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Was Jesus Just a Myth?

Trent Horn

Actually, lots can be known about the historical Jesus, and Christians can give confident rebuttals to those who claim Jesus is just a myth. Trent defends Jesus from the mythicists.

How confident are you that Jesus was a real man? Trent Horn, next.

Cy: Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and we are joined once again by our good friend Trent Horn. Trent, who is Apologist Extraordinaire here at Catholic Answers and author of many, many books including, Why We’re Catholic. The super bestseller, I should say, the super bestselling book, Why We’re Catholic and most recently, The Counterfeit Christs. Today we’re going to talk a bit about Jesus. As a matter of fact, I will ask Trent right now, was Jesus a myth?

Trent: If by myth you mean an individual who never had historical existence? No. We believe very clearly we affirm that Jesus is true God and true man, and that as Galatians 4:4 says, he was born of a woman, born under the law that he existed and really did things in the historical world in which we reside. That’s a bedrock principle of our faith.

Cy: So thank you for joining us for Focus-

Trent: That’s all we need to do.

Cy: That’s all we’ve got to say.

Trent: It’s all we’ve got to say.

Cy: Maybe we could spend a few minutes just digging into that a little bit. So there’s this thing, there is, it’s common to see this on the Internet, on the YouTube that Jesus is a myth and people will have, they’ll make little videos about it and stuff, but there’s also, I guess there’s a wide range of arguments about that this man is a myth. So what is this whole thing of mythicism? Let’s start right there. What do the mythicists claim?

Trent: Mythicism is the view, now among historical scholars and New Testament scholars, you’ll see a wide range of people who have different views of the reliability of the New Testament. So there are scholars like Craig Keener or Craig Blomberg, I promise they’re not all named Craig, but those are two big Craig’s that come to my mind who will take a conservative view saying that essentially, generally speaking that the New Testament is extremely reliable and communicates a lot of historical facts about Jesus. On the other end of the spectrum, you will have scholars who have more pessimistic view about the historical reliability of scripture of the New Testament documents. They’ll affirm Jesus existed and they will have wildly divergent views about who he really was. These are people like John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Bart Erman. And then you’ll have people who are kind of in the middle a bit more moderate on these things like the Catholic scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson, John Meyer who wrote the work, A Marginal Jew. Jesus, a marginal Jew, it’s a four-volume work. But what they all have in common, they all agree that Jesus existed. In fact, Bart Erman who is a notorious skeptic, he wrote a book called Misquoting Jesus, that got him really on the map and it’s about textual criticism that there are differences in the New Testament manuscripts that people, scholars, debate about, but the differences are always extremely minor and none of them deal with major doctrines of the faith and yet Bart kind of trumpets these things to instill a sense of doubt in the faithful, which is very unfortunate that he would do that because he’s a very smart guy. He used to be very Christian. He went to Moody Bible Institute, where Bible is our middle name. Now he teaches at UNC Chapel Hill and he writes these books to try to cast doubt on the reliability of scripture in the New Testament. But even Bart says in his book on the question of Jesus’s existence, he says that it is a universal view. Every expert on the planet agrees Jesus existed, including the atheistic ones. So as you said before, the people who endorse mythicism, it’s usually amateur atheists on the internet. The amount of people who have doctorates, there is no one who has a doctorate who teaches at a major university-

Cy: That says Jesus doesn’t exist.

Trent: No one with a doctorate who teaches at a major, at least North American university, none I can think of. There are people with doctorates in the relevant fields like New Testament or classics, things like that, but they’re usually independent scholars who have slugged their way through to get a PhD. But the number of those people I can think of, I can probably count on one, two hands, maybe even only one hand at this point. So it’s, it’s a very, very, very fringe view among academics. But one that’s very appealing to a lot of atheists online. And it’s one actually when you look historically as a view, was unknown until the 18th century. You think about all the heresies that have been said about Jesus, you go through church history, you have people who said he existed, but his humanity was a disguise he put on, or he existed, but he wasn’t fully God. Or a Jesus is one person in the Trinity. And Trinity is only one person. You know, all these different heresies about Jesus. The ultimate heresy that he never existed is unknown in church history until the 18th century. You had people like Celsus, that origin wrote against in the third century, all kinds of things criticizing Jesus and his teachings. But none of these people, or Lucian Assam Masada who calls him a crucified Sophos, Sophos, Sophos tree is someone who uses rhetoric but isn’t actually that smart. They never said there was simply no Jesus.

