The Jesus Myth

It’s Xmas and, quite beside all the other issues related to the holiday there’s a much more fundamental one that most take for granted.

Did Jesus even exist?

Even atheists take it for granted that Jesus was an historical figure, they just think he wasn’t magic. This is a bit of a mistake though as, as it turns out, there is no evidence – whatsoever – that he was ever a real person.

That sounds like a grandiose claim, even though it isn’t, simply because we take it so for granted. We’re not the only ones either. As is often claimed by apologists ‘Most scholars agree Jesus was a real person’. Indeed, but without the evidence and reasoning behind that, this is just an argument from authority or popularity. So, what you need is evidence.

So. That given. What would be evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus? Any such evidence would need to be:

  1. Contemporaneous: From the period alleged to be the lifetime of Jesus (7BCE to 36CE).
  2. Non-Christian: Christian claims are the ones you’re trying to confirm.
  3. Multiple: Multiple sources inter-correlate and back each other up.

So, let’s look at the various items that are usually claimed as evidence for Jesus and show why they’re not:

The Bible

You can’t use a claim to prove itself. The Bible is the source of the claims about god, Jesus etc and so is biased. You can’t believe it any more than you could L Ron Hubbard’s claims. You need unbiased sources or, even better, sources biased against Christianity. That way anything they do admit is likely to be at least a little true.

Even if this wasn’t a problem, the earliest gospel – Mark – dates from 70CE at the absolute very earliest and is not even a contemporaneous source. None of the gospels were written by the supposed disciples, many of whom probably didn’t exist. Modern Christianity is the result of the actions of Paul (Saul of Tarsus), someone who never met Jesus and the first unquestionably historical character associated with it.

Josephus

Josephus wasn’t even born until 37CE, at least one year after the supposed lifetime of Jesus and so is non-contemporaneous. Even if that wasn’t an issue there are further issues. The mentions of Jesus aren’t consistent across the lineages of copies of Josephus’ works. Josephus’ works have been heavily interpolated (interfered with) by Eusebius and so, even if we didn’t have all these other issues, it couldn’t be trusted as a source.

Lucian

Non-contemporaneous (Born 125CE) Lucian is also eliminated as any form of confirmation for the existence of Jesus. Even without that, Lucian was a satirist and taking the piss out of what Christians believe, not confirming it as true. South Park’s episode on Scientology makes fun of it, but doesn’t mean it’s true. Same thing.

Mara Bar-Serapion

Non-contemporaneous, again, 73CE at the very earliest. There’s also the problem that Mara writes about other figures, gods, disasters in the same breath. Things that didn’t happen, mythologies that Christians would reject. It’s not even certain (Jesus isn’t mentioned by name) that he was talking about Jesus.

Pliny the Younger

Non-contemporaneous, again, 62CE. Also talks about what Christians believe, not what’s true. Now, if Pliny the ELDER mentioned Jesus, people might be on to something as he was around in the right period and place. Jesus is conspicuously absent from the writings of Pliny the Elder however.

Suetonius

Non-contemporaneous, yet again (seriously, try harder and learn some basic historical methodology apologists). Also mentions the title ‘Christ’ (Chrestos) which was not exclusively Christian at the time. Doesn’t directly mention Jesus at all.

Tacitus

Non-contemporaneous, yet again (56CE). Tacitus’ Jesus references are, again, only found in one lineage of copies which are almost certainly interpolated. Assertions made within those passages are, furthermore, contradicted by other lineages of documentation with better confirmation. Again, also, it only talks about what Christians believed, not what was true.

The Talmud

Specifically the Babylonian Talmud. Non-contemporaneous – yet again – by as much as three centuries. It does mention a Yeshua. It mentions about a dozen Yeshuas one of which Christians like to interpret to mean Jesus, even though the story attached is nothing like the Jesus story.

Thallus

Again, non-contemporaneous (writing long after the alleged lifetime of Jesus) and what’s more doesn’t actually mention Jesus at all, so why he’s brought up I’m not quite sure. Rather Thallus is usually brought up to try and substantiate some of the supernatural claims. Thallus does talk about an eclipse (a natural event) but gets the date of it wrong compared to other historians of the time. We know, through astronomy, when these take place and Thallus doesn’t match up.

That about covers it.

As we can see, there’s nothing that constitutes evidence for the existence of Jesus as a real person, supernatural or otherwise. Given that, we are forced to hold the negative position under the Burden of Proof.

Enjoy the holiday, but remember, it’s just a myth.

If you want a longer-winded version with more references, rather than this overview, this is a good one

Also, if you have time, watch this:

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6 responses to “The Jesus Myth

  1. A very interesting post, although I think there’s a bit of a problem.

    You don’t get to invoke the negative position as truth in a debate of this kind.

    You see, you seem to be mistaking establishing a level of doubt in the evidence for or against a claim with the proving or disproving of a claim.

    There’s evidence for, and against, the historical existence of Jesus, and your post provides both. Your post also provides an argument which weighs one set of evidence against the other, and then suggests which of the two claims you believe to be the most likely as a result

    Which, with debates like this, is pretty much the best you can do.

    So, the question isn’t whether there is any evidence for the historical existence of Jesus, because there’s plenty of it, and you’ve listed it yourself, the question is whether said evidence is any good?

    Take care and enjoy the holidays

    • The negative position on any proposition is the default. Without evidence we default to ‘No’.
      The positive claim would be ‘Jesus existed in history.’
      Without evidence, we must default to ‘No.’
      There is much that people CLAIM is evidence, however, as we’ve covered, it is not. People merely think it is.

      • Firstly, I think we’re disagreeing about a definition of evidence here. You seem to be using a definition of evidence as statements that either support or refute a claim. This kind of position falls within the realm of formal logic.

        My position is that there is a second class of evidence which is represented as a series of statement, artifacts, inferences, and criticisms, which, when weighed together, define the likelihood of a given claim being true or false, without ever being defininative. This, on the other hand, falls within the realm of informal logic.

        Now I’ve chosen to use a definition of evidence based on informal logic because Jesus’ existence is not something that could possibly be proved to be true or false to any acceptable standard. This places the assessment into terms of likelihoods. Now because the statement Jesus exists cannot, under this particular type of argument, be known to be true or false, it stands to reason that any statement that would cause it to become known as either true or false also cannot exist under this type of argument. The only statements that can be used in this type of argument are thus those that have an element of uncertainty.

        What the above says is that if you’re dealing in an uncertainty, no evidence you provide can ever be good enough to prove it true or false, because if it was you wouldn’t be dealing with an uncertainty, which means that all evidence (within the scope of the arguement) must have a degree of fallibility.

        Which I think supports my assertion that it is not a question of if there is any evidence for Jesus existing; it’s a question of if the evidence for Jesus existing is any good?

        Now this also brings me onto my second point. You can’t invoke the assumption of the negative hypothesis in an argument where the conclusion is essentially uncertain, because if you did you’d be creating a false certainty.

        Sure you could possibly have a fuzzy assumption of the negative, “without evidence to the contrary I find your argument unlikely”, but really you would no less justified in saying, “without evidence to the contrary I find both arguments equally unlikely.”

        P.S. Big fan of your writing by the way!

  2. Thanks for the link. I’ve come across a few of these before, but this is a positive gold mine!

    My favorite has always been the verse from Judges about God being powerless in the face of iron chariots. I’m always wondered if this explains his general quietness in the modern age, too many motor cars!

    Now if the religious right would just take that particular quote as a literal truth, we’d have a fighting chance of beating climate change.

  3. Pingback: Seven Refutations: Follow Up | The AtheFist

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