Jesus Christ may have never existed | Opinion
I ran across this article recently. If you are a devotee prepare to be uncomfortable.
Story by Valerie Tarico •1mo
Most antiquities scholars think that the New Testament gospels are “mythologized history.” In other words, based on the evidence available they think that around the start of the first century, a controversial Jewish rabbi named Yeshua ben Yosef gathered a following, and his life and teachings provided the seed that grew into Christianity. At the same time, these scholars acknowledge that many Bible stories like the virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and women at the tomb borrow and rework mythic themes that were common in the Ancient Near East, much the way that screenwriters base new movies on old familiar tropes or plot elements. In this view, a “historical Jesus” became mythologized.
For over 200 years, a wide-ranging array of theologians and historians grounded in this perspective have analyzed ancient texts, both those that made it into the Bible and those that didn’t, in attempts to excavate the man behind the myth. Several current or recent bestsellers take this approach, distilling the scholarship for a popular audience. Familiar titles include Zealot by Reza Aslan and How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman.
By contrast, other scholars believe that the gospel stories are actually “historicized mythology.” In this view, those ancient mythic templates are themselves the kernel. They got filled in with names, places, and other real-world details as early sects of Jesus worship attempted to understand and defend the devotional traditions they had received.
The notion that Jesus never existed is a minority position. Of course, it is! says David Fitzgerald, the author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All. Fitzgerald points out that for centuries all serious scholars of Christianity were Christians themselves, and modern secular scholars lean heavily on the groundwork that they laid in collecting, preserving, and analyzing ancient texts. Even today most secular scholars come out of a religious background, and many operate by default under historical presumptions of their former faith.
Fitzgerald–who, as his book title indicates, takes the “mythical Jesus” position–is an atheist speaker and writer, popular with secular students and community groups. The internet phenom, Zeitgeist the Movie introduced millions to some of the mythic roots of Christianity. But Zeitgeist and similar works contain known errors and oversimplifications that undermine their credibility. Fitzgerald seeks to correct that by giving young people accessible information that is grounded in accountable scholarship.
More academic arguments in support of the Jesus Myth theory can be found in the writings of Richard Carrier and Robert Price. Carrier, who has a Ph.D. in ancient history uses the tools of his trade to show, among other things, how Christianity might have gotten off the ground without a miracle. Price, by contrast, writes from the perspective of a theologian whose biblical scholarship ultimately formed the basis for his skepticism. It is interesting to note that some of the harshest critics of popular Jesus myth theories like those from Zeitgeist or Joseph Atwill (who argued that the Romans invented Jesus) are
The arguments on both sides of this question—mythologized history or historicized mythology—fill volumes, and if anything the debate seems to be heating up rather than resolving. Since many people, both Christian and not, find it surprising that this debate even exists—that serious scholars might think Jesus never existed—here are some of the key points that keep the doubts alive:
1. No first-century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.
In the words of Bart Ehrman (who himself believes the stories were built on a historical kernel):
“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.
2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.
Paul seems unaware of any virgin birth, for example. No wise men, no star in the east, no miracles. Historians have long puzzled over the “Silence of Paul” on the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus. Paul fails to cite Jesus’ authority precisely when it would make his case. What’s more, he never calls the twelve apostles Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never says Jesus HAD disciples –or a ministry, or did miracles, or gave teachings. He virtually refuses to disclose any other biographical detail, and the few cryptic hints he offers aren’t just vague but contradict the gospels. The leaders of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem like Peter and James are supposedly Jesus’ own followers and family, but Paul dismisses them as nobodies and repeatedly opposes them for not being true Christians!
Liberal theologian Marcus Borg suggests that people read the books of the New Testament in chronological order to see how early Christianity unfolded.
Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.
3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.
We now know that the four gospels were assigned the names of the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not written by them. To make matters sketchier, the name designations happened sometime in the second century, around 100 years or more after Christianity supposedly began.
For a variety of reasons, the practice of pseudonymous writing was common at the time and many contemporary documents are “signed” by famous figures. The same is true of the New Testament epistles except for a handful of letters from Paul (6 out of 13) which are broadly thought to be genuine. But even the gospel stories don’t actually say, “I was there.” Rather, they claim the existence of other witnesses, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has heard the phrase, my aunt knew someone who . . . .
4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.
If you think you know the Jesus story pretty well, I suggest that you pause at this point to test yourself with the 20-question quiz at ExChristian.net.
The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest existing “life of Jesus,” and linguistic analysis suggests that Luke and Matthew both simply reworked Mark and added their own corrections and new material. But they contradict each other and, to an even greater degree contradict the much later gospel of John because they were written with different objectives for different audiences. The incompatible Easter stories offer one example of how much the stories disagree.
5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.
They include a cynic philosopher, charismatic Hasid, liberal Pharisee, conservative rabbi, Zealot revolutionary, and nonviolent pacifist to borrow from a much longer list assembled by Price. In his words (pp. 15-16), “The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage. But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.” John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar grumbles that “the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.”
For David Fitzgerald, these issues and more lead to a conclusion that he finds inescapable:
Jesus appears to be an effect, not a cause, of Christianity. Paul and the rest of the first generation of Christians searched the Septuagint translation of Hebrew scriptures to create a Mystery Faith for the Jews, complete with pagan rituals like a Lord’s Supper, Gnostic terms in his letters, and a personal savior god to rival those in their neighbors’ longstanding Egyptian, Persian, Hellenistic and Roman traditions.
In a soon-to-be-released follow-up to Nailed, entitled Jesus: Mything in Action, Fitzgerald argues that the many competing versions proposed by secular scholars are just as problematic as any “Jesus of Faith:”
Even if one accepts that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth, the question has little practical meaning: Regardless of whether or not a first-century rabbi called Yeshua ben Yosef lived, the “historical Jesus” figures so patiently excavated and re-assembled by secular scholars are themselves fictions.
