Was there an actual historical figure that corresponds to the biblical Jesus? The debate on this question has been going on for some time in academic circles but has seen a resurgence with the recent publication of Bart Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.
It should be made clear at the outset that this debate has nothing to do with whether a divine Jesus existed, someone who did miracles and died and was resurrected. Both sides in the current debate dismiss that possibility. What is at issue is whether there is sufficient evidence to conclude whether there was a single person around whom the story of the biblical Jesus was constructed or whether Jesus was merely a fictional composite of the myths that were prevalent at that time. The group that holds the latter view is referred to as ‘mythicists’.
I have not read Ehrman’s book and do not plan to because it is somewhat tangential to my interests but he has an article that summarizes his case. He dismisses the arguments of the mythicists in quite strong terms, implying that they are dilettantes and not credentialed scholars, even lumping them with Holocaust deniers and birthers.
Why then is the mythicist movement growing, with advocates so confident of their views and vocal — even articulate — in their denunciation of the radical idea that Jesus actually existed? It is, in no small part, because these deniers of Jesus are at the same time denouncers of religion — a breed of human now very much in vogue. And what better way to malign the religious views of the vast majority of religious persons in the western world, which remains, despite everything, overwhelmingly Christian, than to claim that the historical founder of their religion was in fact the figment of his followers’ imagination?
Moreover, the claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground. The alleged parallels between Jesus and the “pagan” savior-gods in most instances reside in the modern imagination: We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum in their propagandized versions).
One may well choose to resonate with the concerns of our modern and post-modern cultural despisers of established religion (or not). But surely the best way to promote any such agenda is not to deny what virtually every sane historian on the planet — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, agnostic, atheist, what have you — has come to conclude based on a range of compelling historical evidence.
Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.
The suggestion that his conclusions should be shared by any ‘sane’ historian, coupled with his strong rhetoric impugning non-scholarly motives to those who disagree with him, is unfortunate.