It is perhaps common within some non-religious circles to roll with the idea that Jesus was just a myth and never existed, however I do have serious doubts about that, so I’m putting my thoughts down to see what others might think.
It is a fringe idea
As a bit of context, about 99.99% of biblical scholars, both the religious and the non-religious, are not convinced by the idea and do think that there was once a real human and that Jesus was not just a myth. I personally tend to lean in that direction and agree with that prevailing consensus. Many who accept this, do so, not for religious reasons, but because that is what the available evidence tends to suggest.
I should also add one important clarification: I’m not suggesting that the various supernatural claims are real, but rather that buried under the layers of supernaturalism and mythology was once a real human, one of the many Jewish Messiah claimants.
I don’t intend to rake over the specifics, or rehash arguments that are perhaps familiar to many, but will instead take a slightly different approach, and perhaps add to the conversation in some small way and not simply parrot parts of the conversation that already exist within the public domain.
Common Patterns within Religious Movements
If we look at belief systems that have recently emerged such as Mormonism or Scientology, then we have independent reliable historical information that we can fall back upon. This enables us to discover the truth regarding the founders of those beliefs, and what we find if we do so is rather interesting.
Take for example Joseph Smith. He is asserted to have been especially chosen by god and is also asserted to be a prophet, but there is no truly independent evidence to verify those specific claims. What we do however discover from other sources outside the belief system is that Smith was neither ethical nor honest, but rather a bit of a rogue who was more than willing to cash in on peoples gullibility. His contemporaries consistently describe him as a con man whose chief source of income was hiring himself out to local farmers to help them find buried treasure by the use of folk magic and “seer stones.”, and that is not simply opinion, there is a legal record that verifies this, and so it is a well-established fact that in 1826 he was put on trial for money-digging. Smith also claimed in his 1838 account that he had suffered “great persecution” for telling people of his vision, but rather oddly none of his critics writing in the 1820s about his money digging activities appear to have been aware of any such claims, and so quite clearly he faced “persecution” for conning gullible farmers, not for making religious claims.
You could also ask yourself this – is Smith really the most obvious and best choice for a supernatural entity to make when choosing a human to be his representative? Is is not not far more probable that a known fraudster was pulling yet another con.
The ex-mormon Richard Packham discusses it all in a lot more detail here: http://packham.n4m.org/tract.htm#MONEYDIGGING
As for L Ron Hubbard, the founder of scientology and science fiction writer, his life is well-documented and there are people alive today who knew him personally. The Church of Scientology describes him as a pioneering explorer, world traveler, and nuclear physicist with expertise in a wide range of disciplines, including photography, art, poetry, and philosophy. His critics, which includes his own son, have pointed out that he was in reality a liar, charlatan, and mentally unstable. There is of course an official autobiography, and despite being verified as fiction, the church endorses it as fact.
James Randi, the renowned skeptic whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting many times, when asked about L Ron Hubbard nailed it all with this observation:
“I’ve personally met Ron Hubbard twice, and both times he was drunk”.
We can in fact look further back and still see a similar pattern. If we consider Mohammed, as viewed by many variations of Islamic belief, we find a sugar coated view of a perfect man who supposedly received a revelation from a god and is asserted to be the final prophet. If however we dig into the facts using Islamic sources, we find a rather different picture and instead discover an individual who was a slave trader, and also a violent thug who enriched himself by raiding trade caravans. Rather shockingly we also find an individual who was a pedeophile – yes really, at the age of 50, he claimed he had a vision that inspired him to marry a six year old, and this is not simply a slur invented by his detractors, there are multiple islamic sources, both Shia and Sunni, that verify this.
In summary there are two points here:
- Belief systems tend to generally have an individual who initiated it all, and don’t appear out of nowhere.
- The founder tends to get revered and is usually deemed to have been especially chosen or inspired by a god to be his official representative and is also asserted to be perfect, or at least an ideal human, and yet when we look, we find in every case where information is available, what the belief asserts, and the actual reality are very much at odds.
Is Jesus a Myth?
