19 thoughts on “Did Jesus exist? A poll and discussion

  1. I’ve never been entirely sure what Jesus “existing” is supposed to mean. Are we debating the existence of people in the right region at the right time being cult leaders? The existence of people called Joshua (or whatever his real name is supposed to be)? The intersection of these sets? The existence of someone who went for a fast in the desert? The existence of someone who took a strop at merchants in a temple? The existence of a charismatic leader (or of a scapegoat) that was crucified by the Romans? The amount of overloading in the term “Jesus” in the question “did Jesus exist?” makes it impossible to determine if what people mean when they ask this question, and that’s before we look at the miracles supposedly performed.

    1. Good point. When I say I think Jesus did exist, I think there there was someone who inspired the gospel stories, and that, like as not, some of them record actual events. There’s obviously a lot of room for debate about which events were actual, but the mythicist position seems to be that all the stories were created whole cloth based on earlier myths to which they bear some resemblance, maybe, and there was no living person who inspired them.

      That seems less likely than there being a Joshua who inspired a bunch of stories, as in Rastafarianism. Some of the stories may in fact be made up whole cloth based on OT prophecies, as the nativity seems to be, but that’s different from saying “there was no Joshua”.

      [Edited for clarity]

      1. See, I would see this stance as the norm, not the “there was no Jesus” stance. That was my (mild) objection to the post that inspired me to make the poll. Certainly I wasn’t objecting to the idea that denying Jesus’ existence entirely was silly (although I think it’s far from silly enough that the denial of Hitler’s existence is an analog).

        I think, like you, that holding fast to the idea that no one man existed who inspired the Gospels is actually less plausible than the idea that he did. I’ve just heard of very, very few people who actually seem to believe that, and I’m wondering whether they actually exist in significant numbers anywhere other than in the minds of (if I may be flippant for a moment) evangelicals with victim complexes.

        Edit: Okay, that’s weird, LJ just screened this comment too. I wonder if this is a new default thingie. I don’t like it at all.

        1. Ah, that screening would be the “screen comments from non-friends with links” option, which seemed to be a good way of dealing with spam. I’ve now resolved the issue πŸ™‚ Do you perhaps have that turned on for your own journal?

    2. I don’t think the question is as ambiguous as you make out. We have a collection of documents that describe the character “Jesus”: is it the case that these documents contain a core of truth about a single, real, historical person? (Combined with folklore, myth, and invention, of course.) If the character of “Jesus” as recorded the NT is actually a synthesis of several different people, or if the proportion of myth is so great that what remains would not be sufficient to identify someone, then I think we’d say “no”, he didn’t really exist.

      I do agree that the poll doesn’t really give a good indication of the range of reasonable positions, though. I’d’ve asked something along these lines:

      Which of these positions do you think best describes the historicity of Jesus?
      1. The New Testament gives a largely accurate record of the life of a single person with perhaps a small amount of myth and invention.
      2. The New Testament contains a small core of accurate record of a single person, with a large admixture of myth.
      3. The figure in the New Testament is a synthesis of several people (or the historical core is so small that multiple historical identifications would be plausible), combined with myth.
      4. The figure in the New Testament is entirely mythical.

      The first two are “yes” positions, and the second two are “no”. Obviously we can’t know for sure where the truth lies along this continuum, but it’s reasonable to give our best guess.

      1. Well, the purpose of the poll wasn’t really to get an accurate or exhaustive indication of the exact stance of respondents – that’s what the second question (and the comments) are for. I was more looking for a quick overview of whether people basically more or less believe that Jesus the man existed (whatever they think of Jesus the Saviour). I’m sure my less exacting poll will have rendered less accurate results than yours might have, but it would also probably have had even fewer respondents.

  2. Subject: Durf
    Who cares if a man (or multiple men) named Jesus existed around the turn of 0 CE? Even if he did, and he was exactly as described in the bible, his whole purpose for existence was nullified because we know for sure that there was no Adam & Eve, no Garden of Eden, no talking snake, and therefore no Original Sin that required proxy “redemption”. The concept of forgiveness via acceptance of punishment for another person’s crime is a ridiculous and unethical idea in and of itself, but since the specific instance of this nonsense outlined in the bible never happened it’s kind of an academic and somewhat pointless discussion.

