The Jesus as we know him, the Jesus of Christianity definitely did not exist. It is possible that there was no historical Jesus at all. No historians of the first century mention Jesus, despite there being authors who write (at length) about Jewish concerns. There are no Roman records that mention Jesus1. Not only all that, but, there are no Christian eye-witnesses of Jesus. All of the Gospels are anonymous and written by friends-of-friends, and none are written in the first person; also, Paul (who authored 13 of the 27 books of the NT) never met Jesus, except in a vision2. They're also written in very competent Greek (the language of later converts), rather than in Hebrew (the language of the original converts, excepting Paul). Early Christians didn't know when Jesus was born (his birthdate wasn't decided for hundreds of years, in 354CE)3 and didn't know where he was buried. People have doubted his existence since the very first century, and, despite the popularity of Christianity, there is a modern resurgence of people who disbelieve in the very existence of Jesus today. The biggest problem facing such unbelievers is accounting for early Christianity. But there are multiple theories as to how Christianity may have arisen without a historical saviour. For example, it is quite possible, given the similarities of Jesus to previous saviour religions and pagan stories about god-men, that the entire story of Jesus is a rewrite, with Jewish undertones, of Roman and pagan myths that were current at the beginning of the first century4, 5, 6.
No historians of the first century mention Jesus. Suetonius (65-135) does not. Pliny the Younger only mentions Christians (Paulists) with no comment of Jesus himself. There were Christians, but they themselves have only heard of Jesus (and didn't know when he was born, or where he was buried). Later on, Tacitus mentions a Jesus, but it is likely that after a century of Christian preaching Tacitus was just reacting to rumours, or probably talking about one of the many other Messiah's of the time. Josephus, a methodical, accurate and dedicated historian of the time mentions John the Baptist, Herod, Pilate and many aspects of Jewish life, iterated in detail, but does not mention Jesus. In the third century, a Christian forged the Testimonium Flavianum in the name of Josephus. Aside from that, Josephus does once mention a Jesus, but gives no information other than that he is a brother of a James. Jesus was not an unusual name, either. Justus, another Jewish historian who lived in Tiberias (near Kapernaum, a place Jesus frequented according to the NT) did not mention Jesus nor any of his miracles. It is only in the evidence of later writers, writing about earlier times, that we find a Jesus. Prof. Ehrman, an expert in the prime sources of the first century, spells this out:
“One of the striking and, to many people, surprising facts about the first century is that we don't have any Roman records, of any kind, that attest to the existence of Jesus. We have no birth certificate, no references to his works or deeds, no accounts of his trial, no description of his death - no reference to him whatsoever in any way, shape, or form. Jesus's name is not even mentioned in any Roman source of the first century.7 [...] But as with the vast majority of all persons who lived and died in the first century, he does not appear in the records of the Roman people.”
Now, it would not be fair at this point not to mention that Prof. Ehrman does believe in a historical Jesus. He says so, and infers that the increasingly common denial of Jesus's very existence is disrespectable8. He has a new book on the subject - Did Jesus Exist (2012), where he lays out his arguments (and in short, it is the Gospel of Matthew that is most trustworthy). Ehrman is a critical thinker who is not at all hesitant to dismantle illusion in the search for truth. If he thinks that Jesus exists, then, it is seriously worth considering his opinion. This page continues as an explanation of how Christianity can have arisen if there was no Jesus regardless of whether there actually was one.
What is more surprising than the lack of first-century references to Jesus is that the gospels themselves do not allude to first-hand historical sources, either10.
“The four Gospels that eventually made it into the New Testament, for example, are all anonymous, written in the third person about Jesus and his companions. None of them contains a first-person narrative ("One day, when Jesus and I went into Capernaum..."), or claims to be written by an eyewitness or companion of an eyewitness. Why then do we call them Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? Because sometime in the second century, when proto-orthodox Christians recognized the need for apostolic authorities, they attributed these books to apostles (Matthew and John) and close companions of apostles (Mark, the secretary of Peter; and Luke, the travelling companion of Paul). Most scholars today have abandoned these identifications, and recognize that the books were written by otherwise unknown but relatively well-educated Greek-speaking (and writing) Christians during the second half of the first century.”
Ehrman kindly points out that the gospels were not forgeries written by unknown people - they were anonymous, and it was a case of false attribution10 by Christians later on that was the cause of the misdirection which lasted many hundreds of years.
So, none of the four gospels are written by eyewitnesses, and the writings of Paul (which make up nearly half of the total books of the New Testament, 13 of 27) are also the writings of someone who merely had a vision of Jesus but who never met him. This very strange state of affairs indicates that something is wrong with Christian history.
