With the rise of the internet, it is more likely than ever that you will encounter the theory that Jesus is a mythical figure. This has been a settled issue among scholars for decades; not even the most skeptical ancient historians or liberal theologians doubt the existence of a first-century Palestinian man named Jesus. Yet the popular imagination runs rampant with tales of conspiracy and corruption, myth and fabrication, and ubiquitous parallels of Jesus to ancient pagan gods. Perhaps some of you have already run across this idea.
According to Robert M. Price, one of the leading proponents of this view, the Christ myth theory rests on three grounds: 1) There is no mention of a miracle-working Jesus in the secular sources; 2) The epistles, written earlier than the Gospels, do not evidence a recent historical Jesus; and 3) The Jesus story of the epistles strongly resembles Middle Eastern religions based on dying and rising gods. Let’s consider each of these arguments briefly.
The assertion that there is no miracle-working Jesus attested in secular sources is easily refuted. The Jewish historian Josephus describes Jesus as a “doer of wonderful works” (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.63-64). This passage is not without controversy; it is possible a later Christian has tampered with the text to make it more strongly affirm Jesus. Even so, the scholarly consensus is that most of the passage—including describing Jesus as a “doer of wonderful works”—is authentic. If we discount Josephus, there is still the Talmud, the written tradition of the rabbis, attributing Jesus’ execution to practicing magic or sorcery – a clear indication of performing great works. In short, this argument rests on a very tendentious reading of the evidence; even if true, it would not indicate that there was no historical Jesus, just, at most, that he performed no great miracles.
The second contention, that Paul’s epistles do not demonstrate a particular historical context for Jesus, is also easily disproved. The nature of the epistles, as letters to already formed Christian communities familiar with the story of Jesus, explains why there would be no long rehearsal of Jesus’s life like the Gospels. Nevertheless, there are several specifics woven throughout Paul’s writings. Jesus was a descendant of David (Romans 1:3)and was therefore Jewish (Galatians 4:4). He was crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23), a characteristically Roman method of execution for rebels. He had a brother, James (Galatians 1:19). Further, there is the matter of 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul lists numerous eyewitnesses to a bodily resurrection of Jesus who could still be consulted. The idea that the epistles do not reveal a recent historical Jesus will not stand up to scrutiny.
The final pillar for the mythicists is that the Jesus story is a type of dying and rising god myth. The idea, popular among the history of religions school in the late 19thearly 20thcenturies, is that these gods were originally related to agricultural cycles, “dying” and “rising” annually. Eventually, myths of these gods such as Attis, Osiris, Mithras, and others were reinterpreted into the mystery religions of classical antiquity. The argument is that the Christ myth was originally a variation on this theme.
The evidence is sorely lacking for this supposed category of gods existing anywhere other than in the minds of scholars consumed with parallelism. As Jonathan Z. Smith, a religious historian and professor at the University of Chicago notes:
All of the deities that have been identified as belonging to the class of dying and rising deities can be subsumed under the two larger classes of disappearing deities or dying deities. In the first case, the deities return but have not died; in the second case, the gods die but do not return. There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity (Thomas Gale, Farmington Hills, Mich., 2005; 2535).
These myths all existed for centuries in different forms; those which do arguably exhibit some trace of a resurrection belief only do so from a much later period, the 3rdand 4thcenturies AD in particular, when it is likely these mystery cults are conscious of the growing threat of Christianity. Indeed, mythicists are guilty of a form of this influence indirectly, by interpreting pagan myth through a Christian lens, using Christian terms to describe their findings; it is no wonder that “parallels” exist using such a method.
Unless one totally disregards all evidence to the contrary, there is no reason to doubt the existence of Jesus. There is ample historical testimony from both the NT and extrabiblical sources. Whether one accepts the exclusive claims the NT makes about Jesus is another matter, of course. But there is no doubt that Jesus really lived and died.