Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Skeptic's Argument for the Historical Jesus

After a certain amount of time, being a skeptic becomes fairly easy. Most people involved in skepticism are used to dealing with creationists, and when you start dealing with people in other areas of denial, you see the exact same pattern of arguments being used. For example, holocaust deniers, anti-GMOers, anti-vaxers and global warming deniers all have very similar structured arguments. Expert consensus is generally viewed as a conspiracy, and the main dissenters are amateurs who get most of their information from internet blogs and other amateurs. Unfortunately, there are some skeptics who are guilty of the same sort of bad reasoning. They call themselves mythicists, and claim that Jesus is a myththat he never existed.

The point of this post is to lay out several arguments to show why skeptics should accept that Jesus was a real person. Along the way, I will be contrasting common arguments that I hear against the existence of Jesus, and showing why they are exactly the same types of arguments that creationists use. By the end, hopefully, I will have provided a convincing case on why skeptics should not be skeptical of the historical Jesus.

When I was in college, and started to become interested in atheism, I watched a documentary titled “The God Who Wasn’t There.” The premise of the documentary was that Jesus never existed. Upon watching it, I was completely convinced. Around that time (2005), I would often write out my views on different topics, to help clarify my thoughts, and at that time, my view of Jesus was that “It is very possible that someone named Jesus was around at the time existed, but I don’t know for sure. I suppose I am agnostic on the historical Jesus. If he did exist, great. But as far as I have seen, there is not any evidence to support that idea.” The rest of the document went on to explain why I held this view, and goes into a variety of arguments that are common among mythicists.

My view back then was fairly standard of most mythicists I encounter today, which shows a complete lack of understanding of New Testament history. As time went on, I found that almost no one with any historical training actually believed the stuff that was in the documentary. In fact, the only two historians I could find that held that view were Richard Carrier and Robert Price (both who are in the documentary). This was troubling to me, because if the arguments were so strong, then why were only two historians on earth convinced by them? The fact that they were both atheists was also somewhat troubling—similarly to how everyone who denies evolution just happens to be religious.

When confronted with the fact that there is a near complete consensus on the existence of Jesus, mythicists have a ready argument. “Well of COURSE Biblical historians believe Jesus existed. They are all Christians!” The good skeptic will recognize this line of argument from creationists. “Of COURSE all biologists accept evolution. They are all atheists!” In both cases, the conclusion that these researchers have come to as a result of having dedicated their lives to studying a topic is dismissed as a result of presuppositional bias. Of course, not all biologists are atheists. Ken Miller and Francis Collins for example, are Christians. And the same goes for Biblical scholars. Both Bart Ehrman and Gerd Ludemann are not Christians. 

The view that all scientists are a bunch of raving atheists who want nothing more than to disprove God is a common view among creationists, and it seems that mythicists also view every Biblical historian as a Christian fundamentalist whose only goal is to confirm their religious beliefs. In both cases, these arguments make it clear that the creationists and mythicists who hold these opinions have never done any actual research on the topic, and have no idea what they are talking about. As I already pointed out, both fields are filled with people of a variety of religious viewpoints. 

What is happening is that the mythicists and creationists are rejecting the overwhelming consensus of the experts because they don’t like the conclusion that the experts have come to. They accuse the experts of deep bias, which I find hilariously ironic, since it is in fact that the creationists and mythcists who are obviously biased to anyone with a basic understanding of the topics.

Now, a mythicist might protest, saying “Uh, yeah I DO know what I am talking about!” In such cases, I ask the mythicist how many books on the historical Jesus they have read. Are these books by respected scholars, or just Carrier and Price (or worse, someone who is “self-taught” and self-published)? Mythicists would surely agree that people who only read books by Michael Behe or Stephen Meyer (intelligent design advocates) aren't getting the full picture of what evolution is, so why would one expect to get the full picture of the historical Jesus if you are only reading fringe scholars?

Likewise, creationists and mythicists are mostly falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The effect states that ignorance breeds confidence. When someone has just a little bit of information, their confidence regarding that topic is much higher than their level of knowledge should allow for. This is obviously the case with creationists, and for mythicists, I believe the same holds true. If you are a mythicist, are you so confident of your position because of years of careful study, or because you watched a few youtube videos and read atheist blog posts?

I will often ask creationists what they think they know that literally every biologist on earth for the last 150 years has missed. I ask Jesus mythicists the same thing. What do they know that every historian on earth for the last 2000 years has missed? Is it more likely that people who have devoted their lives to studying something have made an enormous mistake, or that someone with essentially zero historical training has made an amazing discovery? Both creationists and mythicists refuse to answer this question.