This section is taken from "The Birth of Jesus and the Christmas Story: Pagan and Unhistorical: 8. Conclusions" by Vexen Crabtree (2000).
Mostly derived from pagan myths, Jesus' birth stories are very dubious, and it very likely that all such beliefs were written retrospectively by the Roman gospel writers, or were assumed from the outset. There is no evidence or reason to believe that they actually occurred. Events such as King Herod's killing of every male child simply could not have gone unnoticed, these pagan myths were however assumed of all god-man saviours. Modern Christmas is a combination of pagan and ancient practices. Its eclectic nature makes it a multicultural event suitable for appropriation by nearly anyone, including staunch secularists. Jesus' existence remains a mystery, we cannot validate even the simplest facts about his birth, and this fact has led some scholars to cast doubt on Jesus' entire existence.
This section is taken from "The Crucifixion Facade: 6. Conclusions" by Vexen Crabtree (2002).
The crucifixion story of Jesus Christ is mythical, based on pagan religions, and makes no sense:
There is a complete absence of evidence for the events described - no authors mention the phenomenal events that supposedly occurred at the time of Jesus' resurrection, and, there are no records of Jesus being crucified in the first place. This is despite there being multiple historians of the time who kept extensive records of events in that era, especially of unusual events and the misdeeds of rulers. The only records we have are those written by Christians themselves, the Gospels. And within each of those gospels nearly all details of the crucifixion and resurrection are different. Very important details, such as Jesus' last words, are so different that it appears they are simply being made up by the authors. The earliest Christians did not know simple details such as where Jesus was buried.
Most the details of Jesus' death and rebirth are similar to the existing myths surrounding god-men in that era. The similarities to the Christs of other pagan religions are shockingly detailed, so much so that early Church fathers had to defend themselves against pagan critics who said that the stories of Jesus were simply pagan stories with new names.
A very common belief, accepted (in part if not in full) by Christian liberals is that someone who claimed to be a prophet and messiah (there were many such people appearing amongst the Jews) is the historical Jesus. His life story has been intermingled with older pagan myths, and it is very hard for us to see his true life or message to the extent that we have little or no information about him, he is effectively without historical basis because the real figure is obscured by the mythical one.
God-Man myths were very popular and pre-dated the God-Man of Jesus by thousands of years. They all shared a common format which (or "vegetation myths") is that the Son of God has 12 disciples, and is betrayed and killed by a traitor. Popular myths such as the virgin birth, miracles, curing the blind and ill are also familiar and common aspects of these myths. As such, such events were assumed to be true of the historical Jesus. These myths became interwoven amongst the stories of someone who might have been real. Many Jewish sayings became attributed to this character, and sayings of John the Baptist too. Stories about the disciples were assumed to be true and not simply symbolic stories as the original gnostic Christians believed. Once people wrote pseudepigraphically under the names of the disciples people accepted them as true too. The rest is history, but initially is based on mistaken pseudo-historical accounts.
Perhaps the most historically correct of all the theories is that Christianity started out with a Gnostic character, but that it lost this from the 2nd century onwards. The stories of Jesus and the disciples match those of other Mystery religions and Pagan religions precisely because Christianity was another Mystery Religion. Literalist Christianity as we know it was the Outer Mysteries of this spiritual religion. It explains why the historical centres of Christianity were found to be all gnostic when literalist Christians went back to research the past, and why so many Pagan god-man elements are part of Christianity. It also explains why none of the scholars of the time mention Jesus or the miracles around his life, because even the Christians themselves knew that they were symbolic stories, not actual events. It's not just Jesus though - a surprisingly large number of religious figureheads, including both other Mesopotamian heroes and even the Buddha, have a tendency to conform to a certain stereotypical set of qualities11. The stories told about these heroes have similarities - such as a final battle with an arch-enemy, which resolves when the hero's cleverly chosen words destroy Māra or Satan accordingly. Karen Armstrong holds that these elements of the hero's career come to us from the Palaeolithin era. Later Christians had to defend their 'new' religion against critics who knew it was yet-another copy of the typical son-of-god saviour religions of the time:
Some features of the story of Jesus kind weight to the idea that his history was invented, modelled on previous heroes. Like other heroes, he had no childhood. There was a mythical birth story, and a short adult life of wonder and miracles, but there was no infant Jesus, and no child Jesus. Except one particular story of Jesus when he was 12 (Luke 2:41-49). This particular story happens to merely be a rewriting of older stories about heroic and often divine heroes, who, at that very age, had a story told about them. Where were Jesus's parents? They are rarely mentioned, and are only a nuisance. They don't know when Jesus was born - early Christians debates for a hundred years about what date to celebrate Jesus's birthday on, and, they didn't know where he was buried. They still don't. Did no convert to Christianity speak to Jesus's parents and pass on any stories about what was told? For such an important figure, who died young, leaving many adults a long time to write about him, there are incredible gap in his history.
