Was Jesus a conspiracy?

Christ in the House of his Parents by John Eve...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bart Ehrman posted a video on his blog (embedded below) where he discusses the case for the existence of the historical Jesus.  Most of his excellent blog’s content is pay-walled, so I’m happy to have an opportunity to link to something that isn’t.  (Incidentally, if you have the means and interest, I highly recommend subscribing.  All of the proceeds go to charity.)

I was taken aback when I first discovered the ferocious certitude that many militant atheists have that the historical Jesus is a complete myth, a conspiratorial creation of early Christianity.  Note that we’re not talking here about the Christ of faith, the miracle working son of God, but the historical Jesus that historians have been able to partially reconstruct.

All but a smattering of historians and scholars, many of whom are secular, have weighed the evidence and found that it mostly points to an early first century itinerant preacher, who ran afoul of the authorities and was executed in a manner all too common for the time.  All of this fits with the time period and region when there were many such figures.

Much about this historical figure is common for the time, including his name.  (Note, his name was actually Yeshua; ‘Jesus’ is a modern pronunciation of an English translation of a Latin translation of a Koine Greek transliteration of the original Aramaic.)  In other words, a commonly named figure, preaching a common theme for the time (apocalyptic), with perhaps some new innovations, executed by the Romans in a manner (crucifixion) commonly used against conquered peoples.  

Saying this figure didn’t exist is a bit like the old scholarly joke that the Iliad wasn’t written by Homer, but by another poet with the same name.  If Jesus didn’t exist, then somebody started the movement that eventually became Christianity, and it was likely someone similar to his historical reconstruction.

Mythicists often compare the historicity of Jesus to that of Abraham or Moses, two figures that most secular historians have now concluded probably never existed, or if they did, the biblical versions are probably as different from the actual figures as Santa Claus is from Nicolas of Myra.

However, the earliest written history of Abraham and Moses are dated 500-1000 years after they were supposed to have lived.  The earliest written references to Jesus are dated to within 20 years of his life, and the biographical sources are generally dated within 60 years.  A few decades is certainly long enough for the stories to have become embellished, and as a skeptic I certainly think they were, but claiming they evolved to anywhere near the same degree as the Abraham and Moses ones isn’t rational.

Did Jesus’ story get embellished with common mythical tropes in the tradition of Horus and others?  Probably, although the parallels tend to be overstated once you actually look into the compared myths.  The thing is, many historical figures also got those embellishments.  Sargon of Akkad is a good example.  It’s a large leap from common embellishments to complete mythicism.

Is it possible that Jesus the man never existed?  Sure.  It’s also possible that many other ancient historical figures never existed.  This includes people like the Buddha, which many atheists might be happy to dismiss, but also others such as Socrates, Thales, Pythagoras, and many other thinkers that they might be less willing to delete from history.

I’m not a religious believer.  I have no emotional commitment to Jesus having ever existed.  I’m skeptical of the son of God, miracle working, resurrected version.  But I’m also skeptical of conspiracy theories, and that’s what most of Jesus mythicism boils down to.

Many militant atheists are so vested in the conflict with religion, so delighted by what they see as another nail in the coffin, that they let it cloud their evaluation of this matter.  They use arguments against mainstream history and scholarship that sound perilously similar to arguments creationists make against mainstream science, that the entire field of experts is deluded, incompetent, or in conspiracy to suppress their views.

Ironically, the difficulty for many conservative believers isn’t that Jesus is a fabrication, but that the historical version is so different from the one they believe in, whose message of an imminent apocalypse was rooted in his historical period and aimed more at the people of Israel than the world.

Anyway, Ehrman has written a book covering this subject in detail, which I highly recommend, and which he reads from in this video.

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22 Responses to Was Jesus a conspiracy?

  1. john zande says:

    I’m unconvinced a historical character existed, but like you, i have no great emotional investment in it. My feeling is “Jesus” was a metafictional device used to impart doctrinal points by 1st Century Judean crisis cultists.