Cy: Yeah.

Trent: But then when we get to the 18th century, I think a few French scholars propose the idea that as we were learning more about other pagan religions, that “Oh, Jesus is just a synthesis of these other pagan copycats, dying and rising gods.” And then it really started to take on its form in Germany in the 19th century. I think Bruno Bauer was one of the first people to argue this view that the Jesus of the gospels and [inaudible 00:05:45] letter never actually existed. He was a myth that was put forward.

Cy: It has a certain conspiratorial appeal to it.

Trent: Yes.

Cy: This whole thing that I see through it and we like those people who give us the, I see through all this nonsense. And I’ll tell you the truth, he never existed. We like that.

Trent: Yeah. It’s the ultimate hermeneutic of suspicion as Pope Benedict the 16th would say.

Cy: Okay, so it’s just dramatic.

Trent: It’s a very dramatic thing to say. Jesus never-

Cy: So in general, what do the mythicists teach? Or what, what are their positions?

Trent: Well, it depends which one you ask. So as the view progressed in the 19th and 20th centuries it took on, it was adapted in among German form, some German form critics in the 20th century. You had people like John Remsberg who put out his famous list of something like 30 ancient authors who never talked about Jesus. And so if Jesus really existed, why didn’t these ancient first century authors ever mentioned him? And I’ll have to address that when we come back to it. In the Soviet Union, it was like a dogma. In an ironic sense, a dogma talked to people in the atheistic Soviet Union that Jesus was just a myth. But scholars in the early 20th century ultimately abandoned the thesis when they confronted it saying it just did not make sense of historical data that we had. Funny thing though, in the 1970s there was a German teacher, George Albert Wells, GA Wells, and he uncovered a lot of this older German scholarship. And so in 1975 he resurrected, if you will, this mythicist theory with a book called, Did Jesus Exist? And he’s written like 20 books on the same subject afterwards. But I think someone once said online, if you’ve read one GA Wells’ book on Jesus, you read them all. It’s the same thing. What’s funny is now he wrote another book in 2009 where he’s retracted his view saying, yeah there was a Jesus, but we can know hardly anything about him.

Cy: Okay.

Trent: And so even he is abandoned it, but there’s different views. One view is that the gospels are mistaken and that the real Jesus lived a hundred years later, sorry, a hundred years earlier.

Cy: I was going to say that was pretty good, a hundred years later. And they wrote the gospels about him before. Okay.

Trent: It was another Jesus that they were mistaken about who actually lived a hundred years earlier. That’s a minority view. The most common mythicist view that I’ve seen is one, the idea that Jesus was just a pagan, is a copycat of other pagan deities like Horace or Mithra or Cyrus. The other view, this is a thesis that was endorsed by Earl Dougherty in the 1990s and it was kind of taken up and it’s reached its Zenith under Richard Carrier who’s written like I think the only peer reviewed book that defends the view, Jesus never existed. Richard and I actually debated the subject, oh gosh, I think something like five years ago, right here in San Diego in a public debate. And so the Dougherty-Carrier thesis as I would call it essentially says this, that the very first Christian, St. Peter and Paul and the others experienced Jesus as a vision. Some kind of an angelic being that they had visions about. And so that is what, and they were preaching that he died and was crucified in the heavens and this is all just a heavenly drama that they preach about this angelic being who appeared to them in visions. And then later the gospel authors took this as an allegory and wrote, I think Richard says that Mark is essentially an elaborate allegory about Jesus. And there’s all this kind of hidden meaning put into it. And so none of it is historical in any way, shape or form. And so that is the theory that I think a lot of mythicists run with. But the problem is, on multiple fronts you run into problems with this. On the minor end, there are other arguments who will put forward for the extra biblical records of Jesus. Like in the Jewish historian Josephus, which Carrier says are either forgeries or interpolations added by Christians and not authentic. It doesn’t explain also that the gospels, they’re historical elements that they’re not allegories like the mythicists are saying and it also doesn’t explain that Paul is very clear, that Paul is talking about a person who actually existed who had historical existence. That is probably the ground zero for the argument, the mythicists about what was Paul’s understanding of Jesus. And so we can dive into that a little bit because at first the mythicist’s thesis is a little compelling because you say, well Paul never talks about Jesus’s earthly ministry because he doesn’t tell the stories that the gospels tell us. Why is that? And we think well, if you were telling me about Jesus, you would tell me all these stories about what he did in Jerusalem and Galilee. But Paul never, never does that. So maybe for Paul, Jesus is just an angelic being, never had an earthly existence. Now here’s the problem with that, two problems. One, Paul’s focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus is exactly what we would expect among first century Christians. So for example, go to the book of Acts. When you go to the book of Acts and you read the apostolic speeches about Jesus, when Peter gives speeches to crowds and they give these speeches about Jesus, they always focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus. They don’t focus on the miracles in his earthly ministry. They don’t focus on that. Does that mean that the author of Acts only believed Jesus was an angelic being? Well, no, because Luke wrote Acts and he also wrote the gospel of Luke. The same thing when you read early Christian documents like first Clement, the epistle of Barnabas, the writings of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. These people were clearly exposed to the gospels, but in their own writings, they focused exclusively, almost exclusively on Jesus’s death and resurrection because that’s the key. That’s the key to the whole thing. And that’s what they’re preaching to other people. So the fact that you have Christians in history who did have access to the gospel in accounts, but chose to not focus on them, shows that because Paul doesn’t focus on that same material, it doesn’t show that Paul didn’t have access to it or it didn’t exist because Christians who could have talked about Jesus’s his earthly ministry chose not to. And it makes the same sense for Paul that he … So there’s nothing insidious or odd that Paul doesn’t mention Jesus’ earthly ministry. Second, there are key details in Paul’s letters that make it very clear Jesus had historical existence, that mythicists have to do cartwheels to try to re-explain.

