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.