Did Jesus Exist or Is It All a Myth?
Was Jesus God, Man, or Myth?
Some biblical scholars question whether or not a historical Jesus ever existed. Others are convinced that there was an actual Jesus although he was fully human and did not perform miracles. And, of course, most Christians believe that the entire Jesus story as told in the Bible is completely true.
Biblical scholarship is a very complex field of study. One area of research delves into the question of whether or not Jesus ever existed as man or god. I've been researching this question and I'd like to layout the main reasons for skepticism about the existence of Jesus. The arguments and evidence could fill books—and they do—but I will just hit the highlights. I refer you to the books for the details.
We cannot use the Bible as an historical reference since the Bible is what is being examined. Additionally, the Bible shows itself to be an unreliable document because it reports myth as truth, and even when dealing with known facts of history, geography, and science, it gets some of those facts wrong.
Is Jesus “mythologized history” or “historicalized mythology”?
If we wish to know Jesus, the man, we must begin with the assumption that Jesus is not divine, not the son of God, and had no supernatural powers whatsoever. The question then becomes whether he was an actual person or whether his existence is entirely myth.
Did a man named Yeshua ben Yousef live in Bethlehem during the first century of the Common Era? Did he preach, did he have disciples, and was he crucified? Putting aside the stories of the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection, was there an actual historical Jesus?
Some scholars say Yeshua ben Yousef existed, but the stories about him are “mythologized history.” The story of his life was conflated with various mythologies current during his time. The books Zealot by Reza Aslan and How Jesus Became God: by Bart D. Erhman take this approach. They try to strip away the myth and show us the man.
A meticulously researched account speculates about the life of Jesus and comes to conclusions that challenge long-held assumptions about the man we know as Jesus of Nazareth.
Biblical scholar Bart. D. Erhman presents his thesis that the original disciples did not believe that Jesus was God—and it is not what Jesus claimed about himself. This book explains the evolution of a belief that looked very different in the fourth century than it did in the first.
Other scholars say the stories of Jesus are “historicalized mythology.” They believe the stories are 100% myth, fiction, and allegory. Myths existed, and then a fictional story of Jesus was added to these myths. This is the central claim of several books such as Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All, by David Fitzgerald and On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt by Richard Carrier.
Another hypothesis is that there were many Jewish preachers traveling about Bethlehem at that time, and their lives were made into a composite that was called Jesus.
I have even heard the theory that the story of Jesus arose from a play given by a traveling theater troupe. It’s an interesting theory because it would have been a way to spread an anti-Roman message under the guise of harmless entertainment.
Carrier re-examines the whole premise that Jesus existed as a real person and concludes that the Jesus story as we know it today is a blending of the historical, mythical, and theological. Carrier finds compelling reasons to suspect that the view of many religious scholars that Jesus actually existed is incorrect.
This book sheds light on ten beloved Christian myths.The author gathers evidence from historians across the theological spectrum, and shows how it points to a Jesus Christ created solely through the allegorical alchemy of hope and imagination; a messiah that is a theological construct-- in short, a Christ that is pure myth.
The story of Jesus is markedly similar to the stories of mythical heroes.
I began with the assumption that the Jesus of the Bible-- the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection are all myth. Why did I make this assumption?
The virgin birth is based on a mistranslation--the word for young woman was mistranslated as virgin. Also in Greek and Roman mythology (and the mythology of other cultures), great men were frequently born from the union of a god with a human woman. Hercules, for instance, was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. At a time when these myths were widely believed to be true, it is not surprising that Jesus would also be the son of a god.
Miracles and amazing feats are part of every hero’s journey. If a religion is to be founded upon the life of a man, he must be larger than life. Something has to separate him and make him superior to all others or else why should he be worshiped and followed. So stories are told about Jesus healing the sick, raising the dead, walking on water, wrestling with demons, etc.
The story of Jesus’ life closely corresponds to the “Mythic Hero Archetype” found in the myths of all cultures. The birth of a divine hero is supernaturally predicted, and he is conceived in a supernatural way. As an infant, he escapes attempts to kill him. As a child, he shows precocious wisdom. As a young man, he is given a mission. He defeats monsters and/or demons and is hailed as a king. His success is short lived--he is betrayed, falls out of favor, and is executed, often on a hilltop. Finally, he is vindicated after his death and taken up to heaven. Countless myths tell this story with slight variations.
The Jewish Bible, the Old Testament, made many prophesies about the Messiah to come. Did Jesus fulfill those prophecies? Of course he did. It is only natural that the people who told the story of Jesus would make the story conform to the prophesies.
There is no contemporaneous evidence of the existence of Jesus.
There are plenty of records available to us from the time of Jesus, but none of these records make any reference to him. There is no record of his birth, no record of his trial, no record of his death—no record of any type. None of the writers and historians of his time wrote even a single word about him. There are no artifacts attesting to his existence—as a carpenter he must have built or made something, and surely this would have been preserved by his followers.
