Refuting the Mythicist Position


I already have spend a great deal on refuting the mythicist position, but I think I still need to elaborate more on it and make my argument a little more extensive. One of the reasons why is because I have been called a Christian sympathiser just because I think there most probably was a historical Jesus. This is of course preposterous. So when someone is defending that the Holocaust really did happen, I guess that person is a Nazi sympathiser? I guess someone defending Stalin was a real historical person makes that person a Stalin sympathiser, right? Of course not, this is nonsense.

Defending the historical Jesus has nothing to do with Jesus, but with how historians work. And this is another reason why I am writing this. We all care about how science is being conducted and when people from, for instance, Answers in Genesis come up with a bogus story telling us it is science based, we all get agitated. That’s exactly how I feel about the mythicist position. It’s not a proper position based on proper historical arguments.

A question I got asked a lot the past few days is why I care so much about the historical Jesus. Actually, I don’t care. I couldn’t care less if he did or did not exist. What I do care about is how historians do their work and the value of the historical critical method. And I am absolutely amazed by the amount of people who think you can’t make probable the existence of certain historical figures, but have no knowledge of either the historical method or how historians do their job. It’s like saying we can’t know if the theory of evolution is valid, without knowing how scientists do their job or knowing anything about the scientific method. This comes across as ignorance.

I even got the remark that according to the scientific method, there is no evidence for a historical Jesus. This is based on ignorance. You can’t use the scientific method when it comes to history because you can not repeat the experiment of the past. Once something is in the past, it’s gone. We can’t get to it. We can only construct an image of what probably happened in the past using our available sources.

Me defending the historical Jesus isn’t a core belief, I used to be a mythicist! I used to believe every mythicist argument out there, but then I went over the evidence, learned about the historical critical method, listened to what scholars on both sides had to say and changed my mind. I didn’t do it willingly, I went down kicking and screaming, but I changed my mind.

You shouldn’t believe something because it’s convenient. The truth takes you where the evidence leads you, even at first, you don’t want to go there.

A Clear Distinction

Before I go any further, it’s absolutely crucial to make the distinction between the historical Jesus and the theological Jesus. I am defending the historicity of the first one and not the latter. The two are almost nothing alike.

The theological Jesus is the son of God and/or God, part of the holy trinity. Send down by God to get sacrificed for the sins of humanity only to get resurrected three days later. This Jesus also supposedly performes miracles.

The historical Jesus is none of that. The historical Jesus is the Jesus as first put forward by scholar Albert Schweitzer. This Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who prophesiced about the end of times during his own lifetime. He thought of himself as the promised Jewish Messiah and his followers were convinced he was. He got in conflict with the Roman authorities because he was calling himself the king of the Jews. And it’s because of this claim he most likely got crucified as an enemy of the state.

There are those of you out there who claim the theological Jesus is the historical Jesus. This is of course nonsense. As I will prove later with an example, the story of Jesus progressed over time. He didn’t start out as God. Just read the Gospels in the New Testament chronologically and even those written after, you’ll see the exaggeration for yourself.

Legendary tales were attributed to real historical people. Mother Theresa, George Washington, Baal Shem Tov, Apollonius of Tyana, Ceasar Augustus. We all have narrative accounts for them that contain “mythical” elements, so we can’t prove there was a real historical person behind it?

Mythicist claim 1: Jesus is completely made up.

Before I go into the positive arguments for why the vast majority of historians think there was a historical Jesus, I want to adress some of the arguments brought forward by mythicist.

According to the ancient Jews the promised Messiah was going to be a figure of grandeur or a cosmic judge coming down from heaven to overthrow the forces of evil. And who was Jesus? A lower class Palestinian Jew who got crushed like a gnat by the Roman authorities. Jesus got crucified as a criminal. This was not supposed to happen to the Messiah according to the Jews, that’s why they rejected him as being the Messiah. So it makes no sense whatsoever to make up a suffering Messiah, since the Messiah wasn’t suppose to suffer.

Christians after Jesus his death went looking for passages in the Old Testament that talked about someone suffering and said it was about Jesus. They clearly took those passages out of context since the Messiah was not supposed to suffer according to the Jews. An example is Isaiah 53. The suffering servant is Israel as explained in Isaiah 49:3 and not Jesus. Those are pretty bizar lengths to go to make plausible the existence of a non historical figure.

Mythicist claim 2: There are no contemporary accounts for Jesus.

