I have been asked once again to explain concisely why I believe Jesus is a myth.
My initial response to that question is “Who doesn’t believe Jesus was a myth?” There is no dispute among biblical scholars, or at least among critical biblical scholars (let’s leave aside the apologists) that the Jesus of our canonical gospels is mythical. No-one believes Jesus really walked on water or literally raised the dead.
Critical biblical scholars, for various reasons, believe that “the historical Jesus” (the Jesus who is not a myth) lies hidden behind those gospel narratives and that with appropriate tools like criteria of authenticity or some adaptation of memory theory they can catch glimpses of what that historical Jesus may have been like in the eyes of his contemporaries.
As for Paul, there is no question that his Jesus, and especially his crucifixion, is a theological construct. Critical scholars generally tell us that Paul had no interest in the historical Jesus but only in a heavenly one, that is, in a mythical one. Jesus’ death was a theological event with power similar to that of Isaac’s blood to atone for sins. (Simon Gathercole in his article I recently addressed reminded me that Dale Allison said scholars have in recent times come to accept the authenticity of one passage in 1 Thessalonians that is considered evidence of Paul’s belief in a historical man and I am in the process of tracking down and studying those references.)
I believe in the Jesus of the gospels and of Paul’s letters: that is, I believe the Jesus of the gospels and Paul is a literary, mythical or theological figure. I don’t know of any critical scholar who would seriously suggest otherwise.
So the question I am sometimes asked is more meaningfully re-worded: “Why do you believe there was no historical Jesus behind the writings of the gospels and Paul?”
My only reply can be: I don’t “believe there was no historical Jesus behind the writings….” To believe that something is or is not so requires a level of evidence that is generally not found when it comes to many biblical stories or characters, or even many classical narratives of very early history among the ancient Greek and Roman historians. I have posted several times now on the clearly stated methods used by the leading historians of ancient history and shown that none of them uses the tools of biblical scholars to discover some past historical figure behind our histories and biographies. None. Yet it is not hard at all to find even biblical scholars themselves addressing the inability of those tools to provide a valid result.
I think the irrational character at the heart of many peoples’ beliefs in the historical Jesus is discerned when they cast aside calm, rational discussion of the evidence and react with hostility, ad hominem, misrepresentation. We can understand such reactions coming from people who feel threatened in some way. (I should add that there are a good number of Jesus mythicists who are just as guilty of personal insult in preference to well-reasoned and evidence-based argument. Most of those, at least in my experience, belong to the “Type 2” mythicists.)
I have posted many times why historians of ancient history can legitimately believe in a historical Julius Caesar or a historical Socrates (even though they may not be able to tell you with confidence exactly what such ancient persons were really like) and I have also made it clear that our level of evidence for such persons (even for “nobodies” like the historicity of Cicero’s slave Tiro and a stammering rival rhetorician to Seneca) is qualitatively far richer than the evidence we have for a historical Jesus behind our mythical or theological documents.
I don’t think there is much room for argument about that difference in the qualitative character of the evidence. Perhaps that’s why some people are not interested in serious discussion about historical methods that might expose the nakedness of certain biblical scholarship, and why they so often prefer instead to stay and fight or disappear in flight.
Was there a historical Jesus? I don’t know. I can’t say. Can the evidence we have be explained without appealing to a historical Jesus? Yes, I tend to think it can. (Despite the gross misrepresentations of the arguments of those who demonstrate this fact.)
What methods do I apply to our evidence? I try to apply the methods that one very distinguished biblical scholar said should be applied to the study of Jesus. The methods Philip Davies spoke of are no longer relegated to fringe extremism in the studies of “biblical Israel”. (I think it was Thomas L. Thompson, a scholar in the same “school” as Davies, who said that we must first tend to the Jesus we do know about and have before us: that is the literary figure. I believe we need to apply the normative methods of historians (not speaking of New Testament historians) to explain that Jesus.)
[S]urely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past (recte: The Messiah Myth) shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. — Philip Davies, Did Jesus Exist, 2012
I can see little fundamental difference between the methods of which Philip Davies spoke and the methods of his peers in classical and ancient history departments, or in just about any other history department I know of. I am slowly working on collating my various posts on historical methods that I hope can be a ready reference in future whenever I am asked the question again.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
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