Did Jesus Exit? – Part 1

Let me lay my prejudices out on the table, before I get into the pros and cons about Bart Ehrman’s case for Jesus being an actual historical person.

My current opinion is that it is very likely that Jesus existed, but I don’t think that anything about Jesus is certain, so I would allow for about one chance in ten that Jesus was NOT a real person.

I am a skeptic about the claim that “Jesus rose from the dead”, so although my current opinion favors an historical Jesus, I have an interest in the correctness of the view that Jesus is a mythical, i.e. non-historical, person. If there was no Jesus of Nazareth, then there was no resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. So, if a good case can be made for Jesus being a myth, that helps my case against the resurrection.

If Jesus did not EXIST, then Jesus did not EXIT this life by dying on a cross in Jerusalem on Good Friday. If Jesus did not EXIT this life, then Jesus did not rise from the dead.

On the other hand, if a good case can be made for the view that Jesus was a real hisorical person, that impacts my skeptical case against the resurrection of Jesus. However, there are many good reasons to doubt the basic historical claims that are used in support of the resurrection, so I don’t really need to have a strong case for the view that Jesus is a myth.

If in  his book Did Jesus Exist? Bart Ehrman makes a strong case for Jesus being an historical person, then my opinion might change, but only slightly.  Perhaps, I would be willing to bump up the probability that Jesus was a real person from .90 to .95, but I doubt that even a strong case would change my probability estimate that much. A probability of .9 seems fairly high for a ‘fact’ about ancient history, even for a basic assumption such as the existence of Jesus.

On the other hand, if I find out that Bart’s case is as weak as the mythicists claim it to be, and if I find that one of the leading mythicists makes a strong case for Jesus being non-historical, then my opinion would go the opposite direction. There is a lot more room heading downward from a probability of .9. So, I might revise the probabilty down to .8 or .7 or .6 or .5 or .4, etc., depending on how weak Ehrman’s case is and on the strength of the best mythicist case.

I have read some of what Earl Doherty and G.A. Wells and Richard Carrier have said on this topic (not yet familiar with Robert Price’s stuff), so I doubt that a closer examination will move me to the complete opposite position (.1 probability that Jesus existed and .9 probability that Jesus is a myth). So, barring an unlikely radical shift in my thinking, I expect that a careful examination of this issue will leave me somewhere between a probability of .9 that Jesus is historical (my current view) and a probability of .3 that Jesus is historical.

In general, anyone who claims to be confident that the probability that Jesus existed is greater than .9 (on the historical Jesus side) or less than .1 (on the mythicist side) will lose credibility as an historical thinker in my view.

Given that I am a skeptic and have firmly rejected Christianity for a variety of reasons, I have an interest in the correctness of the mythicist point of view. But my current opinion is that Jesus was probably an historical person. So, those are my main prejudices on this issue, and since they point in opposite directions, I believe that I am open to giving serious consideration to the arguments and cases both for and against the view that Jesus was an historical person.

Since the main disputants in this issue talk about who has appropriate credentials and who does not, I should lay out my own credentials, or lack of them. I am not an historian. I am not an NT scholar. I don’t know Greek or Latin or Hebrew or Aramaic. My educational background is in philosophy, with a focus on ethics, philosophy of religion, and critical thinking. Like the issue of the resurrection, I see the issue of the historical Jesus as an interdisciplinary issue, so philosophy has a role to play here, as it does with the resurrection issue. Critical thinking is relevant to any issue whatsoever.

Furthermore, though I’m not a scholar, Bart Ehrman is an NT scholar, Robert Price is an NT scholar, Richard Carrier is an historian, and Earl Doherty clearly knows a ton of facts and arguments on this issue. So, we have a lot of knowledge and expertise in the writings of these people to draw upon.

If Ehrman makes a mistake in asserting some historical fact, one of the well-informed mythicists will likely point that error out. If one of the mythicists makes a claim or assumption that is questionable from the point of view of NT scholarship, Ehrman will likely point that out. They are all capable of pointing out errors of logic and reasoning in each others arguments, so there is lots of help there from these experts.

Finally, Jesus is not the property of NT scholars nor of historians. The issue of whether Jesus is the divine Son of God belongs to every thinking person, at least every thinking person in the West, where Christianity has been the dominant religion for many centuries.

The issue of whether Jesus rose from the dead thus belongs to every thinking person, as does the issue of whether Jesus existed. If Jesus did not EXIST, then Jesus did not EXIT this life on the cross, and did not rise from the dead, and thus was not the divine Son of God.

I have been assuming here that ‘If Jesus was not an historical person, then Jesus did not exist’. But it occurs to me that, strictly speaking, this assumption is not true. Perhaps this is hair-splitting, but what appears to be hair-splitting often leads to a significant conceptual point, so I’m going to briefly consider this objection…

One way in which it could be true that Jesus was NOT an historical person but was instead a mythical person, is if Jesus were the product of visions or hallucinations. Both Paul and Peter, the great original evangelists of Christianity, experienced ‘visions’ according to the NT.

Also, Gospel scholars take seriously the possibility that some of the sayings of Jesus were generated as prophecy: early Christian believers having ecstatic experiences that they took to be experiences of Jesus or the Holy Spirit resulted in utterances of wisdom that were taken to be the words of Christ from heaven. Such prophetic messages from Christ could have been later interpreted to be words spoken by the historical Jesus. If some of the sayings of Jesus were produced this way, then it is at least theoretically possible that ALL of the sayings (and doings) of Jesus were produced by means of visions and prophecy.

If the Gospel stories about the historical Jesus originated in visions and prophecy from early Christians, this could explain why we have the Gospel accounts of Jesus, when Jesus was not an actual historical person. In this case Jesus would literally be a myth, in that the term ‘myth’ is most properly used of stories of alleged experiences of angels, spririts, and gods.

In this case, though, it is still possible that Jesus existed. If God or angels or spirits are only manifested to humans through visions and prophecy, it is still possible that God exists, that angels exist, or that spirits exist.

We skeptics are not likely to be persuaded by the “evidence” of visions and prophecy. We skeptics are likely to take such experiences to be hallucinations or purely subjective experiences with no supernatural cause or object behind them.

But, if someone claims to have had a vision of Jesus, it is at least theoretically possible that the vision was veridical and that there was a Jesus who existed and was the object or cause of that experience. In this case, there would be no historical (flesh-and-blood) Jesus of Nazareth, but there would be an actual Jesus, an existing Jesus, a supernatural Jesus or Christ who resides in heaven.

However, if the Gospels are mostly or entirely the product of visions and prophecy, and not the product of people interacting with a flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth, then the Gospels are myths in both senses of this word. The Gospels would be about a heavenly Jesus/Christ rather than an earthly flesh-and-blood Jesus, and the Gospels would NOT be historical but rather fictional, at least when read as biography. They would be fictional biographies filled with false historical claims, and the project of Christian Apologetics would be dead.