Absolutely true, but this goes for anyone living in the area in that time. Think of everything we know about Pontius Pilate’s reign. How many contemporary records do we have of him? Virtually nothing and he was the most important man of his day living in the area. So what would make one think there would be any contemporary evidence for a lower class Palestinian Jew who got convicted as a criminal?

Another objection often heard is that the Roman kept close records of everything those days. If so, then where are those records?

Mythicist claim 3: You can not use the bible to prove Jesus existed.

This is a very strange claim to make because it’s rooted in ideological reasons and not historical reasons. Whatever one thinks of the Gospels as inspired literature, they can and must be used as historical sources. We take their biases into consideration and take their description of events with a pound if salt, but to sacrifice them all together is to sacrifice some of the most important avenues we have for knowing something about history. Should we dismiss accounts of the American civil war just because they were written by Americans?

Also, the author of, for instance, Mark never tells us his words are divinely inspired. He is just putting down what he thinks is the story about Jesus. People living after him claimed his words were divinely inspired, not Mark. None of the authors of any New Testament document wrote their manuscript with the idea it would someday be put in some sort of canon.

Another objection I often come across is that the Gospels get compared to, for instance, Batman comics, they’re tales of fiction entirely. People then often argue that if we come across a few Batman comics in 2000 years, we then can conclude that Batman was a real historical person! This doesn’t fly. The Gospels are historical narratives, not comic books. The authors of the Gospels were simply writing down what they thought was the story about Jesus. All historical narratives from those days about someone “famous” or important contain legendary elements.

So does this mean Hercules was a real historical figure? Perhaps he was based on one, but the problem here is that we don’t have the sources to conclude either way. We do have those when it comes to Jesus as we will see latter on.

Mythicist claim 4: The virgin birth and the resurrection did not happen, so Jesus did not exist.

This is an irrelevant claim. Ceasar Augustus supposedly was the son of a god, Baal Shem Tov supposedly performed all sorts of miracles, Apollonius of Tyana rose from the dead according to his followers and yet no one disagrees that they were actual historical people.

What happened after Jesus died is that people started telling stories about him. As time passed by, these stories got exaggerated. For example: in Mark’s Gospel, our oldest of the four, Jesus became the son if God at his baptism. Later on in Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospel Jesus became the son of God at his birth. In John’s Gospel, the youngest of the four, Jesus is God and always existed, even before he was born.

Mythicist claim 5: Tacitus’ and Josephus’ mention of Jesus are forgeries.

A typical mythicist tactic is to call every extra biblical mention of Jesus a forgery. Actually, it’s a claim based on nothing. Tacitus mentions Jesus in his Annals and Josephus mentions Jesus in his Antiquities of Jewish History. It is widely known and accepted that Jospehus’ mention of Jesus is not entirely authentic. It does indeed contain a later Christian interpolation. It’s for this reason that Mythicists discard the Testimonium Flavianum as a genuine source. But when the interpolation is removed the text goes like this:

“At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. He was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. When Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease tot do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.”

So the Testimonium Flavianum still counts as evidence for the historical Jesus.

For Tacitus I would like to refer you guys to the following text from Bart Ehrman from his blog:

“While I’m on the Tacitus reference. At one point in my book I indicate that “I don’t know of any trained classicists or scholars of ancient Rome who think” that the reference to Jesus in Tacitus is a forgery (p. 55). (Richard) Carrier says this is “crap,” “sloppy work,” and “irresponsible,” and indicates that if I had simply checked into the matter, I would see that I’m completely wrong. In my defense, I need to stress that my comment had to do with what scholars today are saying about the Tacitus quotation. What I say in the book is that I don’t know of any scholars who think that it is an interpolation, and I don’t. I don’t know if Carrier knows of any or not; the ones he is referring to were writing fifty years ago, and so far as I know, they have no followers among trained experts today.”

“But Carrier’s objection to my view did take me a bit off guard and make me wonder whether I was missing something, whether there were in fact scholars of Tacitus who continue to think the reference to Jesus was an interpolation in his writings. I am a scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity, not of Tacitus! And so I asked one of the prominent scholars of the Roman world, James Rives, who happens now to teach at UNC. Anyone who wonders about his credentials can look them up on the web; he’s one of the best known experts on Roman religion (and other things Roman) internationally. He has given me permission to cite him by name, as he is willing to stand by what he says.

