I consider myself a mythicist, but I’m not as staunch as you may expect. I’m willing to accept the existence of a historical Jesus based on good evidence. That being said, I think there is good reason to doubt the veracity of the arguments for the existence of a historical Jesus, or at least the Jesus we’ve been told and read about. From your common worshiper to the seasoned Christian apologist, you will find they are very adamant in their belief that he lived, died on the cross, and rose on the third day, and they’ll be quick to explain why that is. So for the next time you discuss this with Christians, pay close attention to their convictions. Do your research, study the arguments from either side. I have, and with you I’d like to share a few of my conclusions.
What are the arguments?
Christians seem to have a different set of “proofs” from debate to debate, but there are a few that reign supreme. Entire books are written on this subject. So to keep it concise, I’m limiting those I will use to three. Below I’ll detail what they are and how they’ve been presented.
1. He fulfilled prophecy - Certain Old Testament writings told of a coming messiah. Looking at the Gospels it appears Jesus fulfilled many of them, giving the impression that he was, in fact, who he claimed to be. A few of those include:
- He would come from the family of Abraham - Genesis 12:3
- He would be born of a virgin (or young woman) - Isaiah 7:14
- He would be born in Bethlehem - Micah 5:2
- He would be God’s son - Psalm 2:7
- He would die for the sins of others - Isaiah 53:12
2. His crucifixion and resurrection were at the core of Christian beliefs in its infancy. So many died because they stood for their belief – It’s clear that Romans frequently persecuted early Christians, most of which were met with death. What do some of today’s Christians contend? They may say, “Who would condemn themselves to death for such an illustrious lie?”
3. The works of Josephus, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger clearly show Jesus existed – Josephus, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger were historians of sort. Their writings tell of early Christian worship, claiming it as “evidential truth” that they were convinced Jesus was the Messiah.
“Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works — a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal man amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.” Antiquities of the Jews
“Nero looked around for a scapegoat, and inflicted the most fiendish tortures on a group of persons already hated for their crimes. This was the sect known as Christians. Their founder, one Chrestus, had been put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. This checked the abominable superstition for a while, but it broke out again and spread, not merely through Judea, where it originated, but even to Rome itself, the great reservoir and collecting ground for every kind of depravity and filth. Those who confessed to being Christians were at once arrested, but on their testimony a great crowd of people were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson, but of hatred of the entire human race.” His Personal Annals (Book 15, Section 44)
Pliny the Younger only mentions once that early Christians “sang hymns to Jesus as if he was God.”
Why Do They Fail?
The claims seem reasonable, don’t they? But is there enough buoyancy to keep them afloat, or do they sink like a heavy stone?
1. He fulfilled prophecy – Sure, that’s how sequels work, right? All joking aside, there is no possible way I or anyone could definitively prove the Gospel writers plagiarized from the Hebrew bible. But it’s rather conspicuous, isn’t it? Most historians contend that the Gospels were written well after Jesus supposedly lived and died and well after the first letters were written by Paul, which don’t even identify many of the key points found in the Gospels. It doesn’t prove one way or another, it simply muddies the waters a bit.
Furthermore, is it reasonable to separate two portions of the same book, then compare and contrast the material in order to use it as evidence? I don’t think so. These documents weren’t intended to be used later as evidence. The intent of the texts is unsuitable for this kind of examination.
2. His crucifixion and resurrection were at the core of Christian beliefs in its infancy. So many died because they stood for their belief – Throughout time, many have given their lives for a belief they held so dearly. This tells nothing of Jesus’ historicity, but it does allude to the convincing power of belief. Radical Islamists commit mass murder in suicidal fashion, and we know they never met Muhammad or experienced any of his miracle work, correct?
Think of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult from the late 90’s. They affirmatively believed that a UFO was following the Hale-Bopp comet and once it would pass, the UFO would pick them up. In no way, shape, or form was this true, but the belief was convincing enough for them; convincing enough in fact that they felt the need to kill themselves in order to fulfill the promises they’d been given. Humans do foolish things for bad reasons all the time. We’ve come incredibly far in neuroscience and the study of the brain to regard the early Christian martyrs as anything particularly significant. The human psyche is probably to blame.
3. The works of Josephus, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger clearly show Jesus existed – From discussing the arguments for Jesus’ existence with others, I’ve found these three to be the most widely used. So, let’s dig in!
Josephus – This quote is found in his commentary journal Antiquities of the Jews. But to historians, certain statements do not add up. Josephus probably never called Jesus as “Christ”, which derives from the Hebrew word for “Messiah” or “Anointed one.” Josephus was a Jew. So a Jew considering Jesus as the “Messiah” seems out of place, more than likely a forgery. Also, he never mentions Paul or his epistles, he never mentions Jesus’ disciples (Josephus wrote another passage regarding the brother of Jesus, but the same issues are present with that document just as are with this one), or any characteristics of Jesus’ life. Good evidence for the belief in Jesus around the early second century, bad evidence for his existence.
Tacitus – First of all, scores of Christians weren’t present in the first century, particularly in Rome. Secondly, no one can verify the claim that Nero blamed the Christians for burning Rome, since there is no evidence he ever persecuted them either. And the documents themselves raise a few questions. In the 1950’s, Dr. Teresa Lodi examined the document and identified evidence for potential tempering. So, it’s incredibly hard to take the account seriously.
Pliny the Younger – He was a Roman, and around 100 BCE he wrote in a letter describing the actions of early Christians from his observations. Again, this can be used to help understand the growth and tradition of a young religion, but it doesn’t add to the validity of Jesus’ existence.
Jesus existed or he didn’t. It’s simple as that. He could have, but I don’t feel good evidence is available to substantiate the claim being made. The “fulfilled prophecies” speak only to a mind already convinced of his existence. The “wouldn’t die for a lie” claim isn’t unique to Christianity and we understand the gullibility of the human mind, and some of the documents used by apologists remain rather dubious. Even if they weren’t tampered with and are in fact the originals, these men weren’t eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death or resurrection. They are the cultural beliefs of early Christians. The claims they make specific to Jesus’ life are second hand or third hand accounts at best.
These three aren’t the entirety of the case for Jesus. Many other interesting viewpoints exist, and I encourage you to engage with those as well!
Photo Credits: Wikipedia Commons