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    • I agree that Jesus became an archetype for hanging many doctrines on. But that could be said of many historical figures. It’s a stark fact that even if history does remember someone, its conception of them will often be more about the needs of people in the future than about the actual person.

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      • john zande says:

        So true. I can’t however get over the fact that the early church was not in Israel (the claims made in Acts have been widely debunked), rather precisely where the northern diaspora was: modern day Syria and Turkey. These were refugees who, after the Jewish-Roman war, were desperate for some positive news from their homelands. They were a ripe audience. Now, I’m not saying there was a conspiracy. To suggest someone thought this all through is preposterous. I think, though, it was a simple case of misinterpretation…. Just like “Sunscreen” was back in the 90’s. It was an honest mistake. This seems to run true when we see Eusebius deliberately go out of his way to forge an entry in Jospephus’s, Antiquities, so as to give an illusion of life where there simply wasn’t any. We have to ask ourselves, why else would someone (a Church father) perpetrate this historical crime? What purpose did it serve to deceive people?

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        • My understanding is that there is evidence of a church in Jerusalem that endured until the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136), after which the depopulation of Judea took place, an event many people mistakenly associate with the earlier (66-73) rebellion.

          Most scholars see the Josephus entry as being embellished, rather than completely inserted, but it’s admittedly a matter of judgment.

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          • john zande says:

            Actually the Acts Seminar concluded that Jerusalem was not the birthplace of Christianity.

            “The Acts Seminar has shown through multiple studies that the entire Acts narrative of Christian beginnings in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7) has little historical value. This is a significant challenge to most theories of Christian origins. (p. 3)”

            Neil Godfrey did a good summary of the findings, link below. The comments are interesting:

            http://vridar.org/2013/11/22/top-ten-findings-of-the-acts-seminar/

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          • john zande says:

            Further, it says:[The Acts narrative] provides us no reason to believe that Christianity began in Jerusalem — the Jerusalem centre of the faith was a myth created for second century ideological reasons;

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          • It seems to me that saying that Jerusalem wasn’t the birth of Christianity and saying that it didn’t grow out of Israel are two different things. Anyway, the Jesus Seminar, Westar’s first project along those lines, didn’t conclude that he was mythical.
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Seminar#Acts_of_Jesus

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          • john zande says:

            Oh, I know. I was just talking about the oddity of the early church not in fact being in Jerusalem, let alone Israel. To me this points to a blunder in interpretation within the diaspora; precisely where the church truly began…. Albeit an innocent mistake. Just a historical crisis cultist or accidental creation, either way it doesn’t change reality. 50 years ago it was generally thought absurd to question to the Exodus narrative and the existence of a Moses, but today we know it is all myth. Even the majority of Jewish Rabbis admit this today. I think we’re at the same stage today regarding Jesus. More and more scholars are joining the mythicist camp, and once the “conspiracy freaks” are removed it’ll slowly penetrate popular culture.

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          • You could be right, but as I noted in the post, Moses and the Exodus are markedly different from Jesus. The closer a written account is in time to an event, the more accurate it tends to be. Exodus is dated at least 500 years after the events it describes. The NT accounts are dated to within 20-60 years. For ancient history, it doesn’t often get better than that.

            On “more and more scholars”, that’s a narrative I often hear, but my understanding is that you can actually count the number of mythicists among credentialed scholars on one hand. I know one of them is Richard Carrier, who has a peer reviewed book on the way. It’ll be interesting to see what impact it has in the field.

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          • john zande says:

            Carrier does some very good work, but it’s still undermined by the wacky types like Atwill who continue to push some wild notion that Jesus was a Roman invention to pacify the rebellious Jews. Regardless, the earth still spins and we have a universe to explore, right? 🙂

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  2. Larry says:

    Excellent post. I haven’t watched the video, which no doubt clarifies this point, but we should note that the earliest references to Jesus are Biblical references, which the skeptics discount, while the earliest non-Biblical references came later, in the work of the historian Flavius Josephus. The historical reference almost all scholars accept as proper evidence is the brief one in which Josephus merely states that James had a brother Jesus who was called “Christ” (as were others in those days).

