Jesus Christ is the central figure of Christianity. Christians typically understand him to be the Jewish Messiah, the savior of mankind, and the incarnation of God on earth. Non-Christians don’t agree with this, but they do normally agree that he was a real historical figure whose life is described, more or less, in the four Gospels of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At the very least, they agree that Jesus is the person these books are about. This much gives us a common reference for the name, which allows for further discussion on who Jesus was. What I’ll do here is review various conceptions of who Jesus was, proceeding from the most religious interpretations to the most secular.
The Fundamentalist Interpretation
On this interpretation, Jesus is a real person about whom everything said of him in the Bible is true. Since the four Gospels contradict each other on several details concerning Jesus, this interpretation of Jesus cannot be correct. I discovered this for myself by simply reading the Gospels, and you can do the same. For a book that goes into this in more detail, I will refer you to Who Was Jesus? Fingerprints of The Christ (2007) by D. M. Murdock (Acharya S). This book covers in detail what can be known about Jesus from the Gospels, and it points out contradictions between the Gospels.
The Orthodox Interpretation
On this interpretation, Jesus was a real person whom the Gospels accurately describe in broad outline, though some do get details wrong. It is understood here that he was God incarnate, the Jewish Messiah, and the savior of mankind who came to earth in human form, was born to a virgin, performed miracles, gathered disciples, preached in the form of parables, died on a cross, and was resurrected. Many people are taught from childhood to believe in this interpretation, but it assumes several things, including the existence of God and the miraculous, the reliability of the Bible, and the truth of Christianity. For atheists, agnostics, members of other religions, and even Christians who are more critical of the Bible, this interpretation of Jesus is not accepted. Since I am a non-Christian myself, I do not accept this interpretation, and I will refer you to posts I’ve made under the God tag and to links about the Bible and Christianity for further details on why I do not consider Christianity true.
Joseph Priestly, who is better known for discovering oxygen, wrote a book called A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, in which he argued in favor of Unitarian Christianity over Trinitarian Christianity. In arguing against Trinitarianism, he was arguing that Jesus was not God. However, Priestley did believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, he understood Jesus as a prophet of God whose life is, more or less, described in the Gospels, and whose resurrection was a sign that believers would also be resurrected. This still makes some of the same assumptions as the Orthodox interpretation, and I’ll refer you to the same resources as above.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a non-Trinitarian Christian cult that identifies Jesus with the archangel Michael. Note that I use the word cult for a specific type of dangerous religious organization, and I do not use the word synonymously with religion. Aside from not equating Jesus with God, their interpretation of Jesus is still largely supernatural. In addition to the resources for the Orthodox interpretation, I’ll refer you to posts tagged with Cults and to links on Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Islam, a non-Trinitarian Abrahamic religion, portrays Jesus as a prophet of Islam. Islam agrees with the Orthodox interpretation that Jesus was born of a virgin, but it also maintains that he didn’t really die on the cross, maintaining that someone else was substituted in his place. Islam bases its alternate portrayal of Jesus on what was allegedly communicated to Mohammad through divine revelation about six centuries after Jesus is understood to have lived. If you don’t accept that Mohammad was a true prophet of God, and I don’t myself, what Islam has to say about Jesus lacks any credibility. This is not the place to criticize Islam in depth, though, and other people have focused on criticism of Islam much more than I have. Besides posts tagged with God, which are generically about theism, I will recommend links on Islam, and I will point out that I have some posts tagged with Islam.
President Thomas Jefferson, who was a Unitarian and/or Deist, regarded Jesus as a moral teacher but not as a miracle worker. Accordingly, he cut out the parts of the Gospels he didn’t accept and produced The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Of these interpretations, Jefferson’s is the only one that does not presuppose any supernatural beliefs. He conceived of Jesus as a real historical figure who was fully human but not a miracle worker and not necessarily in contact with the divine, though still as a moral teacher whose teachings were recorded in the Gospels. The main assumption here is that when the Gospels are stripped of the miraculous, what’s left is more or less historically accurate. This could be, but I’m skeptical.
Putting aside supernatural conceptions of Jesus, two possibilities remain. Either Jesus was a real person who played an important role in founding or inspiring Christianity, or the figure of Jesus in Christianity is wholly fictional. Assuming that Christianity, as well as any other religion ascribing supernatural status to Jesus, is false, we may dismiss the miracles in the Gospels as fictions. But perhaps, as Jefferson thought, there is a historical core that reflects the life of a real person. Assuming such a person exists, what can we know about him?
