(The following two articles take different positions on the question of the actual existence of Jesus. The first article is by Deist Jayson X. Jayson was an ordained Christian Orthodox priest and earned a Masters in Theology before evolving into a Deist. He is now the Deputy Director of the World Union of Deists. Jayson takes the position that Jesus was probably a real person but definitely NOT the Son of God.
The second article takes the position that Jesus never existed and is nothing but pure ancient myth. This article is written by long time freethinker and Deist writer Stephen Van Eck.
Both articles give readers interesting facts and insights to ponder. If you'd like to contribute an article addressing the question, Did Jesus Really Exist?, please email it in the body of an email to email@example.com.)
A PROBABLE EXPLANATION OF JESUS CHRIST
by Jayson X
How can we get a fairly accurate understanding of whom Jesus Christ really was? We can rely heavily on the writing which is generally considered by modern scholars to be the oldest, still-existing biography of Jesus, that is the Gospel of Mark, and use a lot of skepticism. After all, Jesus is not the only human being in history to be mythologized into a superhuman miracle-worker. Saint Nicholas of Myra in Lycia (c. 270-343) was a real person who is now mythologized into Santa Claus, an obese old man who miraculously keeps track of the moral character of children, travels around the Earth on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, visits millions of houses in one night without opening any door or window, and leaves presents for millions of children. A similar process happened to Jesus. He was a real person (Jesus of Nazareth) who was mythologized into a make-believe person (Jesus Christ), an even greater miracle worker than Santa Claus!
Another reason to use skepticism when theorizing about the life of the real Jesus is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. As far as I know, there is no compelling scientific evidence that the miracles ascribed to Jesus happened, or that any similar miracles ever happened in all of history. Such miracle stories are indeed extraordinary claims without extraordinary proof. Therefore, we should not believe them.
All this having been said, something like the following is probably the truth about the man known as Jesus Christ. Jesus was born in Nazareth, Galilee, between 7 and 2 B.C.E. and lived there until he was a young man, working as a carpenter. His mother was Mary, and his father was Joseph or some other man. He had brothers and sisters.
The word messiah means “the anointed one” because Jewish priests, prophets, and kings often began their respective offices after being anointed with oil that was supposedly holy. Many Jews during the time of Jesus believed that God would send a special messiah, the capital-m messiah, to liberate them and their land from foreign rule. The Messiah would also begin the Messianic Age, a time of peace and brotherhood on Earth, without crime, war, and poverty.
Christ comes from the Greek word for Messiah, Christos. Thus, Christ is NOT Jesus’ last name; it is a title given to him by Christians, expressing their belief that Jesus is the Messiah.
A man called John the Baptist taught that people should repent and be baptized so that their sins would be forgiven by God. He also preached that the Messiah would come and baptize with the Holy Spirit, which was a far greater baptism than John could do. Perhaps this literal and/or metaphorical baptism was supposed to convey what Galatians 5:22 calls “the fruit of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”--qualities needed for and indicative of the Messianic Age.
Jesus left Nazareth to learn about God, serve God, make the world a better place, travel a little, and have some fun. He became a disciple of John, and John baptized him. Eventually, John was arrested and beheaded by King Herod's soldiers because he was openly critical of the king and inclined many citizens toward rebellion. Jesus interpreted the arrest and beheading as a sign that God would now reveal the Messiah to humanity because the Messiah's herald had accomplished his mission: preparing the Jews for the Messiah. John could do no more preparing now that he was dead.
Like many Jewish men before and after him, Jesus suspected that he himself was the Messiah. He began to gather his own disciples, preach with a very authoritative style, and try to do miracles. Many people liked his preaching and concluded that he actually did miracles. This made him very popular with many Jews, and the stories of his supposed miracles began to be embellished even in his own lifetime.
The Pharisees were an influential group of Jews who wanted all Jews to live according to the ritualistic commandments of their version of Judaism, but Jesus taught that those commandments could be violated when it was more humane or convenient to do so. This angered the Pharisees, so they sought to have Jesus executed by King Herod, who also disliked Jesus because Jesus was like John the Baptist. Jesus would periodically debate with Pharisees and other Jews on religious topics for close to the remainder of his life, making deadly enemies in the process.
Jesus's lifelong friends and family generally believed that he was insane (Mark 3:21), and many Jewish religious experts attributed his miracles to the power of Satan (Mark 3:22).
Jesus preached and tried to work miracles all around Galilee, but the people of his hometown rejected him as a holy man, let alone the Messiah. Jesus then sent out his own disciples in groups of two to preach and try to work miracles, perhaps imitating a similar practice of John the Baptist, his religious mentor.
Jesus preached and tried to work miracles in Phoenicia and Decapolis. Gradually, he began to convince many of his disciples that he was the Messiah, and he promised that some people living at that time would live to witness the Messianic Age (Mark 9:1). This means that Jesus was wrong. Every human alive then is now dead.
