Did Jesus really exist?

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:

  1. Jesus was a real historical figure whose life went exactly as described in the New Testament;
  2. Jesus is a fairy tale character who is completely fictional with no basis in reality; or
  3. 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.

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3 Comments

  1. Nick Hobart

     /  December 24, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Exactly. JC was almost certainly an amalgam of several different peripatetic preachers, whose acts were later magnified. Just like Robin Hood or Arthur.

  2. I personally think, that Jesus is what we could call a historical character. There are sources of him from near enough contemporary sources and even the New Testament is one in this sense. Something special seems to have happened in connection to him. It is even more than likely, that there would not have been such a significant movement as a result, if the apostoles would not have experienced the events as very significant.

    However, as a historical character Jesus must be put under the same scrutany as any other historical character. How reliable do we take the anecdotal stories of miracles performed by any historical characters?

    In retrospect the most important miracle of Jesus seems to have been his alledged resurrection. If we would consider this story and event in the sense, that this story tells us just a story of an actual historical character, and even taking all the alledged eyewittness accounts at face value, there are a number of possibilities how this could have gone without an actual resurrection. The Gospels do contradict each other a lot, but what we can gather on what they do agree upon is as follows:

    A charismatic carpenter who had challenged the conservative priesthood by prieching, that the end of the world was very near and people should have sold their property and given the money to the poor was arrested by the officials of the empire.The Roman commander declared, that this man had not made a crime against the empire, but the religious conservatives demanded that he had and that it was the political responsibility of the empire to execute him.

    The commander had pity on the man and ordered a beating up, in the hopes that the mob would have found the humiliation to suffice, but to no avail, because the religious conservatives had planted their men into the mob to have Jesus executed. He was taken to the execution. However, a storm breaks out right after the man had been hung on a cross. The officer responsible for the execution declared, that he must be a son of a god (being a polytheist with cultural heritage of many demigodly sons of gods) and used that as a reason not to carry on with the execution. It was aborted hastily and unlike all the other victims of this killing method, the knees of Jesus were not broken.

    With any likelyhood Jesus had not yet died. This method of execution is supposed to cause an exeptionally humiliating, long and painfull death often lasting for days. A carpenter in his early thirties must have been able to take it for a very long time, unless his heart failed.

    He fell silent, fainted, or fell into coma. The alledged vittnesses thought Jesus must have died, because the soldiers stabbed him and took him down. But when he was stabbed he still bleeded like a living person. Meanwhile a rich follower of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea had bribed/persuaded the Roman commander to give him the body, that would otherwise been put to a mass grave. He took Jesus into his own burial chamber, as the wittnesses claimed to have seen.

    A couple of days later the some of the same women, who witnessed the alledged death and burial of Jesus, arrived at the tomb, to enbalm him, but found the tomb empty. Clearly the tomb had not been sealed at any point, or otherwise the trip to embalm Jesus would have been a wasted effort. Then Jesus appeared a few times to his followers wounded, but very much alive.

    He may have even thought himself, that he was dead, but apparently only entered a coma (a medical condtion none of the contemporaries knew nothing about) and Joseph happened to notice, that he was not dead and took him away to Emmaus to recover. The story of Jesus having resurrected was rapidly cooked together. It pleased everyone within the group, because it kind of salvaged their invested interrest in Jesus as the Messiah. He clearly did not manage to drive the Empire away from Palestine, as they expected, but he kind of won even a greater enemy, the death.

    A little later Jesus dissappeared, perhaps he died as a result of infection during the attempted execution, or traveled away from the empire in fear of reprizal from the religious conservatives. What ever the reason, he hardly levitated to upper levels of the athmosphere (a concept unknown to his contemporaries). However, one more end of the world cult rapidly emerged during a couple of following generations to the wide selection of religions within the empire and centuries later it was used as a political tool to enhance the power of one clever emperor.

    This at least is what I think Jesus as a historical character would look like. Sorry about the long comment.

  3. mist42nz

     /  May 18, 2013 at 8:55 am

    #4 The story of Jesus, while influenced by the other #1 – #3 is actually a bunch of mystic philosophies esoterically hidden inside a story. The “Official histories” reflecting the allegorical mysteries, rather than exoteric mundane meanings (some dude, or Hollywooded dude’s life story) used to clothe the underlying philosophy.

    I point for example where Jesus travels to a foreign area and enters discussion with sorcerers, and the sorcerers all burn their books. This is likely to be the Nicean meetings, which were many years after the lifespan of a person born around 4bce. But the “Story/Memory of Jesus” did indeed travel to Nicea, and did indeed meet with “sorcerors” of other religions, and a final story created and “brought back to the people”.

    Yet underneath that, the patterns also line up with alchemical process (part of the preparation of acetate IIRC), and also with what is known as the Path of Ayin (the hebrew letter) Which is the path of Tiphareth to Hod (Beautific State to Glory/fame seeking), represented by the materialistic goals of the world (vs higher emotive and mental relationships). For those who know Tarot, this is reflected by the Devil card. Which also lines up with the imagery used to present that particular part of the story.
    Thus one possible meaning the Kabbalist or esoteric student may learn is the spreading of gospel tends to become more material as it is popularised, yet loses it’s mystic truth as it descends from higher “sword of fire” to common minds. The very nature of the work is intended that multiple other meanings can be extracted from it depending on context and skill level of the reader.
    Such esoteric paths often seek thoughts and reading/understanding that can’t be explained by surface values. Thus the only way to find what is at the end of the maze is to willingly place ones foot on the path and walk it to it’s conclusion. A bit like finding an advanced science text can be seen, but not read by the student who wants to take a shortcut.

    However…why intelligent people would expect such things to be factual/historically accurate is amusing :)

    (as for the conversion :) Easy. know just the group for you… of course if you spot any members whom this is not true, they of course aren’t Real Scotsmen, and their faith in their Bulletproof White Shirts wasn’t really true. “God” knows his own ;) )

    Good to see you’re posting again. hope life is going smoothly or at least rewardingly for you.

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