By Steven Bancarz| There are many sensationalist claims that get passed around the internet about Jesus of Nazareth. Did Jesus even exist? Some claim Jesus was a mystic, or that the person of Jesus was invented by the Romans as a way to enforce control over people. Some argue Jesus was a metaphor for the sun or was just a knock-off of other ancient gods.
An article in particular blew up online called “Five Reasons To Suspect Jesus Never Existed“, and in the article it claims that “a growing body of scholars “now believe Jesus never even existed as a human being in the first century.
It has become an internet fad and online trend to assert that Jesus is a product of some kind of political, social, or economic agenda of the Roman Empire, and that it is all a part of a big conspiracy. Jesus was a knock-off of other dying and rising pagan gods, there is nothing new about the story of Jesus, and the whole story of his life was invented by religious authorities. This idea is so popular that it has become a commonplace suggestion. “There is no evidence that Jesus existed” is a catchphrase used by angry atheists and New Agers alike.
But is this idea taken seriously by any professors of ancient history, Biblical studies, or New Testament studies? To say the least, no. In fact, not a single academic scholar today with a Ph.D. in a relevant field of study claims that Jesus did not exist.
Why is this? Don’t they know of the articles online debunking Jesus, or documentaries like “Religulous” or “Zeitgeist” that debunk Jesus of Nazareth? Are they all unenlightened about how Jesus was a knock-off of horus or other ancient gods?
There is a group of about 3 main semi-scholarly people who argue for this “Christ-myth theory” that Jesus never existed. Richard Carrier is the most popular one, and quite frankly, is the only one who is even somewhat listened to by academics. He was mentioned multiple times in the article mentioned above,
Carrier has a Ph.D. in Ancient Studies from Columbia University with a specialty in Roman history, though he is currently unemployed having never held an academic position at any university. His claim is that the existence of Jesus is sufficiently improbable and his historicity cannot be considered certain, and therefore we are not justified in claiming he existed.
Being the most outspoken and well-known advocate of the Christ-myth theory, it’s important to take a look at what fellow scholars in his field have to say about his position. Here is what some atheist experts have to say about Richard Carrier and the Christ-myth theory in general.
No Atheistic Bible or New Testament scholar take Richard Carrier or the Christ-myth theory seriously
R. Joseph Hoffman is an atheist historian. Hoffmann holds graduate degrees in theology from Harvard Divinity School and a PhD in Christian Origins from the University of Oxford. He is a former Chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion.
In response to the claim that Jesus never existed, Hoffman said on his blog:
“Only in the age of instant misinformation and net-attack is this kind of idiocy possible. Only in the atheist universe where the major premise – “religion is a lie so the study of religion is a study of lying”– infects everything is this kind of lunacy possible.”
“The free thought rabble have chosen (Richard) Carrier as their standard bearer, without any reason to put their trust in his inane conclusions and methods — a man who has never published a significant piece of biblical scholarship, never been peer reviewed (peers?), never been vetted, and never held an academic position. His “reputation” depends on deflecting his mirror image of himself as a misunderstood, self-construed genius onto a few dozen equally maladroit followers.”
“The endorsement of amateurs by amateurs is becoming a rampant, annoying and distressing problem for biblical scholarship. The disease these buggers spread is ignorance disguised as common sense. They are the single greatest threat, next to fundamentalism, to the calm and considered academic study of religion, touting the scientific method as their Mod Op while ignoring its application to historical study. While there is some very slight chance that Jesus did not exist, the evidence that he existed is sufficiently and cumulatively strong enough to defeat those doubts.”
Bart Ehrman, an agnostic-atheist, is one of the most respected New Testament scholars of our day. He is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, and received his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary.
Ehrman says that the proponents of the Christ-myth theory do not define what they mean by “myth” and maintains they are really motivated by a desire to denounce religion rather than examine historical evidence. He discusses leading contemporary mythicists by name in his book Did Jesus Exist?, and dismisses their arguments as “amateurish”, “wrong-headed”, and “outlandish”. The whole book outlines all of the historical evidence for Jesus, which tearing down the unscholarly view that Jesus is a myth.
He goes on to say at a conference:
“This is not an issue for scholars. There is no scholar in any college or university who teaches classics, ancient history, new testament, early christianity, who doubts that Jesus existed. He is abundantly attested in early sources. Early and independent sources indicate that Jesus certainly existed. Paul is an eyewitness to both Jesus’ disciple Peter and the brother of Jesus. Like, I’m sorry. Atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism because it makes you look foolish to the outside world.”
In an article he wrote for Huffington Post, Ehrman said:
“There are a couple of exceptions: of the hundreds — thousands? — of mythicists, two (to my knowledge) actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study. But even taking these into account, there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world.
And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land on in a bona fide department of biology. Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.”
