Did he actually exist? Part 1: Range of views.
Indicators of existence & non-existence.
Quotes offering opposing beliefs:
"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."
"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:
A 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.
Many 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
Muslims 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.
Many 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
However, there are some individuals who disagree that the biblical accounts
of Jesus are accurate:
Some claim that Jesus is simply a mythical
character, not a historical person.
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.
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). 1It was a group of French philosophers during the French Revolution in the late 18th
century who first suggested that Jesus was a mythical character. 1Bruno
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. 2A subsequent next major skeptic was the English
theologian John M. Robertson who wrote two books in the very early 20th
century. 3,4More 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
Michael Martin discussed Jesus' existence in his 1991 book: "The case against Christianity," 2He 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:
Documents 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.
The 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.
Epistles from the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):
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.)
Conservative 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
The canonical Gospels:
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.
Conservative 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
The Christian Scriptures (New Testament) overall:
Many 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:
Religious 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.)
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)
Other 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
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
Stories 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).
Probably 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."
The Gnostics: The early Christian movement was composed of Gnostic
Jewish Christians, and Pauline Christians. Gnostics in particular maintained that God could never take human
form. Some denied Jesus' existence as a historical person.