UPDATE: Several readers have said in the comments that this is a non-issue: why should anyone care whether a historical Jesus existed? I would have thought the answer was obvious, but I’ll let Sajanas, who has already commented, give it:
But so much of Christian philosophy is based around the argument for authority, that Jesus not existing at all really just crushes it. Then, they’re really no more valid than the philosophies of the Iliad or the Aeneid.
It’s important because one of the major world’s religions is based critically on the claim that a historical Jesus existed, which in principle could be supported with evidence. (It’s also supported by claims for the divinity of said Jesus.) Sometimes I get the feeling that people just say, “Who cares?” because they have a form of xkcd Syndrome. But millions of Christians do care!
For some reason I’m very curious about whether the Jesus myth is based on a historical person. Even if such a person existed, of course, that gives no credence to his status as the divine son of God/part of God, or to the stories about him in the Bible. After all, many myths are based on historical people who are later deemed to have done miracles, been divine, and so on. “John Frum,” the iconic figure of the Pacific cargo cults, may well have been based on a real American G.I.
Christians, of course, are intensely interested in the historicity of Jesus, for if you can show that such a person existed, it at least gives a boost to their beliefs about his divinity. If, in contrast, there is little or no evidence for a Jesus-person, then the whole myth pretty much collapses, at least if you think Jesus was a real person walking about and doing stuff in Palestine. That’s why Christians are obsessed with whatever evidence exists for a historical Jesus, and why Bart Ehrman’s books substantiating such historicity are best-sellers.
The evidence for a Jesus-person, as we all know (and thanks largely to reader Ben Goren’s arguments on this site), is paper-thin. Because of this, scholars debate the issue hotly, with the “mythicists,” like Richard Carrier (who thinks that Jesus is not based on a historical person), fighting the “historicists,” like Bart Ehrman, who—while denying the divinity of Jesus—thinks that the Jesus myth is based on a real apocalyptic preacher who lived at that time.
Yet the more I look at the evidence—and I’m by no means an expert—the more dubious I become about the evidence for a historical Jesus-person. Yes, one may have existed, but where is the evidence?
As far as I can see, it lies solely in scripture: the New Testament. There seem to be no credible extra-scriptural sources attesting to the existence of anyone like Jesus. There are no contemporary accounts of his presence and deeds, though there should have been some given the number of people who were writing then in that area of the Middle East, and the remarkable character of Jesus’s deeds. (This includes the earthquakes, renting of the Temple, and arising of zombie saints from their graves during the Crucifixion.) All the accounts come from decades or centuries after Jesus’s supposed death, by which time the myths may have begin forming—and around nobody in particular. In contrast, we have far more historical evidence for the existence of people like, say, Julius Caesar, including contemporary accounts, statues and coins with his image, and contemporary accounts.
As far as I can see, then, the “evidence” for a Jesus-person is twofold: first, that he’s described in the Bible (but so are Noah and Moses), and second, that people think that myths MUST have accreted around some historical person. The first I find unsatisfying; the second unconvincing. Myths may well have formed around no historical person at all. Was the myth of Paul Bunyan really based on some lumberjack who had a pet ox?
Yet it seems churlish—an offense to Christians—to doubt that a historical Jesus existed. It’s as if by being skeptical about that, you are deliberately trying to tick off Christians. And yet, I think, our doubt is warranted. We should not automatically concede to religionists that Jesus must have existed in some corporeal form, divine or otherwise.
This long introduction is to call attention to a new piece at Alternet by Valerie Tarico: “5 reasons to suspect Jesus never existed.” (Tarico is described as “a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” )
Her piece is a short and readable account, which I recommend, and I won’t summarize it except to give the five points that Tarico discusses in detail.
1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.
2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.
3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.
4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.
5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.
She also includes a quote from Bart Ehrman, who, curiously, thinks a historical Jesus did exist:
“What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp. 56-57 of Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium)
Yet if that’s a real quote from Ehrman, and not taken out of context, why does he claim with such assurance that a historical Jesus existed?