In The Historical Jesus: Lecture Transcript and Course Guidebook, 2000, he says:
“One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate”. (p. 162)
What do other Atheist historians and Atheist New Testament scholars have to say about this?
But Ehrman and Hoffman are not the only atheists history scholars who think the idea of Jesus never existing is silly. The following is a list of accredited New Testament scholars who are either atheists, lack belief in God, or non-Christians who affirm the existence of Jesus beyond any doubt.
They have no invested interested in Christianity, they deny that Jesus is the Son of God, they don’t think Jesus was divine in any way, and they deny that Jesus rose from the dead. They are just atheistic or agnostic scholars of the ancient world who hold academic positions in fields of study relevant to the history of Jesus of Nazareth.
Gerd Lüdemann – A German New Testament Historian. Professor at the University of Gottinggen as a member of the Chair of History and Literature of Early Christianity. He believes Jesus existed by denies the resurrection hypothesis:
“Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable”. In The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry, 2004, p 50
John Dominic Crossan – An Irish New Testament professor and historian. He teaches Jesus existed but wasn’t the Son of God:
“That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be, since both Josephus and Tacitus…agree with the Christian accounts on at least that basic fact.” – Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. HarperOne. p. 145
Michael Grant – A Classicist, 3 history degrees, former vice-chancellor at Queen’s University of Belfast and former president of the University of Kartoum:
“In recent years, ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus’ or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.” in Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels by Michael Grant 2004 page 200.
“If we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned.” Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York: Macmillan, 1977), 199-200.
Ed Parish Sanders – A New Testament scholar. Former Arts and Sciences Professor of Religion at Duke University, North Carolina. Two doctorates in theology. One of the most respected New Testament historians.
The Historical Figure of Jesus, p10-11:
“I shall first offer a list of statements about Jesus that meet two standards: they are almost beyond dispute; and they belong to the framework of his life, and especially of his public career. (A list of everything that we know about Jesus would be appreciably longer.) Jesus was born c 4 BCE near the time of the death of Herod the Great; he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village; he was baptised by John the Baptist; he called disciples; he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities); he preached ‘the kingdom of God’; about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover; he created a disturbance in the Temple area; he had a final meal with the disciples; he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest; he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.”
He goes on to say:
“Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died. ….. the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.” The Historical Figure of Jesus, p10-11
Geza Vermes – Ph.D. in theology. Professor of New Testament Studies at Western Theological Seminary, in Holland, Michigan. Former professor of Jewish studies at the University of Oxford:
“Who was Jesus? Did he exist? Was he God? Is he still relevant? To start with, the existence of Jesus is no longer debatable. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea between AD26 and 36, and was most probably born shortly before the death of Herod the Great in 4BC. Quasi-certainty stops here.” Article by Geza Vermes
George Albert Wells – Atheist Emeritus professor of German at the University of London. Once believed Jesus was a myth, and one of the best known advocates of the “christ myth” theory. Well has changed his position to accept the existence of a historical Jesus. In 2003 Wells stated that he now disagrees with Robert M. Price on the information about Jesus being “all mythical”:
“Nearly all commentators who mention the matter at all, [set] aside doubts about Jesus’ historicity as ridiculous.” He adds, “the view that there was no historical Jesus, that his earthly existence is a fiction of earliest Christianity … is today almost universally rejected.” “Serious students of the New Testament today regard the existence of Jesus as an unassailable fact” – Did Jesus Exist?, Revised edition (London: Pemberton, 1978, 1986), p 213. and The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1988), p 218.
Marcus Borg – Ph.D. Former Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. He is a Bible scholar and an agnostic who believes Jesus was a Jewish prophet and teacher.
In an interview, Borg is asked “So we have the proposition: “Jesus once walked this earth.” True or false?”. Borg responds: “True. The reasons for thinking that Jesus was invented by the early Christians are so weak. We have no reason to think that they did.”
In another interview he stated: “Though a few books have recently argued that Jesus never existed, the evidence that he did is persuasive to the vast majority of scholars, whether Christian or non-Christian”.
“Some judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example, Jesus really existed, and he really was crucified, just as Julius Caesar really existed and was assassinated… We can in fact know as much about Jesus as we can about any figure in the ancient world.” in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions
According to Marcus Borg, the following facts are agreed upon by most New Testament scholars:
- Jesus was born sometime just before 4 B.C. He grew up in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee, as part of the peasant class. Jesus’ father was a carpenter and he became one, too, meaning that they had likely lost their agricultural land at some point.
- Jesus was raised Jewish and he remained deeply Jewish all of his life. His intention was not to create a new religion. Rather, he saw himself as doing something within Judaism.
- He left Nazareth as an adult, met the prophet John and was baptized by John. During his baptism, Jesus likely experienced some sort of divine vision.
- Shortly afterwards, Jesus began his public preaching with the message that the world could be transformed into a “Kingdom of God.”