    For any who are interested, I recommend the recent book “Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan. There was some Fox News (i.e. Fox Entertainment) controversy about the book last year and there were some questions raised about Aslan’s scholarly credentials. But I thought the book was very convincing. Aslan draws a distinction between Jesus of Nazareth, an actual itinerant preacher and political foe of the Romans, and Jesus Christ, the biblical/theological figure based on Jesus of Nazareth. One of the best parts of the book for me was Aslan’s account of how the Apostle Paul wrote much of the New Testament and was basically the Founding Father of the Christian religion.

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    • Larry says:

      By the way, when I looked at Amazon last year, the reviews of “Zealot” were almost evenly divided between 5 stars and 1 star, with very little middle ground. Now there are about 5 times as many 5-star reviews as 1-star ones, the Fox-generated controversy having died down.

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    • Thanks!

      The Josephus entry is controversial since it was obviously altered at some point. The questions is whether “altered” meant inserted when nothing was there, or embellished. Most scholars think embellished, primarily because Josephus has brief entries for a lot of other figures from the time, but it’s a matter of judgment.

      I haven’t read Aslan’s book, but I do remember the Fox News controversy, and that I was entertained by it. Ehrman reviewed the book across several posts, a couple of which are open access.
      http://ehrmanblog.org/aslan-zealot-deeper-evaluation-thesis/
      http://ehrmanblog.org/fundamental-problems-aslans-thesis/

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  3. James Pailly says:

    This is a very thoughtful take on a touchy subject. I consider myself a Christian, but when it comes to the list of miracles Jesus supposedly performed, I am very skeptical. For me, the miracles themselves don’t really matter. It’s the philosophy of compassion and forgiveness that’s important, and I wish more of my fellow Christians would focus on that rather than obsessing over who did or did not walk on water.

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    • Thanks James, and well said. I’m always struck by how much agreement there is between many believers and non-believers, like the belief that punishments shouldn’t be retributive. They meet at that position from different starting points, and too often the different starting points get all the attention, instead of focus on the agreed position.

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  4. Steve Morris says:

    It often strikes me that if all the miracles / son of God / burn in Hell mythology could be dumped, and the love thy neighbour / forgiveness part emphasised, then many atheists could get behind this Christianity thing in a big way.

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    • Given how much religion has changed in the last few centuries (except among fundamentalists), I often wonder if it won’t eventually transform over time into something like what we’d call humanism today. Even if the old religions disappear, I suspect we’ll have new ones in their place, although they may not think of themselves as religions.

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  5. vinnyjh57 says:

    Most historical figures of the ancient world are known to us because the things that they did during their lives had an impact on the prominent and literate people of their day. Jesus, on the other hand, is known to us as a result of supernatural events that were believed to have taken place after his death. If there was a historical Jesus, he was likely an obscure itinerant backwater preacher who went unnoticed outside of a small band of illiterate peasants until he annoyed the Roman authorities sufficiently to get himself crucified. Had it not been for the belief that arose in supernatural events taking place after he died, there is no reason to think that he would have left a historical footprint that would be discernible 2000 years later. I think that this creates unique problems which I don’t think guys like Ehrman have really come to grips with. I think Jesus is a person about whose existence it is impossible to have any certainty.

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    • Good points. But I think certainty is limited for many ancient figures, even kings if there aren’t contemporary monuments. Undoubtedly some of them are myth. But the ones with records close to their lifetime have a higher probability of having actually existed.

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      • vinnyjh57 says:

        I agree that the proximity between Jesus and the stories makes his case much different than Moses or Abraham.

        The thing about ancient kings though is that some of them are well documented. Some ancient generals are well documented, too. That at least gives us some basis to reason by analogy about poorly documented kings and generals. Unfortunately, there are no well documented obscure backwater preachers.

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