There’s a lot of scholarly work out there attempting to settle the question of whether or not the Jesus of the Christian Bible really existed. I’m not going to pretend to summarize or even really discuss that work here. I just want to highlight something I think is often missing from debates between Christians and non-Christians on the topic: what do we actually mean by the question? As with so many other instances of “interfaith” dialogue, it seems to me that each side is using the same words to refer to very different things.
The question, “Did Jesus really exist?” makes it sound like there are only two answers, yes and no. In reality, I think there are three possibilities:
- Jesus was a real historical figure whose life went exactly as described in the New Testament;
- Jesus is a fairy tale character who is completely fictional with no basis in reality; or
- The story of Jesus is “based on a true story” in the Hollywood sense — there was really a person with a similar name, who did a bit of similar stuff, but many of the details are exaggerations or even complete fabrications.
(Well, there’s sort of a continuum between the extremes of #1 and 2, with #3 representing varying amounts of Biblical details being accurate, but let’s call it three options just for simplicity.)
Now, I’d argue right off the bat that #1 is impossible — the New Testament books don’t even agree with each other about the events of Jesus’ life. The closest we could get to a “yes” answer is #3. And as an atheist, you might well say, “Yes, I think there’s sufficient evidence that Jesus really existed,” and mean that the Bible was “based on a true story.” Perhaps there was a young man in Galilee about 2000 years ago who claimed to be the messiah, preached about the end times, and had a small cult following. In fact, we know that there were a bunch of people claiming to be the Jewish messiah and drumming up followers around that time — and before, and since. He almost certainly didn’t walk on water, heal lepers with his touch, or rise from the dead, but that doesn’t prevent there from being (again, in this Hollywood sense) a “real Jesus” at the root of the stories.
But it’s difficult to explain all of this in casual conversation. Usually, we feel forced to choose between a “yes,” which might be technically correct but which appears to grant the Christian a lot more ground than we intend to, or a “no,” which might be overreaching — and at the very least opens us up to some annoying conversations about random archaeological finds that happened to have the name “Yeshua” inscribed somewhere. Answer #3 is an atheist’s “yes, there probably was a historical Jesus” and at the same time it’s a Christian’s “no, Jesus is a myth.” Plus, there’s the ever-popular bait-and-switch tactic of evangelists on the street, or online — they’ll get you to admit that there were apocalyptic preachers in the right region in the right time, and then they’ll act like you agreed that every line of the Bible is supported by mountains of evidence.
Like so many issues in atheist/theist dialogue, I think this is one that can be addressed by simply asking, “What do you mean?” The way I like to think about it is: if we were to go back in time together and look for “the real, historical Jesus,” what would we have to observe to know that we’d found him? Tell me exactly which Jesus you think is the real one. Only then can I tell you if I believe he was real, too.