One final parallel that I often see is the practice of quoting of someone who has zero training in the relevant field as an authority. It is extremely common for creationists to quote a PhD who thinks that evolution is nonsense, but fail to note that the person quoted got their PhD in engineering, astronomy or something else that is just as irrelevant. Likewise, mythicists often quote people who have zero training in any relevant field. I am often linked to articles by geologists, physicists and physiologists, explaining why Jesus didn't exist, or some other related nonsense. The fact that mythicists would absolutely pounce on a creationist for such intellectual dishonesty, but then turn around and do it themselves is troubling.

These creationist/mythicist comparisons are all well and good, but I am here to explain why a skeptic should have no problem with the idea of the historical Jesus existing. So, what are some reasons to think that Jesus existed? Well, as I have already alluded to, literally every single ancient history historian on earth thinks that he did (except for Carrier and Price). “Argument from authority!” the mythicists cry. However, would they consider the fact that basically every biologist on earth accepts evolution to be a fallacious argument as well? Probably not. It’s not the best argument out there, but it is indicative of something. If there is a consensus by experts—people who have dedicated their lives to studying a topic, should we discount this as irrelevant? Of course not. The opinion of experts is extremely telling, and is only dismissed by people who don't like the conclusion.

Now, one problem that mythicists have is that they expect history to work like science. I have had mythicists tell me they want eyewitness testimony of Jesus, otherwise they won’t accept that he existed. Likewise, the creationists want eyewitness testimony that evolution happened (“Were you there?” is a common rebuttal from creationists regarding evolution and the age of the earth). It is important to realize though, that unless someone was of enormous importance in ancient history, the likelihood that there will be any contemporary report of said person is basically zero. We have the writings of Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, but there are zero mentions of him by any of his contemporaries. Even the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, who is considered one of the greatest military leaders of all time, has no surviving contemporary mentions of him. So here we have the greatest general in the world, and yet there are no surviving documents that mention him. Is it then a surprise that we don’t have any direct mentions of backwoods Jewish preacher?

Of course, things that happened in the past are a challenge to study. We have to look at the data and ask “what theory best accounts for this evidence?” With biology, evolution best accounts for the evidence. With history, Jesus existing best accounts for the evidence.

“What evidence though??” We have no eyewitness testimony, the gospels were written decades after the fact, and the first historian to mention Jesus (Josepus) was writing 60 years after Jesus’s death. So how can this be evidence? Welcome to ancient history—this is just how it is. Historians have to piece things together, and try their best to get a clear picture of what happened.

Now, many mythicists freak out, saying that it’s absurd to use the gospels as historical sources, since they are filled with obviously non-historical aspects (miracles and whatnot). However, this view doesn’t take seriously what the gospels are—documents from ancient history. They are not written as literature, and not intended to be received as fiction. Comparisons to Harry Potter books simply betray the mythicist’s historical competence. Completely rejecting the gospels as 100% false is something that only those with a deep bias, and even deeper ignorance of history, do. Historians are trained to tease apart documents from ancient history, and try to figure out what parts are true, what parts are not true. It's like creationists who say that since Nebraska man was a faked fossil, evolution is all wrong, and no evidence for evolution can ever be trusted.

The main issue that both creationists and mythicists have is that they fail to take the evidence seriously, and refuse to engage with it honestly. It is easy for mythicists to think “the gospels were written by idiot, superstitious Christians who wanted everyone to believe what they believed… therefore you can’t trust anything they said.” But this sort of ignorance is exactly what tells scholars that mythicists have no interest or knowledge of what they do.

We first need to realize that when historians are studying the historical Jesus, they are trying to figure out what PROBABLY happened. No critical scholar thinks that we can say Jesus did miracles or rose from the dead, but it seems like most mythicists are under the impression that if they admit Jesus existed, then that means they have to accept that he was a virgin born, miracle working, resurrected son of God. No. It just means an itinerant preacher named Jesus lived 2000 years ago, caused a bit of a scene and was executed by the Romans. Later, stories about him started to circulate and were eventually written down.

Creationists are always guilty of trying to just poke holes in evolution, and thinking that if they do it enough, it will prove them right. Of course, that’s not how it works. Creationism is not the idea that rises to the top if evolution falls. In order for creationism to succeed, it has to account for the evidence better than evolution can. Likewise, mythicists think they can just poke holes in the arguments for Jesus and then declare victory. However, they need to come up with a theory that explains the evidence better (and is more probable) than the theory that Jesus existed.