Jesus preached and tried to work miracles in Judea. Then he went to Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people, riding on a young donkey to fulfill a Messianic prophesy (Zechariah 9:9). Many Jews in and around Jerusalem had heard of Jesus by this time and were willing to greet him as the Messiah. They "spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: 'Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!'" (Mark 11:8-10). This exclamation means something like the following: "Save us now, God, through the Messiah! Holy is he who comes in the name of God! Holy is Israel, which was founded by God through our first king David! Jesus is the new David! Jesus is the Messiah! Save us now, God, through the Messiah!"
The visit, which culminated at the supposedly sacred Temple of Jerusalem, was dangerous to do because of the Roman and Jewish authorities. The Romans did not want a supposed Messiah to lead the Jews in a revolt, and the Jewish authorities did not want a Jewish revolt to be brutally crushed by the Romans. Because of the danger to himself, Jesus spent the night outside of Jerusalem in nearby Bethany.
Jesus returned to Jerusalem the next day and tried to act like the Messiah once again. He drove "out those who bought and sold [things] in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And he would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple . . . saying to them, 'Is it not written [in the Jewish holy writings], "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations"? But you have made it a "den of thieves"'" (Mark 11:15-17). Many of the Jewish religious leaders now sought to kill Jesus because many Jews "were astonished at his teaching" (Mark 11:18). Astonished means that they could have been scandalized that Jesus was rejecting the well-established money-making procedures of the temple, and/or they could have been astonished that Jesus spoke and acted with such authority and eloquence that he really seemed like the Messiah. In any case, Jesus knew that he had placed himself in even more danger this time, so he once again spent the night in Bethany.
Jesus continued to teach his religious ideas: "Have faith in God [and prayer]. . . . [W]hatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them. [You also need to forgive to be forgiven.]" (Mark 11:22-26)
Soon after disrupting the temple—perhaps the next day—Jesus returned, and many of the Jewish religious leaders asked him, "By what authority are you doing these things?" (Mark 11:28) But Jesus cleverly evaded the question and began to preach, telling a parable that basically said, "God is good, but you are evil. That is why you and your kind killed all the prophets. I am the Messiah, and you will try to kill me too." These religious leaders would have arrested Jesus right then, but too many Jews who supported Jesus were watching and listening. The religious leaders in Jerusalem were often thought by the average Jew to be collaborators with the despised Romans, seeking to maintain their positions. Therefore, the average Jew favored popular, charismatic religious figures who opposed the religious establishment—figures, such as Jesus.
Many were impressed with Jesus’ wise and evasive response to the Pharisees and Herodians about paying taxes to Caesar and his response to the Sadducees about Jesus’ doctrine of the resurrection from the dead. The bottom line was that Jesus won the battle of words between himself and those who wanted to discredit him. In fact, Jesus started converting some of the Jewish scribes. Then he kept on preaching in the temple, confounding and sharply criticizing the religious leaders, proclaiming himself the Messiah, and praising generosity. This made most of the Jewish religious leaders hate and fear him all the more.
Jesus predicted that the Messianic Age would follow difficulties "such as has not been since the beginning of the creation" (Mark 13:19): wars; earthquakes; famines; the sun, moon, and stars losing their light; and other troubles. No one but God knew exactly when this would happen, but it would happen during "this generation" (Mark 13:30). Once again, this means that Jesus was wrong. Everyone from that generation is long dead, and the Messianic Age has not begun.
One of Jesus’ leading disciples, Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and promised to give them Jesus for money. Judas probably did not believe at this time that Jesus was the Messiah and hoped to make some money by betraying him. Judas led the chief priests and their helpers to arrest Jesus at night in Bethany, when the multitudes who favored Jesus would be elsewhere asleep. With the high priest presiding and the chief priests and many scribes attending, Jesus was found guilty at a secret trial for falsely claiming to be the Messiah.
The next morning, the Jewish religious leaders had Jesus brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Their goal was to have Jesus legally executed. Probably, there was an ongoing agreement between the Roman governor and the Jewish priests: The Jewish priests could keep their prestigious jobs and protect their people from Roman punishment to a large degree, if they turned over all Jews who claimed to be the Messiah. The Romans agreed to this because they wanted to rule Judea with as little trouble as possible.
Pilate had Roman soldiers mock, beat, and crucify Jesus for sedition in order to prove that Jesus was not the Messiah and discourage Jews from rebelling. The Romans wanted the Jews to have no king but Caesar. That is why the sign that was placed above Jesus while he was being crucified said, "THE KING OF THE JEWS," meaning, "This is what will happen to a Jew who tries to be king of Judea without Roman approval."
Simon of Cyrene probably had to help Jesus carry his cross, Jesus was probably crucified with two thieves, and the Roman soldiers probably gambled for Jesus’ clothes because clothing was so valuable back then.
On the cross, Jesus asked why God had forsaken him (Mark 15:34). Perhaps he finally realized that he was a fool and not the Messiah. Many of his female followers watched the execution, probably moved by great affection and feeling safer than Jesus’ male disciples. Men, after all, are more likely to be arrested and executed for sedition than women. An admirer of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, paid for the false Messiah's burial and tomb.