Cy: Okay. For example…

Trent: Well for example, you have, well you have in the beginning of the letter to the Romans, Paul says that Jesus was descended from the seat of David, that he comes from the Davidic line, either through Joseph or Mary or in Galatians 4:4, he says that Jesus was born of a woman, born under the law and that he has solidarity with other Jews of his time because of that. Which doesn’t make sense of this thesis, that Jesus really did all this crucifixion and other stuff in this kind of heavenly drama with angels being the ones who would actually crucify him, there’s no evidence that was in Paul’s frame of mind at all. Also, when you go through in his description of the last supper, he says, he talks about how Jesus dined. He uses like the transitive, infinitive or transitive verb infinitive, he took part in the dining with his apostles. This is something that he actually did with his disciples. He had a last supper with them. And probably the biggest one is in Galatians chapter one. In Galatians one Paul goes, he talks about how he received the gospel, the gospel about Jesus’ saving power from God himself. But he went to the other apostles on a fact-checking mission. The Greek word is [inaudible 00:13:31].

Cy: Okay.

Trent: He went there to Jerusalem. He said, I went up to Jerusalem and hike up that big hill to get to Jerusalem. And he went there for a [inaudible 00:13:40], to make sure the gospel he was preaching was in conformity with the apostles, who were first called by Jesus.

Cy: Right.

Trent: And so he went there and he said that Peter extended the hand of friendship to me. And he says, I went there. I met with Peter, but I saw none of the other apostles. This is in Galatians 1:18 through 19. It says I met with Peter, I saw none of the other apostles except for James, the Lord’s brother.

Cy: Yeah.

Trent: Now, this is a strange detail to add, you know, the Lord’s brother. You might say, oh he’s just saying that because we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ.

Cy: But he doesn’t say that about Peter.

Trent: No, he doesn’t say Peter, the brother and James, the Lord’s brother. He doesn’t use that same kind of framework because all throughout the rest of his letters he’ll talk about Quartus the brother or a brother or the brother. But this is a very specific term that he uses, that applies to James that makes James unique from the other apostles. He can’t just say, I met James who was a Christian. This is a very distinct descriptive term that he is the brother of the Lord. Now that could mean, because we believe that Mary had no other children besides Jesus, one of Jesus’s cousins, the child of one of the other Marys who is the sister of Mary, the mother of the Lord, or that he’s Jesus’s stepbrother, that he was a child sired from Joseph’s previous marriage. That’s a common view in the Eastern church, that Joseph had a previous marriage and that he was an elderly widower with children who was called to be wed to Mary to protect her in a first century society. And as she entered into a vow of chastity, of a vow of virginity entering into this marriage, and that his children in the previous marriage would then be Jesus’s older stepbrothers, which also makes sense of how they always try to boss Jesus around in the gospel. You see it said that the brothers wanted to lay hands on him, which is something you would think more that older brothers do to wayward younger brothers, not younger brothers do to the oldest brother.

Cy: Yeah.