    And the only existing records of BibleJesus are in the bible. There are no mentions of him or his deeds anywhere else in any contemporary ancient text, except for a passing mention in Josephus which even the most evangelical Christian academics have been forced to conclude were fraudulently added hundreds of years later probably by early church apologists (lying for Jesus was looked on even more favorably back at the beginning of the church than it is today).

    1. Subject: Re: Durf
      Who cares if a man (or multiple men) named Jesus existed around the turn of 0 CE?

      Well, quite a lot of Christians do, and the Jesus mythicists do too. I care in the sense that I’d like my beliefs to be as accurate as possible and the fact that large numbers of other people care makes me take a position on it too.

      Even if he did, and he was exactly as described in the bible, his whole purpose for existence was nullified because we know for sure that there was no Adam & Eve, no Garden of Eden, no talking snake, and therefore no Original Sin that required proxy “redemption”.

      Eh? We don’t really know what he thought his purpose for existence was, because we don’t have reliable records. As an aside, though I agree that the fundamentalist version you describe cannot be right, I was never a creationist when I was a Christian and still managed to believe in atonement.

      And the only existing records of BibleJesus are in the bible.

      Yep, that’s certainly the problem, all right (and, from what I’ve read, I agree about Josephus, although I’d also heard that some people think there might have been some mention of Jesus in the original text which was then heavily edited by Christians). However, we don’t necessarily think that history written by partisans must always be entirely false, which is what I find odd about mythicism.

      1. The problem is Paul is clear that the advantage the Jews had was the Old Testament.

        But surely the advantage the Jews had had was Jesus living among them.

        Paul is also adamant that the Law and the Prophets had testified to this new righteousness. Fair enough, but what had Jesus said?

        Paul also makes clear in Romans 10 that the Jews could hardly be expected to believe in Jesus until Christian preachers had been sent to preach about him ,as how could people believe in somebody they have never heard of?

        And a nice thought experiment is to replay ‘The Passion of the Christ’ in your mind’s eye, and superimpose the text of Romans 13.

        Every time Jesus gets whipped, imagine Paul saying ‘The authorities do not bear the sword for nothing.’

        As Jesus gets covered in blood,imagine Paul saying ‘Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.’

        All I can say is that Holocaust denial would be a lot more popular if we had Jewish leaders of the 1950’s claiming that the Nazis held no terror, except for wrongdoers.

        If the Romans had committed the crime of the millenium – murdering the Son of God – then Paul would not have pointed out that they held no terror for those who do right.

    2. Subject: Re: Durf
      People care about history for endless reasons, and Jesus would be an historical figure of the greatest possible magnitude.

      (Also, this connection of Jesus to the Genesis stories is merely a particularly common version of the literary figure.)

  3. Subject: Did Jesus exist?
    As a regular viewer of your blog, pleased to see you are still going strong.
    For the existence of Jesus I would recommend either E P Sanders or Robin Lane Fox. Both give a clear discussion of the evidence and the problems. Even if their datings can be argued about, the evidence for historicity is not really in doubt. Both show the great difficulty of the biography of this Jesus – because of the theological axes that the writers have to grind – and thus how much is still open to conjecture. But this helps with historicity because of the material thatthey use that doesn’t favour their viewpoint, e.g Jesus’s baptism by John – a baptism of repentance.
    Anyway glad to see you flourishing.

    Bob

    1. Subject: Re: Did Jesus exist?
      Why would you recommend EP Sanders, who , as far as I know has never produced an argument for the historicity of Jesus?

      See http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/03/07/assumptions-of-historicity-in-part-a-response-to-james-mcgrath/ for examples of circular reasoning on Sander’s part.

      Robin Lane Fox uses the contradictory birth stories to date the birth of Jesus approximately. These birth stories are widely acknowledged to be as fictional as the stories of Barack Osama being born in Kenya. Would a real scholar use fictional stories of President Osama’s being born in Kenya to date his birth?

