Did a man named Jesus from Nazareth exist in Judea around 2000 years ago proclaiming to be some kind of prophet? Of course this is a controversial question because of the massive implications for one of the world’s major religions.
I do find it interesting to explore a basic factual question that is embedded in an intense ideological issue. It is a good way to explore what I think are the more interesting questions – the power of motivated reasoning, and how do we know anything historical.
I will also state that, even though this is not an atheist blog, I make no secret of the fact that I am an agnostic/atheist. I don’t think the historicity question has significant implications for atheism because it is entirely possible that the person Jesus existed but that Christian mythology is still just that, mythology. There were many prophets walking around the Middle East at that time. That one of them spawned a following that survives to this day is not surprising.
Two recent popular articles take opposite sides in this debate. The first is written by Dr Simon Gathercole in The Guardian, arguing that there is compelling evidence for Jesus. The second is written by Valerie Tarico in Raw Story and takes the position that the evidence for Jesus is weak. There has obviously been a lot written about this topic by many people, but these recent articles are decent summaries.
Which side has the stronger case?
Gathercole offers several lines of evidence, starting with Biblical writing:
The value of this evidence is that it is both early and detailed. The first Christian writings to talk about Jesus are the epistles of St Paul, and scholars agree that the earliest of these letters were written within 25 years of Jesus’s death at the very latest, while the detailed biographical accounts of Jesus in the New Testament gospels date from around 40 years after he died. These all appeared within the lifetimes of numerous eyewitnesses, and provide descriptions that comport with the culture and geography of first-century Palestine.
He adds that there are non-biblical mentions of Jesus from Josephus, Pliny and Tacitus. Further, there was no discussion in the ancient world after Christianity became a thing about whether or not Jesus existed. It was taken for granted that he did. He concludes:
These abundant historical references leave us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. The more interesting question – which goes beyond history and objective fact – is whether Jesus died and lived.
I acknowledge, those are solid points. Internal consistency with the historical record is an important criterion. The lack of contemporary doubt is also interesting.
Taken as a whole, however, I think that this evidence is extremely thin. Tarico goes into more detail about what the evidence actually shows:
The more scholars study Jesus, the more confused and uncertain our knowledge has become. Currently, we have a plethora of contradictory versions of Jesus—an itinerant preacher, a zealot, an apocalyptic prophet, an Essene heretic, a Roman sympathizer, and many more —each with a different scholar to confidently tout theirs as the only real one. Instead of a convergent view of early Christianity and its founder, we are faced instead with a cacophony of conflicting opinions. This is precisely what happens when people faced with ambiguous and contradictory information cannot bring themselves to say, we don’t know.
It is important to know that there were more than four gospels. There were many gospels, with extremely conflicting claims. Centuries after Jesus allegedly existed the early Christian church decided on which books were “canon,” eventually settling upon the 27 books of the New Testament including the four “synoptic” gospels. Tarico writes:
None of the four gospels claims to be written by eyewitnesses, and all were originally anonymous. Only later were they attributed to men named in the stories themselves.
While the four gospels were traditionally held to be four independent accounts, textual analysis suggests that they all actually are adaptations of the earliest gospel, Mark. Each has been edited and expanded upon, repeatedly, by unknown editors. It is worth noting that Mark features the most fallible, human, no-frills Jesus—and, more importantly, may be an allegory.
All of the gospels contain anachronisms and errors that show they were written long after the events they describe, and most likely far from the setting of their stories. Even more troubling, they don’t just have minor nitpicky contradictions; they have basic, even crucial, contradictions.
When we look at all the historical documents relating to Jesus and early Christianity what we have is a mess – conflicting accounts, clear forgeries, and multiple edits by anonymous individuals. Even the scant historical references were just referencing early Christian beliefs, not independent evidence.
Further we now know how easy it is for stories to quickly evolve out of nothing but culture and belief. Think of the mythology surrounding the Roswell incident – the crash of what was likely just a balloon with a reflector dish has turned into a crashed spaceship, alien autopsy, and a massive government cover up. This is in a world with photographs, video, and newspapers. Imagine how easy it would have been for myths to spread in a culture that was pre-scientific, where most people were not literate, and where accurate recording of information were scarce.
Another compelling argument that Tarico touches upon but others have more fully developed is that Christian mythology did not emerge from nowhere. The basic elements of the myth all existed for centuries in that part of the world. As I discussed previously, prior myths differed in exact details, but the main themes were all present. Horus and Mithras, for example, were also miraculously conceived or born, were half god- half man, and were saviors who had to make an extreme sacrifice. l
In the end we are left with, I think, two main conclusions. The first is that we simply do not know if Jesus was an actual person who existed. The evidence for a historical Jesus is thin, but there is no specific evidence refuting his existence.
The second conclusion, however, is that it doesn’t really matter. Even if a prophet named Jesus lived at that time and some of Christian mythology is based on his life, the core of Christian mythology is not. As Tarico argues, any actual history is muddled by mythology.
It’s possible that details from multiple individuals were merged into the Jesus myth. This is also a common phenomenon, and it would be amazing if this didn’t happen. Stories tend to attach themselves to more famous people. Quotes, for example, are credited to Mark Twain that were actually said by less well-known people.
So once a dominant savior mythology emerged, actual incidents from the lives of other prophets would have attached themselves to this myth. More significantly, the standard savior myth that already existed in the culture would have merged with any stories based in reality. In the end the story of Jesus is almost entirely myth, and any tendril of reality is both minor and impossible to prove.
I think that the Santa Claus myth is a good analogy. There may have been historical characters whose lives inspired elements of Santa Claus, but the modern Santa Claus canon is entirely fiction. The only difference here is that there is no Santa Claus religion.
Another way to look at the Jesus question is this – did the story of Jesus evolve like a work of history or a work of fiction? I would argue it greatly resembles a work of fiction, with a multitude of conflicting details surrounding the core of a story which follows an already popular mythology. Eventually an official canon evolves, but this canon is largely arbitrary – just those in authority deciding on what elements of the story they will say are official, and discarding the rest.
Another analogy might be the Arthurian legend. King Arthur probably did not exist, and the level of evidence for him is about the same as for the historical Jesus. Again, the main difference being that the main canon of the King Arthur legend was presented as fiction, not as a gospel of faith.
One final thought is that there is a lot of hindsight bias when thinking about current beliefs and religions. There were countless myths and religions throughout history, and most of them faded away. Those that survived to become major religions today might, in hindsight, seem to have been inevitable. In all likelihood, however, they were just lucky. Out of a confusing mess of religious beliefs, some emerged as dominant mostly by chance. Even within those religions, differing sects and competing canons also existed with those surviving getting to write (and purge) the history.
It is entirely possible that early Christians could have chosen a different canon, and today the faithful might think that the Gospel of Judas is the word of God.