Mary Magdalene was a crazy woman--seven demons were supposedly exercised from her--and a disciple of Jesus (Mark 16:9). She told many of Jesus’ grieving disciples that Jesus appeared to her alive. "After that, he [Jesus] [supposedly] appeared in another form to two of them [the disciples] as they walked and went into the country" (Mark 16:12). Many of Jesus’ disciples were grieving largely because they had invested so much money, hope, time, self-esteem, and effort into following him; believing he was the Messiah. They did not want to be proven fools, and they were very eager to be proven right. They were so eager, in fact, that they were willing to believe the testimony of a crazy woman (Mary Magdalene), and two other disciples who said Jesus was alive but he looked like a different man (Mark 16:12)! I hate to point out the obvious, but the reason that the living man did not look like the dead Jesus was that the living man and the dead Jesus were two different people. Duh!
Around the aforementioned probable facts—and I emphasize the words "probable facts" because my assertions are educated guesses—developed many related myths and traditions about Jesus, including the teachings that Jesus appeared to the eleven apostles (the twelve leading disciples minus Judas Iscariot), gave them the Great Commission, and then ascended into Heaven. The Ascension conveniently explains why the resurrected Jesus can no longer be seen.
Jesus died between 26 and 36 C.E., and his bones still lie in or around the Middle East. But the religion he accidentally started has spread throughout the Earth and is still vibrant.
Was Jesus Real?
by Stephen Van Eck
If you want to look like a lunatic or an idiot to the average Christian, there's no better way than to claim that Jesus never existed. They'll look at you like you sprouted a new head.
But if you hold your ground and can back it up, these same Christians can be sent their way flummoxed. Here are the three essential arguments supporting the claim of non-existence:
1) The lack of historical evidence that this crowd-drawing, wonder-working sensation ever existed;
2) The suspicious similarity of the Jesus story to that of earlier Mystery cult god-men, who were born of virgins on December 25thm who died on a tree, and who rose from the dead; and
3) The consistent distortion of Old Testament passages that are alleged prophecies, and the strong indication that many of the details of the Gospel stories were simply concocted to match what those passages seemed to suggest.
The last two arguments are highly specialized, and need a lot of research and preparation to fully defend. But when it comes to the first one, all you need to do is establish that you're not a lone wacko, as they might assume. Fact is, many scholars have come to the same conclusion, something most Christians are completely oblivious to.
Many scholars have undertaken "The Quest for the Historic Jesus". And they've come up empty, if they're intellectually honest. Albert Schweitzer, for one, wrote a similarly-titled book in 1906. Here's his conclusion: "The question which has so much exercised the minds of men-- whether Jesus was the historic Christ-- is answered in the sense that everything the historical Christ is, everything that is said of him, everything that is known of him, belongs to the world of the imagination, that is, the imagination of the Christian community, and therefore he has nothing to do with any man who belongs in the real world."
Schweitzer was not alone. Here's what another scholar, GRS Mead, wrote: It has always been an unfailing source of astonishment to the historical investigator of Christian beginnings that there is not a single word from the pen of any pagan writer of the first century of our era which can in any fashion be referred to the marvelous story recounted by the Gospel writers. The very existence of Jesus seems unknown."
Or, taking a patriotic tack, you might cite the redoubtable Tom Paine, who made the following determination in a supplement to his "Age of Reason":
These repeated forgeries and falsifications create a well-founded suspicion that all the cases spoken of concerning the person called Jesus Christ are made cases, on purpose to lug in, and that very clumsily, some broken sentences from the Old Testament, and apply them as prophecies of those cases; and that so far from his being the Son of God, he did not even exist as a man-- that he is merely an imaginary of allegorical character, as Apollo, Hercules, Jupiter and all the deities of antiquity were. There is no history written at the time Jesus is said to have lived that speaks of the existence of such a person, even as a man."
Some of the leading Protestant theologians, though unable to let go of their attachment to Jesus, were still honest enough to admit that there's no real evidence of him. Rudolph Bultmann concluded that Christianity is based on the legendary Jesus, not the historic one, and that the historic one was unrecoverable. "I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either and are, moreover, fragmentary and often legendary."
Paul Tillich came to a similar conclusion:
"Historical research has made it obvious that there is no way to get at the historical events which produce the Biblical Jesus who is called the Christ with more than a degree of probability."
What this amounts to is sheer guesswork for those who maintain this irrational belief.
Mediocre apologists who've read the ever-popular Josh McDowell books are fond of touting historical evidence for Jesus. Don't let them get away with it. This "evidence" always turns out to be non-contemporaneous, as in Tacitus's 2nd century reference to Christians (which does nothing to prove that there was an actual Christ), and especially Josephus, who not only was born after the putative time of Christ, but whose purported mention of him has been determined by scholars-- not pious apologists-- to be an interpolation. The arguments in defense of this are overly technical for an impromptu oral argument.
But for us the conclusion is inescapable. Jesus never existed. It might shock the average Christian, but as you see, it's not so ridiculous an assertion after all. Proclaim it with confidence and frustrate a Soul Winner.
"The Jesus Mysteries" by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy
"Can Christians Prove the Resurrection?: A Reply to the Apologists" by Chris Sandoval
"Gospel Fictions" by Randel Helms