    2. Subject: Re: Did Jesus exist?
      ‘But this helps with historicity because of the material thatthey use that doesn’t favour their viewpoint, e.g Jesus’s baptism by John….’

      This is nonsense. Of course the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist favoured Mark, or else he would have erased it from history as later Christian writers did.

      If the baptism by John had been embarrassing to Christians , it would have been erased from history before Jesus was cold in the grave.

      Instead, we are asked to believe that this story was told for 30 years, and Christians were too dumb to try to put any spin on it for decades. But as soon as somebody wrote it, other Christians belatedly realised that they had better try to change the story.

      The fact that the story was embarrassing to later Christians proves only that there had not been 30 years of trying to spin away the story before Mark wrote. The embarrassment can only be dated from the moment ‘Mark’ wrote , proving there had not been 30 years of embarrassment before he wrote.

      If the story had been embarrassing to Christians for decades, why was Mark so dumb that he had no idea of what spin to put on the story? How many decades of taunting that their Son of God had to be baptised for forgiveness of sins had there been before Mark wrote?

      The answer is obviously – none. It had never happened , which is why Mark could write as though no Christian had ever been embarrassed by it.

  4. ‘Jesus mythicism’

    Actually it is the people who believe in a Jesus of Nazareth, betrayed by Judas, and buried by Joseph of Arimathea, who believe in a myth.

    Just as people who believe there was a second gunman who shot JFK are also mythicists.

    1. Now you’re adding to the story: all I’m saying is that there’s no particular reason not to think that stories about Jesus were inspired by a real person. Whether that person was betrayed by Judas or buried by Joseph of Arimathea I don’t know, but there’s nothing inherently unlikely about someone being betrayed or buried (as opposed to, say, walking on water or rising from the dead).

      1. And there is no particular reason not to think that stories about Sherlock Holmes or Popeye were inspired by a real person.

        In fact, we know that stories about Sherlock Holmes and Popeye were inspired by a real person. Whether that person lived in Baker Street, or had a girlfriend named Olive Oyl, we just don’t know.

        All I’m saying is that there’s nothing inherently unlikely about a sailor getting into fights over a girl.

        1. Whether that person lived in Baker Street, or had a girlfriend named Olive Oyl, we just don’t know.

          This would be funnier if we didn’t know the answer to both these questions.

  5. Subject: The historicity of Jesus?
    Fortunately for Sanders he doesn’t need me to defend him. But I would re read Jesus and Judaism p11 note 19. He certainly claims that he justifies the facts about Jesus and explains his way of reasoning.

    Robin Lane Fox – Is I believe a real scholar – but demonstrates from his discussion of the stories of the birth of Jesus where inconsistency and impossibility is easy to show with reference to the external evidence – Herod, Augustus etc.
    Contrasted to Pilate and Caiaphas with the trial.

    Point about John the Baptist seems to miss the point about witting and unwitting evidence or the conservatism of the writers. They were trying to tell the story they knew, whether it was myth, hagiography, legend etc.
    The Jesus is a Myth argument appears to boil down to the relatively few references to Jesus in Paul.
    The parallels to the near eastern myths -weak in reality and dating – are contrasted to the much greater reference to Judaism and it practices.
    As to Viridar – more interesting re Minimalist and Maximalists. See http://www.livius.org/th/theory/theory-maximalists.html for a good description.
    Keep up the good work!

    Bob

    1. Subject: Re: The historicity of Jesus?
      ‘He certainly claims that he justifies the facts about Jesus and explains his way of reasoning.’

      In other words, his reasoning is circular.

      ‘They were trying to tell the story they knew, whether it was myth, hagiography, legend etc.’

      In other words, ‘John’ knew Jesus had not been baptised,so left out the story, as he knew it had never happened.

      ‘but demonstrates from his discussion of the stories of the birth of Jesus where inconsistency and impossibility is easy to show with reference to the external evidence – Herod, Augustus’

      Are you claiming Baker Street existed? So Sherlock Holmes was a real person?

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