The quest to erase Jesus from history

National Geographic devoted the cover of its Christmas 2017 edition to The Real Jesus. The journalist who wrote the feature, Kristin Romey, naturally considered the question of whether Jesus existed at all, writing: ‘Might it be possible that Jesus Christ never even existed, that the whole stained glass story is pure invention? It’s an assertion that’s championed by some outspoken skeptics – but not, I discovered, by scholars, particularly archaeologists, whose work tends to bring flights of fancy down to earth.’

She then quoted Eric Meyers, archaeologist and Emeritus Professor in Judaic Studies at Duke University: ‘I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus… The details have been debated for centuries, but no one who is serious doubts that he’s a historical figure.’

Since the turn of the millennium, the argument over whether Jesus existed as an historical person has gained new currency, because while scholars are unconvinced, online atheist opinion has fastened on Jesus’s apparent non-existence as a near certainty. Anti-theists have been boosted in this minority claim by a recent (2014) book by the historian and atheist Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We May Have Reason for Doubt.

Carrier argues the case for his views on his wesbite. And his arguments have been countered by a scholar of the New Testament and Christian origins, Larry Hurtado, on Hurtado’s blog site. In December, Hurtado posted a detailed rebuttal of ‘mythicist Jesus’ claims, which attracted a wide range of comments. Hurtado takes exception to Carrier’s argument that Christian belief started out with private hallucinations of a celestial and other-worldly Jesus, and that it was only later that the writers of the four Gospels created a human life for Jesus. ‘The Gospels are wildly fictitious in their content and structure,’ says Carrier.

In response, Hurtado says that the earliest New Testament writings, by Paul, give ‘abundant confirmation that for Paul, Jesus’ real historical existence was crucial,’ with references to the birth, family members, life, crucifixion and burial of a mortal Jesus. Says Hurtado: ‘In Paul’s undisputed letters, written decades earlier than the Gospels, we have clear evidence that the “Jesus” referred to is a historical figure who lived among fellow Jews in Roman Judea/Palestine, and was crucified by the Roman authority.’

Justin Brierley, who runs a weekly radio show (and podcast), Unbelievable? in which believers and unbelievers debate faith in the modern world, invited Richard Carrier onto his show in 2012 to debate with New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre. In his booklet, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? Brierley says: ‘For Carrier’s position to be plausible, we must make a variety of assumptions. The Gospels must be the accretions of mythological stories, written well after the time they purport to describe. A whole host of characters, plotlines and detailed historical settings must be invented from scratch. The apostle Paul must be speaking in purely mystical terms when he makes references to the ministry of Jesus.’

He concluded: ‘I don’t often express incredulity on the show, but on this occasion I confessed to Carrier that I was having great difficulty buying his explanation.’

Download a free copy of Justin Brierley’s booklet, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

Or buy a copy of Justin Brierley’s book, Unbelievable? Why after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian

Photo: Leo Reynolds under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0