Challenge: Jesus Is a Myth

Posted: June 21, 2011 by Amy Hall in Jesus Changes Everything, Weekly Challenge

Here’s an objection that seems to be gaining in popularity:

Jesus never really existed. People just made him up later using bits of older myths of dying and rising gods like Mithra. It makes perfect sense when you look at the historical evidence.

This week, we’ll have a special guest with us, Mary Jo Sharp, to help answer this question. So give it your best shot, and let’s see how you do. And if you don’t know any facts by which you can refute this right now, tell us what kind of questions you would ask a person who offered this objection. What would he have to demonstrate to be true in order to back up his claim?

  1. Sam Harper says:

    There are so many things to say in response to this that it’s hard to pick a direction, so I’m just going to throw some stuff out there.

    First, the parallels you see between Jesus and all these older myths in films like Zeitgeist and Religulous seem to be made up for the most part. A lot of people have tried in vain to substantiate them, and they just aren’t there. If you doubt this, you can just go look at the primary sources yourself. Whenever you see these lists, look at the footnotes and the references they give and see if you can trace it back to a primary source. I’m telling you, it can’t be done because the parallels just aren’t there.

    It seems like this theory has only taken hold in popular literature among non-experts and conspiracy theorists. The in the last 1800 and early 1900’s, there was a movement in the academic community called the History of Religions School where the theory was born that the stories of Jesus were borrowed from pagan myths, and they would search ancient literature to try to find these parallels. But that movement died out in academia for a couple of reasons. First, because most of the parallels were superficial or contrived. Second, because it just doesn’t follow that if there are similarities between two stories that one necessarily borrowed from the other.

    Regarding that second point, try googling “lincoln and kennedy” and you’ll find lists of comparisons between the story of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy that are so striking that they’re eerie. But nobody thinks the Kennedy story was borrowed from Lincoln because we know both stories are true. Likewise, there was a book published in 1898 called “Futility” about a ship called the Titan that sank in the north Atlantic. That story bears a striking resemblance to the story of the Titanic, but the story of the Titanic actually happened. Nobody questions the historicity of the Titanic just because there’s an earlier story that resembles it. So even if there are some similarities between Jesus and some older myths, that by itself is not enough to claim that the stories of Jesus were made up.

    And even if some of the stories of Jesus were made up, that it no reason to think Jesus didn’t exist at all. This theory that Jesus didn’t exist seems to only come out of popular literature. Nobody in the scholarly community thinks Jesus didn’t exist. Robert Price thinks it’s at least possible that Jesus didn’t exist, but even he doesn’t go so far as to deny Jesus’ existence.

    And there are good reasons to think Jesus existed. First of all, it’s the most natural explanation for where Christianity came from. In the first 1/4 of the first century, Christianity didn’t exist. By the second 1/4 of the first century, Christianity had caught the attention of the Roman empire, and there were official persecutions like that under Nero. So Christianity came out of nowhere in a short amount of time and was based on somebody who supposedly existed just before the beginning of Christianity. If it had been based on somebody “once upon a time,” or “a long long time ago,” then maybe you could make the case that somebody made him up, but Jesus was placed in a specific historical context in the very recent past. People would’ve known whether he existed or not.

    Second, Jesus had a brother named James who was a public figure in Jerusalem. He became the head of the church in Jerusalem, and Josephus wrote about how he died. But more importantly, Paul was personally acquainted with James. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul talks about having met and conversed with James. So obviously James existed, and if James was the brother of Jesus, then Jesus existed.

    This third point is cut and paste from my blog:

    There are a number of scholars from the entire range of the liberal/conservative spectrum who have said the most certain thing we can know about Jesus is that the Romans executed him by crucifixion. I don’t know what all their individual reasons are for saying that, but I’ll tell you what I think is the strongest reason.

    The early Christians thought Jesus was the Christ. He was the fulfillment of the promises given to Israel to always have a man on the throne of David. By claiming to be the Christ, Jesus was essentially claiming to be the promised king of Israel. It was natural, then, that people would expect him to redeem Israel–to run the Romans off and reestablish Israel’s national sovereignty and to usher in the kingdom of God on earth.

