By Fernando Bermejo-Rubio
Departamento de Filosofía
Although a minority in the field of New Testament scholarship, some authors maintain the idea that Jesus the Galilean did not exist.1 This is what has been called a “mythicist” position.2 As is well known, the debate among these scholars and those clinging to the idea that Jesus really existed is not infrequently heated and even riddled with disparaging comments about the other side. In this brief paper I am going to establish my own position in a very elementary way, thereby trying to tackle this issue in a rather irenic and respectful attitude.
To start with, let me make some preliminary –and perhaps not superfluous– comments. Firstly, given that the discussion related to the historical figure of Jesus is often conditioned by extra-epistemic factors (it is usually dictated by religious/theological commitments, sometimes by antireligious ones), let me say that I have no vested interest in the matter. In this issue, nothing essential is at stake for me. I am not a faith-based scholar, and I am not intellectually or emotionally committed to the existence of Jesus the Galilean. If someone could provide compelling reasons to make me draw the conclusion that Jesus did (probably) not exist, that would not be a personal tragedy. In fact, I would even be greatly amused by such an outcome.
Secondly, I freely confess a deep sympathy towards proponents of the idea that Jesus did not exist (the so-called “mythicists”). On the one hand, they are a minority, and I am prone to take seriously into account minorities’ views (too often I have realized that common opinion, including in the field of Jesus scholarship, is based on wrong assumptions, and I myself maintain some views on the historical Jesus –and on the history of research– which are in a minority).3 On the other hand, I share with the proponents of that idea a deep distrust towards the available sources: the Canonical Gospels are indeed extremely biased sources, and their accounts are too often scarcely credible.4 Some years ago I examined Bruno Bauer’s works in order to understand why he had reached his hyper-sceptical view on the historicity of Jesus; although I came to the conclusion that his position was not solidly based,5 I surmised that what led him to his final view was the fact that he run out of patience with the exegetical prestidigitation carried out in prevailing scholarship.6 I can easily understand that someone is frustrated not only with the inconsistencies and implausible contents of the Christian sources, but also with the innumerable attempts of so many modern scholars, specially believers, to downplay and tone down the inconsistencies of the unreliable accounts, because I am irritated too with all those unscientific procedures (what Johannes Weiss already called, at the end of the 19th century, the “Umdeutungskunst” or “art of the reinterpretation” of the exegetes).7
I also think that mythicists are right over the claim that some material which is often used as supporting the historicity of Jesus is not helpful for that aim. For instance, even if the Testimonium Flavianum were partially authentic,8 one should be cautious about its value as independent attestation for the issue of the historicity of Jesus: given that Josephus was writing towards the end of the first century, he could have been directly or indirectly reflecting Christian claims that in turn reflected the Gospels or the traditions immediately behind them.9 And I agree that the Jesus (or rather the Jesuses) proclaimed by the evangelists and their present heirs –preachers and theologians– did never exist.
Thirdly, I do not aim at persuading anyone of Jesus’ historicity, just as I do not aim at dissuading anyone from believing that Jesus was the Son of God. It is not only that I do not have a vocation as a preacher. There are indeed people for whom the (non-)historicity of Jesus seems to be a kind of dogma (they argue for it with a fury and sharpness which make me suspect of hidden agendas). But I am not interested in fundamentalist believers, because I do not particularly like banging my head against a brick wall. As a historian with a philosophical leaning (or, if you prefer, as a philosopher with a historical leaning) I am simply interested in arguing about what is more probable historically, and if possible, I prefer to argue along with reasonable people who pay real attention to sound arguments. In the reconstruction of the past we are, of course, often facing a question of probability. And I think that the (by far) most probable thing is that a single identifiable person named Jesus lies at the root of the Gospel tradition.
Once said this, let us come to my basic arguments.