According to the story, during his time on Earth Jesus "was bigger than the Beatles." He had thousands of followers and was alienating the ruling powers among both the Jews and the Romans. Surely someone somewhere for some reason would have written something at the time about a person who had gained that much attention, celebrity, and notoriety. Yet we have nothing.
(I do not cite the brief mention of Christ by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in 93CE because this reference to Christ is an obvious forgery. And I do not cite the Shroud of Turin because it is another well-proven forgery.)
You can read more about the forgeries of the early church in Jesus Who? The Historical Record Gives No Clue.
The New Testament gospels are a hodge-podge of conflicting stories.
There are no eyewitness accounts. The epistles written by Paul (Saul of Tarsas) were written about 52 CE. Paul explicitly states that he never met Jesus.
Paul apparently had no knowledge of Jesus at all. None of the epistle writers, including Paul, give biographical details of Jesus’ life--no mention of his teachings, no mention of his disciples, no mention of miracles, no mention of anything that happened before his death. All indications are that Paul thought of Jesus as a spiritual sky god, an intermediary between God and man, and not as an actual human being. Paul’s beliefs appear to be a mixture of Jewish Scripture, Zoroastrianism, and Mithraism. (Also, the vision that Paul had on the road to Damascus shows all the indications of being caused by an epileptic fit.)
All the things we think we know about the life of Jesus don’t begin to be written down until about 100 years after the presumed date of Jesus’ death. The details appear in the four gospels, Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John, but they were not written by them. The writers are apostles (messengers) and not disciples. The Gospels show evidence of being revised throughout the next centuries and into the Middle Ages. None of the original documents survive. We have only copies of copies, and the copies often differ from each other.
The gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest “history” of Jesus. Luke and Matthew reworked Mark and added their own material. John was the last to be written and this Gospel adds more contradictions. They vary so much because they were written at different times for different audiences, and had different objectives.
Did the gospel writers make mistakes, were they attempting to write allegories, or was the whole thing outright fiction. No matter which, they are unreliable as biography. What we do know is that the story of Jesus changed over time, becoming more and more fantastical.
There were many competing versions of Christianity, but once an official version of the Bible was established by King Constantine in the fourth century, all competing scripture was banned and destroyed. The early Church had control of the documents and there is no way of knowing what they might have added, removed, or destroyed.
To make matters worse, the gospels contradict each other telling different versions of the same story and including and excluding different details. For example, Matthew says Jesus was born in Bethlehem, home of Joseph, during the reign of Herod the Great (who died in 5 or 4 BCE). Luke thinks Jesus was born in a stable during the census conducted by Quirinius in 6 CE. (They differ by nine years on the date of Jesus’ birth.)
Modern scholars have widely different views of the historical Jesus.
The Jesus Seminar was a group of Biblical scholars with the mission to discover the “real” Jesus. Their conclusions run the gamut from alpha to omega. Different scholars described him differently: he is a cynic philosopher, a charismatic Hasid, a progressive Pharisee, a conservative rabbi, a zealous revolutionary, a non-violent pacifist, a messianic king, a Galilean sage, a Hellenistic shaman, and more. These contradictory interpretations can’t all be correct.
If there is so much disagreement, perhaps it is because they are all wrong. Perhaps they cannot agree because there is no historical Jesus. Each scholar cherry picks the part of the story that fits his ideas about Jesus.
Is Christianity a mix of Jewish scripture and myth?
Whether or not there was a Jewish rabbi or itinerant preacher by the name of Joshua ben Joseph roaming around Bethlehem in the first century CE is immaterial. It is highly likely that he is not the man who came to be known as “Jesus Christ” precisely because Jesus Christ is only a myth.
One hypothesis about the origins of Christianity is based on the belief that Jewish scripture melded with the Hellenistic and pagan myths and philosphies common to that era. The Jews around the beginning of the first century believed that they were living in the end-times—scripture had prophesized that a Messiah would lead them to the Promised Land. Many men were trying to fulfill the prophecy by claiming to be the Messiah. The Roman Empire was known to keep meticulous records, but we have no records of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. (Perhaps the records did not survive, but that raises the question of why the church did not preserve them.) The politics of the era also probably helped to shape the myth.
We may never know the true reasons for, and origins of, Christianity. Myths arise and take hold, and thus it has ever been since the earliest times of humanity.
In addition to the books cited above, you might want to read these articles that provided some of my source material. You will find a more detailed explaination of the points I have made along with additional recommendations for further reading.
You might also want to take a look at The Jesus Birther Movement for an extensive list of resources--articles and videos--about the existence of Jesus Christ.
For Further Reading
Many books have been written about mythicism--the idea that Jesus Christ never existed as a real person and that his story is based on earlier myths. For a reading list with brief book reviews, CLICK HERE.
You may also like two of my other articles on this topic.
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© 2015 Catherine Giordano
More by this Author
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