For many Christians, it’s a foregone conclusion that Jesus was not only a real person, but a god. The god. While this position doesn’t hold any water in academic circles, there is a legitimate question to ask: Was there a real person whose life was the inspiration for either the gospel, Paul’s epistles, or both?
The question itself is shocking to many laypeople, and even some academics. Of course there was a real Jesus! How can someone even ask the question?! But that, of course, is the point. The bravest explorers have always been the ones who dared to ask the questions nobody thought needed to be asked. From the discovery that the world was spherical to the realization that we are but a tiny blue dot in a tiny corner of an immense universe, there have always been jeers from the peanut gallery, assuring everyone that there was no need to question popular wisdom.
There have been academic efforts to address the question of Jesus before. Unfortunately, none of them have reached irrefutable conclusions. One concrete result of such inquiries has been the deep and personal rifts between academics who have often lowered themselves to less than professional name calling. There are several sides in the debate, and each holds to their position with what sometimes appears to be dogmatic certainty.
On one side, you have the “Jesus historicists.” They believe that Jesus must have been a real person, and it’s absurd to suggest that the gospel and epistles are anything other than sexed up biography and commentary on a real person’s life. Another side argues that there is no first-hand evidence for Jesus’ existence, and therefore no reason to presume that he existed. Still another argues that Jesus was never intended to be perceived as an earthly savior. Instead, he was a heavenly figure, not unlike so many hellenic deities of the day. Yet another believes that the Jesus myth was a combination of pre-existing savior myths like Horus and Dionysus. Finally, there are the Jesus equivalents of 9/11 Truthers, people who believe that the Jesus story is a grand conspiracy, invented by sociopolitical engineers as a control mechanism to compete with the dying Roman religions.
The upshot to the whole thing is that there is anything but consensus, and there is no position which is obviously true. The historical consensus before 1900 was due primarily to the lack of unbiased inquiry. Since then, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and linguists have gotten together in multi-disciplinary pursuit of an answer, and the issue has grown more and more contentious by the decade.
The latest failed scholarly attempt to reach concensus was The Jesus Project, begun in 2007 and quietly ended in 2009 when project chair R. Joseph Hoffmann declared, “No quantum of material discovered since the 1940’s, in the absence of canonical material, would support the existence of an historical founder. No material regarded as canonical and no church doctrine built upon it in the history of the church would cause us to deny it. Whether the New Testament runs from Christ to Jesus or Jesus to Christ is not a question we can answer.” (LINK)
In a nutshell, the figure of Jesus is likely to be forever shrouded in mystery. Lacking some sort of concrete archaeological evidence — which becomes less and less likely with the passage of time — each person will have to make some sort of leap of academic faith to hold any position firmly. Even so, there are still academics doing their best to demonstrate that their argument is at least the most compelling.
There’s no shortage of argument for the existence of a historical Jesus. (This makes sense, considering that around 70% of Americans believe he was a god.) A Google search of the phrase “Did Jesus really exist” yielded almost 2.4 million hits. Of those, an overwhelming number favor the position that he did. Here are a couple of examples: (LINK) (LINK) The nutshell version of most arguments for Jesus relies on early writings by Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, and the Talmud. There is no archaeological or textual evidence from the time when Jesus allegedly lived, so these sources are the earliest available.
Richard Carrier is one of those who leans towards Jesus not existing, and being essentially a fabrication. Here are his own words:
My argument now is that we face a dilemma, either (a) Acts is fiction from the ground up, or (b) it is based on an earlier set of sources; if (a), then obviously Acts is eliminated as evidence for historicity; but if (b), then the earliest sources behind Acts can be shown to have been suspiciously lacking a historical Jesus. Ironically this means the more reliable you deem Acts to be, the less likely Jesus existed as a historical person (unless you deem Acts to be so reliable as to be free of any error or distortion whatever, but only fundamentalists would believe something so absurd of any ancient historical narrative). (LINK)
Richard presented a tongue-in-cheek version of his argument at Skeptican II earlier this year. (Watch the video HERE.)
Another scholar who has gone even further is Thomas L. Thompson. As early as 1974, Thompson openly questioned the consensus opinion that the Bible was a historically accurate representation of history, particularly with regard to Old Testament patriarchs such as Abraham and King Solomon. He concluded: “The linguistic and literary reality of the biblical tradition is folkloristic in essence. The concept of a benei Israel … is a reflection of no sociopolitical entity of the historical state of Israel of the Assyrian period….” (LINK) Since then, Thompson’s critiques have extended to the historicity of Jesus. (LINK)
In a new volume, Thompson has teamed with Thomas S. Verenna, a student of ancient history whose first book was a collection of essays on everything from ancient ghosts to the question of Jesus. Their new publication is a collection of essays by various biblical scholars focused specifically on the subject of Jesus’ historicity. (LINK) While it is pricey ($115 for 296 pages! Ouch!), Verenna’s website mentions a pre-order price of $71. The book was featured at the Society of Biblical Literature’s expo in San Francisco.
There is, then, no shortage of new opinion on the matter. Though the position that Jesus did not exist is still shouted down vehemently by both the “Old Guard” and current conservative historians, there is a growing scholarly effort to challenge the assumptions of the past and at least ask tough questions about biblical interpretation and the glaring lack of corroborating extra-canonical evidence. It’s not a topic for everyone, to be sure, but if you are interested in knowing what the real experts think and why, there’s no shortage of material for you to dig through.