History writer: Jesus probably never existed — here’s why Christianity emerged anyway
With Easter coming, some people are debating whether the resurrection of Jesus really happened. Others are debating whether Jesus was even real.
In ten years of writing for news and opinion sites, my most popular article about religion was one titled, “Five Reasons to Suspect Jesus Never Existed.” The article emerged from a conversation with history writer David Fitzgerald and was based on his book, Nailed.
Fitzgerald holds the controversial perspective that the figure of Jesus at the heart of Christianity is historicized mythology, meaning that the original kernel was a set of ancient religious tropes or myths that got historical details added as they were told and retold by people who believed them to be real.
By contrast, best-selling New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (and most secular historians and mainline Christian theologians) argue that an actual radical rabbi provided the kernel of the stories, but that accounts of his life then got overlaid with fragments of mythology drawn from Judaism and surrounding religions. In other words, they hold that the Bible stories are mythologized history.
The third perspective, of course, is that held by many (though not all) Christians—that the gospel stories are gospel truth.
Outsiders can debate all they want, but Christians need to believe that Jesus was real, and defenders of the faith line up a series of proofs that they claim settle the question. Now Fitzgerald has produced a three-volume set, Jesus: Mything in Action, in which he tackles those proofs one by one and then lays out how Christianity could have emerged even in the absence of a historical Jesus.
Tarico: What first made you wonder if, perhaps, Jesus never existed?
Fitzgerald: It’s funny; for the first thirty-five years of my life, the very idea that there might not have been a real Jesus never occurred to me. Ironically enough, it wasn’t until I became curious to know what Jesus really said and did that I began to seriously look at our evidence for Jesus. That‘s when the doubts set in. At first, I just wanted to figure out which parts of the gospels were later legendary add-ons. Over time I became increasingly convinced that Jesus himself is a completely mythical figure of the early Christians. That led me to write Nailed.
Tarico: What are a couple of the key points that took you from that first wild, trippy thought—Whoa, what if Jesus never existed?—to your current position, that he probably didn’t.
Fitzgerald: Honestly, I’d put it even more strongly than that – now, I actually can’t see how there even could have been an actual Jesus. The first red flag for me was realizing just how little evidence actually holds up to inspection at all. Another was seeing how differently Christians talked about Jesus before and after the gospels were written. And then there’s the general level of bluff and bluster and just ridiculously overstated claims of Christian biblical scholars. The closer you look into Jesus, the more the cracks in his story keep appearing.
Tarico: Since writing Nailed, you have spent several years amassing evidence in support of your argument. Why?
Fitzgerald: Just to be clear; it’s not my argument – many of these ideas aren’t even new. Critics have been pointing out some of these problems since the first and second centuries. Nailed laid out the top ten ways the official story of Christianity just doesn’t hold water. For the most part, I’m incredibly pleased and gratified that the book has been so well-received by the secular community. But I was quite surprised by the reaction from some atheists. It wasn’t that they just disagreed or thought I was wrong; that’s not special. It was the ferocity with which they insisted there WAS a Jesus and it was crazy nonsense to think otherwise. So I wrote Jesus: Mything in Action to answer my fellow atheists who think we have good reason to accept that Jesus was at least a real person, if not the Son of God. Spoiler alert: We don’t.
Tarico: Why do you think there is so much resistance among non-believers to the idea that the person of Jesus could be a composite or a religious myth? Obviously, someone like Bart Ehrman would say that it’s because the evidence is against you.
Fitzgerald: I think there are several reasons, including the reaction I had when I first developed this growing realization: Hmmm… I’m starting to think this guy never existed… at all! The idea blew my mind; I couldn’t get my head around it. How could we have this gargantuan, feuding Christian world if there had never been a Jesus? And I suspect for many atheists, such a jaw-dropping notion raises the same alarms they get when they see crackpots talking about Atlantis or Bigfoot being real, or the moon landings being fake. To be fair, there are several Jesus myth theories that are just nonsense (for instance, the idea that Christianity was invented by the Romans as social control.)
Tarico: But don’t most secular historians also believe that Jesus actually existed in some form? Not the Christ of the gospels, I mean, but a reformist rabbi who amassed a following and got crucified by the Romans?
Fitzgerald: Well, that is part of the problem Albert Schweitzer identified over a century ago. There’s no consistency to the portrayal of Jesus in the gospels. Mark’s Jesus is a humble, fallible, suffering human. Matthew’s Jesus is a new and improved take on Mark’s, correcting his mistakes. By comparison, Luke’s Jesus is a Zen master and John’s is a ridiculously egotistical SuperJesus, repeatedly making blasphemous comments that should have had him stoned to death right out of the gate.
Consequently, the hypothetical reconstructions of Jesus we see proposed by different historians are radically different from each other and often fundamentally incompatible. With that little convergence between scholars, it becomes clear that whether intentionally or not, Jesus historians are making things up.
Whatever you want to say Jesus said or did or was, our first question should be: what is our source for that claim? And the second is: how reliable is that source? The answers to these questions don’t bode well for any certainly about Jesus – whether he actually existed or not.