- He became a noted healer, teacher and prophet. More healing stories are told about Jesus than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition.
- He was executed by Roman imperial authority.
- His followers experienced him after his death. It is clear that they had visions of Jesus as they had known him during his historical life.
Edwin Judge – He founded the Ancient History department at Macquarie University in Australia for which he is now Emeritus Professor.
“An ancient historian has no problem seeing the phenomenon of Jesus as an historical one. His many surprising aspects only help anchor him in history. Myth and legend would have created a more predictable figure. The writings that sprang up about Jesus also reveal to us a movement of thought and an experience of life so unusual that something much more substantial than the imagination is needed to explain it.” – in the Foreword to The truth about Jesus by P Barnett
Graeme Clarke – He is the Emeritus Professor of Classical (Ancient) History and Archaeology at Australian National University.
“Frankly, I know of no ancient historian or biblical historian who would have a twinge of doubt about the existence of a Jesus Christ” – Brisbane Times
We could sit here all day and quote from hundreds upon hundreds of historians who all tell us the same thing: Jesus really existed.
What ancient sources are there for Jesus?
To put things into perspective, the claim that Jesus never existed of the same caliber of scholarship as contending that the Holocaust never happened, or that the moon landing was filmed in a Hollywood studio. It is so fringe and so refuted by historical evidence that it doesn’t even get considered as a serious claim by ANYBODY in the academic world.
Gary Habermas has a Ph.D. in history and philosophy of religion. He is a New Testament scholar and Distinguished Research Professor and Chair of the Philosophy and Theology Department at Liberty University.
He says “there are over 42 sources within 150 years after Jesus’ death which mention His existence and record many events of his life.” on page 233 of his book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. They are listed as follows:
9 Traditional New Testament Authors:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude.
Early Christian Writers Outside the New Testament:
Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Didache, Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Fragments of Papias, Justin Martyr, Aristides, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Quadratus, Aristo of Pella, Melito of Sardis, Diognetus, Gospel of Peter, Apocalypse of Peter, and Epistula Apostolorum.
Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Apocryphon of John, and Treatise on Resurrection.
9 Secular Sources:
Josephus (Jewish historian), Tacitus (Roman historian), Pliny the Younger (Roman politician), Phlegon (freed slave who wrote histories), Lucian (Greek satirist), Celsus (Roman philosopher), Mara Bar Serapion (prisoner awaiting execution), Suetonius, and Thallus.
And this doesn’t even include the hundreds of ancient textual references in the Old Testament that predicted Jesus manner of death, time of birth, place of birth, and burial. Looking at just a few of these secular sources in more details, The mainstream Jewish historian Josephus refers to Jesus in two separate passages in ‘Antiquities’ (early 2nd century A.D.). The following passage mentions Jesus by name, his brother, and the fact that he was called Christ (meaning the Messiah) taken from Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the Antiquities:
“Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others.”
The reliable Roman historian and senator Tacitus (c. A.D. 55 – c. A.D. 117) mentioned Jesus and the Christians by name in ‘Annals, book XV’:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”
“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”
The Roman magistrate, author, and imperial governor of Bithynia Pliny The Younger (c. AD 62 – c. AD 113) mentions Christ in his Epistles:
“They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up.”
Greek historian Thallus (c. AD 52) mentions the darkness that fell when Jesus was crucified, as quoted by Sextus Julius Africanus:
“Thallus, in the third book of histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun- unreasonably, as it seems to me (unreasonably, of course, because a solar eclipse could not take place at the time of the full moon, and it was at the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died).”
Assyrian Stoic philosopher Mara Bar-Serapion (c. AD 72) in a letter to his son:
What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their Kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion.
The list goes on and on and on. At a time where the literacy rate was about 3%, that is an incredible amount of sources for a single historical figure within such a short time period. How do we best explain the movement of Christianity, the radical transformation of religious belief at that time, and the 42 independent ancient sources mentioning Jesus within 150 years of his death?
If even one or two of these is legitimate, that’s enough.
James F. Mcgrath is an Associate Professor of Religion and Clarence L. Goodwin Chair of New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University. As he says on his blog in response to the abundance of sources:
“To suggest that these various authors and sources independently invented a historical Jesus, or that despite their divergent views they conspired together to do so, is (to put it charitably) less plausible than the explanation of this state of affairs accepted by all scholars and historians teaching at accredited institutions.” – Blog of James F. McGrath
As The Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History of Western Michigan University Dr. Paul Maier wrote in an article on whether or not Jesus existed:
“No, he didn’t!” some skeptics claim, thinking that this is a quick, powerful lever with which to pry people away from “the fable of Christianity.” But the lever crumbles at its very first use. In fact, there is more evidence that Jesus of Nazareth certainly lived than for most famous figures of the ancient past. And yet this pathetic denial is still parroted by “the village atheist,” [and] bloggers on the internet. Skeptics should focus instead on whether or not Jesus was more than a man. That, at least, could evoke a reasonable debate among reasonable inquirers, rather than a pointless discussion with sensationalists who struggle to reject the obvious.”