Now, I know that I keep mentioning the evidence, but I haven’t presented any yet, so let’s get to it! 

If Jews were looking to make up stories about a messiah who was the son of God, and came to set up a kingdom on earth, why would these story-spinners say that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist? This is relevant, because people are baptized in order to be forgiven for their sins. If Jews were making up a story about God becoming a sinless man, why would he need to be baptized? Furthermore, when a baptism takes place, the person being baptized is spiritually inferior to the person doing the baptism. How could Jesus, the God of the universe incarnate, be spiritually inferior to John? How does this help sell the idea that Jesus was divine? And indeed, it seems that early Christians were in fact embarrassed about this, because the story of Jesus being baptized is only found in the synoptic gospels (Mathew, Mark and Luke). When we get to the latest gospel, John, the story of Jesus being baptized is gone.

So what is more likely: that Jews made up a story which doesn't conform to their beliefs in order to convince people that these beliefs are true, or that these events actually happened? How many examples can you think of in which someone lies to help their agenda? Tons. But how many examples can you think of in which people lie to hurt their agenda? Seeing as people don't make up stories in order to hurt their agenda, it is much more probable that the story of the baptism actually happened.

Similarly, if Jews were making up this story in order to push their agenda that the messiah was coming to conquer their oppressors (Romans), why would their story state that the messiah completely and utterly failed? Instead of overthrowing the Romans, he was caught and crucified (the most shameful was to be executed) with other common criminals. If you are making up a story in which you want people to believe that God has come to earth to overthrow the enemies and set up a kingdom, would you say that he was caught and executed by those same enemies? How does help the agenda of the people making up the story?

Another example of something that early Christians wouldn’t make up is Jesus’s view that the world was about to end (this view is called apocalypticism). Throughout the synoptic gospels, we have a variety of quotes from Jesus talking about the end of the world (Matthew 24:34, for example). Jesus says that God’s kingdom will soon be here, and the Romans will be overthrown. This will be happening so soon, that it will actually happen before his current followers die (Mark 9:1). The Romans caught wind of this, didn’t like the cut of Jesus’s jib, and decided to show everyone what they thought about people who claim the Roman Empire is going to be overthrown. However (spoiler alert), God’s kingdom didn't arrive. The world that we know of kept trucking along as usual, and over time, the apocalyptic message of Jesus was dropped. Like the baptism story, by the time the Gospel of John was written, all of the apocalyptic sayings were gone. Clearly, this is because Christians started to realize that “oh… yeah, Jesus was wrong about the coming kingdom.” Such an idea was embarrassing to the Christians, so why would they make the sayings up to begin with? (I should also note that the evidence of Jesus's apocalyptic views are not from just a few sayings—this view is absolutely infused throughout the synoptic gospels.)

There are a number of examples of these sorts of things, and mythicists need to be able to account for them. They can’t just say “I don’t believe any of it”, they need to explain why it is more probable that someone would make up a story which disconfirms their agenda than it is that someone wouldn't make up a story that disconfirms their agenda. That is to say, the mythicist explanation of these "embarrassing" stories need to be accounted for in a way that makes more sense than the explanation that Jesus existed.

There are a lot of reasons why the moon-landing deniers are wrong, but no matter what evidence you present, the proponents of this funny idea will just claim that such evidence is only evidence of a conspiracy. However, one response to the conspiracy charge is as follows: if there was even the slightest possibility of a conspiracy to fake the moon landing, the Russians (who were in a space-race with us at the time) would go insane, and work their hardest to expose it. The Russians didn’t do this, which is pretty telling. If our biggest competition was convinced that we actually landed on the moon, perhaps we really did.

How does this relate to our topic? Well, as long as there have been Christians, there have been critics of Christianity. One of the earliest critics was a Jewish philosopher named Celsus, who wrote a scathing attack on Christianity around the year 177. In all of Celsus’s writings (as well as critiques from other early critics), none of the arguments revolved around anything regarding Jesus’s existence. Early critics would accuse Christianity of being incoherent, accused Christians of being foolish and gullible, and even offered arguments to refute the miracles, divinity and resurrection of Jesus. However, the existence of Jesus was not something that was ever brought up. While early critics found a lot of things to criticize Christians and Christianity about, the existence of Jesus was not one of them.