1) I find the sentence “The main rational argument against death penalty is that there is no rational argument in its favor”, sometimes (apocryphally?) attributed to the German jurist Paul Bockelmann, to be basically right. I have carefully examined the arguments in favor of capital punishment, and I have found all them ultimately flawed. Irrespective of the authenticity of the attribution, I would say something similar regarding Jesus: one of my main arguments against the non-historicity of Jesus is that –after having analyzed sine ira et studio quite a few works of the proponents of the idea, since Bauer to the very present10– I have found no compelling arguments in its favor. And –although this, of course, is not an argument– I am not alone in this judgment: I know quite a few agnostic and atheist scholars in Europe who do not harbor serious doubts about Jesus’ historicity.
2) The legendary, haggadic and anachronistic material in the Gospels (suffused with the faith of the early Church and probably written from forty to seventy years after the events narrated) is indeed very abundant.11 This poses the question whether everything in these writings is to be reduced to myth and legend (a possibility that, a priori, should not be discarded). But if one takes the trouble of painstakingly going through the texts, one finds a core of material that does not seem to have been concocted or shaped according to the mold of older stories. I refer to evidence which is characterized by the following features: a) it is quite plausibly ascribed to the period in which Jesus is supposed to have lived, and faithfully reflects the socio-political, religious and historical circumstances of that period; b) it is convergent and consistent, being enough to get a rough portrait of a person; c) it does not fit well –in fact, it ultimately debunks– the exalted image of the figure conveyed by the evangelists themselves (that material depicts a limited, understandable man from Galilee, with several brothers and sisters, firmly rooted in his own time and place).12 The best and most natural explanation for this material is that it corresponds to a historical figure, all the more so because the figure which is thereby reconstructed corresponds to a quite concrete, individualized person. This was clearly expressed by Alfred Loisy a century ago in his criticism of the ideas of Arthur Drews: the Jesus who can be critically reconstructed out of the Gospels is unmistakably a Jew of his age, and at the same time it is a person with his own personality.13
3) A basic rule of method in scientific research is that (all things being equal: the ceteris paribus clause must be respected) the simplest explanation that also covers the largest amount of data is to be preferred. I think this rule can be applied precisely in our case. The explanation that an all too-human being named Jesus did indeed exist as a first-century Galilean Jew, that his unexpected failure triggered among his followers a considerable reinterpretation of his fate and that, despite the inflating and divinizing process which was carried out by them, traces of his historic personality and activities remain embedded in our biased sources14 is, in my opinion, by far the simplest and most cogent explanation for the whole available evidence.15 Far from it, the alternative hypotheses contrived to oppose this solution happen to be somewhat convoluted – and not infrequently far-fetched, often requiring further auxiliary hypotheses and implausible conjectures. Once more, Loisy’s concise formulation deserves being cited: “we can explain Jesus, (but) we cannot explain those people who would have invented him”.16 If you prefer, this sentence could be slightly nuanced: “we can easily explain Jesus, we cannot so easily explain those people who would have invented him”.
I could add more arguments, but I have a word limit, and –at least for the moment– this is enough. Furthermore, those who deem these arguments to be sound will not probably need many more, whilst those who will deny their compelling force will not surely be convinced by any other reason I could provide.
Let me finish with a brief remark. Precisely because I am quite aware of the extent to which the Canonical Gospels are the result of a process of doctoring the historical figure of Jesus – a process which has had wide-ranging distorting effects –, I think I can better understand at least one of the reasons which lead some scholars (and also other readers) to deem these sources as desperately unhelpful and to remove them completely from the available evidence to recover a historical being. I think, however, that this is not only an unwarranted conclusion, but also a tragic mistake, because the critical energy of several intelligent people –as many “mythicists” undoubtedly are– devoted to “prove” the non-existence of Jesus seems to be both misguided and wasteful. In my opinion those scholars opt to cut the Gordian knot, instead of tackling the –by far harder– task of disentangling it. In this way, and despite the insights of some of their works, they leave the problem of the Gospels unresolved, the nature of their distortions ultimately untouched, and the embarrassing history these biased sources try to veil unfortunately unrecovered.
