Ethics & Religion

Challenging the Jesus myth theory

“I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.”

This pearl of wisdom, coined by American secularist H.L Mencken, often comes to mind as an emphatic answer to the dubious claims of religion. And it comes to mind again, this time in a secular context, given the recent surge in advocates of the ‘Jesus myth’ – the claim that Jesus never actually existed.  

For atheists, the idea has obvious appeal – with this truth-bomb we can dismiss Christianity outright. And it seems plausible enough given what we already know: the gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death by unknown authors (not eyewitnesses as the traditional ascriptions suggest), containing many doubtful and supernatural stories, and contradicting one another on key details. 

But, alas, the beautiful theory was yet to meet Mencken’s gang of facts.  

Mythicists say the ancient sources describe Jesus as a celestial or mythological figure, not a real person, disputing scholarly consensus on the key sources – the Letters of Paul 48-60 CE, The Book of Acts 80-100 CE, the Gospels 70-110 CE, and non-Christian writings by authors including Josephus 94 CE, Tacitus  116 CE and Suetonius 121 CE. 

The argument fails on several key measures:

  1. The Letters of Paul

The Epistles of Paul demonstrate that Paul knew the first apostle Peter (Cephas) and Jesus’ own brother James. In fact, Paul stayed with Peter for 15 days. The letters also mention some of Jesus’ sayings, describing them as handed down or passed on by the local community. The Letters of Paul connect him to those who knew the real person of Jesus, reflecting the incipient oral tradition which swept the Mediterranean during the planting of the first Christian churches.   

  1. Authenticity of the sources

Mythicists tend to assume that, if part of a source is compromised, then we should junk the lot. But this is not how history is done. Ancient writings on many ancient figures, including Caesar, Augustus, and Alexander the Great, typically include mythological elements or later interpolations which we now conclude are untrue. Rarely is this cause to doubt the existence of the historical figure.

Ancient scribes often fraudulently claimed the names of historical figures, forging documents in their name. Importantly, historians still accept the genuine texts, rejecting later forgeries using a variety of methods. For instance, modern scholars regard seven of the Pauline Epistles as authentically written by Paul.

  1. Corroboration

According to New Testament scholar and atheist, Bart D Ehrman, Jesus is the second most attested Jewish Palestinian of the first century (behind Jewish historian Josephus, who mentioned Jesus twice.

Compared to most figures in ancient history, we have an abundance of evidence about Jesus. Jesus is also mentioned in Roman sources Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger.

Recounting the death of James, the brother of Jesus, Josephus provides independent corroboration of the existence of Jesus’ brother James. James’ attestation in multiple sources provides solid evidence for the existence of Jesus.

  1. The assumption of existence

In all known writings in the first and second centuries, including those opposing Christianity, no one doubted that Jesus lived.

Early writings disputing Christianity, such as Celcus, take for granted the existence of Jesus. Not until the late 1700s were any doubts raised. This supports the oral tradition connecting the life of Jesus to the later writings about him. 

  1. The rise of the church

The mythicist faces a serious challenge in accounting for the explosion of Christianity.

Most of the great religions are inspired by a charismatic prophet. If Jesus did not exist, then the mythicist must explain the explosion of Christianity in the first and second centuries. How did churches arise all over the Mediterranean, driven by the evangelising of the first apostles and Paul, if not inspired by a single grain of truth? How do you explain the extensive writings by church elders?

There was clearly an oral tradition which recounted tales about Jesus following his death. These tales gradually became more embellished over time, giving rise to the gospels and later Christian writings.  

  1. The crucifixion of Jesus

The crucifixion was referred to in the Letters of Paul, the gospels, Acts and the other non-biblical sources.

One assumes that to die a person must first live. But mythicists strain to convince us that Christians were inspired by a story of the crucifixion of a celestial deity. 

The resurrection story was a lightning rod propelling the spread of Christianity. It’s difficult to imagine how Christians were inspired by the resurrection of a celestial being, and why the gospels refer to a mortal figure named Jesus. 

  1. Scholarly consensus

For aforementioned reasons, scholars agree that Jesus existed. Not a single professor of the New Testament or ancient history at any university in the world takes the mythicist argument seriously. Bart D Ehrman, in 2012, said: “Virtually all scholars (regardless of religion) now agree Jesus was a real person whose life followed the general outline in the gospels.”

And I should dispel another myth: New Testament scholars and ancient historians are not all evangelical Christians. Many are atheist, Jewish and of other faiths, applying the historical method.

Given the consensus, we’d want very good reasons to embrace the ‘Jesus myth’ – just as we’d want strong evidence to dismiss Holocaust denial, Muhammad mythicism, not to mention the scientific consensus on climate change or the efficacy of vaccinations. 

If the most studied group in the world all agree on a particular set of facts, then we should lift our guard when presented with fringe theories – even if they sound plausible and, most especially, if they furnish our other beliefs so handsomely. 

Further, as per Mencken, as rationalists or secularists, we should champion evidence and facts as virtues in and of themselves, resisting the temptation to barrack for contested propositions sympathetic to our aims.

To counter Christianity, we only need to point to the trumped up and highly discrepant stories in the gospels, and the failure to establish a clear and accepted portrait of Jesus amongst Christians themselves.

We know very little about his life for certain – that he was baptised by John the Baptist, that he was a charismatic (probably apocalyptic) prophet crucified by Pontius Pilate. We have no reason to believe he was anointed by God or was capable of miraculous deeds. Quite to the contrary, the rigorous methods of history and science give us all the tools we need to dismiss, out of hand, the unevidenced and fantastical claims of Christianity.

If you wish to republish this original article, please attribute to Rationale. Find out more about republishing under Creative Commons.  

Hugh Harris debated Cameron Reilly, maker of the documentary Marketing the Messiah, on the Iron Fist and Velvet Glove podcast on Tuesday 19 April.

Photo by Arturo Rey on Unsplash.

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