Did Jesus Exist?
Mythical hero or historical person.
Posted May 03, 2016
In an earlier post, I argued that the historicity of Jesus was doubtful. Some religion scholars questioned one of my sources. Now, new scholarship comes as close as possible to settling the issue.
Personally, I have no ax to grind so far as the historical existence of Jesus is concerned. If anything, I would prefer to believe that the life of Jesus, painstakingly learned in childhood, was connected to history rather than a fiction.
Unfortunately, much of what one reads on this question is biased whether by religion scholars, and religious believers, who promote the historical Jesus, or atheist writers intent on debunking him.
Richard Carrier's 600-page, note-filled tome, On the Historicity of Jesus (1) belongs in the second camp but it poses a challenge that academic proponents of the historical Jesus seem unlikely to overcome (2).
Jesus as a No-Show in History
There are many technical issues that historians must grapple with in determining whether some personage is historical, or fictitious. One is whether the Biblical gospels can be regarded as historical sources.
In general, historians discount written sources that were committed to paper more than a century after the events they describe. Moreover, they prefer the authorship to be clearly established and for the writer to have a direct connection to what is recorded.
The Biblical gospels do not cut it as history in these terms. Only St. Paul is thought to qualify in chronological terms. Yet, Paul had almost nothing to say about Jesus as a man and seems to have conceptualized him as a rarefied celestial being (2).
For these reasons, most of the weight falls on Roman scholars and historians. Of these, Josephus, and Tacitus are most often cited as providing good documentary evidence for a historical Jesus. Carrier dismisses the two relevant Josephus passages as interpolations, or pieces added in to the manuscript by Christian scribes.
One passage refers to the execution of Jesus by Pilate (called the Testimonium Flavianum). Carrier (1, p. 332) comments, “This passage is self-evidently a fawning and gullible Christian fabrication, in fact demonstrably derived from the Emmaus narrative in the Gospel of Luke, inserted into the text at a point where it does not make any narrative sense ...”
Carrier (1, pp. 337-8) argues that the second Josephus passage referring to James the brother of Jesus actually referred to James the brother of Jesus ben Damneus who was falsely executed by the high priest Ananus who was removed from office as a punishment and replaced by the same Jesus ben Damneus, He concludes that the phrase “(who was called Christ)” is probably a copyist error.
The Tacitus reference to “Chrestians” evidently refers to a Jewish rebel (Chrestus) who was executed but had nothing to do with Christianity. Carrier (1. pp. 343-4) concludes that a line referring to Pontius Pilate as the official who executed Christ, “is probably an interpolation, and that Tacitus in fact originally described not the Christians being scapegoated for the fire, [in Rome] but followers of the Jewish instigator Chrestus first suppressed under Claudius...” If Tacitus attributed the fire in Rome to Christians, he was the only Roman historian to do so.
If Jesus cannot be convincingly documented as a historical figure, then where do the New Testament narratives come from? Carrier offers a very detailed working out of the theory that instead of being a historical person, Jesus was a mythical hero analogous to Jason, Hercules, or Oedipus.
The hero-type of a divine king was described by scholars Otto Rank and Lord Raglan who established 22 distinctive features that range from virgin birth to death atop a hill and disappearance of the body.
Jesus has 20 of the 22 features (according to the Gospel of Matthew, 14 according to the Gospel of Mark), compared to 22 for Oedipus, 19 for Dionysus, 17 for Hercules, and 14 for Jason.
No historical person provides a close match with the hero-type so the close match of Jesus with the hero-type means that he could not have been a real historical person (1). Despite this, each of the heroes was considered to be historical and placed in history in stories written about them.
So the theory of Jesus as a myth neatly explains how Jesus did not exist as a historical person yet was inserted into historical narratives by New Testament authors.
Implications for the Origin of Religions
In my earlier post, I described how Mormonism sprang from the fertile imagination of convicted confidence trickster Joseph Smith. In the course of time, Mormons lost many of their objectionable doctrines, including polygamy, racism, and “celestial marriage” (or church-sanctioned adultery) and grew into a respectable world religion.
I raised the possibility that some world religions begin as deliberate frauds. The Jesus myth provides an altogether different explanation for religious origins. Not all new religions are fictions invented by con men like Joseph Smith. Some are bona fide myths that address ancient human psychological needs for order and security (3).
1 Carrier, R. (2014). On the historicity of Jesus: Why we might have reason for doubt. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
2 Lataster, R. (2014). The fourth quest: A critical analysis of the recent literature on Jesus' (a)historicity.
Literature & Aesthetics, 24(1), 1-28.
3 Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/