“The Jesus story sure looks like you would expect it to look if it were patterned after other god-men. Early Christian Church fathers such as Justin Martyr (d. 165), Tertullian (d. 225), and Irenaeus (d. 202) felt compelled to answer the pagan critics of the time who claimed the Jesus story was based on earlier traditions. The fathers claimed that the similarities were the work of the devil, who copied the Jesus story ahead of time to mislead the gullible.”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)4
The first part of this section is taken from "Types of Christianity in History: Who Were the First Christians?: 3.2. The Progression From Paganism to Christianity" by Vexen Crabtree (2003).
Elements common to all types of the Christian religion that were common in previous Pagan mystery religions include much of the religious content of Christianity. All elements of Jesus' life such as the events around his birth, death and ministry were already parts of the myths surrounding other god-men of the time. Peripheral elements such as there being twelve disciples were similarly present in other more ancient religions and sometimes with an astonishing amount of duplication. First century critics of Christianity voiced accusations that Christianity was nothing but another copy of common religions.
All the actual sayings and teachings of Jesus were also not new, and much of the time speeches attributed to Jesus are more like collections of Jewish and Pagan sayings. Even distinctive texts like the Sermon on the Mount are not unique. If we remove all the content that Jesus could not have heard and repeated himself, there is nothing else left. If we remove the supernatural elements of Christianity that are copies of already existing thought and religion, there is nothing left which is unique! Even many of the sayings of subsequent Christians are not unique; Jesus appears to not have taught anyone anything that was not already present in the common culture of the time. This shows us that not only did Christianity follow on, as expected, from previous thought in history but that we do not even need to believe in God or supernatural events in order to account for the history of Christianity.
Stephen Hodge very usefully lists many of the similarities found in the Dead Sea Scrolls to the teachings and organisation of Jewish Christianity. He also concludes that these Jewish documents make the teachings and appearance of Jewish Christianity less revolutionary:
“The [Dead Sea Scrolls] collection is really an invaluable cross-section of religious material that reveals for the first time just how rich and varied Jewish spiritual life was at that time. The scrolls offer an intellectual and devotional landscape into which Jesus and his movement can be placed. No longer does Jewish Christianity seem an inexplicable, isolated occurrence. [...] In other words, the true value of the Dead Sea Scrolls is that they help provide a genuine context for what was to become Christianity. For example, they tell us just how widespread was the expectation and longing for a saving Messiah among Jews at that time, and that there were a number of competing theories about the expected role of this Messiah in the world of Judaism. The scrolls also reveal that the expectation found in the Gospels that the end of the world was imminent was a dominant belief in many quarters in Judaea.
All biblical scholars agree that, apart from their intrinsic value, the sectarian scrolls are of tremendous importance as background information to the social and religious conditions in Judaea that led to the rise of Christianity. [... There are] subtle implications that can be derived from the Qumran texts, for they not only provide interesting parallels to Christian concepts and practice but tend to reduce the uniqueness of the Yeshua movement.”
“The only pre-Christian man to be buried and resurrected and deified in his own lifetime, that I know of, is the Thracian god Zalmoxis (also called Salmoxis or Gebele'izis), who is described in the mid-5th-century B.C.E. by Herodotus (4.94-96), and also mentioned in Plato's Charmides (156d-158b) in the early-4th-century B.C.E. According to the hostile account of Greek informants, Zalmoxis buried himself alive, telling his followers he would be resurrected in three years, but he merely resided in a hidden dwelling all that time. His inevitable "resurrection" led to his deification, and a religion surrounding him, which preached heavenly immortality for believers, persisted for centuries.
The only case, that I know, of a pre-Christian god actually being crucified and then resurrected is Inanna (also known as Ishtar), a Sumerian goddess whose crucifixion, resurrection and escape from the underworld is told in cuneiform tablets inscribed c. 1500 B.C.E., attesting to a very old tradition.”
For more, see: "The Divine Number 12: 12 Gods, 12 Disciples, 12 Tribes and the Zodiac" by Vexen Crabtree (2007).