1 This stance has to be distinguished from that which maintains that Jesus is simply unknowable.
2 As is well known, this position began to be held in the 18th century.
3 See e.g. F. Bermejo-Rubio, “The Fiction of the ‘Three Quests’. An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Historiographical Paradigm”, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 7 (2009), pp. 211-253. See also the articles cited below, n. 4.
4 In a forthcoming article, I put into question several ideas that the Gospel authors (and many contemporary scholars) try to convey –namely, that Jesus was the only person of his group to be crucified, and that his death penalty was not justified from the Roman point of view– and I argue that those contentions are, to put it mildly, extremely implausible from a historical point of view; see F. Bermejo-Rubio, “(Why) Was Jesus the Galilean Crucified Alone? Solving a False Conundrum”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 36.2 (2013), 127-154. See also Id., “Jesus and the Anti-Roman Resistance. A Reassessment of the Arguments”, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, forthcoming.
5 In this sense I completely agree with Albert Schweitzer, who wrote that Bauer went further than his critical discussion allowed him to go. According to the Alsatian polymath, Bauer’s stance can be explained “aus dem Eindruck, den die damalige deutsche Apologetentheologie, wie sie gegen Strauß aufstand, auf jeden streng wahrhaftigen und tiefer denkenden Menschen machen mußte. Darum diese dämonische Freude, der Pseudowissenschaft die Krücken zu brechen, sie weit wegzuwerfen und sich an ihrer Hilflosigkeit zu belustigen [...] ein wildes Verlangen, den ‚Theologen‘ alles, alles zu nehmen, reißt Bauer viel weiter fort, als seine kritische Erkenntnis ihn sonst geführt hätte“ (A. Schweitzer, Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, Mohr, Tübingen, 19849 [orig. ed. 1913], p. 184). This shrewd diagnosis might be extended to other mythicists.
6 F. Bermejo-Rubio, “La negación de la historicidad de Jesús en Bruno Bauer (1809-1882)”, in A. Piñero (ed.), ¿Existió Jesús realmente?, Madrid: Raíces, 2008, pp. 25-51.
7 In another fortchcoming article, I have shown that the treatment of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist is faulty and biased in prevailing scholarship; see e.g. my criticism of J. P. Meier, J. D. Crossan, G. Theissen – A. Merz, J. D. G. Dunn and others in F. Bermejo-Rubio, “Why is John the Baptist used as a Foil for Jesus? Leaps of Faith and Oblique Anti-Judaism in Contemporary Scholarship”, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 11 (2013), 170-196.
8 In this point I agree with the overwhelming majority of scholars, although, at the same time, I strongly disagree with the widespread opinion that the original text by Josephus was “neutral” towards Jesus; see F. Bermejo-Rubio, “Was the Hypothetical Vorlage of the Testimonium Flavianum a “Neutral” Text? Challenging the Common Wisdom on Antiquitates Judaicae XVIII 63-64”, Journal for the Study of Judaism, forthcoming.
9 Unfortunately, the unwarranted claims in the works of the “mythicists” are damaging for the elements of truth they sometimes contain.
10 For recent surveys of conflicting views on the topic, see B. D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, HarperOne , 2012; Th. L. Thompson – Th. S. Verenna (eds.), Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus, Durham: Acumen, 2012.
11 For some of these aspects, see, e.g. the recent book of Th. L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David, New York: Basic Books, 2005.
12 According to the insights of deconstructionism and psychoanalysis, the presence of tensions in one and the same discourse can be explained by virtue of a conflict of interests (or sources) in its author, or because some aspect is being repressed. The existence of these tensions is obvious in the Canonical Gospels. I am aware of recent attempts to get rid of the so-called “criterion of embarrassment”; I have answered some of them in my forthcoming article “Changing Methods, Disturbing Material. Should the Criterion of Embarrassment Be Dismissed in Jesus Research?”.
