I love the Facebook page “Did Abe Lincoln Really Exist?” It’s a satirical page that takes the same arguments people use to claim Jesus was a myth and applies them to the life and record of Abraham Lincoln. It’s funny, but it highlights a serious topic: Did Jesus exist? Movies Like Zeitgeist, The Da Vinci Code and Religious have really pushed the idea that Jesus either didn’t exist or was just another mythical god. In order to respond well to this question, there are at least three key claims that deserve a clear answer.
CLAIM #1: Jesus Never Existed
Even though atheists like Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins seems very excited about this claim, this idea is simply not taken seriously. Rather than cite a host of Christian scholars who obviously take issue with them, I will let Bart Ehrman respond. Ehrman is a biblical scholar who is also an outspoken Scriptural critic. He does not believe Jesus was God, and he is highly skeptical about the reliability of Scripture, but on this issue he wrote:
“With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) -- sources that originated in Jesus' native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life… Historical sources like that are is pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind
Moreover, we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus' life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus' closest disciple Peter and his own brother James. If Jesus did not exist, you would think his brother would know it…
Moreover, aspects of the Jesus story simply would not have been invented by anyone wanting to make up a new Savior. The earliest followers of Jesus declared that he was a crucified messiah. But prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah.
The messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy. Anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that. Why did the Christians not do so? Because they believed specifically that Jesus was the Messiah. And they knew full well that he was crucified. The Christians did not invent Jesus…”
Ehrman does not conclude that Jesus was the Messiah, but he clearly makes the case for his existence. In an entry called “Christ Myth Theory,” even Wikipedia (which has received a lot of criticism for having a somewhat hostile view toward Christianity) notes:
“The hypothesis that a historical Jesus figure never existed is supported only by a very small minority of modern scholars… biblical scholars and classical historians now regard theories of non-existence of Jesus as effectively refuted.”
CLAIM #2: Jesus is a compilation of myths
Books like Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God, as well as James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, reignited a modern dialogue by claiming that the stories of Krishna, Buddha, Apollonius, Osiris, Jesus and others were all connected.
Jewish scholar Samuel Sandmel calls this "parallelomania” – people see an apparent similarity and then go “maniacal” in their attempts to create a parallel connection in the stories. The fact that a fictional story bears a resemblance to a later historical event is hardly a sufficient reason to dismiss the event. Here is a more recent example from J. Warner Wallace:
“What if I told you that a man named Morgan Robertson once wrote about a British ocean liner that was about 800 feet long, weighed over 60,000 tons, and could carry about 3,000 passengers? The ship had a top cruising speed of 24 knots, had three propellers, and about 20 lifeboats. What if I told you that this ocean liner hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage in the month of April, tearing an opening in the starboard side forward portion of the ship, and sinking along with about 2,000 passengers? Would you recognize the event from history?
You might say, “Hey, that’s the Titanic!” Well, you would be wrong. While all these details are identical to the Titanic, the ship I am talking about is the “Titan” and it is a fictional ship described in Robertson’s book called “The Wreck of the Titan” or “Futility” (Buccaneer Books, Cutchogue, New York, 1898). This book was written fourteen years BEFORE the disaster took place, and several years before the construction was even begun on the Titanic!"
Correlation is not causation. Similarity is not plagiarism. Furthermore, there are at least six separate problems with the mythical “dying and rising god” analogy:
- There are no dying and rising gods similar to Jesus in mythology.
- No evidence suggests that Jesus fit that profile of the pagan gods even if the “dying and rising god” similarities were true.
- In 1 Corinthians15, we have one of the earliest Christian creeds dating to around 55 AD. Paul said it was “received,” so it was already in place before then. The idea that a mythical Jesus emerged in that short of a time span is very hard to defend.
- Similarities between Mithraic and Christian rituals were written about by early Christians, but the writers saw it as a distortion of Christian practices, not a foundational tradition that helped to start Christianity. In fact, Mithraism didn’t reach the area in which Christianity began until the later part of the first century (thanks to Roman soldiers bringing the ideas back with them).
- Because the Christian community was largely populated by people raised in Judaism, the idea that early Christians would choose to combine pagan myths with their faith is very unlikely (something about “having no other gods”).
- The early followers of Christ clearly believed him to be divine, as seen in the many ICTHUS carvings that have survived. (ICTHUS is an anagram for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”)
CLAIM #3: We don’t need a physical Jesus to die and resurrect.
The idea is that a spiritual Jesus, or a real Jesus with a purely spiritual resurrection, would be sufficient for the Christian claims about salvation and resurrection. Therefore, we don't need to worry about the controversy over his historicity or legacy. However, the historical resurrection of Jesus is crucial to all the core doctrinal claims of Christianity.
Jesus’ death did not prove His divinity; anybody can die. His Resurrection was the proof. “By being raised from the dead [Christ] was proved to be the mighty Son of God, with the holy nature of God Himself." (Romans 1:4, The Living Bible). Paul writes very clearly about the importance of this claim:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)
Through His Resurrection, Jesus’ claims about the ability to forgive sin were confirmed: “If Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain…That is, if there truly was no resurrection, then we, believers, are to be pitied for being so hoodwinked. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19) If Jesus can break the power of physical death, then his claim to cancel spiritual death carries a lot of weight.
- Tactics. Greg Koukl
- Cold Case Christianity. J. Warner Wallace (pleaseconvinceme.com)
- “Evidence For The Resurrection of Christ.” Peter Kreeft. http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/resurrection-evidence.htm
- “The Jesus Myth: Investigating Claims of Copying.” MaryJo Sharp. http://www.apologeticsguy.com/2011/07/is-jesus-a-myth-mithras-osiris-theory-christianity/
- The Skeptic Project: Zeitgeist
- SALT 2013, MaryJo Sharp (on Youtube)
“When they say that Christian beliefs about Jesus are derived from pagan mythology, I think you should laugh. Then look at them wide-eyed and with a big grin, and exclaim, "Do you really believe that?" Act as though you've just met a flat earther or Roswell conspirator. You could say something like, "Man, those old theories have been dead for over a hundred years! Where are you getting this stuff?" Tell them this is just sensationalist junk, not serious scholarship. If they persist, then ask them to show you the actual passages narrating the supposed parallel. They're the ones who are swimming against the scholarly consensus, so make them work hard to save their religion. I think you'll find that they've never even read the primary sources.” – William Lane Craig