The problem with Jesus is that too much time has passed, and so we do not have anything that can independently verify many (if not most) of the claims asserted by the vast diversity of Christian belief, but given the amount of time that has passed and a huge motivation to purge anything that does not serve the prevailing narrative, then this is perhaps to be expected. The common pattern we do have should cause us some considerable degree of doubt, because what we do observe is that in every single independently verifiable case, the claims asserted by a belief regarding their founder, and the actual reality are not just distinctly different, but consist of a pattern where the religious version is quite understandably a whitewashed sugar-coated story and the reality is that of an individual who was a bit of a rogue and con artist who took advantage of his followers.
I personally find it to be highly probable that there was indeed an individual from Galilee who managed to gather together a small band of followers as he wandered about proclaiming himself to be a messiah, and preached a religious message that was most probably aligned with the specific religious thinking that prevailed in the region at that time. I also find it highly probable that he was executed as an undesirable.
Do we have any historical candidates at all?
Do we have any non-Christian records about somebody from Galilee about 2000 years ago who proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, and ended up being killed by the Romans?
Actually yes we do, there is not just one, but several. First there is Judas of Galilee who founded the “fourth sect” of 1st century Judaism and ended up being executed by the Romans. Then there was also his son Menahem ben Judah, who also claimed to be a messiah, and also ended up dead because of a conspiracy against him. The sources for both of these comes from the writing of Josephus.
It turns out that when you consider the wider picture, it becomes clear that wandering about claiming to be the messiah, then drumming up a bit of support and getting killed was rather popular at that time, so while neither of the above is a match for Jesus, it does indicate that a potential answer here is that the ideas of a similar wandering messiah claimant went viral. Remember that such Messiahs were a dime a dozen at that time, so with a small following that initially had little impact, nobody would have really noticed yet another Jewish sect and so it would all have blended in.
Today, most scholars take this stance – that Jesus as an individual existed, was a Jewish rabbi from Galilee who preached his message, was baptized by John the Baptist, and was crucified in Jerusalem, and for everything else beyond that, there is no consensus at all.
We also have the view that it was all a myth, and perhaps one of the principle flag carriers for that is Richard Carrier. His book on that runs to over 800 pages and goes into considerable detail …
What do we actually know?
We have religious documents, so they are not exactly unbiased – the Bible contains four biographies, and we also have a collection of letters that Paul wrote. Paul’s letters predate the gospels, and so are perhaps the earliest written references we have (about 52 CE and so predate the earliest Gospel by about a decade). What we discover from Paul is very little and clearly from the letters Paul wrote (the ones that are recognised as authentic – about half are not) it is clear that he did consider him to have been quite real and not just an abstract concept. It is of course also true that Paul never personally knew Jesus, and was also off in his very own quite unique theological universe, but he did personally know both Peter, a disciple of Jesus, and also James who was a brother of Jesus.
What we do not have are any independent contemporary sources of information at all, and so these documents, the Gospels and Paul’s letters, are not just the primary sources, but are actually the only sources of any real substance that we have, and so we need to tease out from these what is fact and what is religious fiction.
It is about here that you might jump in with, “Oh but wait, I know that there are other historical references”. Well yes there are also later historical references, the most famous of which is the historian Josephus writing in about 93 CE, long after the emergence of Paul’s letters and about three of the Gospels, and so these are also not eyewitness accounts, and are not beyond criticism for reasons I’ll not expand upon here least this posting turn into an entire book.
The quick TL;DR; version, there is rather a lot of incandescent vapours and translucent surfaces (smoke and mirrors), all very vague, also quite dubious, and completely biased, yet I’m personally not inclined to dismiss it all as myth and instead roll with the view adopted by 99.99% of the scholars who study it all, that under all the layers of supernatural mystical thinking was once a real human who was simply one of the many many Messiah claimants.
OK, yes, cue the famous quote …
He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy
Do you disagree?
If you hold a different view (which is fine, I’m OK with that), but I would be curious to understand what convinces you to embrace that position. You need not type out an entire book into a comment, it can be as quick and simple as … “I read a book / paper by X, entitled xxx and his argument about xxx and yyy persuades me”.
So please do feel free to comment.
- Some further food for thought can be found here – An article entitled “Did Jesus Exist?” by NT Scholar Bart D. Ehrman