There is a niche group of religion debunkers that have gained popularity in recent years by promulgating the theory that Jesus Christ was a myth. Not that his resurrection from the dead was a myth, but that Jesus the man was a myth, cobbled together from pre-existing stories about various Egyptian gods. According to this theory, the New Testament is nothing other than mythological propaganda, designed to shore up belief in a fiction perpetrated, one must assume, by a cabal of messianic Jews disgruntled by the Jewish leadership at the time. So how rational is this theory? Is it possible that Jesus was a myth? Do we have any evidence at all in the reality of Jesus the man?
Let’s begin with the debunkers strongest argument: we have no direct, contemporaneous evidence for the existence of Jesus. This is partly true. The gospels were written after the death of Christ. Depending on the scholar of your choice, the gospels were written some time between the years 50 – 100 AD. So even if we take the earliest date, we are still twenty years removed from the public ministry and crucifixion of Christ. Furthermore, we have no other non-Christian documentation corroborating the existence of Christ prior to 50 AD, and scant little afterwards. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions Christ briefly in his Antiquities of the Jews, written in the mid to late 90′s AD. The Roman historian Tacitus also briefly refers to Christ and Christians in his Annals, written between 100-110 AD. Prior to 50 AD, however, the written record is non-existent. We simply have no documentary evidence for the existence of the man Jesus prior to AD 50.
Is this a fatal defect in our belief in the existence of Christ? Hardly. Let’s pause and consider for a moment the value and importance of historical documentation in a vacuum. How valuable is a document, by itself? If we do not know the context from which the document originated, and if we don’t know who wrote it, and if we don’t know the authenticity of what the document claims to be, and if we don’t know what else was written about the same topic from other sources, the value of a single document, by itself, becomes nearly useless. Written documents are great sources of historical value precisely because they validate, or shed additional light, on events or people that we already have other information about, either from other written sources, histories, eyewitness accounts or archaeological evidence. If somebody discovered an ancient papyrus claiming to be a biography about Emperor Billy Bob of Rome who reigned in the early first century, nobody would consider it worth much, since we have no other evidence for the existence of Emperor Billy Bob of Rome, written or otherwise. In the case of Jesus, would it have mattered to the “Jesus myth” people if the gospels had been written contemporaneously with Jesus’ life and death? Not likely. The fact that the gospels were written by Christians automatically, according to these folks, disqualifies them for consideration as valid documentary evidence.
Okay. Let’s concede the problem of non-Christian documentary evidence. Do we have any other non-documentary evidence that testify to the existence of Christ? In fact, we have significant, substantial, and overwhelming non-documentary evidence for the existence of Christ, namely, the very existence of the early Christian communities and the preaching and testimony of the apostles. A little understanding of early Christian history is necessary here. After the death and resurrection of Christ, but nearly twenty to thirty years before the first gospels began circulating, there was a veritable explosion of Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire. Prior to the death of Christ, somewhere between 30-33 AD, there were no Christian communities. After 33 AD, we have them popping up all over the region, in Rome, in Corinth, in Galatia, in Ephesus, and many other locations. And all of them were proclaiming the same basic theme: that Jesus Christ had come to save the world from sin, and had in fact been crucified by Pontius Pilate, and rose again on the third day. The basic Gospel message.
To understand Christianity, one has to understand what the Gospel is, as opposed to the gospels. The gospels are the written accounts of Jesus public ministry, crucifixion and resurrection from the dead, i.e., commonly referred to as the Four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Gospel is the message of Christ himself. It is the essence of who Christ was, what he came to accomplish, and the good news of what that means for humanity. The gospels preach the Gospel through the written word. Prior to the gospels, the Gospel was preached orally by the apostles and disciples of Christ themselves. That’s how the early Christian communities came into existence. Not from the written word, but from the spoken word – the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by the apostles.
This is an extremely important historical fact that Jesus debunkers must answer if they want to maintain any credibility for their position. If Jesus Christ the man was a myth, what happened between 33AD and 50AD, prior to any written account of Christ, that explains the rise of the Christian communities all proclaiming belief in Christ, both man and God? How did this happen, if the man was just a myth? Where is the evidence that supports this view?
Jesus the man would have been known to his community. He would have been seen by other Jews and Gentiles. If a small group of Jews starting going around Judea lying about a guy that performed all these miracles among the people, that he had been condemned by the Jewish leadership and eventually crucified by the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate, who would have believed them? Remember, the apostles were not trying to convince people to believe in someone that lived centuries, or thousands of years ago. They were talking about someone that lived contemporaneously with their fellow Jews, walked among them, preached among them, and healed among them. Granted, the larger Gentile world would likely not have been familiar with the person of Christ, but to think that a cabal of Jews could just make the guy up and then convince their fellow Jews that he was a real person is fairly and stupendously ridiculous. In fact, of all the persecutions perpetrated against the early Christians, not one – not one – includes any argument that Jesus was a myth. Wouldn’t that have been the most effective way of getting rid of a troublesome group? Just point out that the very person they are proclaiming as the Messiah didn’t even exist. This would have been very easy for the Jewish leadership that was so opposed to the early Christian communities.
This raises another important question that the Jesus debunkers must answer: why? To what end would a bunch of Jews make up this story about Christ? Particularly after it became clear that the Roman authorities were quite happy rounding them up, torturing and executing them for believing and preaching the Gospel. What did it profit them to adhere to a lie in the face of torture and death? Did it bring them riches? Quite the opposite. Poverty was the ideal Christian standard. Did it bring them power? It was several hundred years after the death of Christ before the Church gained any appreciable political or economic power. So, what was the point? The debunkers have no adequate answer to these questions.
Furthermore, there is the testimony of the apostles themselves. There was Mary, the mother of Christ, Joseph his foster father. All the apostles. Which of these people are real and which are made up? They can’t all be myths, because someone had to make up these stories and tell people about them. Just how many characters were made up to make this story work?
Finally, there is St. Paul. The existence of Paul, and his authorship of his letters to the early churches (at least the major ones), is uncontested. Paul was a real person, and he wrote letters preaching the Gospel. What else do we know about Paul? By his own words, we know he was a Jewish persecutor of Christians. We know that he enjoyed hunting them down, throwing them in prison, and seeing them executed. The Acts of the Apostles describes Paul standing by, approvingly, while the Jews stoned the apostle Stephen to death. And of course we know that Paul claimed that the risen Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus – and that he was thus converted. How do we explain away St. Paul’s own words? The only possibility for the debunkers is to assert that Paul was some kind of lunatic. Bald assertions, unfortunately for the debunkers, are not evidence.
While there may be ample room for non-believers to deny the truth of the Resurrection of Christ, the evidence for the existence of the man Jesus is simply overwhelming. In fact, there is more evidence for the existence of Jesus than for Buddha or Mohammed. The early Christian communities, the preaching and testimony of the apostles, the writings of St. Paul, the historical circumstances contemporaneous with Jesus’ public ministry that are recorded in the gospels, all provide overwhelming evidence that Jesus the man was a real human being that walked the earth some two thousand years ago. We don’t need the equivalent of a birth certificate to prove it.
The “scholarship” behind the “Jesus myth” is poor and scant. Mostly, it is a collection of mischaracterized presentations of ancient Egyptian myths combined with conspiratorial assertions about the early Christian communities that lack any supporting evidence, documentary or otherwise, themselves. In fact, we should justly place the “Jesus myth” group with people who think that the moon landing was a fake and was really filmed in a secret Hollywood studio. Actually, that might be lending them too much credibility.