First of all, there are no primary sources concerning the life of Jesus. Primary sources include autobiography and other writings by the person in question, eyewitness reports of the person, or images of the person from his alleged lifetime. Jesus did not leave behind a single piece of writing, the Gospels are all told in the third person by anonymous authors and were all written years after the alleged events, and no one drew his picture, made a statue of him, or put his face on a coin during his lifetime. Compare this to Julius Caesar, who did leave writings behind, whose contemporaries did write about him, and whose face appeared on coins during his lifetime. Our primary sources on Julius Caesar give us solid evidence that he existed, but we have nothing like this for Jesus.
As an aside, I’ll mention that I have read one alleged primary source about Jesus. The True Life of Jesus of Nazareth: The Confessions of St. Paul claims to be channeled from the spirits of Paul and Judas. In general, books allegedly from channeled spirits have not proven to be reliable sources on history, and this book portrays Jesus as a very articulate and scientifically-minded Deist, which is very suspicious for a book written in the 19th century. So, it is likely that this book is a fraud and provides no evidence for a historical Jesus.
The best sources we have on Jesus are the Gospels in the Bible. But these are by anonymous authors, who made no claim to knowing Jesus personally or of consulting anyone who did, who failed to tell the majority of his life history, and who wrote decades after Jesus allegedly lived, portraying him as performing miracles, coming back from the dead, and even as being God. Scholars who have argued for the existence of an historical Jesus have sometimes relied on criteria of authenticity to identify details in the Gospels that can be trusted to be historically accurate. But I am going to take a cue from Jefferson and employ criteria of exclusion to rule out what cannot be trusted to be historically accurate. Here are the criteria I propose:
- Stories of miracles can be ruled out.
- Details added to fulfill prophecies can be ruled out.
- Parallels with earlier mythology can be ruled out.
- Historical details that conflict with known history can be ruled out.
- Parables, sermons, and other teachings can be ruled out.
- Details that differ between the Gospels cannot be trusted.
Once you remove all of these from the Gospels, there is essentially nothing left, not a single historically reliable detail that can be used to identify a real person. If Jesus ever was a real person, it seems that the Gospels are so fictionalized that all hint of the actual person has become lost. And this is essentially the same as saying that the Gospels are not actually about a real person.
So far, though, this argument is very condensed. I have not yet argued for my criteria, and I have not demonstrated that nearly every detail in the Gospels fits one or more of these criteria. Assuming a naturalistic world view, it makes sense to rule out accounts of miracles. Although some could have been staged, it’s more likely that they were made up to make the stories of Jesus more impressive. There are several details in the Gospels where the author will mention that something happened to fulfill a prophecy. Sometimes, the prophecies are even misinterpreted or misapplied, such as the alleged prophecy of a virgin birth from Isaiah, which was actually about someone else, did not mention that the mother was a virgin, and failed to come true. In light of clear fabrications like the virgin birth, it is likely that the authors were just making up details about Jesus that would portray him as the Jewish Messiah by fulfilling various prophecies.
If you compare the details in the Gospels to various pagan mythologies, you can find several parallels. Acharya S has pointed out parallels with various mythological and religious figures, particularly with Krishna, Buddha, Horus, Mithra, and sun-god figures in general. She introduced the subject in general in her first book, The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold. She focused on parallels with Krishna and Buddha in her second book, Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled. She also covered parallels with Buddha in Buddhism’s Relation to Christianity: A Review by D.M. Murdock, a review of Michael Lockwood’s Buddhism’s Relation to Christianity: A Miscellaneous Anthology with Occasional Comment. She focused on parallels with Horus in her book Christ in Egypt: The Horus-Jesus Connection. She touched on Mithra in Was Mithra Born of a Virgin Mother?. She covered parallels with sun gods in general in Jesus as the Sun throughout History. And she summarized numerous parallels between Jesus and these other figures in The Origins of Christianity and the Quest for the Historical Jesus Christ. Before Acharya S, Kersey Graves also covered parallels between Jesus and earlier mythological figures in The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors; Or, Christianity Before Christ. Overall, there is very little, if anything, in the Gospels that cannot be traced back to stories from Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, or paganism. Being unoriginal to the story of Jesus, they cannot reliably be considered historic.
These parallels are too many for me to enumerate here. I’ll just highlight a few. When Herod tries to kill baby Jesus by killing all recently born boys, this parallels Pharaoh’s attempt to kill baby Moses by having all Jewish boys killed. Turning water into wine is associated with Dionysus, the god of wine. Being tempted by the devil is also something that is said to have happened to Buddha. There are also many dying and rising gods in pagan mythology, as covered in detail by Kersey Graves. Many of these details overlap with accounts of the miraculous. But there are also other details, such as the name of Jesus’ mother. The name Mary was used as a title for Isis, and Buddha’s mother was named Maya, which is very similar to Mary. In general, it is likely that details found in earlier mythology were borrowed from it for the sake of making Jesus better appeal to people who worshiped pagan deities or followed other religions.
