Of course, that post--and this one--was motivated by an upsurge in discussion about Jesus mythicism, the position that Jesus (very probably) did not exist and is simply a mythic construction. As historian and highly motivated atheist Richard Carrier is both very interested in this topic and in a sphere of activity bordering my own, the discussion that prompted the first post I made on this topic probably followed from something he did. This one certainly does, as Carrier recently published a book specifically about the historicity of Jesus, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, published last month by Sheffield Phoenix Press.
To be clear, I haven't read Carrier's new book. (Why would I? I'm not kidding when I say that I don't care about whether or not Jesus existed.) I don't say this to dissuade anyone from reading it or taking it seriously (though the latter would be a separate topic to the one I'm talking about here). It's just full disclosure, not that it matters because I'm not going to argue or even talk about his book beyond noting that it seems to have stirred up a conversation on a topic that I hold a controversial view--not caring a jot.
I will note briefly that I think the Jesus mythicism discussion is kind of a non-starter in any discussion with a Christian. The only thing that's needed to accomplish all the work desired by Jesus mythicism when it comes to talking to Christians about their faith--unless we obtained absolutely solid evidence that there was no Jesus (which is probably impossible)--is done simply by the idea that it's possible that there was no Jesus. Peter Boghossian's questioning approach to bring honesty about what we can claim to know is more than enough: How do you know Jesus really existed? Isn't it weird that there aren't any reliable sources for his existence outside of the Bible? What exactly is it, other than the Bible, that leads you to conclude that Jesus must have existed? Those kinds of questions do all the work of Jesus mythicism where it matters (unless you are a professional historian working in this field) unless something settled the question absolutely one way or the other--they introduce honest doubt in a position that Carrier undersells in his subtitle.
So here, extending from the fact that Christianity is false anyway, whether a historical Jesus existed or not (honestly, it's ridiculous), I'm going to talk about why I (really) don't care if Jesus existed or not.
I don't know what "a historical Jesus existed" means.
This isn't me playing dumb. I don't think you know what it means either. The reason is that it could refer to about a bajillion different things that would qualify accepting the idea that a historical Jesus did exist in very different ways. For instance, is a historical Jesus a character exactly as portrayed in the Bible (which Gospel, or maybe Paul's epistles?)? Is it some character upon whom those stories are based? Is it some movement that got Jesus as a figurehead, maybe fictionally symbolic? Is it a fictional character with inspiration found in various real-life ones but made totally fictional by the Evangelists or other early Christians?
Flatly, I don't know what is being talked about, then, when someone starts talking about a historical Jesus, so I don't know (or care) whether or not it makes for evidence of a real historical figure. Unsurprisingly, the religion is totally the problem here, and it is why it seems disanalogous to the similar question about Socrates, who was mentioned earlier. Note that it really doesn't matter if Socrates existed or not--the information we have about him from Plato, and everything we've done with it, is every bit as useful and interesting in either case. The same would be true about Jesus if it weren't for the fact that Christians believe it as if it were literally true, which is isn't.
What I want to do here is talk about different ways that we might conceptualize "a historical Jesus existed" and see kind of what's wrong with each of them.
Did Gospel Jesus Exist?
This question asks if the character portrayed in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, particularly in the Gospels, existed or not, as portrayed. This, by the way, is exactly what most Christians believe to be the case, and not only is it unlikely, it's so staggeringly unlikely as to be beneath serious consideration by all but believers and Sophisticates™. The character portrayed in the New Testament is clearly legendary, at the very least, especially once we grow up enough to recognize that God doesn't exist, which sort of neuters the whole thing.
Yeah, but did a real character that the New Testament tries to portray exist?
Really, though, it's way worse than that. Though it sounds like irritating pedantry or even trolling to ask, the question "which (New Testament) Jesus?" is of profound relevance. Even a cursory read through the New Testament, even at times through Jesus-Colored Glasses, reveals that there's no way the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and John are talking about the same figure. Indeed, it's unlikely that Mark, Matthew, and Luke are talking about the same guy either. And then there's the rest of the New Testament--we get yet another Jesus from Acts (though very Lucasian as "Luke" authored both books) and another from Paul's epistles (and arguably another still in Revelation). Compounding this problem, even a cursory glance at Christians both past and present and their umpteen heresies and umpteen-thousand (no joke) Christian denominations, each with their own unique take on the Gospel Jesus, leaves us staggering to figure out who any "Gospel Jesus" is or what he might have actually believed or taught.