My initial email question to him was this:

I’m wondering if there is any dispute, today, over the passage in Annals 15 where he mentions Jesus (whether there is any dispute over its authenticity).

His initial reply was this:

I’ve never come across any dispute about the authenticity of Ann. 15.44; as far as I’m aware, it’s always been accepted as genuine, although of course there are plenty of disputes over Tacitus’ precise meaning, the source of his information, and the nature of the historical events that lie behind it. There are some minor textual issues (the spelling ‘Chrestianos’ vs. ‘Christianos’, e.g.), but there’s not much to be done with them since we here, as everywhere in Tacitus’ major works, effectively depend on a single manuscript.”Bart Ehrman – Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier

Mythicist claim 6: Nazareth Never Existed

Unfortunately for the mythicists, there is archaeological evidence that Nazareth did exist at the time of Jesus, but I don’t need to go over that evidence to prove my point. Proof that Nazareth did or did not exist is exactly that: proof for the existence of Nazareth. It tells us nothing about the existence of Jesus. Think of it this way: whether or not Obama was born in Kenia or the U.S. is irrelevant to the question of whether he was born at all.

Mythicist claim 7: The Christ figure is based upon other pagan dying and rising gods

Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Heracles, Melqart, Eshmun, Baal, and so on and so forth. Mythicists claim that the Jesus figure was based upon other pagan gods.

Bart Ehrman writes in his book “Did Jesus Exist?”:

“There are two major problems with the view that Jesus was originally invented as a dying-rising god modeled on the dying and rising gods of the pagan world. First, there are serious doubts about whether there were in fact dying and rising gods in the pagan world and if there were, whether they were anything like the dying and rising Jesus. Second, there is the even more serious problem that Jesus could not have been invented as a dying and rising god because his earliest followers did not think he was God.” Bart Ehrman – “Did Jesus Exist?”, page 222.

So the whole argument is on shaky ground but let’s have a look at one of those pagan gods who mythicists claim was a template for Jesus, Osiris. Osiris was an Egyptian god about whom a good deal was written in the ancient world. We have texts discussing Osiris that span a thousand years. None was as influential or as well know nas the account of the famous Philosopher and religion scholar of the second century, Plutarch, in his work Isis and Osiris. According to the myths, Osiris was murdered and his body was dismembered and scattered. But his wife, Isis, went on a search to recover and reassemble them, leading to Osiris’ rejuvenation. The key point to stress, however, is that Osiris does not return to life. Instead he becomes the powerful ruler of the dead in the underworld. And so, for what we can learn from historical writing, Osiris does not rise from the dead.

Let me debunk the Mithras comparison for you. Its comparison is probably based on a essay published by Frank Zindler called: “How Jesus got a life”. Frank Zindler goes out go his way trying to prove that the Jesus figure was inspired by Mithraism, but provides us with no evidence whatsoever. It’s all made up. Scholars of Mithraic mysteries readily admit that as with most religions, we do not know a good deal about Mithraism, or nearly as much as we woud like to know, yet Zindler makes all these wild claims based upon nothing. The Mithraists left no books behind to explain what they did in their religion and what they believed. Almost all of our evidence is archaeological. There is no Mithraic text telling us Mithras was born of a virgin on the 25th of December and that he died to atone for our sins only to be raised on Sunday.

Mythicist claim 8: The Christ figure is based upon several different Jesus figures going ’round at the time

What’s the evidence for this claim? On what evidence is the idea based that there were several Jesus figures running around through Roman Palestine? Does it seem likely? Using our current sources, the answer is no. There is nothing in our current sources that indicates this is the case.

The Positive Arguments

Now that the common mythicist views have been debunked, let’s move on to the positive arguments to make the existence of the historical Jesus probable. I am saying probable because there is no such thing as historical certainty. Once something is in the past, it’s gone and we can’t get to it. We can only construct an image of the past using our sources available, we can’t reconstruct the past. Historians work with levels of probability.

The Gospels as Historical Sources

The Gospels are highly problematic for the most, but they must and can be used as historical sources as I have explained earlier. We just need to weed through the biases and extraordinary description of events to find out what is historically probable. This is how the idea of Albert Schweitzer of an apocalyptic prophet emerged. Strip down what is biased and extraordinary and you’ll find that Jesus was most probably a self proclaimed Jewish Messiah.