Some details in the Gospels conflict with what is known about ancient history. For example, the Roman empire never conducted a census that required people to travel back to their ancestral homes, and Herod never massacred a bunch of innocent children. Such details are very untrustworthy and can be discarded.
The parables, sermons, and other teachings of Jesus are all unreliable as evidence that Jesus really existed. Any author could put stories or teachings into the mouth of a fictional character. For example, Ben Parker is known for teaching his nephew Peter,
With great power comes great responsibility. Yet he is a fictional character, the uncle of the equally fictional Spider-Man. Ayn Rand wrote novels in which fictional characters gave lengthy speeches on moral issues or told stories about how communism was morally bankrupt. None of this means that John Galt or any other Rand character actually existed. It was also common in ancient times to attribute wise sayings to prominent figures, no matter who originally wrote them. It’s likely that the Messiah, Son of God, or someone portrayed as God himself would have been a very tempting fictional spokesperson for someone wanting to convince people of new ideas. So, nothing that Jesus teaches in the Gospels can be reliably trusted to be anything he actually said. Likewise, when Jesus is just quoting scripture, anyone with a Septuagint on hand could have copied the scripture without knowing that Jesus actually quoted it himself.
Finally, numerous details differ between the Gospels. These include the order of events, who was where for certain events, who the ancestors of Joseph were, and more. It is as if the authors of the later Gospels just took Mark and made up new stuff to add to the original story. Perhaps Mark is more reliable than the later Gospels, but the other issues I’ve raised already leave Mark with next to nothing that could be considered historically reliable.
What we know from the various miracles, mythological parallels, fabricated fulfillments of prophecy, and inaccurate historical details in the Gospels, not to mention the contradictions between them, is that the authors were all liars or were getting their details from very unreliable sources. This makes everything else they said very dubious, leaving nothing that stands out as historically reliable evidence that Jesus actually existed. If the Gospels are about a real historical figure, it seems that there is nothing we can tell about this figure from the Gospels.
Looking at the Gospels as possible history, what could we tell about this figure? He appears to be an upstart apocalyptic Jewish religious leader who claimed to be the Messiah and got executed. It’s entirely possible that such a person did live during the first century. But even that doesn’t prove that Jesus was a real person. After all, fictional characters can be based on the sorts of people who actually exist. For example, there are actually nerdy high school students interested in science, but this doesn’t mean that stories about Spider-Man are actually about a real person. It also doesn’t matter much that there were people named Jesus (or rather Joshua) back then and that one could have led a Messianic cult. There could be a nerdy high school kid interested in science named Peter, and that wouldn’t make him Spider-Man. The important thing is whether there is a real causal connection between a real person and the figure depicted in the Gospels.
The problem with that is that nothing about Jesus seems to be linked to biographical details about an actual person. His parents and Joseph’s ancestry were made up to sell the idea that he was born of a virgin and descended from the line of King David, nevermind that Joseph’s ancestral line wouldn’t be his if he were born to a virgin. Details about his early life were made up to fulfill prophecy or to parallel mythology. There is only a single vignette about his childhood, and this serves the purpose of establishing him as the son of God. From this vignette until the beginning of his ministry, details about his life are completely missing. His ministry is then filled with miracles, fulfillments of prophecy, and mythological parallels — all of which are likely fictional.
It also doesn’t help that there were real people mentioned in the Gospels, such as King Herod, Pilate, and maybe John the Baptist. It is normal for fiction to sometimes include real people. For example, Superman has met John F. Kennedy, the Fantastic Four have met the Beatles, and a certain Gallifreyan Timelord has traveled through time, meeting several historical figures, such as Marco Polo, Vincent van Gogh, and Queen Elizabeth I (whom he married). Including real people in a work of fiction can lend some sense of authenticity to it and help establish a timeframe, but it doesn’t make it true. It is also noteworthy that the accounts we have of the lives of real people mentioned in the Gospels never mention Jesus.
If we cannot identify a real person whom the Gospel stories are about, perhaps we can look at the origins of Christianity and try to determine whether it was about the teachings of an individual who happened to die or about a mythological story. The most active proponent of early Christianity we know of from the Bible is Paul of Tarsus. Formerly known as Saul, he begins as a persecutor of Christians. Then one day he has a vision of Jesus, and from that day forth he becomes a Christian apostle and starts spreading Christianity. The New Testament has a large collection of letters, mostly attributed to Paul. When Paul identifies the sources of his teachings, he identifies them as direct revelation and scripture, not the word of other people. He writes in Galatians 1:11-12,
11 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 For I did not receive it or learn it from any human source; instead I received it by a revelation of Jesus Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 2:10, Paul says,
God has revealed these to us by the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. In 1 Corinthians 11:23, Paul says
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you. And in 1 Corinthians 15:3 , he says,
For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.
