Tract #40: Did Jesus Exist?

Tract #40, Did Jesus Exist?, is ready for you to download and review. Download it, see page #3 for printing instructions, and let me know your comments! Thanks!

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Did Jesus Exist?

The New Testament is a collection of ancient documents about Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God. Who do atheists think Jesus was?

Before we can tackle this question, we have to agree what we mean when we refer to Jesus. An atheist believes that Jesus was not:

Since a Christian would believe all (or most) of the above, do Christians and atheists mean the same person when referring to Jesus? In a strictly philosophical sense, probably not. But for the sake of argument, let’s define Jesus as the person who lived in the early first century about whom the Gospels were written.

Some atheists don’t believe that Jesus existed even in this most basic sense. They consider stories about Jesus to be mythological in nature, perhaps derived from earlier pagan stories.

Most moral atheists, however, consider it reasonable that Jesus was an actual person. There is as much evidence that Jesus existed as there is that some other accepted historical figures existed, and the fact that Biblical texts contain some claims that might require extraordinary proof does not mean that they can’t be used to bolster much less extraordinary claims, such as the claim that someone named Jesus existed. It also may be more likely that exaggerated stories of miracles would grow around a real person than around a purely legendary figure.

Did Jesus say the things attributed to him in the Bible? Maybe yes; maybe no. As soon as we get into matters that are not pure historical fact, the New Testament must be divided into three groups of claims — independently verifiable, not independently verifiable, and extraordinary. Jesus’ quotes fall into that second category. They cannot be independently verified, and the possibility that the Gospels’ authors had religious or political agendas (or were copying from other writers’ work) makes them less than completely reliable on the subject.

Did Jesus perform the miracles ascribed to him in the Gospels? A moral atheist would say that this is extremely unlikely — these stories fall into the category of extraordinary claims. There are many ways that such stories could have arisen, and all of them are much more likely than the possibility that Jesus really could do magic.

Jesus the man may indeed have existed, and this is not a problem for atheists. It’s when we start talking about Jesus the god that an atheist is going to require more proof — and lots of it.

Posted on October 22, 2009 at 12:43 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Theology, Tract

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Zach
    on October 23, 2009 at 9:22 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    “There are many ways that such stories could have arisen, and all of them are much more likely than the possibility that Jesus really could do magic.”

    Many scholarly Christians would say that since the Gospels were written relatively soon after Jesus, there would have been no time for myths about Jesus to have developed. Since there were still probably a few eyewitnesses, or at least many people whose parents were eyewitnesses to the supposed miracles of Jesus (assuming Mark was written mid-to-late first century, which seems to be about when scholars agree), the argument is that stories about these miracles are true because there would have been no time for myths about Jesus do develop in the short time between his death and the writing of the Gospels.

    If the Bible were not a development of legend but an outright lie, there is still the problem of how it became widely known, again since it was written when people were still alive who lived during the supposed miracles. Also, there are things, such as women finding Jesus’ tomb empty, that would probably not be in there were it all a lie (since women were very much second-class citizens, it seems more likely that, were the Bible a lie, men would be the ones to find Jesus’ tomb empty — why would you weaken your case by including women?).

    How would an atheist respond to these comments?

    • Written by ideclare
      on October 24, 2009 at 9:56 pm
      Reply · Permalink

      Brief answers:

      1) I disagree that there was no time for myths about Jesus to develop. In the modern world, we have much better access to information than they did two thousand years ago, and we have myths arise and propagate with alarming speed, even in the face of evidence against them. Books about urban legends are full of such tales.

      2) I doubt that the Bible was an outright lie. It does seem to show signs of what I might call “pious exaggeration” — that is, things listed as facts because the writer has faith that they must be true as opposed to because the writer knows that they are objectively true.

      3) The “people were still alive to correct it” line doesn’t seem to me to be sufficient to erase doubt about the miracle stories being false. Attractive lies can spread far and wide, particularly when those who can refute them are only in a small area. One sign that this may be the case in the Gospels is that Jesus had trouble performing miracles in his home town, where people knew him the best and there was the least chance for false stories to develop.

      4) There are several possibilities for the origin of the story about women finding the empty tomb. I think it is most likely that one or more women did find or report an empty tomb (or were said to have done so). That the Gospels are unclear about who it was and exactly what the circumstances were of such an important event might be seen as evidence that the story had evolved in the retelling, so I don’t see how we can rely on it as evidence for a miracle.

      The main point here is that something can be horribly incorrect and not be a lie (in the sense that a lie is an untruth that someone intentionally designs and spreads). People are very adept at spreading stories, and those stories can mutate significantly in a very short period of time. One example from folklore: look up the “red velvet cake” urban legend and how it mutated into the “Mrs. Fields’ Cookies” legend (among others). That’s some serious mutation without any noticeable grain of truth to be found.

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