    Now think about this. How likely is it that a group of Jews would make up a story about a christ and include in the story that the christ was killed by Israel’s enemies? And they didn’t even say he was killed heroically in battle. Rather, they came up with the most humiliating way for a criminal to die–by public crucifixion. And then they went about trying to win people over to this criminal-on-the-cross. I think that is an absurd notion.

    If anything, I think Jesus’ followers would’ve gone into damage control mode as a result of the crucifixion. They wouldn’t have invented the idea. At worst, the idea that Jesus’ died for sins was an invention meant to redeem Jesus’ death on the cross. And the resurrection was invented to maintain the notion that Jesus was the christ in the face of his death.

    In my opinion, the crucifixion of Jesus is about as certain as any historical event could be without having video footage. I have a hard time taking anybody seriously who denies it.

    And that entails that Jesus existed, which is why I also have a hard time taking anybody seriously who denies the existence of Jesus.

  2. bobby says:

    you know i wonder if jesus was a Secularist i doubt people would be Quesitoning his existence, but since jesus is the center of christanity so you know people just have to Question his existence, but as far as comparing jesus to mirtha i would ask the person “so b/c one person (A) is portrayed like another person (B) in history therefore that person (A) didnt exist?” ask a good columbo quesiton like that – and like i just said i wonder if the person would use this critieria for other historical figures just b/c a document makes supernatural claims it dosent mean its unrealiable b/c its question begging b/c ur assuming naturalism

  3. Chris Maness says:

    I think the Jesus myth objection at the very core is dishonest, and I have found that people (other than teenagers) use the argument in a dishonest way. I try to discern this right from the beginning. If a teenager tells me this, I am a lot more graceful. More than likely they have not taken the time to really way out the issues and have just bought in to something they heard in passing. I usually use the Columbo tactic on this one. The first point I raise is to inform the person raising the objection is how we come to know historical truths. The same way we know Abraham Lincoln was a real person is the same process we can use to ascertain if Jesus was a real person. That is — checking and cross checking credible sources. There are MANY sources that mention Christ as a real person, so the Jesus “myth” coming from other myth is a straw man, and completely besides the point. Jesus is real. If the person is not easily persuaded, I do not waste my time discussing the issue any further. They have simply made up there mind and are looking for any possible excuse not to believe. I have an atheist friend that believes this Jesus “myth”. When he brought it up to me, I was frustrated. He lost credibility in his argument. I wish he could see from the outside looking in how ridiculous his argument was.

    Chris Maness

  4. Adrian Urias says:

    you dont ignore historical evidence for Jesus because there were similar stories like it before hand (the latter part of that sentence being quite dubious.) But even if there were similar stories, its a post hoc ergo propter hoc. You judge each claim on its individual merit. and Jesus does quite well.

    a good book i like to refer when i come across this in personal settings is Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament by FF Bruce.

    • Sam Harper says:

      “it’s a post hoc ergo propter hoc.” <–I think that's exactically right. But, Adrian, if there WERE a situation where one story was borrowed from another, how would you know it? Can you think of any criteria that would allow to to draw the conclusion that one story was borrowed from another, or do ALL such conclusions commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc?

      • Adrian Urias says:

        A criteria that would allow us to draw the conclusion the conclusion that one story was borrowed from another? Hmm…well, I guess it would be plagiarism of one text to another. With the copycat messiah, we might see accusations of similar *ideas*, however, I don’t see that as adequate. What I would consider adequate is a quote (or language) from one text into the other. Like how the Book of Mormon takes things from the King James Bible and other sources and stories. That’s how we would know.

  5. Scott Smith says:

    The assertion that Jesus came from other myths and traditions is silly. I would start by shifting the burden of proof back to them. I would ask them to give me specific accounts that they claim have been plagiarized, and names of reputable historians that hold to this belief. They simply won’t find it, because this is a totally fabricated charge.

