A small handful of scholars today, and a much larger group of Internet commenters, maintain that Jesus never existed. Proponents of this position, known as mythicists, claim that Jesus is a purely mythical figure invented by the writers of the New Testament (or its later copyists.) In this post I’ll offer the top four reasons (from weakest to strongest) that convince me Jesus of Nazareth was a real person without relying on the Gospel accounts of his life.
4. It is the mainstream position in academia.
I admit this is the weakest of my four reasons, but I list it to show that there is no serious debate among the vast majority of scholars in the fields related to the question of the existence of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan, who co-founded the skeptical Jesus Seminar, denies that Jesus rose from the dead but is confident that Jesus was an historical person. He writes, “That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be” (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 145). Bart Ehrman is an agnostic who is forthright in his rejection of mythicism. Ehrman teaches at the University of North Carolina and is widely regarded as an expert on the New Testament documents. He writes, “The view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet” (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 4).
3. Jesus’ existence is confirmed by extra-biblical sources.
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus mentions Jesus twice. The shorter reference is in Book 20 of his Antiquities of the Jews and describes the stoning of law breakers in A.D. 62. One of the criminals is described as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” What makes this passage authentic is that it lacks Christian terms like “the Lord,” it fits into the context of this section of the antiquities, and the passage is found in every manuscript copy of the Antiquities.
According to New Testament scholar Robert Van Voorst in his book Jesus Outside the New Testament, “The overwhelming majority of scholars hold that the words ‘brother of Jesus, who was called Christ,’ are authentic, as is the entire passage in which it is found” (p. 83).
The longer passage in Book 18 is called the Testimonium Flavianum. Scholars are divided on this passage because, while it does mention Jesus, it contains phrases that were almost certainly added by Christian copyists. These include phrases that would never have been used by a Jew like Josephus, such as saying of Jesus, “He was the Christ” or “he appeared alive again on the third day.”
Mythicists maintain that the entire passage is a forgery because it is out of context and interrupts Josephus’ previous narrative. But this view neglects the fact that writers in the ancient world did not use footnotes and would often wander into unrelated topics in their writings. According to New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn, the passage has clearly been subject to Christian redaction, but there are also words Christians would never use of Jesus. These include calling Jesus “a wise man” or referring to themselves as a “tribe” which is strong evidence Josephus originally wrote something like the following:
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out. (Jesus Remembered, p. 141).
Furthermore, the Roman historian Tacitus records in hisAnnalsthat after the great fire in Rome, Emperor Nero fastened the blame on a despised group of people called Christians. Tacitus identifies this group thusly: “Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.” Bart D. Ehrman writes, “Tacitus’s report confirms what we know from other sources, that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, sometime during Tiberius’s reign” (The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to Early Christian Writings, 212).
2. The Early Church Fathers don’t describe the mythicist heresy.
Those who deny that Jesus existed usually argue that the first Christians believed Jesus was just a cosmic savior figure who communicated to believers through visions. Later Christians then added the apocryphal details of Jesus’ life (such as his execution under Pontius Pilate) in order to ground him in first century Palestine. If the mythicist theory is true, then at some point in Christian history there would had to have been a break or outright revolt between new converts who believed in a real Jesus and the “orthodox” establishment view that Jesus never existed.
The curious thing about this theory is that the early Church fathers such as Irenaeus loved to stamp out heresy. They wrote massive treatises criticizing heretics and yet in all of their writings the heresy that Jesus never existed is never mentioned. In fact, no one in the entire history of Christianity (not even early pagan critics like Celsus or Lucian) seriously argued for a mythic Jesus until the 18th century.
Other heresies, such as Gnosticism or Donatism, were like that stubborn bump in the carpet. You could stamp them out in one place only to have them pop up again centuries later, but the mythcist “heresy” is nowhere to be found in the early Church. So what’s more likely: that the early Church hunted down and destroyed every member of mythicist Christianity in order to prevent the heresy from spreading and conveniently never wrote about it, or that the early Christians were not mythicists and so there was nothing for the Church Fathers to campaign against? (Some mythcists argue that the heresy of Docetism included a mythic Jesus, but I don’t find that claim convincing. See this blog post for a good rebuttal of that idea).
1. St. Paul knew the disciples of Jesus.
Almost all mythicists concede that St. Paul was a real person, because we have his letters. In Galatians 1:18-19, Paul describes his personal meeting in Jerusalem with Peter and James, “the brother of the Lord.” Surely if Jesus was a fictional person then one of his own relatives would have known that (note that in Greek the term for brother could also mean kin). Mythicists offer several explanations for this passage which Robert Price considers to be part of what he calls “The most powerful argument against the Christ-Myth theory.” (The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems, p. 333).
Earl Doherty, a mythicist, claims that James’ title probably referred to a pre-existing Jewish monastic group who called themselves “the brothers of the Lord” of which James may have been the leader (Jesus: Neither God nor Man, p. 61). But we have no corroborating evidence that such a group existed in Jerusalem at that time. Furthermore, Paul criticizes the Corinthians for professing allegiance to a certain individual, even Christ, and as a result creating division within the Church (1 Corinthians 1: 11-13). It is unlikely Paul would praise James for being a member of such a divisive faction (Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend, p. 206).
Price claims that the title could be a reference to James’ spiritual imitation of Christ. He appeals to a nineteenth-century Chinese zealot who called himself “Jesus’ little brother” as proof of his theory that “brother” could mean spiritual follower (p. 338). But such a far removed example from the context of first century Palestine makes Price’s reasoning pretty hard to accept when compared to a plain reading of the text.
In conclusion, I think there are many good reasons to think that Jesus really did exist and was the founder of a religious sect in first century Palestine. This includes the evidence we have from extra-Biblical sources, the Church Fathers, and the firsthand testimony of Paul. I understand much more can be written on this subject but I think this is a good starting point for those who are interested in the (largely Internet-based) debate over the historical Jesus.
P.S. If you think Jesus was just a rip-off of pagan religions (such as the Egyptian God Horus), then please see my colleague Jon Sorensen’s magnificent takedown of that hypothesis. Also I’d like to thank Brandon Vogt for his help with this article.