Trent: So the point is here that Paul is saying in Galatians 1:19 that he met a relative of Jesus, so if there was no Jesus, he was just an angelic being, well, what’s going on here? And when you read the mythicism, they try to explain this, they always … it’s very farfetched. Robert Price says that the brother of the Lord refers to a first century community of followers who identified themselves in this way as like a separate sect, but there’s no evidence of that. It’s ad hoc. It just doesn’t, it strains when the simple explanation would be best to explain that.

Cy: Right. Okay. So the mythicist might say then a variety of, they might propose a variety of ways that the Jesus story has its Genesis, what it was at its roots and what, and the common thread would be, it’s not actually the story of a physical man born in Nazareth who, or excuse me, born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth. It’s not a story of a guy who has time but is something that got turned into that. Okay. So they give, give it another kind of Genesis.

Trent: Yeah. And so they’ll say it just began as Jesus is kind of a demigod or angelic being. And what they’ll try to do, their arguments that are persuasive to people that haven’t read on the subject. They’ll say, oh, well, Jesus is just like Horace. He’s just like Mithra. He’s just like, Ociris.

Cy: That’s just so easy to say, but it’s just not true.

Trent: It’s not true. And they’ll try to find these parallels that Samuel, I think Samuel Sandmel in 1961 published an article on the Society of Biblical Literature called Parallelomania, where you try to get any parallel to stick.

Cy: I think it’s Joseph Campbell that-

Trent: Well, Joseph Campbell wrote a book called, Hero with a Thousand Faces, and so what Sandmel wrote in 1961 for the Society of Biblical Literature, this view of people who try to say Jesus is a myth, or this gospel element is mythic because there is this parallel in pagan literature. Just because you can find a parallel doesn’t mean one, that the borrowing actually goes from pagans to Christians. For example, Appolonias of Tyanna was a wandering Sage who raised people from the dead and healed people and was said to have cheated death or risen from the dead. The problem is that story was written 200 years after Jesus. So if there’s borrowing, it’s from Christianity to paganism, not the other way around. Even if it is the pagan elements proceed Jesus, it doesn’t mean that there’s borrowing there because the parallels could be flimsy or non-existent. So for example, people say Mithra was born of a virgin, like Jesus Mithra, also called Mitra is the Persian God of Mithraism and he’s a warrior god. He was common among Roman soldiers, the cult of soldiers, that he was honored for slaying the cosmic bowl, things like this. Mithra’s origin story was that he emerged fully grown from a rock.

Cy: Yeah.

Trent: That’s not, the virgin in the loosest sense of that term I guess, but-

Cy: I’ve never used that term for a rock.

Trent: Right. And in other accounts of savior figures, in mythology, it’s not born of a virgin. It’s usually gods like Zeus having sexual intercourse with women.

Cy: Yeah.

Trent: Zeus was notorious for that. So these are not, it’s not virgin birth and it’s not crucifixions like Horus and Mithra. None of these gods are, are crucified. Their dying and rising is a sign of being connected to the harvest cycle in agriculture.

Cy: But plus they’re not putting in a historical context in the way that Jesus is like names named like Quirinius the governor and, and-

Trent: Herod.

Cy: Herod.

Trent: Pontius Pilate.

Cy: Pontius Pilate.

Trent: Caiaphas. Annis.

Cy: Not all, but many of whom are still alive after the-

Trent: Yes.

Cy: After Jesus we have concrete historical evidence of Pontius Pilate.

Trent: And there’s a theory about these same figures, Pontius, Pilate, Caiaphas, the others, they’re still alive when the gospel is being written and the epistles are being written. Richard Bauckham has a theory for why in Mark’s gospel many of these individuals, there are individuals who are described who are not named.

Cy: Oh and trying to avoid.

Trent: And so there are individuals who are integral to the story of Christ. You know, their identities are hidden. Like you’ve got that one, when Jesus is arrested, my favorite in Mark is when Jesus is arrested. There’s a young man whose cloak is ripped off of him and he runs away naked. And we never know. We ever find out who that guy is again.

Cy: No.