Given that Paul never met Jesus before his execution, we might expect, if the Gospels are true, that the apostles mentioned in those Gospels taught Paul about Jesus. But Paul denies this. Instead of being based on the biography of a dead man known to people he had come to know, he says he has received direct revelation from Jesus Christ. This would have come in the form of visions, like the one he had on the road to Damascus, which had been what converted him to Christianity. If Jesus had actually lived, we might expect Paul to show some interest in learning about his life from those who knew him personally. But we don’t get this from Paul. Instead of speaking as a follower of a deceased religious leader, Paul speaks as a prophet who communicates directly with a spiritual Jesus.
The main thing that Paul focuses on in his letters is the importance of believing that Jesus died for our sins. It is not the life or teachings of Jesus that are important to Paul. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus. This contrasts sharply with the Buddha. The Buddha is known for his teachings, and Zen Buddhists even have the koan
If you see the Buddha in the road, kill him. This means that you should not let devotion to the Buddha get in your way of applying his teachings to your life. It is the teachings of Buddhism that are important, and whether or not Buddha existed are immaterial to whether Buddhism is true. If Christianity were based on the teachings of Jesus, we might expect that Paul would be using his letters to remind people of the teachings Jesus left behind. But that is not what he does. He does not invoke the teachings of Jesus, and what he does focus on is something that could not have happened to a real historical person, namely the resurrection of Jesus.
Given that Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, and he speaks as a prophet rather than as the follower of a deceased religious leader, the existence of an actual historical figure need not be the best explanation for Paul’s conviction that Jesus died and came back to life. But what other explanation could there be? I’m going to propose that Christianity arose as a syncretism of Judaism and other religious beliefs. Syncretism was common enough between pagan religions. When it happened, it typically involved the creation of new gods. For example, the god Serapis was created through syncretism between Egyptian and Greek religions. But the simple method of creating new deities would not work for syncretizing pagan religious beliefs with Judaism, because Judaism was monotheistic. So, something different was needed. This was to create a fictional historical figure that could be understood to be both the Jewish Messiah and God incarnate. Then, like the pagan dying-and-rising gods before him, he would die and come back to life. So, I’m proposing that Jesus was actually a pagan deity in monotheistic garb, designed that way to better attract Jewish believers. Thanks to the historical focus of Judaism and the portrayal of Jesus as a prophet, this made-up deity eventually got mistaken for a real historical figure, and when a version of Christianity finally gained political power, it was one that regarded Jesus as a real person, and this version suppressed all the others and spread itself around the world.
Although some Jesus mythicists make the further step of saying there was some conspiracy to create Christianity, that’s an extra step, and I don’t consider it essential to the idea that Jesus was originally mythological, not historical. The exact details of how Christianity arose are lost to history. So we can’t know exactly what happened. However, it seems most probable to me that Christianity arose through syncretism between Judaism and various non-Jewish religious beliefs rather than from the life and teachings of a real historical figure whose life gets portrayed in the Gospels. After all, nothing in the Gospels stands out as pointing to a real historical figure, and the syncretism theory for the origin of Christianity seems like a very plausible one, especially given how much influence of religions besides Judaism can be found in Christianity. It remains possible that Christianity is based on the life of a real historical figure whose lifestory is lost to history, but it seems unlikely. So, when it comes to who Jesus was, I lean heavily towards mythicist theories that he was never a real person.
For further reading, I will recommend Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists by Raphael Lataster (author) and Richard Carrier (editor). This book touches on some of the same ideas as I have, but it makes a different argument for mythicism than I have made, and it does not focus on syncretism between Judaism and other religions nearly as much as I have. Like me, Lataster leans toward mythicism but doesn’t take it to be an absolute certainty. In the first part of this book, he criticizes arguments for an historical Jesus by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey, pointing out that both of them base their cases on hypothetical sources that no one has any access to. In the last part, he goes over Richard Carrier’s argument for mythicism. This argument uses Bayesian reasoning to compare the hypothesis of minimal historicism with that of minimal mythicism. It focuses on minimal versions of each theory, because detailed theories about who Jesus was or detailed theories about the precise mythological origins of Jesus are not essential to comparing these two rival hypotheses. Carrier begins by establishing prior probabilities for the existence of Jesus. This is done by running down a list of characteristics that Jesus has, noting that other alleged historical figures with all the same characteristics are mostly or entirely fictional and making a calculation of probability. He then examines the Gospels, extrabiblical evidence, and Epistles for anything that might affect consequent probabilities. When this is all done, he concludes that the evidence favors mythicism. Lataster agrees with Carrier’s evaluation, but he does emphasize that this establishes only the improbability of minimal historicism, not the certainty that minimal historicism is false or that minimal mythicism is true.