We also have the writings of early church fathers, starting at the middle of the first century, who were often responding to critics, as well as what they believed to be heretical beliefs that were floating around. These responses are interesting, because they give historians a clue as to what other critics (and supposed heretics) of Christianity were saying. As you might expect at this point, none of these early church fathers ever made any attempt to prove Jesus existed—it wasn’t a point that critics argued.

The main point is that no one in the entire history of early Christianity ever argued that Jesus didn’t exist. It just wasn’t something that people found to be weak point. Mythcists have to account for this: if Jesus didn’t exist, why is it that the earliest critics of Christianity didn’t point out this problem? If the evidence for Jesus's existence was so weak, why did the harshest early critics have no problem accepting it? I suspect their answer is “because the critics were just as gullible as everyone else.” How convenient. Perhaps the Russians were also just as gullible regarding the moon landing.

Lastly, we have what I view to be the strongest argument for the existence of a historical Jesus. Any mythicist worth their salt knows what I am about to discuss, and is already getting ready to spin and deny things in a way that would make even the most ambitious conspiracy theorist blush.

Mythicists, like most atheists, enjoy pointing out that the gospels were written decades after the fact, by people who didn’t even speak Jesus’s language (the gospels were written in Greek, but Jesus spoke Aramaic) to Christians who don’t know anything about the Bible. However, we also have several letters written by Paul, who never met Jesus, but was one of Christianity's biggest evangelists and also started a number of churches.

In Galatians 1:18-20, Paul tells us that three years after his conversion to Christianity (around the year 36—only a few of years after Jesus died), he travelled to Jerusalem to meet Peter. Peter, it just so happens, was not only one of the twelve apostles, but was part of a very close inner circle which included two other apostles who were present at several major events involving Jesus. Paul spent fifteen days with Peter, and during this time, Paul also met James, the brother of Jesus.

Now, I think we can reasonably conclude that if Paul met one of Jesus’s closest disciples, as well as his brother, and Jesus didn’t actually exist, these two men would have let Paul know. Furthermore, if Jesus didn’t exist, how would there be a disciple and a brother to track down to begin with?

So here we have the writings of Paul, who was a contemporary of Jesus, who met two of the people closest to Jesus, and this is still not enough for the mythicist. There is not a mythcist out there who would have any problem accepting this evidence for any other person in ancient history, which is to say, no one could objectively approach this evidence and not find it convincing.

I mentioned earlier that there is an enormous amount of denial and spin that mythicists come up with to try and wiggle out of this. For example, they claim that James was not actually the biological brother of Jesus, he was just his spiritual brother (similar to how members of a church would refer to each other as brother or sister in Christ). This is nonsense, because we would then expect Paul to refer to Peter as a brother of Jesus as well. In regards to Peter, mythicists sometimes have flat out denied that Paul actually met Peter, suggesting that Paul made the whole thing up. Another argument is that Peter wasn’t the Apostle Peter. The idea that this fake Peter would spend over two weeks with Paul strains credulity. “This random guy filled with religious fervor clearly thinks I am someone I’m not… screw it, I will just play along. I have nothing better to do.”

The mythicists also claim that Paul never thought Jesus existed as a physical person--only as a spiritual being. This is not true, as Paul specifically states that Jesus was born of a woman (Galatians 4:4), was a descendent of King David (Romans 1:3), had a brother (Galatians 1:19), then died and was buried (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Mythicists want contemporary, eyewitness testimony. And here we have a man, Paul, who lived during the time of Jesus, who wrote about meeting two people who were closest to him. If this isn’t considered good evidence, then most of ancient history should be thrown out.

At this point, however, most mythicists have to simply just deny this evidence, since their other arguments don't work. The main thing I hear is "Paul was lying." Of course, there is no argument given on why this is likely, or why Paul would lie about this. It's just an empty assertion born out of desperation. When faced with no other way out, the only option the mythicist has is to deny, deny, deny (as changing one's mind is not a possibility).

If one wants to hold the mythicist position, they need to not only poke holes in the story of Jesus, but they need to create a coherent theory that explains all of the data better than the theory of Jesus existing does. They need to explain why every nearly every historian on earth, regardless of their religious views, accepts the historicity of Jesus. They need to explain why Jews would invent a story, but add bits to the story that work against their agenda. They also need to explain why ancient critics of Christianity never argued that Jesus didn’t exist. Lastly, they need to explain how Paul could track down the closest disciple, as well as a brother of a man who apparently never existed, and then after spending over two weeks with them, somehow never learn that Jesus never existed. 

