During my time as a volunteer in youth ministry there was one teenager (I’ll call him Tim) who attended our parish events only because his parents made him go. As a result, he loved sowing seeds of doubt among his peers. At one of our teen nights my youth minister pulled me aside and said, “Trent, I need you to be in Tim’s small group.”
“How come?” I asked.
“Well, he has been arguing in his group that God doesn’t exist, and he’s been so vicious about it that he made one of the other kids cry.”
I quietly sat in with Tim’s group as they discussed the question “How would you rate your personal relationship with Jesus?” Participants were supposed to rate their relationship on a scale from one to ten. The most common answer the teens gave was “seven,” because “ten” seemed unattainable and “one” would invite scrutiny from the youth leader. When it was Tim’s turn, he said, “Zero. The Bible is a myth, and there is no evidence outside of the Bible to prove that Jesus even existed.”
The idea that Jesus of Nazareth is a fictional character, like Batman, is a fringe view among historians. This view, commonly called mythicism, was first argued seriously by the quirky nineteenth-century German critic Bruno Bauer. Karl Marx was one of Bauer’s students, and after mythicism became popularized by Arthur Drew’s 1909 book The Christ Myth, this view became the de facto belief among communists. The Soviet Union mandated the teaching of mythicism in public schools and banned materials that attempted to refute it (Leslie Houlden, Jesus: The Complete Guide, 729).
But scholars, both religious and nonreligious, outside the former USSR reject mythicism. John Dominic Crossan, who co-founded the skeptical Jesus Seminar, denies that Jesus rose from the dead but not that he was an historical person. He writes, “That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be” (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 145).
Bart D. Ehrman is an agnostic who is forthright in his rejection of mythicism. Ehrman teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 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?, 4).
Nevertheless, a tiny but vocal minority of critics argue that Jesus never existed. In the 1970s German language professor G. A. Wells revived the mythicist position but no longer maintains it (Can We Trust the New Testament?, 50). In Wells’s place Earl Doherty has risen as one of mythicism’s most prominent defenders, along with a host of popular writers including Timothy Freke, Peter Gandy, Kenneth Humphreys, and the esoteric Acharya S., who wrote The Christ Myth: The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Among critics with relevant doctoral degrees, the few outspoken ones are Thomas L. Thomson, Richard Carrier, and Robert Price. Price and Carrier are well known on the Internet for their rebuttals to Christian apologists, and their work can accessed at websites such as infidels.org.
While mythicism doesn’t even show up on the academic radar, on the Internet belief in a mythic Jesus is rampant, especially in videos like Zeitgeist or the 2005 documentary The God Who Wasn’t There, which use arguments crafted by people like Doherty and Acharya S. to deny the historicity of Jesus.
Do your homework
It’s more than likely that Tim, the teen who denied Jesus at our youth night, was influenced by this shallow online atheism. I said, “So, Tim, you must be familiar with the works of the ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus who describe Jesus? They wrote less than a hundred years after Jesus’ death, and they confirm that Jesus was a wise man who was killed by Pontius Pilate and that his followers were still loyal to him after his death. What do you think of this evidence, which is pretty good by the standards of ancient history?”
Tim and I stared at each other like we were in some kind of Wild West showdown. Finally, he looked away and muttered, “Okay, maybe my relationship with Jesus is more like a two.” After the youth night ended, one of the teens came up to me and said, “Thank you so much for helping with Tim. I could never come up with answers like that.”
“Sure you could,” I said. “You just have to do a little homework.” For our homework, let’s start with one of our best non biblical sources, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
Jewish evidence for Jesus
Josephus was born to a wealthy family in the year A.D. 37 and led the Jewish revolutionary forces in Galilee against the Romans. When his troops were decimated in battle, Josephus switched sides and claimed God had prophesied through him that the victorious Roman general Vespasian would become emperor. As it turns out, that is exactly what happened, and Josephus was allowed to serve in Vespasian’s court. Josephus’s historical writings include The Jewish Wars and a history of the Jewish people known as the Antiquities of the Jews. The latter document mentions Jesus in a short phrase and in another longer section.
The shorter reference is in Book 20 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, “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” (Jesus Outside the New Testament, 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’s 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, 141).
Roman evidence for Jesus
The Roman historian Tacitus records in the fifteenth book of his Annals that, 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.” This passage occurs in every copy we have of the Annals, and its lack of praise for Christ or his divinity is good evidence of its authenticity. But even if the passage is authentic, is it evidence for a historical Jesus?
The main complaint by critics is that Tacitus simply got this information from Christians who already believed the Christ myth, and so this isn’t independent confirmation of Jesus’ existence. But since Tacitus treats Christians with such disdain (he calls Christianity a “mischievous superstition”), it is unlikely he would have acquired his information directly from them. He may have obtained it from interviews with Roman officials or possibly from the imperial archives.
Even if we don’t know Tacitus’s source, his reputation as a careful and considerate historian bolsters the reliability of his testimony for Jesus. 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).
Christian evidence for Jesus
Almost all mythicists concede that St. Paul was a real person, because we have his letters. A critic might object that the Bible can’t be used to establish Jesus existed because it contains miracles and is allegedly unreliable. But the histories of Josephus and Tacitus contain accounts of miracles, and yet skeptics still trust much of what is written in those works. In addition, Paul’s letters are dated to within twenty years of Christ’s death, and few scholars seriously doubt Paul wrote the major epistles such as Romans and Galatians. We are as certain Paul wrote those letters as we are that Plato wrote The Republic.
So did Paul think Jesus was a real person? 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, 333). Doherty claims that James’s 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, 61). But we have no corroborating evidence that such a group existed.
