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Jesus of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ)

Did he actually exist? Part 1: Range of views.
Skeptics. Indicators of existence & non-existence.

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Quotes offering opposing beliefs:

bullet"In none of these various testimonies to the fact of Christ is there any slightest hint or idea that he was not a real historical person." Roderic Dunkerley, "Beyond the Gospels."
 
bullet"Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him." Bertrand Russell, "Why I am not a Christian."

Jesus' existence: the full range of views:

Almost everyone believes that Jesus walked the Holy Land in the early part of the 1st century CE. Many have never considered the alternative - that Jesus was a mythical being. Most Christians would probably consider such an idea to be blasphemy:

bulletA conservative Christian, who believes in the inerrancy (freedom from error) of the Bible, and the inspiration by God of its authors, might cite passages from the Bible as proof of his existence. The gospels link Jesus' birth and crucifixion to historical persons and events. They describe his sayings, conversations, prayers and actions in great detail.

bulletMany liberal Christians view Jesus as a great Jewish prophet and innovative, itinerant teacher. Even though they do not necessarily consider him divine, few ever question his existence.

bulletMuslims also believe that Jesus was a great prophet. They do not believe that he died on the cross, but they definitely accept that he was born of a virgin, lived in Palestine in the early 1st century CE, and ascended to heaven without having previously died.

bulletMany Jewish theologians regard Jesus as an itinerant rabbi of the 1st century CE who popularized many of the beliefs of the Pharisees and of teachings of  Hillel the Elder, a first century BCE philosopher.

However, there are some individuals who disagree that the biblical accounts of Jesus are accurate:

bulletSome claim that Jesus is simply a mythical character, not a historical person.

bullet Others believe that the myths and legends associated with other religious leaders and founders were collected from Egypt, Persia, India, etc. They were rewritten to refer to a person in first century CE Palestine, who may or may not have existed.

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Philosophers and others who have been skeptical of Jesus' existence:

The vast majority of historians and theologians have always believed in the reality of Jesus' life. The skeptical view ..."has always been held by a small minority of investigators, usually 'outsiders'." (i.e. non-theologians). 1 It was a group of French philosophers during the French Revolution in the late 18th century who first suggested that Jesus was a mythical character. 1 Bruno Bauer, a mid-19th century German theologian agreed. In part of his 4 volume set "Critique of the Gospels and History of Their Origin," he claimed that Jesus did not exist. 2 A subsequent next major skeptic was the English theologian John M. Robertson who wrote two books in the very early 20th century. 3,4 More recent books on this topic date from 1957 to 1991 and were written by perhaps a half dozen authors. 5 G.A. Wells, a former professor of German at the University of London was one of the most prominent. He wrote a series of five books on this topic, arguing that Paul and other 1st century Christian leaders believed that Jesus had lived in their distant past, perhaps in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE.

Michael Martin discussed Jesus' existence in his 1991 book: "The case against Christianity,"  2 He is a professor of philosophy from Boston University who examined the major beliefs of Christianity. He concluded that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that Jesus existed.  Earl Doherty, writing in the Humanist in Canada magazine 1 believes that early Christian leaders saw Jesus as the Son of God who was a spiritual, not human being. He writes:

"If Jesus was a 'social reformer' whose teachings began the Christian movement, as today's liberal scholars now style him, how can such a Jesus be utterly lacking in all the New Testament epistles, while only a cosmic Christ is to be found?"

He wrote a book: "The Jesus Puzzle. Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?" 6 If Doherty's assessment is true, then Christianity would have many points of similarity to other contemporary religions in the Roman Empire -- particularly Mithraism who also viewed their founder Mithra as spiritual rather than as an actual historical human being.

Indicators of Jesus' existence or non-existence:

bulletDocuments written during his lifetime which mention Jesus: There are none that date from the period 7 BCE to 33 CE, an interval that covers the probable years that Jesus is believed to have lived.
 
bulletThe Gospel of Q: This is believed by many theologians to be a collection of sayings, "which included moral teachings, prophetic admonitions and controversy stories, plus a few miracles and anecdotes." 1 These had been transmitted orally and are generally believed to have been first written down by his followers circa 50 CE, about two decades after his execution by the Roman occupying army.

Many theologians believe that the Gospel of Q was used extensively by the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The latter gospels have many passages that are identical word-for-word -- or almost so. Yet there is no indication that the two authors communicated with each other or even knew each other. This provides a strong case for Q having existing as a written document. Theologians have attempted to reconstruct Q from the shared passages in Matthew and Luke.

Unfortunately, the gospel does not include any dates for Jesus' life, or any references that can be tied to known events. If Jesus had been executed circa 30 CE, then many who saw and heard him preach would still have been alive and could have verified that the gospel was accurate. But a case can be made that the gospel was assembled out of sayings from the 1st or 2nd century BCE.
 
bulletEpistles from the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):
bullet Liberal theologians believe that some of these were written as late as 150 CE, up to 4 generations after Jesus' death, by authors who were not eye witnesses of his ministry. Those writers could have based their letters on traditional sayings attributed to Jesus which dated from an earlier era. An analysis by G.A. Wells showed to his satisfaction that the authors definitely believed in the existence of Jesus, but did not cite any evidence that he lived in the 1st century. 7 They were vague about the location, timing and nature of his birth. Paul does not describe Jesus as a miracle worker, healer or teacher. Paul blames Jesus' death on Satan and demons, rather than the Roman government. (2 Timothy does blame Pilate and "the Jews" for his death. It thus ties the execution of Jesus to a person known to be alive in the 1st century CE. However, this epistles appears to have been written long after Paul's death, and may have picked up the concept from the synoptic gospels which had been widely circulated by that time.)
 
