“Jesus” was actually a disguised or confused memory of another historical character, such as [insert ludicrous candidate here, from Teacher of Righteousness onward]….At some point in this process too, Ockham’s Razor comes into play, namely “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” So what’s wrong with accepting the simple, straightforward explanation, namely that the really well-documented historical Jesus we know is the one the ancient books are talking about?
In debates about Christian origins, one tiresome canard is going to come up sporadically, and usually, it’s not worth wasting time on. As I have seen it surface a few times of late, let’s deal with the point here.
Briefly, if you are discussing Jesus of Nazareth, you can make any argument you choose to offer. If you wish, you can deny or challenge pretty much any aspect of the story told in the gospels, and present Jesus or his contemporaries in the most sinister or demeaning light possible. We can then argue about the evidence offered for any particular point. What you can’t do, though, without venturing into the far swamps of extreme crankery, is to argue that Jesus never existed. The “Christ-Myth Hypothesis” is not scholarship, and is not taken seriously in respectable academic debate. The grounds advanced for the “hypothesis” are worthless. The authors proposing such opinions might be competent, decent, honest individuals, but the views they present are demonstrably wrong.
In no particular order:
Philosophically, say the mythicists, you can’t prove a negative, and it’s up to believers to present an affirmative case for anything, including the historical existence of Jesus. Fair enough.
The affirmative evidence for that existence is easily offered, consisting as it does of a sizable body of writings dating from within a half century of the events described. Those documents are, without question, the most closely debated and analyzed in human history. A vast body of scholars works on those texts and their implications, and they come from a wide body of religious backgrounds – Christians of every possible shade, Jews, skeptics and atheists, and people of various other faiths. Within that scholarly universe, the number of qualified scholars who today deny the historical existence of Jesus is infinitesimal. The consensus on that matter is near-total.
A similar comment applies to historians, literary scholars and philosophers who focus on the ancient world without necessarily focusing on religious matters, but who touch on Jesus and his times. If they find a book that argues against Jesus’s existence, they cough politely and move on.
Before anyone complains about using scholarly consensus as an argument, and vaunting instead the virtues of heroic dissidents and heretics, please read some of the quite numerous pieces I have written about those issues. So no, those mainstream scholars are not terrified to venture into nonconformity, they are not hidebound bigots, they just see no reason to argue about such a blatantly obvious point.
As I have stated repeatedly, “Scholarship is what scholars do, and if they don’t do it, it’s not scholarship.” That is by far the most important point against the mythicists, and really, nothing more needs to be said.
To take some specific objections that they make, though:
*Contemporary writers do not refer to Jesus
That depends what we mean by “contemporary.” In his lifetime and very brief period of celebrity, there are no such references. Very shortly afterwards, there are lots.
The writings of Paul can reliably be dated to the year between, say, 48 and 64 AD. If we take the letters most credibly attributed to Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians) they include around 130 uses of the term “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus.” If we take other letters like Colossians and Ephesians, the number rises sizably. As that usage makes it obvious that the term “Christ” refers to the same person, then we should add the many examples of that word used without the “Jesus.” We can argue about Paul’s understanding of the importance of the human Jesus, as opposed to the resurrected Christ, but he clearly believed in the physical existence of that Jesus. That does not take us to Jesus’s lifetime, but to very shortly afterwards.
But you can take Paul entirely out of the story, and still have all the evidence you need. The gospels were not of course written during Jesus’s lifetime, but they use traditions that clearly do provide a direct linkage to a historical individual. The quality of historical sources depends on how directly they can be connected to events, and how plausible the chain of connection. All the canonical sources depict a very plausible Jesus in a very identifiable early first century historical setting. More significant, there are clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of those gospels.
The overwhelming weight of what we know about the emergence of the Jesus Movement between 30 and the 80s, say, shows a potent continuity of historical memory. Bart Ehrman’s latest book Jesus Before the Gospels raises questions about how far that memory can be reliably used for specific details, for any particular act or saying of Jesus. Fair enough, and let’s debate those points: to say the least, Ehrman is a competent and credible scholar, although I think he goes too far here. But Jesus’s existence as some kind of myth or false memory? No way. (Obviously, that is not what Ehrman is arguing!)
Accounts of Jesus as a mythical otherworldly being without worldly roots belong to much later sources, in alternative gospels of the second or third centuries, or later. Citing alternative works from that era – or much later Jewish texts – as if they have some kind of superior hotline to the historical reality of the 20s AD is just not permissible, and is actually scandalous.
Let me put this as simply as I can: Jesus is better documented and recorded than pretty much any non-elite figure of antiquity.
*Jesus features in no contemporary secular or non-Christian literary sources.
Jesus’s activities were at the time strictly limited in their perceived importance, and it would be astounding – dare I say, miraculous – if any contemporary did make such a comment. The range of strictly contemporary sources commenting on the region in that era, roughly the 20s-30s AD, is tiny. I dearly wish we had the police blotter of the Jerusalem Post-Intelligencer for those years, but we don’t.
Just why would anyone refer to Jesus in writing at this time?