Christianity in the News, Part Two: The Empty Tomb Story
But that’s silly, and in the spirit of Easter, I thought I’d explain, relatively briefly for people who don’t know, why many scholars believe that Jesus never actually existed. (Or more accurately, why Jesus as we know him from the Bible never actually existed; one common position is that he may have been a real person, but the mythologizing has taken over so much that it’s impossible to know anything about who he really was. Which, for all practical purposes, is exactly the same thing.)
1. Outside the Bible, there are no trustworthy references to Jesus at all. There are references to “Christians.” But the only major reference is a big glaring mention of Jesus in certain copies of Josephus, which is an obvious redaction. (If you take the Jesus section out, the original sentence makes way more sense.) And this is doubly strange, because we have a number of references to other itinerant preachers from the same era, none of whom had nearly as large a following.
2. The earliest works of the New Testament are the letters of Paul. If you take only the letters of Paul and scour them for references to Jesus, you get nothing about his birth, nothing about his life, not a single word of his teachings. But you do get a lot of very vague “Jesus died and rose and this is what it means.” For Paul—and the early Christians he was addressing—Jesus’s actual life seems to have been of no real importance.
2.a. Don’t believe me? Try it at home! The most reliably Pauline letters are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. While you’re at it, throw in 1 Timothy—although it suggests a much later development in the church, most scholars are comfortable suggesting it probably came from Paul’s direct followers, so it’s part of the same tradition. The whole thing comes to about 25 pages. Read those pages, trying to learn everything you can about Jesus, and you may be surprised at how lean are your gleanings.
3. Most of the magical ideas associated with Jesus are found in other similar myth figures, many of whom have detailed stories of their own. For example, William Tell never existed, but his story was so popular that many people assumed it was true—to the point where he was supplied with a birthplace, a birthdate, a lineal history (he shot the arrow off his son’s head on November 18, 1307), and became the national hero of Switzerland. This was true in antiquity as well. The cult of Heracles, which predates Christianity by six centuries, had a birthplace for him and birthday celebration, just like Jesus, and a few other features as well—such as a virgin birth, a childhood where he’s hidden from someone who wants him dead, and his rising after death. According to one source I’ve read, he apparently even walks on water! If, as the linguists say, a language is a dialect with an army, then a religion is a myth with an affiliated university.
3.a. Note, by the way, that I owe many of these observations in section 3 to Richard Price’s fascinating book, Deconstructing Jesus. The earlier observations in sections 1 and 2 come from many scholars, though my favorite—because he’s a clear, precise writer—is G. A. Wells. Wells started out believing that Jesus didn’t exist, and has recently become convinced that there may have at least been an original non-mythical Jesus who is the source of the major quotes from Matthew and Luke. (This is the same theory that the Jesus Seminar follows as well.) Price, however, has found elements of Jesus’ teachings in other contemporary Stoic philosophers, and doesn’t feel the need to posit even a single preacher Jesus.
Of course all of this is academic to me, because I’m an atheist, so even if Jesus existed, it wouldn’t mean God exists, any more than the existence of Moses, if proven (and it’s also widely doubted) would mean I’d feel compelled to become a Jew. I’m an atheist, for what boils down to a very simple reason: it’s the most reasonable explanation for everything we see and experience—including the fact that most people are religious (we’re pattern-seeking animals, after all). It explains why the universe is so staggeringly vast and incalculably old (a huge inefficient waste if God’s a creator; an absolute necessity if life is extremely rare and accidental). It explains why so many religions sound like made-up stories, and why so many sound like each other. And of course, at its core, it explains why, if God is all-good and all-powerful, there’s so much suffering in the world. The best explanation religious people can offer is that it’s a mystery, which is their way of saying, “I don’t understand that part, but I do believe there’s good in the world.”
So do I. (The difference is that I think evolution explains why there’s a difference between the meaningful patterns we seek and the randomness the universe actually displays.) But like the religious person—albeit without the props involved—I, too, wish more good for everyone. In that entirely secular sense, I wish everyone a happy Easter.