We may never know for certain what put Christian history in motion. Only time (or perhaps time travel) will tell.
Here is yet another perspective:
This Christian text you’ve never heard of, The Shepherd of Hermas, barely mentions Jesus − but it was a favorite of early Christians far and wide
Published: September 26, 2023 8.24am EDT
Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for the Humanities, Tufts University
Chance Bonar does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
People usually think about the Bible as a book with a fixed number of texts within its pages: 24 books in the Jewish version of the Bible; 66 for Protestants; 73 for Catholics; and 81 if you’re Ethiopian Orthodox.
Writings that didn’t make it into the Bible, on the other hand, are often called “Apocrypha,” a Greek term that refers to hidden or secret things. There are hundreds of apocryphal Jewish and Christian texts that, for one reason or another, were not included in different versions of the Bible. Some simply fell out of use. Some caused theological headaches for later Jews or Christians, and some were rejected because of their author – for supposedly not having really been written by an apostle, for instance. (When used with a capital “A,” Apocrypha refers to a handful of books included in the Catholic and Orthodox versions of the Old Testament, but not most Protestant ones.)
Just because a text was deemed apocryphal, however, does not mean that it was unpopular or lacked influence. Many texts that are treated as unimportant or unbiblical today were considered central at one time. As a scholar of early Christianity, some of my research centers on what was once an extremely well-read text, but one that most people today have never heard of: The Shepherd of Hermas.
Enslaved to God
The Shepherd of Hermas was written sometime between 70–140 C.E. and takes place on the road between Rome and Naples. Hermas, who is presented as the text’s author and narrator, has various encounters with two divine figures called the Church and the Shepherd, who give him commandments and visions that he is instructed to share with other believers.
The Shepherd is a sizable text – 114 chapters long – and substantial portions describe a vision of a tower under construction. The tower represents the church itself, in the sense of all Jesus’ followers, built out of stones that represent different types of believers. Some fit right in, others must be reshaped or recolored, and some are rejected altogether. For example, stones representing rich people or businessmen are urged to repent, while hospitable people are portrayed as properly shaped.
Other parts of the text are focused on how believers should manage their emotions, how to act ethically in the world, and how to obey God’s will. The Shepherd urges self-control and fear of God, trying to instill obedience and avoid allowing emotions like fear or doubt to overcome believers.
My own research on the Shepherd focuses on how the text depicts believers as enslaved to God, as is true of some other early Christian literature as well. The writer imagines that God’s holy spirit is able to enter loyal believers’ bodies and possess them, urging them to do what God wills.
Notably, figures like Jesus and the apostles are virtually absent from the Shepherd. Instead, readers find a story about an otherwise unknown enslaved man named Hermas experiencing visions and talking with divine beings in the Italian countryside. Hermas is portrayed as a believer who doubts his own ability to accomplish what these two divine figures, the Church and Shepherd, expect of him, lamenting throughout how difficult it is to follow God’s commandments.
‘Useful for the soul’
Given that The Shepherd is a long, rambling text that doesn’t explicitly mention Jesus, you might assume that it was only read by a small number of early Christian theologians. This, however, isn’t the case.
The Shepherd became one of the most popular texts among Christians for the first five centuries C.E. Even today, there are more surviving manuscripts of the Shepherd from antiquity than of any New Testament text except for the Gospels of Matthew and John.
The visions were translated from Greek into Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Georgian. Eventually, the text spread as far west as Ireland and as far east as China.
The Shepherd is even included in what scholars consider one of the oldest and most complete Bibles in the world. Canonical Christian Bibles today end with Revelation, a dramatic book of apocalyptic visions. The Codex Sinaiticus, however, a fourth- or fifth-century manuscript now held at the British Library, ends with the Shepherd. The text’s inclusion in such an expensive, deluxe codex highlights how important the text was to many Christians, even as the contents of the New Testament were being solidified.
Many significant Christian writers from the fourth and fifth centuries comment on how the Shepherd is important instruction for new Christians, regardless of whether it was considered part of the formal Bible.
Even figures who did not include the Shepherd among New Testament texts thought it was too important to be discarded. The book was too important to ignore, but too odd to be considered biblical: part of a halfway category that biblical scholar François Bovon called “useful for the soul.”
An open Bible
As the Shepherd helps demonstrate, whether a religious text is included or excluded from the Bible is not necessarily an indicator of its popularity or significance.
While scholars often lament that the Shepherd is boring, pedantic or too long, its style likely made it ideal teaching material for early Christians. Esoteric texts that required deeper philosophical knowledge, like the Gospel of Truth or the Gospel of Judas, may have been ideal for some Christians who had access to more education. But texts that make bite-sized claims – like “don’t think about another man’s wife” (Shepherd 29:1), “rid yourself of grief” (Shepherd 40:1), or “believe that God is one” (Shepherd 26:1) – are easier for readers to carry with them and apply to everyday decisions in their lives.
The word “canon,” referring to texts that get a seal of approval from authorities, comes from a Greek word for a measuring stick: which books “measure up”? In religious communities, the idea of “canonical texts” can be especially limiting, determining what believers can or can’t read or believe.
Apocryphal literature, however, allows us to see how that wasn’t always the case: Ancient Christians didn’t think they were bound to the same specific set of stories that churches focus on today. The long history of reading apocrypha shows how some Christians have always been interested in reading the “Bible with the back cover torn off” – continually exploring religious ideas. My comment: Faith is a powerful virtue, much stronger than well-documented evidence.