13 “Jésus, étant juif, ayant été élevé dans le judaïsme, ne dit rien qui ne se puisse expliquer par le judaïsme. Mais ce qu’il dit n’en porte moins l’empreinte de sa personnalité, n’en est pas moins en rapport avec la mission qu’il se donne, et n’en forme pas moins un enseignement homogène, original, qui n’appartient qu’à lui, que ses disciples ont reçu de lui et qu’ils n’auraient pas su combiner pour le lui prêter” (A. Loisy, “Le mythe de Christ”, in Id., À propos d’histoire des religions, Paris, 1911, pp. 286-7).
14 There is every indication that a portion of this material was preserved through the oral tradition of the original group of followers and of the early Church, sometimes witnessing an Aramaic substratum.
15 This was the path taken by scholars as critical as H. S. Reimarus, Karl Kautsky, Robert Eisler, S. G. F. Brandon or Hyam Maccoby, just to mention a few.
16 “On s’explique Jésus. On ne s’explique pas ceux qui l’auraient inventé” (A. Loisy, “Le mythe de Christ”, p. 290).
The above article does not offer any example of part of the gospels that "do not fit well" but even "debunks" the supposedly "exalted image" the evangelists wished to portray. It does hint, however, that one such instance might be the rejection of Jesus by his family in his home-town.
Yet that particular instance is indeed a classic trope Jewish writers had long used of exalted "men of God" -- and various versions of it are also found in the wider Hellenistic literature. Ever since Abel, Joseph, Moses, Jephthah, David, . . . it is standard for an author to demonstrate the greatness of the pious by showing how he endured lack of recognition and even rejection, especially by his own. Far from debunking or running counter to a supposedly obvious desire to exalt a hero, such a trope always serves to increase the readers' admiration of the godly hero. It is necessary for the godly to suffer rejection and even persecution. That's their job description. (It also fulfills the prophecy of the "Suffering Servant".)
As for the other details such as scenes that are plausibly attributable to the setting, or there being consistency of some sort of characterization -- such details are standard fare in all enjoyable writing, as much fictive as historical.
I am glad to hear the author does not have an axe to grind. Nor do I. I can also say that I have no personal interest at stake over the question. I would quite happily be persuaded Jesus did exist (indeed, I don't know how to prove he didn't). But it is refreshing to read a position argued civilly against the mythicist view. I have found uncivil types on both sides of the fence.
#1 - Neil Godfrey - 12/11/2013 - 04:47
I think that if something is asserted by past writers about past times and is neither denied by others of comparable antiquity nor particularly implausible we should believe it.
I also think that there was a 'Christian' movement more or less undoubtedly existing in the late first century CE that claimed in its writings significant continuity with a group in 30s Palestine which had an impressive leader who was crucified. I'm ready to accept that claim in what seems to me like a scientific spirit.
That does not of itself mean that we have any scientific means to identify the ideas of that leader or even the ideas prevalent in the group, which could have evolved very considerably. It would be a mistake to place too much confidence in some short proposition, such as 'At least we can be confident that he was a Jewish nationalist'/'that he predicted the end of the world'/'that he called God his 'father''. All these 'fixed points' seem to me to give way when the whole weight of interpretation is placed upon them.
The Gospel record is puzzling in many ways but is dedicated at every point to proving that the Christians have the correct interpretation of the older scriptures. This means that it is not so different from what it would have been if its authors had written pure fiction, imagining what the great fulfillment of scripture in Pilate's Palestine would have been like. But that it was a pure fiction, somehow mistaken for or fraudulently presented as a report of real events, is an idea with difficulties of its own.
To my mind Tacitus' report, even if it has not been edited for Christian purposes, proves at most that no one found the idea of a Christian founder in Pilate's time particularly implausible.
The Flavianum is an arrant forgery, surely!!
I don't despair of finding a convincing story of the origins of Christianity and the general nature of first century monotheism but we're not, in my inexpert opinion for what it's worth, there yet.