Mark’s Gospel is our oldest Gospel written somewhere around 70CE and mostly based upon oral traditions, stories going of Jesus going around at the time. It’s followed by Matthew and Luke’s Gospel, both written somewhere around the year 80CE. Matthew and Luke both borrow from Mark but also contain information not found in any other Gospel. Matthew and Luke both contain material most probably copied from another source. Scholars call this source the “Q” source. Matthew and Luke also present us with information only found in Matthew and Luke. Scholars call this the “M” and “L” source. John was written somewhere around the year 90CE an is in a league of its own.

That there were different sources going ’round at the time seems credible when we read Luke:

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.”Luke 1:1-3

There is no reason to suspect Luke is lying here. He knew of “many” earlier authors. So we can infer that Luke wasn’t very impressed by a lot of Mark’s account, even though he borrowed from Mark. Luke also had other sources besides Mark.

So within a hundred years after Jesus his death, we have four more or less independent accounts of Jesus. But here is even more. There is Papyrus Egerton II with text not found anywhere else in our Gospels, and there is the Gospel of Thomas. We can even count the Gospel of Peter as a independent source. All three manuscripts most probably written within a hundred years after Jesus died. But even that’s not all there is.

Oral Traditions

So where did Mark, Q, L and M get their stories? It’s agreed upon that they probably based their writings on oral traditions about Jesus circulating at that time. Stories about Jesus were told and retold and changed overtime as with all oral traditions.

Another interesting fact often overlooked is that the Aramaic origins of some of the oral traditions can be found in our gospels of today. Even though the gospels were written in Greek. These traditions date at least to the early years of the Christian movement.

In several passages in the gospels a key word or phrase has been left in the original Aramaic and the author writing in Greek has had to translate it for his audience. this happens for instance in Mark 5. When Jesus says “Talitha cumi” it’s not a Greek phrase. It is Aramaic. And so the author of Mark translates it for his readers. It means: “Little girl, I say to you, arise”.

This is a story originally told in Aramaic, and when it was translated into Greek, the translator left the key line in the original language so that it had to be translated by those who weren’t bilingual. This might seem strange, but actually it’s not. It happend and still happens a lot in multilingual societies.

This sort of thing even happens at the end of Mark’s gospel when Jesus cries out: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachtani”. Mark is not the only gospel with this phenomena. It also occurs in John’s gospel.

There is very little dispute that some of the gospel stories originated in Aramaic and that therefore the go back to the earliest stages of Christianity. This becomes even more evident when some sentences in the gospels only make sense when they are translated back to Aramaic. An example of that phenomena is Mark 2:27-28.

Paul as a Source

Paul is our earliest surviving christian author. His first letter, 1 Thessalonians , is usually dated to 49 CE. It is commonly said among mythicists that Paul does not speak about the historical Jesus and has no understanding of the historical man Jesus. This simply is not true, as an examination of his writings shows full well.

Here is a summary of things Paul mentions about Jesus:

– Jesus was born as a human
– Jesus was a Jew
– Jesus was a descendant of King David
– Jesus had brothers, one of them named James
– Jesus had a ministry to Jews
– Jesus had twelve disciples
– Jesus was a teacher
– Jesus anticipated his own death
– Jesus had the last supper the night he was handed over
– Jesus was killed at the instigation of Jews in Judea
– Jesus died by crucifixion

To Paul, Jesus was at least a real human being. Also, when you read the letters Paul did write (he didn’t write all of them) you can come up with a rough chronology of his life. Paul sometimes drops a clue here or there of what he did in the past. Based on these clues you can come up with a chronology. So if you know when he was writing you can count backwards and find out when what happened. Based on this chronology Paul probably converted to Christianity some two years after Jesus’ death. Also, in the letter of Galatians Paul tells us he met with Chepas and the brother of Jesus, James. Did Paul really meet up with the brother of a man who didn’t exist? Seems implausible.


Besides the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul we also have Tacitus’ and Josephus’ mention of Jesus like I have said earlier. Their mention strengthens the case for a historical Jesus even more. This makes Jesus the most historically attested Palestinian Jew from the first century. The evidence is abundant.

You should not believe things because they are convenient. You should base your convictions upon valid evidence. Saying there was a historical Jesus is not supporting the case for Christianity in the least. The theological Jesus and the historical Jesus are almost nothing alike. If Jesus would return today (as a figure of speech that is), he would most probably not recognize himself in what people think he was. The evidence is clear. Whatever else you might think of Jesus, it’s historically very probable he existed.


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