Furthermore, Paul criticizes the Corinthians for professing allegiance to a certain individual, even Christ, and as a result creating division within the Church (cf. 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, 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 (The Christ Myth Theory, 338). But such an example, far removed from the context of first-century Palestine, makes Price’s reasoning hard to accept when compared to a plain reading of the text.
At this point you can show your mythicist friends three sources (Josephus, Tacitus, and Paul) that provide good evidence for an historical Jesus. But are there any reasons to think Jesus did not exist? Mythicists claim that if a man like Jesus existed and performed miracles, there would be more written about him near the time of his death. In their book The Jesus Mysteries, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy list twenty-seven ancient authors who lived within a hundred years of Jesus. They write, “The works of these writers would be enough to fill a library, but not one of them refers to Jesus” (134). This style of argument actually goes back to a list devised by skeptic John Remsburg in his 1909 book The Christ.
Most of these ancient writers would not have cared about recording an unknown victim of capital punishment in a backwater Roman province who was later celebrated by a marginalized cult. Many of these authors didn’t even record history but were poets or scientists—Juvenal, Martial, Ptolemy, Columella (who wrote only about trees), and Pliny the Elder are just a few examples. The historians Remsburg mentions usually focused on events unrelated to Jesus. These include Lucanus, who wrote about the war between Pompey and Caesar; and Florus Lucius, whose history of Rome ended twenty years before the birth of Christ.
According to atheist David Fitzgerald, the first-century writer Justus does not mention Jesus in his History of the Jewish Kings (Ten Beautiful Lies About Jesus, 19). While Jesus might seem like a related topic for this writer, a faithful Jew like Justus would not mention a rejected criminal in his history of the Jewish kings. While Christians called Jesus “King of Kings,” Jews did not recognize him as an official political or religious leader. (That would be like a faithful Catholic including the self-proclaimed “Pope” Michael I, who lives in Kansas, in a scholarly history of the papacy.)
Finally, it’s important to point out that the only sources we have for Pontius Pilate are Josephus, Tacitus, and the Jewish writer Philo (as well as some coins and an inscription discovered in 1961). If we only have these few sources for the governor of an entire Roman province, then why should we expect there to be a wealth of literature about an obscure itinerant preacher like Jesus? In an age of cheap digital publishing and Web research, we forget that writing materials and literate authors were hard to come by in the ancient world. In addition, much of what was recorded was also lost over time. For example, it is estimated that we only possess 1 percent of all pagan Greek literature written before 250 B.C. (Rudolf Blum, Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography, 8).
Paul’s mysterious silence
Mythicists reject the Gospels because their authors are assigned by tradition, but even when the author is described in the text itself it’s not enough. According to these critics, Paul never describes in his epistles the parables, stories, or sermons related to an earthly Jesus. They say Paul is describing a mythic, “cosmic Christ” who was later erroneously described as a historical person in the Gospels.
But Paul gives us many details about an earthly Jesus. He says Christ was “born of a woman, born under the law” of Moses (Gal. 4:4) and was a descendant of David according to the flesh (cf. Romans 1:3). Paul records Jesus instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26) as well as his crucifixion at the hands of “the rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:6-8).
The reason that Paul does not mention Jesus’ life more prominently in his writings is because this information was already preserved in oral traditions and did not need to be communicated in the epistles. In fact, the book of Acts rarely mentions Jesus’ earthly ministry; but Luke, the author of Acts, was obviously aware of it, since he wrote an entire Gospel about Jesus’ earthly ministry. Paul may have had no need to include more biographical information about Jesus since he was writing to clarify theological and pastoral problems that did not directly relate to the life of Christ.
“Dying and rising” copycats
Another common argument found in books and Web videos like Zeitgeist is the idea that Jesus was simply borrowed from earlier “dying and rising” pagan gods like Osiris, Horus, and Mithras. So are the accounts of Jesus borrowed legends?
First, similarities don’t prove literary dependence, because coincidences do happen. For example, in 1884 the shipwrecked crew of the Mignonette made a meal out of the cabin boy Richard Parker before they were rescued and tried for murder. But almost fifty years earlier, Edgar Allen Poe wrote a novel called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket that recounted a group of sailors lost at sea who ended up eating their cabin boy—who also happened to be named Richard Parker. But this eerie coincidence does not disprove the later true account, so a mere coincidence between pagan religions and the Gospels would not disprove the latter accounts.
Second, the parallels simply are not parallel. For example, the pagan god Mithras is described as being born of a virgin, but sculptures of Mithras depict him coming into existence by emerging fully grown from a rock. The Egyptian god Osiris was never raised from the dead; his mutilated body parts were reassembled, and Osiris went on to rule the Underworld but was not resurrected to a glorious, immortal existence. It is claimed that the Egyptian sky-god Horus was born of a virgin, had twelve disciples, was crucified, and was resurrected, but none of these details can be found in Egyptian mythology.
If you are confronted by a critic who says that Jesus is a just a copycat legend and are bombarded by these coincidences, simply ask him, “What is the original source, not the book or YouTube video, but the original source that describes these pagan gods being like Jesus?” If in response the critic is open to reading a rebuttal of the copycat theory, I recommend my colleague Jon Sorensen’s article “Horus Manure: Debunking the Jesus/Horus Connection” in the November-December 2012 issue of this magazine.
The simple fact is that these “dying and rising” gods only represented the annual “death” and “rebirth” present in the crop cycle and were not based on historical individuals. In his scholarly monograph Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East, T.N.D. Mettinger wrote, “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world” (221).
Unlike mythological characters, the Church is founded on the apostles, who martyred themselves for a teacher and Lord they personally knew. The Faith they died for is about a real man who lived in a place you can visit, died a death recorded by historians, and rose from the dead with evidence to corroborate it for believers today.
Did Jesus exist? The answer is that he did, and he still does.