Starting out life as an immensely useful number for counting and dividing things, the number 12 became a number revered by mathematicians and early astronomers. So the skies were divided into 12 portions as were the months of year, reflecting the annual movement of heavenly bodies. Superstitions and religious beliefs were piled on top of respect for the number 12. Superstitions concerning signs of the Zodiac and life events have been comprehensively shown to be false. The ancient Zoroastrians had twelve commanders on the side of light (light being a symbol for the sun), and in Judaism and the Hebrew Scripture there are many references to the 12 tribes of Israel (each founded by a patriarch), and later on the Greeks imagined 12 Gods on mount Olympus, and many Gods have had 12 sons. Mithraists, and then Christians believed that their saviour had 12 disciples, and Muslim Shi'as list 12 ruling Imams following Muhammad. Such holy persons are depicted with a bright solar light around their heads such as occurs when any object approaches from the sun and now stands infront of it. Although many ancient religions such as the Gnostics understood things like the twelve disciples of Mithras to be symbolic of the stages of the waning and waxing sun throughout the year, later religions took it literally and believed in an actual 12 disciples - and some still do.
“The reason why all these narratives are so similar, with a godman who is crucified and resurrected, who does miracles and has 12 disciples, is that these stories were based on the movements of the sun through the heavens, an astrotheological development that can be found throughout the planet because the sun and the 12 zodiac signs can be observed around the globe. In other words, Jesus Christ and all the others upon whom this character is predicated are personifications of the sun, and the Gospel fable is merely a rehash of a mythological formula (the "Mythos," as mentioned above) revolving around the movements of the sun through the heavens.
For instance, many of the world's crucified godmen have their traditional birthday on December 25th. This is because the ancients recognized that (from an earthcentric perspective) the sun makes an annual descent southward until December 21st or 22nd, the winter solstice, when it stops moving southerly for three days and then starts to move northward again. During this time, the ancients declared that "God's sun" had "died" for three days and was "born again" on December 25th. The ancients realized quite abundantly that they needed the sun to return every day and that they would be in big trouble if the sun continued to move southward and did not stop and reverse its direction. Thus, these many different cultures celebrated the "sun of God's" birthday on December 25th. The following are the characteristics of the "sun of God":
- The sun "dies" for three days on December 22nd, the winter solstice, when it stops in its movement south, to be born again or resurrected on December 25th, when it resumes its movement north.
- In some areas, the calendar originally began in the constellation of Virgo, and the sun would therefore be "born of a Virgin."
- The sun is the "Light of the World."
- The sun "cometh on clouds, and every eye shall see him."
- The sun rising in the morning is the "Savior of mankind."
- The sun wears a corona, "crown of thorns" or halo.
- The sun "walks on water."
- The sun's "followers," "helpers" or "disciples" are the 12 months and the 12 signs of the zodiac or constellations, through which the sun must pass.
- The sun at 12 noon is in the house or temple of the "Most High"; thus, "he" begins "his Father's work" at "age" 12.
- The sun enters into each sign of the zodiac at 30°; hence, the "Sun of God" begins his ministry at "age" 30.
- The sun is hung on a cross or "crucified," which represents its passing through the equinoxes, the vernal equinox being Easter, at which time it is then resurrected.
"Origins of Christianity" by Acharya S
Well whether or not Jesus existed, we know for a fact that Christians exist. By finding out about the earliest forms of Christianity and looking at the earliest Christians, we can see how even if Jesus existed, Christianity as-we-know-it is certainly not how it was meant to be.
- Ebionite Christians were the true Christians: Aramaic-speakers like Jesus and his apostles, they would have been the Jewish witnesses to Jesus' ministry and preaching. From this starting point, Jesus' teachings spread. They also, however, spread from Saul of Damascus, who renamed himself Paul and who preached an anti-Ebionite version of Christianity for the gentiles, which was much easier to follow and more popular.
Gnostic Christians: With stories, myths and beliefs that are exactly the same as Christian ones in many of the little details, gnostic beliefs manage to pre-date Christians ones by over 200 years. They understood what the stories of the NT really meant. Jesus didn't really exist, but was a collection of such earlier stories, rewritten in Greek, with Greek names. This is the approach taken by historians such as Freke & Gandy.
Pauline / Roman Christians: When the Roman-backed instance of Christianity went in search of the ancient centres of Christianity, they discovered to their horror that the Ebionites and Gnostics pre-dated them. Their un-Christian answer was to edit verses, burn books, arrest and harass the other poverty-stricken Christians until no opposition was left. The form of Christianity that we have inherited from the Roman Empire is far from what Christianity originally was.
By Vexen Crabtree 2007 Nov 10
Originally published 2002 Feb 09
Last Updated: 2014 Mar 04
Parent page: Christianity
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4 (2005). Kindle edition 2008. First published in Great Britain in 2005 by Canongate Books Ltd.
"Types of Christianity in History: Who Were the First Christians?" (2003). Accessed 2014 Mar 04.
Lost Christianities (2003). Hardback. Oxford University Press, New York, USA.
Forged (2011). Subtitle: "Writing in the Name of God - Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are". Hardback. Published by HarperCollins, New York, USA.
The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (1996). 2001 re-issue. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007). Published by Prometheus Books. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.