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Was Jesus a Real Person?

By Karen Garst ~

A few years ago at a secular conference, I met the author Richard Carrier who wrote On the Historicity of Jesus. He introduced himself as one of seven people who did not believe Jesus was a real person. I was curious and I ended up reading his very lengthy and thorough analysis of the question. Some of those seven include David Fitzgerald (Nailed: Then Christian Myths that Show Jesus Never Existed at All) and Robert Price (The Case Against the Case for Christ).

First, it is important to remember that any story that gets embedded in a culture started out as an oral one. Literacy was very limited in the distant past. These oral stories got handed down over and over again. It’s a bit like the game where you say a phrase to the first person in line and then they repeat it to the next person. If you have ever played this game, you know how distorted the initial saying can become. The first stories about Jesus did not get written down until at least two decades after his death – these are the letters of Paul. The other first editions of the gospels were probably written toward the end of the first century. Every transcription likely included some changes, however minor. This expanse of time leaves much room for interpretation. And remember that there is no credible account of Jesus in the literature of the time. Carrier observes that St. Augustine (an early Christian theologian) had a hard time explaining the writings of Seneca the Younger, a Roman stoic. In Seneca’s treatise On Superstition, he wrote (in a negative manner) about every known cult in Rome. But he never mentioned Christianity or a Jesus group. Given that he was writing in the middle of the first century CE, it shows how little was known about this new religion by the writers of the day. Early Christians were well aware of this and even inserted a phrase in one of Josephus’ work to validate their claims.

There were many stories that were known by the people in the Roman Empire that had elements similar to the depiction of Jesus. One of the oldest of those stories was about Romulus and Remus who were the two boys raised by a wolf that were responsible for creating the city of Rome. Romulus was supposedly murdered by a conspiracy of the Senate (for Jesus, it was the Jewish Sanhedrin). In addition, the sun went dark, his body vanished, and the Senate told the people he had risen to join the gods. Hmm, doesn’t make the story of Jesus sound very original does it?

Mystery religions that were numerous at the time all had a central savior deity - a son or daughter of a god - who underwent some kind of suffering in order to secure eternal life for those that followed the particular cult. There was often a death or trial called a passion with a resurrection like Osiris or a terrible event defeating the forces of death like Mithra. Osiris was the son of the god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. The kings of Egypt were associated with him because Osiris rose from the dead so they would inherit eternal life. Mithraism was practiced in Rome starting in the first century CE. I once visited a temple to Mithra two floors under the Basilica of San Clemente very near the coliseum in Rome. It was amazing to go down the stairs and find first the remains of an older church and then at the bottom a chamber with all the accoutrements of Mithraism. How better to supplant one religion than by just building over its sacred places? Mystery religions also had an initiation ritual which resembled the baptism of Christianity. In addition, they all involved a ritual meal that united people with their god, very much like the Christian communion. Carrier goes on to list twenty similarities between the story of Romulus and Jesus including a virgin birth! (page 227)

Even if Jesus were a real person, he wasn’t the messiah portrayed in the Old Testament. Various authors, in particular Matthew, tried to tie Jesus to the predictions of the OT. Remember, the followers of Jesus were at the beginning very Jewish. It was only later that the outreach expanded to the Gentiles. However, there is no reference to a messiah in the Old Testament that comes to the people except at the end of times.

25 “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26 After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. (Daniel Chapter 9)

Thus, while the writers of the New Testament tried to tie him to various verses in the Old Testament, they had a tough time. I find it interesting that the Christian church did not jettison the Old Testament, claim it was not true, and then use the New Testament to proclaim the one true religion. Anyone who has read the Bible has a tough time reconciling Yahweh, the god of the OT, with the god of the NT. They are almost polar opposites. The gospel of Matthew, for example, is the one that tries the hardest to link the story of Jesus to the OT. Matthew took an early version of a gospel, Mark, and added bits and pieces to make it more congruent with the Jewish faith. And in Paul’s letters, it seems as if Jesus is simply a spirit, not a real person. He never discusses a ministry, a trial, any miracles, where he was from, etc. As Paul is the earliest writer in the NT, it begs the question of whether the idea of a real person, Jesus, was even part of the early tradition.

If you have parallel stories that people believed in at the time, it clearly points to not having a clear idea of who this person might have been. Doesn’t it seem odd that if Jesus were real and truly the son of god, he would have been sure that his sayings were written down accurately? Was he even literate himself?

In sum, Christianity is no different from the other myths that have come and gone in the long history of humankind. We have attempted to understand ourselves and the universe that we live in probably since we began to think. Even at the time of the Neanderthals, there are graves of humans that look like they have been made on purpose – red ocher on the bones, artefacts laid next to the body, etc. But isn’t it time to jettison these beliefs? Isn’t it time to acknowledge we will likely never know what came before the Big Bang? And whether there is truly any “purpose” at all to the universe? Finally, if any god were real, why wouldn’t he (and it has been a “he” for a very long time) reappear to tell us, once again, why he is the one true god?

Karen Garst