An article titled 5 Reasons to Suspect that Jesus Never Existed was posted yesterday at Salon.com and was featured in the Yahoo news feed. The article itself does not contain anything groundbreaking to anyone who follows this debate, but it presents the most common objections.
Below are five reasons author Valerie Tarico gives, and how to answer them.
1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef.
Tarico uses only an extensive quote from skeptical Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman in which he explains that there are no first century non-Jewish, non-Christian sources that mention Jesus. If this is proof that a historical Jesus never existed, then someone needs to tell this to Professor Ehrman.
In his book, Did Jesus Exist?, Ehrman argues that a historical Jesus did exist. He explains:
[N]o Greek or Roman author from the first century mentions Jesus. It would be convenient if they did, but alas, they do not. At the same time, the fact is again a bit irrelevant since these same sources do not mention many millions of people who actually did live. Jesus stands here with the vast majority of living, breathing human beings of earlier ages. (pg. 43)
The fact that there are no non-Christian or Jewish accounts of Jesus seems somewhat irrelevant to me. As a former mythicist, I never found this argument to hold as much weight as some do. It implies that the first century documents contained in the New Testament are unreliable simply because they were written by Christians. But as Ehrman also points out, this would be a bit like “dismissing early American accounts of the Revolutionary War simply because they were written by Americans” (pg.74)
2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.
To make this point, Tarico picks on the fact that St. Paul never mentions certain details about Jesus’ life including his Virgin Birth, the wise men, or a star in the East. She goes on to explain:
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!
The “few cryptic hints he offers” are major points about the life of Jesus. He really existed (Gal. 4:4), was the “Son of God” (Rom. 1:4), was crucified under Pontius Pilate (1 Tim. 6:13), and that he rose from the dead (Rom 1:4).
It’s true that Paul does not give us more specific details about the life of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean he was unaware of them. Claiming that he "virtually refuses" to disclose further details is speculative. He had no reason to rehash the Gospel narrative in any of his letters.
Paul was writing to specific churches as praise for right conduct and adherence to sound doctrine, or as correction to those who had strayed from the Faith. Since his audience was already Christian, he may have assumed they were aware of the details about Jesus and saw no reason to elaborate.
This is true in modern Church documents. When a pope or other clergy member writes a letter to another church, it’s not likely they would feel the need to explain the life of Jesus in every detail to an audience already familiar with the story. They might reference specific details to make a point as Paul did, but letters of praise or correction from one Christian to another are not going to contain a complete retelling of the Gospel narrative. And it would be absurd to expect them to.
3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.
With this objection, Tarico claims that none of the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, and that the attribution of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not designated until one hundred years or more after Christianity began.
If it was actually the case that author attributions were not chosen until many years after the time of Christ, then it is a curious thing that they did not choose more prominent disciples like Peter or James.
The authors of the Gnostic gospels chose the names of prominent disciples to lend credibility to their writngs, but we know these couldn’t have been written by the people they are attributed to because they don’t appear until two or three hundred years later. The overwhelming majority of Biblical scholars, on the other hand, place the authorship of at least three of the Gospels within a generation of Jesus, and all four of them definitely within the first century (Did Jesus Exist? pg. 75).
My colleague Jimmy Akin argues that Matthew and John were both eyewitnesses of the ministry of Christ, and that a strong case can be made that Mark and Luke both received their information from eyewitnesses. You can read more on that here.
4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.
Oceans of ink have been spilled on the subject of contradictions in the Bible from both sides of the debate. But the question remains: Do these contradictions indicate that there may not have been a historical Jesus upon which the core of the Gospels are based? I would argue that these contradictions—valid or not—have no bearing on the existence of a historical Jesus.
Tarico points to discrepancies in the Resurrection accounts as an example. Even if we are to concede that these accounts contain details that are impossible to reconcile, it still does nothing to prove that there was no Jesus. At best, it would only prove that one or all of the authors of the Gospels got their facts wrong.
The core facts of the Gospels (that Jesus existed, preached and won disciples, and was crucified by Roman authorities) is attested to in the writings of Paul, the early Church Fathers, the Jewish historian Josephus, and several other non-Christian authors. Even the enemies of Christianity never denied the existence of its founder.
5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.
This is probably the weakest of Tarico’s points. If we asked ten people to tell us about the life of a person they knew, and all of their descriptions deviated from one another in very important details, this would not in any way mean the person in question did not exist. Tarico continues her point:
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.
There is a lot to unpack here. Many skeptics have claimed that there are parallels with the pagan religions of the time in the details about the life of Jesus and Christian rituals. In my own research, I have not found these parallels to be compelling (you can read my articles on these kinds of claims here).
What I do find compelling is that the Christian movement managed to spread so quickly. The Jewish historian Josephus confirms that the movement began in Judea, while Tacitus, Seutonius, and Pliny the Younger tell us that it spread all the way to Rome and Bithnya. According to the writings of the early Christians, these new communities were started by apostles who had been sent by the movement’s founder, Jesus. (You can read more on this here.)
Certainly there are more sophisticated arguments against the existence of Jesus than what is presented by Tarico. Most of her points are based on arguments made by mythicist author David Fitzgerald in his book Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All.
One of the points that I have heard Fitzgerald make in both his writing and in recorded interviews is that most scholars believe Jesus existed because most of them have been Christian (or formerly Christian). One could argue that all mythicists are atheists, but neither point really addresses the issue.
The Christ myth theory has circulated for nearly 200 years, going in and out of style. I have been criticized by some for paying any attention to it at all, but from my perspective there is a growing number of people who believe Jesus never existed, and it is something that we Catholics ought to take seriously.