Trent: We never get his name. But then later on, as you know, we see like different individuals who are described as being nameless in Mark’s gospel, they end up having names in later gospels. Bochum believes that’s because Mark’s gospel was written so early that this is a kind of form of witness protection, to not name who these important individuals were. Because the people who are still, they’re still around them. You know, we’re not, we don’t want to, we don’t need to create, we don’t need to create trouble for them. And then that lends itself to these historical elements. So when you read people like Carrier who says that Mark is just an allegory, he’s got to read all kinds of absurd things into the texts that everything’s allegorical. So that means nothing can just be merely a historical detail. So you have, for example, Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’s cross, that he has two children, Alexander and Rufus. And in fact, Paul talks about one of them, I think it’s Rufus. He talks, he says, give my greetings to Rufus, who is great in the Lord or Alexander. He refers to one of those names in his own letters, who was probably a famous person within the church. And what Carrier has to say is, well, this is an allegory for Simon represents Ceridian, philosophical wisdom and Rufus represents Musonius Rufus, an early cynic philosopher, and Alexander represents Alexander the Great and the crucifixion crushes these worldly philosophies. A little far fetched.

Cy: Oh my gosh.

Trent: It’s a little farfetched for me. So you have to-

Cy: A little?

Trent: The thing is, when I read New Testament fringe scholarship, I mean when you get ancient astronauts, when you get people who say that Paul and Peter were also made up-

Cy: Oh really?

Trent: Oh gosh, who is that? That guy who said it was Caesar’s Messiah. I’m going to look it up. Can I get it before I Google it? Caesar’s Messiah. Atwill. Joseph Atwill. Yes. I got it before I actually had to look at it. Joseph Atwill, Caesar’s Messiah, that’s his thesis.

Cy: That Peter and Paul never existed.

Trent: Josephus invented Jesus as a Messiah for the Romans to kind of … that the stories of the gospels are actually ripped off from accounts of Josephus and I did a whole article on this when the book first came out a few years ago and yeah, you’re farfetched indeed when you do a fringe scholarship. What you have instead of just taking the text as it is.

Cy: What if somebody just said to you, look, Trent, we really only have a few minutes left, so-

Trent: Sure.

Cy: So this would be a real, this’ll be a real question for you too. In a few minutes, trent, just give me a little outline. What’s the evidence for the historical man, Jesus?

Trent: Well, the evidence that we have along with extra biblical evidence, which we didn’t get time to get to, but that’s not what I would lean entirely on, but it’s helpful. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman historian, Tacitus, mentioned Jesus being crucified within a hundred years of his death. Very good by ancient standards. But I would say that our sources we have are very good for Jesus. And especially when you go back to Paul. Here we have letters that even skeptics agree he wrote. He went and he talked to these people who knew Jesus, so now we know the people involved with Jesus and they are going and preaching that Jesus rose from the dead. So we know that Jesus was crucified. We know that people claimed he had risen from the dead shortly afterwards and we have good evidence in the gospels that his tomb was empty because there are all these embarrassing details related to it, such as the detail that the tomb was discovered by women who are unreliable witnesses in the first century. When you put that together, especially that Jesus was crucified, he was proclaimed to have risen from the dead and the apostles are willing to die for this. These bedrock historical facts, even atheist will agree to. I would say what explains all of this? These guys are not a bunch of liars because they’re enduring horrible deaths. They’re not all hallucinating because hallucinations are private events. Maybe one or two people, but they’re having bodily encounters with Jesus that are so powerful skeptics like Paul are being converted. It’s not the stuff of grief-induced hallucinations. If it were, you could go and dig up Jesus’s body and snap yourself back to reality. Rather, what makes the most sense is that Jesus vindicated his claims to divinity he made during his earthly ministry by rising from the dead. And the fact that people went out and were sent, you know, the apostles are sent all over the ancient world and preach this, including preaching in Jerusalem where it could be falsified very quickly, shows that this was not, this is something where you have a founder of a religion who is sending people forth and starting churches almost overnight. That shows us extremely good evidence that Jesus existed. Not only that he existed, but that he was not seen merely as a Messiah claimant or prophet. Because when your Messiah died and lots of Messiah claimants died in the first century or were exiled, you got a new Messiah. Instead, people saw Jesus was not a failure, even though he was a failure by every earthly standard because he rose from the dead. And so when you put all that together, it provides good historical foundation for the hope that we have in the faith that we share.

Cy: The Lord is risen.

Trent: In deed, he has.

Cy: Trent, I want to-

Trent: Hallelujah.

Cy: Amen. Thank you very much, Trent. I really appreciate that.

Trent: Thank you, Cy.

Cy: You have been listening to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host. We do this every week. So maybe subscribe wherever you get your subscriptions to your podcasts, whether it’s at the iTunes store or wherever else. Hit subscribe and share Focus. Let people know that we do this and maybe become a member of radio club just by going to’ll see you next time, God willing on Catholic Answers Focus.

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