    If they are comfortable dismissing all of the evidence for Jesus’ earthly existence, then they must also be consistent and disbelieve in the existence of figures like Tutankhamen, Hippocrates and Cleopatra.

  6. Albert says:

    I think Scott hit it right on the head. Part of the comment is, “It makes perfect sense when you look at the historical evidence.”

    What historical evidence are they meaning?
    Can they provide it so we can compare the stories?

    Perhaps they are correct in what they said, so let them prove it. I just can’t take their word for it and more then they can just take my word, so I ask them for the proof to back up their statement. Once we have that, then we can move into some real discussion about this comment and the facts behind it.

    The sad part is this comment is not normally spoken from a knowledgeable view point.
    This argument is used to more than likely just dismiss Jesus because they don’t want to have to take responsibility for their actions in relation to what Jesus claimed.

    This one can be dismissed real quick once you ask them for evidence of this hysterical… I mean historical proofs.

  7. solomon says:

    JESUS ir real but he’s not God.

  8. solomon says:

    Why would a God wants to have the image of a man, of all the images he could think of?
    A God should be comparable to nothing. If a God having the image of a man & living the human lives,
    that would put Gods standards to shame. Would you think so Miss Amy Hall?

    • sorentmd says:

      That’s kind of the whole purpose of the Gospel’s and Christianity though. That God, who is the perfect being, would humble Himself for lowly humans by making Himself one. On one hand, it is most certainly ludicrous, on the other, perfectly illustrates His love for us as demonstrated throughout the Bible. So yeah, it was a big step down the latter for God to do such a thing, but He could do it if He wanted, and He wanted if it’s true. It wasn’t about Him “wanting” to be a man, it was about the purpose of what that meant, which was dying and rising for sins to be forgiven as He took the punishment we deserved upon Himself. Most certainly is the greatest story ever told, whether true or not.

    • Amy Hall says:

      Because He came to pay for our sins in our place, and act as our new head (instead of Adam, who sinned) and as our high priest.

      It’s because He desired to do this for us that he humbled Himself by taking on a human nature–becoming one of us. This is why He did this.

      But this doesn’t at all put God’s standard to shame because, unlike all other human beings, Jesus was perfectly obedient to the Father. God’s moral standards were never lowered by Jesus or put to shame in any way.

      You also ask, why man instead of something else? We are made in the image of God, as it says in Genesis. This doesn’t mean a physical image, but it does means we are moral, rational persons with a will (though we are limited, as we are created beings, unlike God). We are the only things in the universe that are made in the image of God. If God were to graciously come to represent and save anything in this universe, it would be human beings.

  9. sorentmd says:

    Looking forward to this discussion, though it is very small fraction of scholars that hold this position, it tends to be these “extreme” views that get published in popular books and shown on television simply because it’s controversial. And unfortunately, it causes lay people to be misinformed as they often do not see the reactions by the scholarly communities to these works. In fact, there often are none because of how ridiculous these claims can be, as it would be a waste of time. But in the end, it is important for people to understand that this is an extreme position and one that even a massive majority of non-Christians reject.

  10. solomon says:

    Wait a minute….
    A God would not necessary have to turn himself into a man just for the sake of just to forgive sins.
    He can do that at the comfort of his chair up there. The hidden agenda to me is this way. The Christian masters out of self interest somehow manipulate the true teachings from the Torah & Injil into the Bible. By imposing God into a man, they have some sort of control over humans, human nature who needs a figure or some sort of an idol to refer to. This is demonstrated by the father or pastor of a church who can act as a mediator of God who has the authority to forgive sins, if I’am not mistaken. This will give a chance for human to misuse his powers for his own benefits.
    Another thing, even though human is considered the dearest being to God, that would not mean other creatures have less care from God. By having the image of a man would be unfair for other creatures ain’t it? In that case the apes colony might also want God to have their image. Now that would be hilarious would it?

  11. Amy Hall says:

    Solomon, the Bible says, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” That is, Jesus is our only mediator. I don’t have to go through another man to receive forgiveness.

