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Was Jesus a historical myth or mythic history? The traditional view among skeptics is that a man named Jesus appeared in the early first century, became the central figure of a religious cult, and was executed for insurrection, after which His followers spread the rumor that He had come back to life. The “historical Jesus,” according to this theory, was the victim as much as the inspiration of a great hoax.
Lately, though, some scholars are becoming more vocal about their belief that no such person walked the earth. “5 reasons to suspect Jesus never existed” appeared in Salon last month, highlighting their work. The writer of the article boils the argument down to five main reasons: (1) the lack of contemporary secular references to Jesus, (2) the puzzling failure of the earliest Christian writers (such as Paul and Peter) to mention any details of His early life, like His virgin birth, (3) the lack of authorial attribution in the Gospels, (4) the many contradictions in the Gospels, and (5) the wildly conflicting views of the “historical Jesus” that scholars claim to have found.
Evidence like this is neither new nor especially convincing to a Christian, and some points made in the article are flatly untrue. “Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts”? John would disagree (John 19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1); so would Luke (Luke 1:1-3) and Peter (2 Peter 1:18). The Gospels contradict each other? On some details they appear to, but the story they tell is remarkably consistent. As for competing views of the historical Jesus—the fable of the blind men and the elephant illustrates how such a thing could be.
These arguments follow standard conspiracy theory procedure: Bypass the obvious, focus on the obscure, and stitch together the pieces that support the thesis. Skeptics who nitpick evidence—the appearance of trinities or crucified-and-resurrected gods in other religions, for instance—ignore the most convincing evidence of all for the existence of Christ, and that is the existence of Christians.
Skeptics who nitpick evidence ignore the most convincing evidence of all for the existence of Christ, and that is the existence of Christians.
The Roman Empire teemed with cults, philosophies, and mystery religions; they came and went and left intriguing tracks for skeptical scholars to follow up centuries later. Some of these produced quiet, moral individuals whose main purpose was stoically to endure. Some produced fanatics who threw themselves into martyrdom or zealots who were dragged to crosses. Some produced shamans who practiced occult rituals to influence the gods. Christianity pulled together all these spiritual impulses, the wild and the calculated, and tamed them. It produced quiet, moral individuals who went willingly to martyrdom and practiced “occult” rituals, not to influence their God, but to become more like Him.
And they were everywhere. By the end of the first century, Christianity had infiltrated every rank of society and almost every province of the empire. They were mistrusted, they were misrepresented, they endured waves of spectacular persecution, and every year there were more of them. The faith offered clear advantages to the lowly, but also attracted members of the imperial family. And it spread and spread, like ripples in a pond, slowly raising humanity and leavening the culture with its central message of pardon and forgiveness in Christ. Jesus was the stone dropped into the pond.
Imagining creation without a Creator leaves a hole in the universe that science has not been able to close. Imagining Christianity without Christ leaves a hole in history that scholars can’t explain away. God doesn’t seem interested in forestalling their arguments with extra-biblical documentation; we have plenty, and the story is still unwinding. Luke the physician concludes his account of the church’s beginnings with no conclusion—he passes the story, like a flaming torch, to the second generation of Christians, who will hand it off to the third, and the fourth, and on down through time.
Christians: Some would be persecutors and destroyers (and perhaps not Christians at all). But more would be builders, affirmers, reformers, healers, teachers, and proclaimers, powered by the Spirit of God. If you believe it, you know it. And that’s enough.