Now, there is one Christian scholar, E.P. Sanders that I have read rather extensively on the topic of a historical Jesus carved from the New Testament accounts of that character (which is really all we have). Sanders makes clear that there are real issues considering the John-Jesus to be of the same mold as the Synoptic-Jesus. Even this more reasonable figure (or group thereof), though, he whittles down considerably in The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin, 1996) to try to get to a believable character that might have existed in history that can be drawn from the (synoptic) Gospels. Not surprisingly, Sanders is not universally accepted by Christians in his historical figure, many of the critiques indicating that he cuts away far too much.
The New Testament of the Bible, though, is a Christian manifesto. It's very difficult to take this character seriously, particularly given that the Bible portrays him doing impossible things. Perhaps a real character can be extracted from this, as Sanders seems to do rather conservatively (until he gets all weird at the end of that book and just takes the Resurrection nearly whole cloth). I don't care, though, because the ridiculous claims of Christianity don't hold water and aren't true anyway, which is to say that any Jesus character that might be real that can be extracted (at great effort) from the New Testament accounts isn't the Jesus of Christianity.
Is this pared-down character what is meant when people say "a historical Jesus existed"? I'm not sure, but I'd be very, very surprised if any but the most liberal (or desperate) Christians accepted it, which is to say that without going very far at all (just removing all of the magic, as did Thomas Jefferson in The Jefferson Bible), we're already past the point of irrelevance on the question of Jesus' existence.
As an aside, Jefferson considered Jesus to be the most inspiring moral teacher of all time, which is plainly ridiculous as well. Jesus advocated all kinds of cultish, weird, and abjectly stupid things to do (like cutting off your own testicles in order to get to go to an imaginary paradise after you die, casting "bad branches" into (eternal) fire, being unconcerned with investment for one's future, giving up everything you own and begging (which not everyone can do for obvious reasons), and hating one's own family to follow him). I don't know what character Jefferson was talking about even after having read The Jefferson Bible if he thinks that Jesus was a great moral teacher of any age, much less a timeless one, but it is possible that the Jefferson Jesus was a real person, not that it matters.
Maybe the New Testament narrative, including Jesus, is based upon something real, though?
Honestly, I think this is the most plausible case, but, as I keep saying, I don't care. There are a number of ways that a character that became the Jesus of the New Testament, through much story-telling and tall-tale-telling, plus religious doctoring, might have "existed."
Maybe there was a cracked apocalyptic Jewish teacher, of the ascetic Essene sect or otherwise, at the time whose name was Yeshua (the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek "Jesus"). Maybe there was a whole movement of such a cult, with John the Baptist somehow integrally related, or not. Maybe some of both was going on, meaning that there was a character named "Jesus" in such a cult, with Jesus not particularly special within it though the whole thing stuck out a little. Maybe those got lumped together into figurehead that was real or fictional, called "Jesus" in the New Testament. Like I said--I think something like this is probably the most plausible scenario, not least because of Christopher Hitchens's astute observation that the outright fraud in the Gospel birth narratives (which is obvious) is possibly best accounted for by assuming a real figure that needed to be squared with an unreal story somehow.
Here's the relevant question, though, because we've gotten pretty far from the New Testament to accept any of this: Is this a "historical Jesus"? Is this what we mean by that phrase? I'm not sure, but a case could be made that it would qualify, particularly if someone is desperate enough to believe that they'll grasp any straw that seems to make their beliefs distantly possible.
Particularly, consider the case of there being no real Jesus, or a very unimportant member of this particular charismatic movement/cult named Jesus, but that this whole movement got summarized under the name of Jesus when writing the Gospels down. That's pretty damn far from "a historical Jesus existed," in both cases, and yet it kind of qualifies in that it would imply that the Jesus narrative is at least (fairly loosely) based upon real historical events. Who cares, though?