For starters, we have no ancient sources that corroborate Christian claims about Jesus. In my books I detail why the most cited so-called sources outside the New Testament are considered forgeries and why the rest only provide evidence for the existence of Christianity rather than Jesus himself. They all draw their information about Jesus from Christian sources.
Of course, among non-secular scholars, the situation is still worse. It should surprise no one that the majority of biblical studies departments are in religiously affiliated universities and seminaries. Equally unsurprising, Christian biblical scholars have a serious bias problem against any Jesus myth theory. What is surprising is that this bias is not just from their faith (already a considerable hurdle) but to a considerable extent, is compelled by their conditions of employment. In many cases, scholars are required to sign and adhere to statements of faith that set constraints around the range of questions they can entertain. Even in the absence of these, biblical scholars are under tremendous pressure to toe various theological lines. So perhaps the question shouldn’t be: “How many historians reject mythicism?” but: “How many historians are contractually obligated to publicly reject mythicism?”
I discuss the problematic state of modern Jesus studies a great deal in Jesus: Mything in Action. Basically, more than a few secular historians have inherited the automatic Christian dismissal of any kind of myth theory. Ultimately, however, this isn’t a fight between mythicists and historicists; it’s a fight between those that take mythicism seriously (mythicists and historicists alike) and those that simply dismiss it out of hand as something long-since settled.
Tarico: Walk us through how Christianity could have emerged if Jesus never existed.
Fitzgerald: There’s nothing implausible about Christianity beginning with a wandering teacher and his followers. And it’s no skin off my nose if there was – but that’s not what our evidence points to. The further we go back in Christian history, the more diverse it appears, and the less likely it began with a single founder. Instead there are abundant indications that its origins are tied to the pagan mystery faiths.
Not that Christianity is some cookie-cutter copy of the mystery faiths – it is a mystery faith; a uniquely Jewish version of this Hellenistic theology. When the Gospel of Mark is written generations later, the mystery faith savior of Paul, the book of Hebrews, and the earliest Christians becomes an allegorical figure built from pastiches from the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus doesn’t fulfill prophecy; Jesus is a collage constructed from prophecy and other writings. And his story grows by leaps and bounds in the second century.
As Bart Ehrman and other biblical scholars have demonstrated beyond a doubt, most of our New Testament books are forgeries. None are written by anyone who actually knew a Jesus. The only genuine books are seven of the letters attributed to Paul (though even these have been tampered with). And of course, Christian scriptures were edited and re-edited to suit the needs of different religious factions over centuries. We have no way of knowing how much has changed from the original writings; for the first 150-200 years, we have a blackout period with nothing but tiny fragments of New Testament texts until complete books begin to appear at the end of the second century. Our earliest complete New Testaments only go back to the 4th century; although they differ from each other – and from ours.
And of course Christianity continues to evolve and mutate for the next two millennia, a process still alive and well – a perfect textbook example of Darwinian evolution in action. Modern Christians would have a hard time recognizing their religion in the beliefs of their earliest spiritual ancestors. In fact, most Christians of today would be the heretics of 500 years ago. Please note that all these problems of evidence remain – whether there was a Jesus or not.
Tarico: As a non-scholar, I myself am agnostic on this question, and I generally defer to the preponderance of relevant experts. But you are pretty convinced. How would you persuade a Christian that their savior is a myth?
Fitzgerald: Personally, I don’t think the historical Jesus question is worth debating with believers, precisely because it is such a discussion-killer. Nontheists don’t need Jesus to be a myth. If it turns out folks like me are wrong and one day some good evidence for a real Jesus gets uncovered, it’s not as if Christianity will suddenly start making sense. We’ll still be just fine. Christians, however, can’t say that. They can’t even enjoy a relaxed agnosticism about the mere possibility of mythicism. They need Jesus NOT to be a myth.
Unfortunately for them, their Jesus is a myth, and that’s true, no matter whether it’s the mythicist camp or the historicist camp that ultimately comes out on top. The “Jesus of Faith” gets debunked either way.
Tarico: Apart from the question of whether or not the god-man of Christian theology existed–and died to save our souls–, does it really matter whether there was an actual human at the heart of the myth? Not only does it seem unknowable, but as a former Evangelical who left biblical Christianity for what I see as very solid reasons, I find it somewhat hard to care. Do you think the existence or non-existence of an historic Jesus is important?
Fitzgerald: Only if Jesus is important; and honestly, maybe he isn’t so much, anymore. The number of Christians – actually, the religious population across the board – seems to be in a steady decline in America and elsewhere. What is important about this argument –and what makes it worth arguing about–is that it shows what we can and can’t know about who or what Jesus really was. Everything we learn from the back and forth of this historical argument – on both sides – helps us call the bluff of anyone who says they know how Jesus wants you to behave or think or vote.
And that is a very valuable thing for all of us – believers and nonbelievers alike.
This interview is the first in a series of four articles challenging what we think we know about Jesus as a historical figure.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.