#2 - Martin - 12/11/2013 - 17:04
In science, the simplest explanation is preferred in large part because it is most likely to yield a testable hypothesis. I do not believe that simplicity is sufficient in itself to establish probability. You still need evidence for that and the evidence for historicity is what remains problematic.
#3 - Vince Hart - 12/11/2013 - 18:43
Interesting and enjoyable read. Thank you for this.
#4 - Tom Verenna - 12/12/2013 - 21:29
Hi, you write the following:
" I would say something similar regarding Jesus: one of my main arguments against the non-historicity of Jesus is that –after having analyzed sine ira et studio quite a few works of the proponents of the idea, since Bauer to the very present10– I have found no compelling arguments in its favor."
The problem with this way of making your argument is that it commits the fallacy of Shifting the Burden of Proof.
I'd also argue that finding a 'real, but merely human' Jesus is actually not all that far away from the Mythicist position. After all, no Mythicist would argue that there were no itinerant street preachers named Yeshua (Jesus) in the area at that time... Even a Mythicist would agree that you can and will find real people from the era that fulfill some trivial aspects of the story. However, to find a "real but human jesus" - i.e. somewhere between myth and Lord - you would have to do more than just demonstrate that some elements of the story could apply to a real person. And there are no contemporary accounts of any such person.
#5 - Doc Wyoming - 12/13/2013 - 02:24
I don't think that the mythicists are saying that there was a merely human Jesus, but that there was no one who corresponded with even reasonable closeness to any recognisable version of the Jesus of the NT even in non-miraculous matters. So there is no point in asking what the authentic teachings of Jesus were. The NT is a myth constructed from OT materials, ie an answer to the question 'What would it have been like had the OT prophecies been fulfilled mainly by a charismatic individual in the time of Pilate?'
#6 - Martin - 12/16/2013 - 21:42
I liken the quest for the historical Jesus to a supposed quest for a historical 'sour grapes fox'. Yes, of course foxes do not talk. But they do get hungry and they do eat fruit, so if we just peel the unrealistic parts away, surely the tale must be based on a true story. Besides, how can we explain a conspiracy to invent the fox?
#7 - Johan Ronnblom - 02/19/2014 - 01:35
First of all, sorry for my English as it is not my native language.
I understand the concern about real Jesus existence from a historical point of view, but my faith, as a believer (in The Word), is not based on Jesus the character, but on Jesus' Message. So, I don't care if the Gospels were written based on real testimonies or just made up by a really wise mind (Paul or whoever the author was).
The power of the message written therein would still be valid for me. Of course, proving his existence would strongly help to maintain my faith but the opposite wouldn't put an end to it.
If someone proved that Plato’s works were not written by him, would that make his ideas insignificant? Even if no prophet ever lived who claimed “love your neighbour as yourself”, that way of understanding the life is still valid. And that’s the reason of its prevalence still 2.000 years after being written.
The reason for me to write this is because some people (whether scholars or not) try to prove the no-historicity of Jesus as a way to prove Christians mistake in following a way of life. I’m sorry but it doesn’t work like this, ideas are good depending on what they say not who wrote them.
Having said that, I really find all studies about Jesus life very interesting, whether the result is positive or negative.
#8 - Francisco García - 02/19/2014 - 14:50
I have no doubt the author is sincere when he claims that he has no personal stake in the question of whether or not Jesus existed.
However, everyone else should be cautious about such claims to personal objectivity. Taking a mythicist position on Jesus' historicity would be a good way to end up with pariah status in the world of New Testament Studies, with all the consequent loss of prestige and opportunities that might bring.
I am sure Fernando sincerely believes he is immune to such pressures, and I won't argue with him about it, as I don't want to be disrespectful to him. My concern is only with his arguments and evidence, as that is all I am competent to discuss.
#9 - Hugh Slaman - 06/02/2019 - 11:47