This question is of perennial interest, and of course won’t be settled, at least by those theists who proclaim, wrongly, that “you can’t prove a negative.” (Really? You can’t prove that I don’t have two hearts, or a brother?) Even if, after decades, we fail to come up with good evidence for a historical Jesus, Christians will still maintain, based on Scripture, that he existed.
Again, the question is not whether Jesus was the son of God/part of God as Christianity alleges, but whether there was even a historical person around whom the Jesus myth accreted. While people like Bart Ehrman give an adamant “yes,” others, like Richard Carrier (and our own Ben Goren) are “mythicists,” claiming that there’s no convincing of any real person who could have been the model of the Jesus figure.
I have to say that I’m coming down on the “mythicist” side, simply because I don’t see any convincing historical records for a Jesus person. Everything written about him was decades after his death, and, as far as I can see, there is no contemporaneous record of a Jesus-person’s existence (what “records” exist have been debunked as forgeries). Yet there should have been some evidence, especially if Jesus had done what the Bible said. But even if he was simply an apocalyptic preacher, as Ehrman insists, there should have been at least a few contemporaneous records. Based on their complete absence, I am for the time being simply a Jesus agnostic. But I don’t pretend to be a scholar in this area, or even to have read a lot of the relevant literature. I haven’t even read Richard Carrier’s new book promoting the mythicist interpretation, though I will.
Because of the paucity of evidence, we can expect this question to keep coming up. And so it’s surfaced once again, in a PuffHo piece by Nigel Barber.
Barber, who has a Ph.D. in biopsychology and a website at Psychology Today (“The Human Beast”), has also written six books. And in the Sept. 25 edition (is that the right word?) of PuffHo, he takes up the question of the historicity of Jesus. His piece, “If Jesus never existed, religion may be fiction,” briefly lays out the mythicist case. Of course religion itself is not a fiction, but what Barber means is that Christianity’s empirical support, like that of Scientology or Mormonism, may well rest on a person or events that simply didn’t exist.
Here’s the crux of Barber’s argument. (I have not yet seen the piece in Free Inquiry to which he refers, as it’s behind a paywall, but if a reader wants to send it to me, I’d be much obliged.). I’ve put the critical part in bold:
In History, Jesus Was a No Show
Various historical scholars attempted to authenticate Jesus in the historical record, particularly in the work of Jesus-era writers. Michael Paulkovich revived this project as summarized in the current issue of Free Inquiry.
Paulkovich found an astonishing absence of evidence for the existence of Jesus in history. “Historian Flavius Josephus published his Jewish Wars circa 95 CE. He had lived in Japhia, one mile from Nazareth – yet Josephus seems unaware of both Nazareth and Jesus.” He is at pains to discredit interpolations in this work that “made him appear to write of Jesus when he did not.” Most religious historians take a more nuanced view agreeing that Christian scholars added their own pieces much later but maintaining that the historical reference to Jesus was present in the original. Yet, a fudged text is not compelling evidence for anything.
Paulkovich consulted no fewer than 126 historians (including Josephus) who lived in the period and ought to have been aware of Jesus if he had existed and performed the miracles that supposedly drew a great deal of popular attention. Of the 126 writers who should have written about Jesus, not a single one did so (if one accepts Paulkovich’s view that the Jesus references in Josephus are interpolated).
“When I consider those 126 writers, all of whom should have heard of Jesus but did not – and Paul and Marcion and Athenagoras and Matthew with a tetralogy of opposing Christs, the silence from Qumram and Nazareth and Bethlehem, conflicting Bible stories, and so many other mysteries and omissions – I must conclude that Christ is a mythical character.”
He also considers striking similarities of Jesus to other God-sons such as Mithra, Sandan, Attis, and Horus. Christianity has its own imitator. Mormonism was heavily influenced by the Bible from which founder Joseph Smith borrowed liberally.
Barber goes on to talk about how the origin of Mormonism was a sham promulgated by a con man (an interpretation I accept). Yet even in that case there’s better evidence than we have for Jesus, for the Book of Mormon opens with two statements from eleven witnesses—people who were contemporaries of Joseph Smith—who swore that they saw the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon. Those people are historical figures who can be tracked down, and so the evidence for the existence of the plates is stronger than for the existence of a historical Jesus.
Barber finishes by describing how credulous people have started sects based on phony gurus and leaders, and, indeed, how an Indian film director decided to create his own religion by pretending he was a guru. And of course we all know how L. Ron Hubbard started Scientology based on a bunch of science-fiction writings and a phony theology involving Xenu, volcanoes, and thetans. How people can buy that stuff—and there’s a lot of them—is beyond me. But of course you don’t get to learn the theology of Scientology until you’ve spent thousands of dollars, and so are inclined to accept it (bogus as it is) because of the “sunk-costs fallacy.”
At any rate, if there is no contemporaneous record of Jesus, there should have been, how seriously should we take his historical existence? I am not inclined to accept the Bible as convincing evidence for a historical Jesus
Is there anyone in history with so littlec ontemporaneous attestation who is nevertheless seen by millions as having really existed? There is of course Socrates, but of course we have a historical figure, Plato, who attests to his existence. Yet even that is overlain with a patina of mythicism, and I don’t think most scholars would say that Socrates existed with the certainty that Christians (or even atheists like Bart Erhman) would say that Jesus existed. And there’s no religion based on the historical existence of Socrates. As for Shakespeare, well, we have his signature and a fair amount of contemporaneous evidence that he really did exist; we just don’t know for sure that he wrote those plays (absence of evidence).
p.s. If you want to comment saying, “I am not concerned with this tedious question,” please don’t bother. If that’s your attitude, there’s no need to inform us all about your lack of interest.