    As for forgiving sins from “the comfort of his chair up there,” God wanted to uphold His justice and righteousness. If He just forgave people and never punished sin, He would be saying that sin doesn’t really matter all that much. But it does matter because He is holy and just. This is why God had to show His wrath against all sin, and why Jesus had to take that wrath as our representative–as a human being.

    This is how God was able to uphold justice and offer mercy. With any other solution, He would have had to either ignore justice or mercy. He couldn’t have had both.

  12. Chris Maness says:

    Good, Job Amy. I was thinking the same thing. It is not a trivial matter for God to forgive. I think it is awesome that Christianity/Judaism answers that problem. I am not aware of any other religion that does give a satisfactory answer to that paradox.

    Chris Maness

  13. solomon says:

    Amy Hall,

    Everyone should hold full responsibility for their own deeds. Your analogy somehow or rather does’nt quite fit with God’s fairness behavior. If all the humans sentences to be burden to one man, what kind of a fair God would that be?

    • Amy Hall says:

      It would be a God who took mercy on us. It isn’t possible for us to pay our debt because our sin against a perfectly holy, sovereign God requires a penalty too great for us to pay. Here are His options: He could just let us all go to Hell (let us each bear the full weight of our own sinful burden), or He could lower His standards (deny His holiness) so we can get in on our own, or He could show grace and mercy while at the same time expressing perfect and complete justice, upholding His righteousness.

      While He could have done the first option, this wouldn’t have allowed Him to display His grace to the world, and the second choice is simply not an option because God can’t be unrighteous.

      The fact is, God wanted us to know He is gracious and merciful, and He wanted us to be able to enjoy Him for eternity, but He wasn’t about to lower His standards and deny justice in order to do that.

  14. solomon says:

    Now…that is getting complicated, whereas it could be a very simple concept. If someone does’nt want to inherit hell, then don’t go against God’s rules & orders. If one have commited sins then repent. God is gracious. He will pardon all who are willing to repent. Thats only all. God can remain as God and Jesus can remain as he is…a man. Theres no need for a ‘man play God’ concept brought forth by the Christian masters for self interest.
    Amy I reckon you reconsider your beliefs. You will be bound for hell by claiming Jesus is God. I’am not making up things. This is the word of the one true and only God almighty.

    • Amy Hall says:

      Solomon, you’re asking me to believe in a God who would compromise His holiness and righteousness by letting sin go unpunished. I value His justice and righteousness too much for that. You’re also asking me to believe I can be good enough to stand on my own before a perfectly holy God. I know myself too well and think too highly of God to believe that would ever be possible.

      I say this not because my “masters” have an interest in my believing that Christ bore my sins and is my representative before the Father, but because I have an interest in one day being with a God who is so perfectly righteous and holy that people on this earth quake in fear when they see a shadow of His greatness, but Who is so gracious and loving that He upholds His glory through the cross so He can be gracious to me and enable me to be with Him forever. I’m not willing to deny His grace or His justice because both are part of His perfect nature, as we know from the Bible.

  15. solomon says:

    Amy…I’am only bringing truth. Truth that you might have not known yet. I’am just trying to save you as well as others from the fires of Hell. What a pity your fate will be by just being deceived by your Christian masters. And the truth I bring is not without proofs & have no contradictions as well. You have read the bible. I’am sure you yourself will find a lot of contradictions in it.

  16. Chris Maness says:

    This is going in circles. I think Amy made a valid point. This is also stated in Isaiah 53, so I don’t think it is merely a new testament invention.

    Good Day,
    Chris Maness

  17. solomon says:

    Chris Maness,
    The Christians Masters make things going in circles. Actually its a straightforward concept. A God, a man and creations. How many times do the Christian holy books have to be revised to perfection or without contradictions. I bet it will never will coz its corrupted by men.

  18. solomon says:

    This has become a trend. Many Christians ended up being atheists. They could’nt get the absolute answer what their hearts really confident of.

  19. solomon says:

    Amy, Chris….why are you both so quiet?