Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Christ Myth won't die

The website Patheos, a new US site that covers all aspects of religion, has published a retooled version of an article I wrote several years ago debunking the theory that Jesus never existed. This idea has been around for ages and has enjoyed new vigour as the internet helped it spread. I cut my debating teeth at Internet Infidels arguing over this with the likes of Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier.

Patheos have split my original article into four bite-sized chunks:

1) Explaining why we can rely on Josephus as evidence Jesus existed;

2) Dealing with the thesis that Jesus’ life shows parallels with pagan god-men;

3) Looking at the evidence that St Paul knew about the historical Jesus; and

4) Satirising the Christ Myth by using similar methods to show that Hannibal didn’t exist either.

Unfortunately, much of this material is as relevant now as when I wrote it. The Christ myth has been endlessly reheated and so I can’t apologise for reheating the rebuttals as well. We must await Richard Carrier’s promised new book to see if he can bring anything new to the party.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Matt K said...

Hi James,

Interesting choice of using Hannibal for the parody. It seems most people use Socrates (probably because he had disciples of some sort who were interested in promoting his teachings).

Have you listened to Carrier's interview with Conversations From a Pale Blue Dot? He talks a bit about the book he is working on. He discusses what kind of historical method he will be using.

A transcript: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=10150#more-10150

Deef said...

It's far from dead on a popular level, seeing how much the issue is still brought up in this debates I have with atheists.
These articles will be useful, thanks James!

James said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for the link. It looks like he will come out against the existence of Jesus on balance.

But what he says about most inductive reasoning reducing to Bayes Theorem is interesting.

Best wishes


Historyscoper said...

Sorry, but the only evidence Christ existed comes from Christians, who aren't impartial historians. Still, there's plenty of evidence Christians existed, and they must have come from somewhere. Check out the arguments and evidence for the Bible pro and con:


Matt K said...

No problem James. Thanks for doing great work that you make available for free.

Michael Fugate said...

Would it make any real difference to anyone if Hannibal were a mythological person? Can you apply the same criteria to a person most historians have concluded is mythological? How could you tell?

Ziggy said...


Sorry, but when you have positive evidence from hostile witnesses, that is strong evidence indeed. So you are of course wrong, my boy. But don't feel blue: the website you advertised gave me a good chuckle, so that must count for something, no?

Humphrey said...

"Would it make any real difference to anyone if Hannibal were a mythological person?"

Yeah; Vin Diesel. He is supposed to be playing Hannibal in a forthcoming movie (Hannibal the Conqueror)in 2011. My guess is it's going to be a turkey - but still probably better than Oliver Stone's Alexander.

Humphrey said...

'Can you apply the same criteria to a person most historians have concluded is mythological?'

Mythological people don't tend to have non-mythological brothers called James - Josephus (Antiquities 20,9).

Michael Fugate said...

But if you are Roman Catholic, you don't believe Jesus had siblings - at least not through Mary.

Michael Fugate said...

Here is another question. I grew in a biblical literalist tradition and reading the Bible thoroughly as a young adult was enlightening in many ways. I realize that there people who deny Jesus existed and they somehow think this is the death of Christianity. But does it need to be? If many (most) OT stories are deemed allegorical, couldn't the Gospels be also? Doesn't the NT simply extend redemption to the Gentiles and couldn't the sacrifice made by Jesus be an analogy for God's love?
I am sure this is not an original thought.

Duke of Earl said...

Michael, even if, as I understand mainstream Catholicism has done, you adopt the doctrine of perpetual virginity of Mary, Josephus' testimony is still valid. If he described someone as John, the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, he was simply referring to a familial relationship. It wouldn't matter if James was his half brother, or his step brother, what matters is that relationship existed.

Firstly, no, not most, nor many, Old Testament stories are deemed allegorical.

Secondly, as people have regularly pointed out, we have the same number of extra-biblical references to Tiberius as we do to Jesus. If Jesus becomes allegorical, then how long before all history becomes allegorical?

Credentialled historians would be the last people (indeed are the last people) to endorse the Christ-myth, because they know that compared to the fragmented and often quite distant records they have to work with, the Gospels are vastly better attested.

Matt K said...


I believe that because it is likely Joseph was significantly older than Mary (he doesn't get much mention after Jesus' teen years in the Gospels so it is possible he died before Jesus' ministry) Catholics can reasonably maintain that Joseph had children from a previous marriage so Jesus' brothers are step-brothers through Joseph. It still seems problematic that none of them are mentioned in the birth narratives though but the belief does not explicitly contradict the Bible.

TheOFloinn said...

James, I loved the Hannibal thing that I posted it at my own location, making some additional comments.
and here
+ + +

I understand that the Catholic position is that the term used covers cousins as well as brothers. The Eastern Orthodox hold that Joseph was a widower and had children from a prior marriage. None of this is mentioned canonically because none of it was the purpose of the evangelists. Parchment was not so cheap as to use it for digressions on side topics. The non-canonical Gospel of Peter does make reference to Joseph's other children in the journey to Bethlehem.

Banshee said...

Re: allegory

You seem to be saying that there is absolutely no way to recognize the genre of a book by reading it and perhaps examining its context. I think that the vast majority of readers would disagree.

If that were true, you would constantly be confused when reading messages from your friends and employers. Is "Get this done by Tuesday or else" just an allegory, or perhaps a line from an epic poem? Surely the boss doesn't mean to tell me to finish the assignment, when he could be telling me that I should skip work and pursue romance and adventure.

If you really want to study genre at a scholarly level, you can have all sorts of fun writing definitions and picking them apart. But people can usually identify genre markers without too much trouble; and if you need help, Bible study isn't an obscure subject.

But if you don't want to do it that way, here's another approach. If you read the whole Bible, you'll get a pretty good feel for Biblical genres. And if you actually read ancient myths and literature, you'll get a good feel for the ways the Bible is similar and different.

James said...

Glad that the Hannibal skit was amusing, TheOFloinn.

On the brothers of Jesus, I'm happy enough to assume that they were brothers and potentially blood brothers.

I tend to leave the matter in the hands of Chris Rock from Dogma:

"The nature of God and the Virgin Birth — these are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? That's just plain gullibility!"

Anonymous said...

Re perpetual virginity of Mary: I've seen it argued that Luke 1:29-34 suggests Mary and Joseph were already committed to a virginal marriage; note that Mary says *before the angel has said anything about a supernatural birth* "How can this be, since I have not known a man?" If she had been planning to consummate her marriage to Joseph in the normal way, she wouldn't have been surprised by the thought she would have a son.

c matt said...

I realize that there people who deny Jesus existed and they somehow think this is the death of Christianity. But does it need to be?

St. Paul says YES. "If He did not die and rise from the dead, our faith is in vain" or something to that effect. If He did not exist, He could not have done the aforementioned, so St. Paul rules out any allegorical possibility.

Liz said...

[from Stone; not Liz, my better half]

Hi --

Just to show how stubborn the adherence to the mythicism idea can be today, some of you may have seen an extraordinarily long thread where atheists on both sides debate the issue with just as much rancor as I've ever seen between on-line atheists and believers!


This thread has been ongoing for nearly two years and is still going as vehemently as ever, having now reached nearly 1000 pages!

Not sure if this is the mot juste, but



Ignorance said...

Ironically, recently somebody at Rational Skepticism mentioned the article at Patheos that James wrote:


Though the myther crowd don't like it and resort to quibbling, the rational like your article quite much, James.

fabbeyond said...

Peace your links seem to be dead
Is there another way of reading these pieces of work of yours ?