Of course, while doing this, they need to be careful not to resort to any of the same types of arguments that creationists use. As we have seen, they have a very difficult time with such a task, and there is a very good reason for this—the mythicist position, like creationism, is completely bankrupt.

And similar to creationists, the mythicists have rebuttals for everything—sometimes superficially plausibly sounding. But like with creationist rebuttals, just taking a few minutes to research the issue exposes the rebuttals as silly, ad hoc, and sometimes straight up dishonest.

Does this mean that the skeptic now has to accept that Jesus was God incarnate, born of a virgin, did miracles, was crucified, resurrected three days later and then ascended to heaven? Not at all. The historical Jesus is not who Christians believe in today, and no historian believes these things (at least not on historical grounds). What the majority of critical scholars do accept about the historical Jesus was that he was a Jewish preacher from Galilee who lived 2000 years ago. He was baptized by John the Baptist, and neither he nor his disciples thought that he was God. He did think that the end of the world as we know it was right around the corner, and that God would set up a kingdom on earth. He was crucified by the Romans, and proven wrong as the end never came. After his death, many people believed to have seen him, and then several decades later, educated, Greek-speaking Christians started writing the stories of Jesus down. As time went on, his humanness was downplayed, and stories of him being a divine miracle worker were played up.

That is the Jesus of history, and one that all skeptics should embrace as having been a real person.


  1. I wonder whether portraying this argument as either/or really serves either side fairly. There is no real evidence for complete 'non-existence', rather that the accounts that we have are embellished with myth, and may even cover parts of the lives of more than one person.
    It is quite possible that there was a primary single person, and that the account that we have nowadays would be unrecognizable to that person's view of their own life.
    Clearly, parts of the New Testament (e.g. Revelations) are pure disconnected mythology concocted by real people. Other parts are people's views written some time later, in order to promote their religion.
    The fact that Jesus conveniently fulfils part of Jewish mythology while being against prevailing Jewish agendas is perhaps more indicative that his followers were a splinter group trying to give their alternative views some credibility by fabricating.
    Also, the parallels between Jesus and Horus are so strong, that again, it could be a small group grabbing pre-existing mythology and attributing it to him to gain credibility and support.
    We do not know how much mythology has been attached along the way, so the historical evidence does not give us a way of determining the extent of the myths.
    Jesus may well have been a real person, but the story we have about him is clearly embellished with mythology, and may well be so divergent from the actual life of the person that mythologists could, technically, be correct.

    1. Hi Murpeus, thanks for the comment! I will try to address each of your points.

      I don’t think I really make this an “either/or” argument. I tried to make it a “what is more likely” argument. I am also somewhat taken aback at your statement that the character of Jesus might be based on more than one person. What evidence do you have to even remotely suggest such a claim? I see this statement made every now and then, but I am afraid to say that it’s always by people who really don’t know much about the study of the historical Jesus. I don’t even know any “official” mythicists who make that claim (that is, Carrier or Price).

      Yes, the Gospels have been subject to a lot of exaggeration, but we are not talking about Jesus Christ—the virgin born son of God who was resurrected from the dead. No, we are talking about a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who was crucified by the Romans about 2000 years ago, and who many people later came to believe was the son of God, was resurrected, etc.

      I am also confused by your statement that Jesus conveniently fulfills Jewish mythology. No he absolutely does not. That was one of my main arguments. Only later in history do we find Christians trying to retrofit Jesus’s life into what the Jews thought the messiah was supposed to be and do. For example, Jews expected the messiah to set up a kingdom of God and destroy the oppressors (Romans). The exact opposite happened.

      The Jesus/Horus, Osiris, Krishna, etc. claim is so strained that literally no one takes it seriously. I urge you to actually try and find an original source in which Horus has all the attributes that you think he does. The only people who make such claims are not familiar with the sources. But regardless of it not being factual, think about it logically. Why would Jews make up a person who sounds like an Egyptian god, in order to convince Jews of a Jewish messiah? How would this make their story more credible? Why not make up a person who actually sounds like what the Jews are expecting? Making a Jewish god have attributes similar to an Egyptian god seems to suppose that the Jews believed the story of Horus. But if they did, they wouldn’t have been Jews. Secondly, the early followers of Jesus did not think he was God. That view only came a few decades later, after his death.

      Yes, the story of Jesus is embellished. He wasn’t born of a Virgin, wasn’t born in Bethlehem, there weren’t wise men who came to visit him, he didn’t walk on water or turn water to wine, and he wasn’t resurrected from the dead. But historians don’t argue any of this.

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