Did Jesus exist?
Certainly, most people in the past 2,000 years have assumed Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. Virtually all scholars in the field believe he walked the earth. But since modern textual studies emerged in the 19th century, demonstrating just how interpretive and — well — constructed the primary witnesses to Jesus’ human life were, plenty of people have wondered aloud whether the whole Jesus thing is just a pious or political fiction.
Is it possible there was no human Jesus?
A historian of any ancient figure would start by looking to the sources. There are no physical artifacts of Jesus himself, his followers, or even the Christian movement until the late 2nd century (around 120-130 years after Jesus died). The evidence is entirely literary.
Outside Christian circles, there are just a few scattered references (Pliny the Younger, Tactitus, Josephus) that do little more than show there were indeed Christians who followed a person (presumably human) called Christ. The only real biographical sources are the Christians Gospels.
Moreover, no original written documents exist. The evidence consists of copies of copies of copies made centuries later. There is a tiny fragment of the Gospel of John pulled from an Egyptian garbage dump in the last century that is dated to, say, 120 or 130 C.E. So we can safely say documents about this “Jesus” character existed 100 years after his “death.”
Historians make the convincing case that nobody from that era (other than Roman Emperors and celebrity poets) has ANY physical or literary evidence attesting to their existence. There is more reason to think Jesus existed than 99.9% of the region’s population.
But ignoring that. What do Jesus deniers claim?
- Evidence is too scanty — as scholars have lamented for centuries, why don’t the great writers of the period, such as Philo and Seneca, say anything at all about Jesus?
- Some evidence is contradictory — for example, the genealogies for Jesus given in Matthew and Luke don’t agree at all and seem fictional
- Evidence is self-serving — the Gospels and other Christian scriptures contain material that legitimizes the Christian movement; i.e., the 12 disciples mirror the 12 tribes of Israel and allow the Christian cult to claim legitimacy
- Christianity is a hodge-podge of external ideas that required no founder — messages of love and faith and God-men can be found in Stoicism, Mithraism, Judaism, Egyptian religion, and so on
- Early Christianity was chaotic — the documented scattershot of beliefs, including all those Gnosticisms and neo-Judaisms, as well as a certain lack of interest in the human Jesus, shows there was no real focus from the beginning, aka, no Jesus
Like John William Draper in the 19th century, Humphreys is really using his thesis to bash the Church, which he calls a “tragedy” and an “active agent in destroying knowledge” and “an industry of deceit.” And so on.
Focusing on the Jesus question itself, however, is more difficult. No doubt early Christians were self-serving, imaginative, fictionalizing, chaotic, swayed by all manner of local beliefs . . . but does any of that prove Jesus himself is a fiction?