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Mythbusting Jesus as Myth

September 8, 2014

I promised part two of “What Do We Lose if We Lose the Trinity?” today but events have intervened. Specifically, I’ve been seeing a lot of articles suggesting that some noticeable number of biblical scholars have decided that Jesus is probably entirely made up. Since these seem to be a popular topic right now I’m going to interrupt my other series to make my comments now.

So, what should we make of these claims? The short version is that they are severely lacking. There are several reasons for this.

The first reason is simple: the media is, in general, terrible about reporting issues of serious scholarship. This goes for science, for scholarly discussion on literature, and for Biblical studies. Real scholarship takes time and often edges slowly towards consensus without dramatic fireworks. (Sometimes not – there are some great examples of fireworks as well.) It’s not uncommon to find that reporting in my field has failed to identify who is an expert, who has published in peer-reviewed literature and who has published a study elsewhere because none of their peers took it seriously, what the conclusion of the research was, and how widely-accepted the claims are. I have little reason to think that the media will do a better job in Biblical studies. In fact, several of these errors have cropped up in articles I’ve read. For instance, one article listed scholarly experts who believed Jesus was a myth and pointed out that one of them even had a PhD in a relevant field. In other words, the list of scholarly experts included only one scholar in the field. So the fact that there have been several media reports this week that Jesus-as-myth thinking is on the rise may not actually mean anything.

The second reason we should think very little of the claims made about the non-existence of any sort of historical Jesus is linked to a larger problem in Biblical scholarship: very little quality control is done on methods. In science one can publish an entire paper just on a new method for finding something out. One does not need to find anything new, one can test a method on a set of data that everyone already knows backwards and forwards, but merely developing a new method to analyze or collect data is worth publishing. (For those unfamiliar with academia the whole point of research is to publish a paper. It is in prestige terms the equivalent of coming up with a patentable invention for an engineer.)

Biblical scholarship often lacks methods testing. Methods are proposed based on the thinking of the authors and very rarely put to rigorous tests. Most of the claims that are supposed to back up the idea that there never was a historical Jesus suffer from this problem. Let’s look at a two examples.

  • There are no non-religious records of Jesus for quite a long time after he dies. This sounds pertinent but it’s actually unclear if we should expect any. Ideally we’d have a set of similar figures we knew existed and we could examine the records of their existence to determine how many records we should expect of Jesus but we can’t really do this (in part because the figures we know existed may just be the ones who had unusually large numbers of records about them survive to the present day). Anecdotal evidence suggests that Jewish Messianic figures may be generally under-reported. There’s reason to suspect that there were a number of them around the time of Jesus but there are very, very few records pertaining to any of them.


  • The existing records don’t match well. Again, this assumes that we know how well ancient records of someone should match. In fact, this particular claim involves a huge amount of highly subjective interpretation. For instance, some of the people making this claim attempt to deduce an idea about what Paul knew about Jesus. To do this they must decide on Paul’s theology (a controversial matter even amongst Christians), decide on how he will argue, and then infer what he did or did not know by what he mentions and what he didn’t. Ideally we would take a known figure and find some objective way to compare the accounts of their lives to give us a baseline. This does not appear to have been done.

The third reason not to take these claims seriously is that the mechanism they propose has never been shown to be possible. If there never was a Jesus then Christianity arose out of something else but invented a central (and non-existent) figure. Moreover, early Christians put a great deal of weight on the existence of this figure and frequently spoke of witnesses to this figure. This seems fairly odd. It’s one thing to make up a figure who lived and died centuries ago and is beyond the reach of eyewitnesses but making up a figure who is supposed to have lived recently and been seen by many living people seems extremely incautious. (So, for instance, the relatively popular claim in some circles that Jews invented Abraham and Moses from whole cloth does not run afoul of this problem because that claim also involves the invention of Abraham and Moses centuries after both men would have been dead. That sort of invention is more like renaissance writers inventing pre-medieval kings.) Now, if this is all I had to say I would be offering evidence of the same quality as those who think Jesus was entirely made up. However, my point is that we cannot name a religion with such a central figure who was entirely made up. We can name a number of religions with important prophets or other central figures (Buddhism, Islam, Baha’i, Mormonism, and dozens of cults) but which ones made those figures up? For some of these I’m sure someone will claim that the central figure is made up but again the evidence will be of the same quality as the evidence that Jesus was made up. Find me some modern cults that made up central figures – new religious movements spring up constantly and we really can observe the methods by which they form. For instance, most people think Scientology makes some pretty strange claims but nobody thinks that L. Ron Hubbard didn’t exist.

In short, I doubt that these mutterings will turn out to be much of anything. In fact, since these articles coincide with one of the central figures in the Jesus-as-myth movement releasing a new book I suspect that this is more book review hype than scholarly reporting. The rise of more militant flavors of atheism also makes it more likely that we will continue to see extreme denials of Christianity on the rise in popular writing. However, the evidence behind these claims is lacking.

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