Real history vs Pseudo-history
Here are a few more quotes by some of the world’s leading experts in New Testament studies:
Gerard Stephen Sloyan – A Professor Emeritus of Religion at Temple University and is a Chairman of the Department of Religion. He is also a lecturer in Theology at Georgetown University.
“The pseudoscholarship of the early twentieth century calling in question the historical reality of Jesus was an ingenuous attempt to argue a preconceived position.” (Gerard Stephen Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995, p. 9)
Emil Brunner – Ph.D. Was a professor of Theology at the University of Zurich and the University of Edinburgh. Was also a visiting professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary.
“An extreme instance of pseudo-history of this kind is the “explanation” of the whole story of Jesus as a myth.” (Emil Brunner, The Mediator: A Study of the Central Doctrine of the Christian Faith, Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2002, p. 164)
Michael McClymond – He holds a Masters in religion, and Ph.D. in theology. He is the Professor of Modern Christianity at Saint Louis University. He has held teaching or research appointments at Wheaton College (IL), Westmont College, University of California – San Diego, Emory University and Yale University.
“While we do not have the fullness of biographical detail and the wealth of firsthand accounts that are available for recent public figures, such as Winston Churchill or Mother Teresa, we nonetheless have much more data on Jesus than we do for such ancient figures as Alexander the Great… Along with the scholarly and popular works, there is a good deal of pseudoscholarship on Jesus that finds its way into print. During the last two centuries more than a hundred books and articles have denied the historical existence of Jesus.
Today innumerable websites carry the same message… Most scholars regard the arguments for Jesus’ non-existence as unworthy of any response—on a par with claims that the Jewish Holocaust never occurred or that the Apollo moon landing took place in a Hollywood studio.” (Michael James McClymond, Familiar Stranger: An Introduction to Jesus of Nazareth, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, pp. 8 & 23–24)
Nicholas Perrin – A Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, Illinois. His work focuses on the New Testament and early Christianity.
“The very logic that tells us there was no Jesus is the same logic that pleads that there was no Holocaust.” Lost in Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007, p. 32)
Aside from a very small handul of mythicists who don’t hold professorship in any relevant fields, the consensus is just as universal among historians as the theory of evolution is among biologists. The only difference is, the existence of Jesus is not a theory. It’s a historical fact that we can establish.
Why is it a fad to claim Jesus never existed?
With SO many ancient independent early sources, we can only assume skeptics claim he didn’t exist because they are giving Jesus special treatment for non-scholarly reasons.
We actually have more evidence that Jesus existed than we do for Socrates, Tiberius Ceasar, or anybody else in the ancient world at during that time period, and nobody makes a peep about the fact that we accept the existence of some ancient people on only a couple independent ancient sources.
So why are people so passionate about asserting he is a myth and never even existed? Where did this come from? Is it based on an absence of historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth? Surely it’s not. For we have seen the universal consensus of historians along with dozens of independent ancient sources.
I think that most people who believe Jesus is a myth perhaps have an emotional bias based on their hatred towards the idea of God, religion, the church, greedy pastors, or the behaviour of Christians throughout the course of history. Not to forget, they do not like the idea of being accountable to a holy God. They disagree with the doctrine of Christianity, the beliefs of Christianity, they are angry at religion, and are annoyed with fundamentalist Christians.
But to believe Jesus never existed because you disagree with Christianity is equal to saying that Gautama Buddha never existed because you disagree with Buddhism, or Ceasar Augustus never existed because you disagree with his politics.
Even Richard Dawkins admits that Jesus existed:
When you mix in this emotional/intellectual bias with some sensationalist disinformation on the internet, tickle their ears with generalized remarks about how awful “religion” is, sprinkle in some quotes by popular atheists who deny Jesus existed (despite having literally no expertise in ancient history), you have a recipe for enticing people to deny one of the most certain facts of the ancient world.
While there is a very good historical case for the resurrection (which will be explained in a future article), the main point to take away from this is not that Christianity is true, but that Jesus of Nazareth lived in the Middle-East during the 1st century.
While I do believe Jesus is everything He claimed to be, the point of this article is not to prove he is anything beyond a literal figure in the ancient world. He is not a knock-off of pagan gods or a myth created by the church. He was a literal historical being that walked this earth, and this is universally recognized as being true by every scholar in any relevant field of study.
Are there some uncertainties regarding the life of Jesus? Sure. But as far as being a historical figure in the ancient world, the case has been closed for a long time.
Sources: Listed within the article
Recommended books: Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Bart Ehrman. 2012.