The Great “Did Jesus Exist” Challenge

As of Tuesday, two historians (well, one historian, one Jesus scholar) are releasing books on the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth (i.e., though he probably wasn’t a magic man or son of god, was there some dude named “Joshua” walking around Galilee whose followers gave rise to the Christian religon).

Bart Erhman says there was: Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

Richard Carrier says “not likely”, but you’ll never prove it with modern historical methods cause they’re fallacious: Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

Oh, the fun I’ll have. I have both in from of me, and I intend to read them both through. I’ll start with Bart’s book since it’s a bit shorter (and also available as an e-book (Carrier’s will be released in electronic form at a later date)).

On a glance.

Did Jesus Exist? Proving History
Purpose: Prove existence of Jesus as a man, though still deny everything any Christian cares about. Examine the methods used in Historical Jesus studies, and suggest a new statistical one (Bayes’s Theorem)
Methodology: Bart doesn’t seem to actually discuss method. Appears to be a lot of “scholars agree”. The book is one long discussion on method, and proposeses a new statistical one to replace illogical ones.
Evidence: Bible passages  Evidence for standing will be given in follow up book

I’ll have to lay down Stephen Pinkers 1,000 page tome on violence for a bit to get through these. Should be fun.

One first glance, Carrier’s book looks far more interesting, simply because mere assertions, in and of themselves, tell us nothing. Even if they are right. We need to know the reasoning behind the assertion to determine it’s merit. This isn’t a knock on Bart. His books are pretty damn good, I own quite a few, and he’s probably the best interpreter of Jesus studies for the general public that doesn’t get religious or venture out into crazy unsupported assertion territory.

This will probably be my last foray into any sort of Biblical studies cause, well, it gets old. And I probably wouldn’t even be interested in either book except for Carrier’s examination of historical methodology, which I have always felt were wanting since I looked into History as a possible major in college.

I’m pretty angnostic on the Jesus: Man or Myth issue, since I’m not a super-naturalist. Knowing there was an historical L. Ron Hubbard doesn’t make Scientology appealing, after all. Jesus is more ancient, though, which give the question a more mystical appeal, rightly or not. And the Jesus myth theory that holds the most weight (that of Earl Doherty) touches on some real neat ancient mythology, which makes it fun.

Before reading the books, my intuitive feeling is that there probably was a historical Jesus. Not because of any actual evidence presented to me, all of which have seemed pretty weak. But, because new religious movements, as we currently understand them, are, for the most part, started and lead by a single charismatic individual: L Ron Hubbard, David Koresh, Joseph Smith, etc. Once begun, the actual survival of these groups then rely upon the 2nd generation. A leader that can take the reins and continue the movement once the original leader passes: a David Miscavige, Brigham Young, etc. Which, I suppose, is where Paul comes in for Christianity. So, yeah, a historical Jesus just fits the model I think most likely, even if there turns out to be no evidence for him.


Well, Bart isn’t writing to convince mythacists; he’s a bit demeaning and will probably drive them even more strongly to their position. He’s rightfully abusive to Acharia S and Freke and Gandy’s The Jesus Mysteries, both of which are full of errors (which he summarizes and bullet points) and based on conspiracy theories and supposition.

Explore posts in the same categories: Critical Thinking, Modern Myths, Myths and Legends

7 Comments on “The Great “Did Jesus Exist” Challenge”

  1. Bart Says:

    I’m reading (and have been for longer than I’ll admit to) “The Mythmaker” written by a Jewish scholar. He too believes there was a historical Jesus, albeit, not anything like what Paul “the mythmaker” made him into.

    There was also an historical Heligh Selasi (spelling?), emperor of Ethiopea right into the 1950’s, who was deified by the Rastafarians after his death. Like you said about L Ron, doesn’t make it any more reasoned or attractive belief.

    Well, except for the ganja ;)

  2. Victor Says:

    “Well, except for the ganja ;)”

    Oh, they know how to get the converts!

  3. Bart Says:

    if the gov’t sanctioned ganja as a religious rite…I’d be first in line to sign up for my Rasta hat….Mon!

  4. Willie Buck Merle Says:

    …Before reading the books, my intuitive feeling is that there probably was a historical Jesus…

    Did it not cross your mind firstly that there is a high probability of a person named “Jesus” at that time which could have been used to develop everything/anything afterwards? It’s impossible to disprove that. Really, just a warm body called _____ who could fit an interesting narrative to start with (does sound cruel). When you say “charismatic” that sorta falls in with anything that could be said afterwards about this person. Anyways, I broke down and bought the book after I saw you had an ebook copy… Amazon is being lapped for some reason :)
    Rips Archarya S a new one.

  5. Kassul Says:

    I dunno, I’m willing to grant that there was a historical Jesus/Iesus/Yĕhōšuă/whatever, but I don’t think that it’s at all required or anything that there be a single person to kickstart the whole process.

    Was there a single John Frum? Many John Frums who got merged together? Or was it a generic name for American military personnel?


    The historical/mythical question has never really felt very important to me since it doesn’t really *get* you anything. If there was a wandering apocalyptic prophet, even one that got crucified under that name, etc, etc… that doesn’t really get you a god. And if there wasn’t such a person? That doesn’t prevent something similar to the Christian god existing either.

  6. Victor Says:

    You are correct that it doesn’t really get you there. The exact same thing could have happened to another group of people, and nothing would have sprung from it. Religions spring up and die off all the time (I think Dan Dennett said the average life of a religious movement was 30 days). Like I said, I think the 2nd generation is what makes or brakes a movement, not the founder (even if he was a ‘really cool’ guy).

    I had always hoped that Carlos Castaneda’s groupies were going to take off. But, he never did get a 2nd in command in place to take over. Shame. The chicks dug him, and the academics liked him.

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