Anyway, is this what people are talking about when they say "a historical Jesus existed"? I doubt it, even if it is, to me, the most plausible scenario regarding the question. Certainly, we've gone way beyond relevance to Christian beliefs since this would equate them with following the beliefs that evolved out of some failed crackpot apocalyptic cult that might or might not have even included a member by the relevant name.
Maybe it's even looser than that.
This is going to sound ridiculous, but I think to be fair to an examination of the meaning of "Did (a historical) Jesus exist?", we must go even further. Consider, then, if you will, a similar question: Did (a historical) Albus Dumbledore exist?
Surely this looks flippant, but I'm quite serious. Obviously, we know that J.K. Rowling created the character of Albus Dumbledore for her Harry Potter series of fantasy novels. (Technically--we don't know this. Rowling could have been moved by the real version of the magic presented in the story to write an inspired text about real characters outside of her own knowledge, or she could have written the story aware of the reality of it only to have her memory modified by a well-placed obliviate memory charm, so even Rowling's insistence that the story and its characters are fictional creations lies outside of our epistemic horizon, which kind of makes meal of that whole line of argument to ignorance for Jesus.)
Here's the catch, though, that's more relevant than that long parenthetical thought: Rowling has explained plainly that her inspiration for the character of Albus Dumbledore, benevolent and wise (and fictional) headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, was partially one of her own school headmasters as a girl. That is to say that there was a real character upon whom Albus Dumbledore is based as a fictional extension. Does that mean that there was a historical Albus Wulfric Percival Brian Dumbledore, then?
Strangely, and hopefully you're following me here, the question isn't so ridiculous anymore. In parallel, in order to qualify in the case of Jesus, we'd need only to know that some original source material, some purveyor of oral tradition, or any of the Evangelists, particularly Mark, or even Paul or John (the author of Revelation), was using a real person as a basis for a fictional extension called Jesus.
I know this is a common technique in writing fiction--many (perhaps most or all) fictional characters have some basis in real characters (or combinations thereof) in the author's life. Thus, even if there wasn't even a real apocalyptic movement that bears Jesus' name now or anything remotely like what we'd accept as a historical figure of Jesus at all, it is plausible that the authors of those stories had someone real in mind when they wrote about Jesus, or perhaps someones. Would that qualify as a "historical Jesus"? (I don't think so, but given that we're talking about something that isn't true anyway, Christianity, why on Earth not?)
Seriously, I don't know what it means
So, I'm not kidding when I say that I have no clear idea of what people are talking about when they ask me if I think a real/historical Jesus existed. I guess ultimately, they're asking me either
- Do you think some particular (usually "the one I'm thinking of myself") character of Jesus was a real historical figure or not? To this question, I don't care because Christianity isn't true anyway, and that's really the only reason it matters in the usual context, which is to say that any such character that might have existed isn't relevant to the spirit of the question. (Note: History is interesting and all, but we don't need to find out Jesus wasn't a real historical character to realize that much of Western culture and thus world history was based upon Christian fiction, really. Clearly, it was.) Or,
- Do you think any character that we could argue ourselves into calling "a historical Jesus" existed? To this question, I don't know but would guess a qualified "probably, but why should I care?" The qualification is everything though: any that I think have a chance of existing--since Christianity is false anyway--again are irrelevant to the usual spirit of the question.
Just to tie up the loose end: I also don't care if people like Richard Carrier or other historians want to try to sort this out--more power to them. And so far as a matter of history is concerned, though I referred to it as a footnote, it is of some importance, I suppose. But it is only of any importance at all as a point of historical fact and thus is profoundly unimportant in the ongoing discussion about Christian beliefs in our contemporary world (which I guess is the main motivation, particularly for outspoken and ardent atheist writers and speakers like Richard Carrier). So, I'm not saying people shouldn't care about the question as a matter of history, but they should do so realizing that without absolute proof one way or the other, they aren't doing anything terribly important in the cultural debate about religion.