bulletConservative Christians believe that all of the books which state that they were written by Paul were actually authored by him prior to his death in the mid 60's CE. Although there is no evidence that he was an eye witness to Jesus' ministry, Paul wrote that he received personal revelations directly from Jesus, presumably in the form of visions. Paul mentioned that a fellow Christian, James, the brother of Jesus, headed up the Jerusalem Church. That would be a strong indicator that Jesus had lived in the early 1st century CE.
 
bulletThe canonical Gospels:
bullet Liberal and mainline theologians generally believe that Mark was the first gospel written, and that it was composed about 70 CE. Matthew and Luke were written perhaps about 80 and 90 CE. John was written after Luke in the late 90's. None of the authors identities are known. If these dates are correct, then it is unlikely that any of the authors were eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry. In spite of their claims, they were relying on secondary or tertiary sources, which had accumulated a great deal of church tradition and folklore.
 
bulletConservative theologians date the gospels much earlier. The Scofield Bible asserts that Matthew was written by a tax collector by that name who was mentioned in Matthew 10:13. Dr. Scofield accepted what he referred to as the traditional date of 37 CE. If the authorship and date are correct, then the gospel represents convincing support that the author was a disciple of Jesus and an eyewitness to his 1st century CE ministry.
 
bulletThe Christian Scriptures (New Testament) overall:
bulletMany liberal theologians view the Christian Scriptures as being composed of some accurate material said and done by Jesus, mixed in with a many descriptions of Jesus' sayings and acts that never happened. The latter came from a variety of sources:

bulletReligious propaganda directed at enemies of the author's religious group. (Anti-Judaic passages in John which imply that "The Jews" are responsible for Jesus' execution is one example.)
 
bullet Events that never happened, but were added to satisfy prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). (The identification of Bethlehem as the birth place of Jesus is one example; the area was uninhabited at the end of the first century BCE and the end of the first century CE)
 
bulletOther acts and sayings that were either distorted versions of Jesus life, or which were created out of thin air. These were added in order to bolster the traditions that had arisen within the author's faith group. (Jesus instructing his apostles to baptize in the name of the Trinity is one example.)
 
bullet Material copied from other religions in the Mediterranean area in order to make Jesus' claim to be the God-man. (e.g. the virgin birth, resurrection, ascension, status of Jesus as savior of humanity are some examples.)
 
bulletStories of miracles that never happened but were added to bolster the importance of Jesus. (e.g. raising the dead, or healing people of leprosy, blindness, hemorrhaging, indwelling demonic spirits, etc. are some examples).
 
bulletProbably some other components that the author has missed.

Some liberal theologians believe that there is little or no accurate information about Jesus that has survived to the present time. As Bertrand Russell wrote in  "Why I am not a Christian.": "Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him.
 

bulletThe Gnostics: The early Christian movement was composed of Gnostic Christians, Jewish Christians, and Pauline Christians. Gnostics in particular maintained that God could never take human form. Some denied Jesus' existence as a historical person.
 

This topic continues in Part 2

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References used:

The first draft of this essay was written in 1998 using the books and web sites listed below. Unfortunately, most of the latter are no longer online.

  1. Earl Doherty, "The Jesus Puzzle: Was there no historical Jesus?" Journal of Higher Criticism at:http://pages.ca.inter.net/
  2. Michael Martin, "The case against Christianity," Temple University Press, (1993) Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  3. J.M. Robertson, "Christianity and Mythology," 2nd edition, (1910)
  4. J.M. Robertson, "Pagan Christs," 2nd edition, Barns & Noble, (1911; reprinted) Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  5. Michael Martin 2 lists the following books which are skeptical of Jesus' existence:
    bullet W.B. Smith, "The Birth of the Gospels," (1957)
    bullet Prosper Alfaric, "Origines Social du Christianisme," (1959)
    bullet Guy Fau, "Le Fable de Jesus Christ," 3rd edition (1967)
    bullet John Allegro, "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross," (1970)
    bullet G.A. Wells, "The Historical Evidence for Jesus," Prometheus, (1982)
    bullet G.A. Wells, "Did Jesus Exist?", Revised edition, (1986)
  6. Earl Doherty, "The Jesus Puzzle. Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?: Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus," Canadian Humanist Publications, (1999). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  7. G.A. Wells, "Historicity of Jesus" in "Encyclopedia of Unbelief," Prometheus, (1985). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  8. Rae West, "Existence of Jesus Controversy," at: "http://www.homeusers.prestel.co.uk/ *
  9. Apostle James, First Apostle to the Antichrist, "The Jesus Myth," at: http://www.antichrist.net/
  10. Historicus, "Did Jesus ever live or is Christianity funded upon a myth?," United Secularists of America at: http://www.infidels.org/
  11. Ross Clifford, "Leading lawyers look at the resurrection" Albatross, Australia, (1991)
  12. R.A. Eyre, "Did Jesus Christ exist?" at: http://www.cs.york.ac.uk/ *
  13. Bible Alive, "Did Jesus Exist?" at: http://www.biblealive.org.nz/
  14. "Answers to tough questions: Did Jesus really exist?," Emmanus Evangelistic Ministries, at: http://home.sprynet.com/
  15. John Romer "Testament: The Bible and History," videotape, Video Education Australasia, 3 cassettes
  16. George Fletcher, "Did Jesus Christ exist?," at: http://pages.prodigy.com/ *
  17. Cathy ?, "Did Jesus really exist?," http://www.geocities.com/  *
  18. M.A. Copeland, "Christian Apologetics: The Historical Jesus," at: http://ccel.edu/

* These essays are no longer online.

The Amazon.com book data base:

A search of their data base for "Gospel of Q" returned the following books

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Copyright © 1998 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-APR-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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