. Although Christian scholars argue that the New Testament gospels are the oldest, even this claim is hotly contested by Gnostic and secular experts.

Do these gospels prove that Jesus didn’t exist? Not on the surface. The Gnostic gospels, like the gospels of the New Testament, were written in a literary style known as Historical Narrative. This means they were stories which used real places and events to make them seem realistic. This was a common way of writing in those times, used also frequently in the Old Testament.

“It is sufficient however, to represent in the style of a historical narrative what is intended to convey a secret meaning in the garb of history, that those who have the capacity may work out for themselves all that relates to the subject.” Origen, Against Celsus (Book 5, Chapter 29)

As time passed, the tradition of interpreting the mythical literature was lost, and communities were left with the text alone, which, on the surface, appears to be talking about historical events. “Many were led astray by reading the allegorical contents of the scriptures literally in the method of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History

We have been reading the stories about Jesus Christ literally for so long, it is very difficult to begin to see them as myths, even when, as is the case with most of the Gnostic gospels, they are overtly mythical in style and structure. As more of these gospels come to light and researchers slowly lose their grip on the assumption of a historical Jesus, we will begin to see Jesus in a whole new way.

In the end, we have to acknowledge that the historical Jesus isn’t and never has been the foregone conclusion of every sane researcher. In any just courtroom trial, a case may be opened up for re-examination whenever new evidence comes to light. Can we remove this standard from our quest for the historical Jesus, and say, “We’ve already decided the Truth in this matter, we will not consider any new evidence.”? If you’re willing to at least give the mythical Jesus a fair trial, please continue with the next part of this investigation.

The articles in this section are part of a 50,000 word treatise on the historical Jesus and Christ Myth Theory, dealing with Christian history, the mystical significance of Christian symbols, and the mistaken belief that Jesus Christ was a historical person. You can download the entire collection for free as a PDF file ebook by clicking here!