Those are the conclusions made by one Nigel Barber writing at the Huffington Post. He bases this claim on a recently published historical survey by Michael Paulkovich in a magazine called Free Inquiry.
As someone raised in a Christian country, I learned that there was a historical Jesus. Now historical analysis finds no clear evidence that Jesus existed. If not, Christianity was fabricated, just like Mormonism and other religions. Why do people choose to believe religious fictions?
Given the depth of religious tradition in Christian countries, where the “Christian era” calendar is based upon the presumed life of Jesus, it would be astonishing if there was no evidence of a historical Jesus. After all, in an era when there were scores of messianic prophets, why go to the trouble of making one up?
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.
I am sure the article is thought provoking, but unfortunately I cannot read it. Access to the articles at Free Inquiry is limited to print subscribers only. So much for 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take a more nuanced view agreeing that Christian scholars added their own pieces much later but maintaining that the historical reference to Jesus was present in the original.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.
There is more on the origins of Mormonism which is irrelevant to the question of whether Jesus existed as a historical person, so I’ll let it go and go straight to the question.
I have to wonder that the Huffington Post sees fit to waste the time of its readers with such nonsense. The idea that Jesus is a mythical construct from pagan deities is one that few, if any, historians familiar with the first century Roman Empire would endorse. Skeptical historians naturally do not believe that Jesus was the son of God, but even the most skeptical concedes that there was a person named Jesus of Nazareth who lived during the time of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The mythical Jesus concept is an example of pseudohistory, on par with Dan Brown’s ideas about Jesus’s descendants or or whether the lost continent of Atlantis really existed.
The truth is that the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is better attested than many figures of ancient history. Josephus did mention Jesus, even if the statements claiming his divinity were added by later Christian copyists. Tacitus and Pliny the Younger both referred to the early Christian movement, writing around AD 100, within 70 years of his crucifixion. Even better we have biographical material written by his followers, the Gospels, from perhaps AD 70-100, although the Gospel of Mark may have been written before 60 and the passion narratives were certainly composed before the rest of the Gospels. Paul refers to Jesus as a historical person in his letters which were written from around 50-65. in other words, we have materials written about Jesus within living memory of eyewitnesses to his life. That is far better than we have for many historical figures of ancient times.
The earliest biography of Mohammed was written about 150 years after his death. That work has been lost but is extensively quoted in later biographies of the prophet. Because much of what is known of Mohammed is from the oral transmission of his sayings and deeds,we cannot be certain to what extent the traditions of his life are accurate or if Mohammed even existed. The earliest biographies of the Buddha were not written down until 500 years after his death. His teachings were also not written down for centuries and there is no way to know to what extent the Buddhist religion actually reflects the teachings of the historical Buddha. Even a secular figure like Alexander the Great had to wait about two hundred years before a biography was written about him. We are lucky to have as much material on an obscure person like Jesus as we do.
But perhaps Mr. Barber would counter that the Gospels ought not to be relied upon. They were clearly works of fiction written by the early Christians. But, on what basis should we dismiss the historicity of the Gospels? Much of what we know of many persons of ancient times is derived from the writings of their admirers. We know of Socrates from the writing of his pupils Plato and Xenophon. We know if Confucius by his successors. These writings may be biased but no one would suppose that Socrates or Confucius were fictitious. Ought the New Testament be held to a different standard simply because billions of people consider it to be a sacred text? Why?
The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles do not seem to be fictitious. There are no major anachronisms. Many of the people mentioned; the various Herods, Pilate, Gamaliel, Festus, Felix, Annas, Caiaphas,and many others were real people, attested in non-Biblical sources and the depictions of them in the New Testament seem to be accurate. The places mentioned are real locations that one can visit today. If you take away the miracles and the resurrection, you have a completely credible account of a Jewish preacher who managed to offend the religious and secular authorities and ended up being crucified, and whose followers somehow believed, had risen from the dead. The men who wrote the Gospels really believed what they were writing. This does not make the Gospels true, but they are not forgeries or fiction. If it were not for the prejudice against Christian scripture shown by certain secular humanists, no one would doubt they were as reliable historical documents as any produced by Herodotus or Plutarch.
It is understandable that someone wouldn’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God. I wouldn’t expect anyone but a Christian to believe that. After all, believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ is what makes a Christian. I do not understand why this idea that he never even existed crops up about every twenty years or so. It seems like overkill to me. Perhaps they hate Jesus, and by extension God, so much, they would rather he not exist at all.
I want to say something very briefly on the related idea that Christianity borrowed the idea of Christ from pagan myths, like Horus, Attis, Mithra, and the like. If you really examine these myths, you find only the most superficial resemblances between these mythological figures and Christ. The god who dies and comes back to life is rather common in mythology, but none of these gods suffered a humiliating death by crucifixion, nor do the stories of their lives resemble the story of Jesus in detail. I should also note that much of the historical information we have about these ancient cults derives from sources after Christianity began to be established so there is some question which way the influence really went.
- Why Historicist/Mythicist Arguments Often Fail – & a Test Case for a Better Way (vridar.org)
- Joe Atwill, Bill O’Reilly, and Josephus sitting in a tree… (unsettledchristianity.com)
- Craig S. Keener: Jesus Existed (huffingtonpost.com)