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Questions: Do You Believe Jesus was a Real Person?

i have a question

I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me. All questions will be answered in the order in which they are received.

Peter asked:

I am an avid follower of your blog and wholeheartedly agree with your views on God, the Bible, and Evangelical Christianity. I am interested in your belief as to whether Jesus was a real individual or mythical. I have read both Bart Ehrman’s book, “Did Jesus Exist” and Richard Carrier’s book “On The Historicity Of Jesus,” where they promote and support opposing views. I myself find Carrier’s arguments more compelling mainly due to Paul’s letters not mentioning an earthly Jesus, nor using details and teachings from his life to support his points when doing so would have been easier than describing his communications through visions with a celestial Jesus. It seems to me that the Gospel story would have been discussed had it existed during Paul’s time. Also, there is no secular evidence for an historical Jesus. While the Gospels could be mythicized stories of a real person, I just cannot believe that Paul’s Jesus or any biblical Jesus actually lived.

What do you believe and why?

It is increasingly popular in atheist circles to deny the existence of Jesus.  More than a few atheist readers have asked me if I also take such a view. I understand that it would make things a lot easier if Jesus was just a mythical being and the stories told about him are works of fiction. No Jesus, no need to think about the Christian God, Jesus, and the teachings of the Bible.

That said, I am of the opinion that Jesus was a real flesh and blood person who lived and died in Palestine almost 2,000 years ago. The Christian gospels do contain historical data, and from that data I have concluded that there was a Jesus who walked the shore of Galilee and hills of Judea centuries ago. One need not believe the miracles attributed to Jesus to be true, to believe Jesus was a real person. One can believe that Jesus lived and died without accepting the irrational notion that he resurrected from the dead three days after his death. As a lifelong reader of the Bible and student of Christianity, I can separate the historical narrative from the fanciful. Saying this has led some atheists to attack me, saying that I am a closet Christian or that I secretly desire to be a follower of Jesus. Such claims are absurd, but some atheists simply can’t accept that two people can look at the evidence for the historicity of Jesus and come to different conclusions. Based on the available evidence, I have no reason to believe that Jesus was not a historical person.

Peter raises the question of the Apostle Paul not talking about Jesus’ history. Is it true that Paul doesn’t mention Jesus? Dr. Bart Ehrman writes:

It is significant that Paul converted to be a follower of Jesus after being a persecutor of the Christian church.  Paul himself is quite straightforward about that, and more than a little ashamed of it (which is one of the reasons we can trust he’s not making it up).  That is also the emphatic claim of the book of Acts written after his life.  Paul persecuted the church before he joined it.

That would mean that he must have been persecuting the Christians by around 32 CE, just two years after Jesus died.   And that means that he knew about Christians, and their claims about Jesus, already at that extremely early point.  We don’t have to wait for Mark in 70 CE for evidence that Christians were talking about Jesus.  We have clear and certain evidence they were doing so in the early 30s.  What they were saying about Jesus was highly offensive to Paul.  And so he persecuted them.

In a later post I’ll be talking about what they were saying about Jesus that Paul found offensive.  Here I simply want to stress that Paul knew about a historical Jesus already by 32 CE.   And what did Paul know about him?   For some reason (strange, as I suggested earlier), mythicists often claim that Paul doesn’t tell us anything about the historical Jesus.  That simply is not true.  At all.  Here are the things tells us:

  • Jesus had a real, human birth to a real human mother (Galatians 4:4)
  • He was born as a Jew (Galatians 4:4)
  • He was a descendant of King David (Romans 1:3-4)
  • He had brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5)
  • One of whom was named James (Galatians 1:19) (Paul knows him personally)
  • His ministry was to and among Jews (Romans 15:8)
  • He had twelve disciples (1 Corinthians 15:5)
  • One of whom was Cephas/Peter (Paul knows him personally as well)
  • He was a teacher, and Paul knows some of his teachings (1 Cor. 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:22-24)
  • He had a last supper with his disciples at which he predicted his coming death (1 Cor. 11:22-24)
  • He was crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2 and millions of other places)
  • This was on orders of the civil authorities (1 Corinthians 2:8)
  • At the instigation of the Jewish leaders in Judea (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15)
  • He was then buried (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
  • Paul also thinks, of course, that God raised Jesus from the dead.
    How can anyone say that Paul doesn’t think Jesus was a real, historical Jewish teacher in Israel who was crucified?  You might wonder why Paul doesn’t tell us more – we have all wondered that, a good deal.  But there are obviously possible explanations: for example, that he wasn’t writing a gospel but personal correspondence dealing with problems his churches had.

To say that Paul would have to mention Jesus’ baptism, temptation, parables, transfiguration, miracles, and so on if he knew about them seems to me to be completely wrong.   If you were to take seven letters of my own dear mother, who is highly religious and deeply committed Christian in every way — even letters in which she talks about her faith — and looked for places where she talked about Jesus’ baptism, temptation, parables, transfiguration, miracles, and so on, you would look in vain.  That’s probably true of most Christians today.

Paul possibly had no reason to mention such things.  He possibly didn’t think such things were all that important for his message and ministry.  He possibly didn’t know much about such things (remember: he is writing before the Gospels).  It’s hard to say.  But what is easy to say is that Paul certainly knew about the man Jesus.  He tells us some things about him.  And he learned about Jesus no later than 32 CE or so.   The historical man Jesus could not have been myth invented many decades later.

It’s clear, at least to me, that Paul does indeed talk about Jesus. Yes, I find it troubling that Paul doesn’t mention much of the historical information about Jesus found in the gospels. Dr. Ehrman writes:

Paul of course has a lot to say about the importance of Jesus, especially the importance of his death and resurrection and his imminent return from heaven. But in terms of historical information, what I’ve listed above [i.e., in the previous posts] is about all that we can glean from his letters. Imagine what we wouldn’t know about Jesus if these letters were our only sources of information. We hear nothing here of the details of Jesus’ birth or parents or early life, nothing of his baptism or temptation in the wilderness, nothing of his teaching about the coming Kingdom of God; we have no indication that he ever told a parable, that he ever healed anyone, cast out a demon, or raised the dead; we learn nothing of his transfiguration or triumphal entry, nothing of his cleansing of the Temple, nothing of his interrogation by the Sanhedrin or trial before Pilate, nothing of his being rejected in favor of Barabbas, of his being mocked, of his being flogged, etc. etc. etc. The historian who wants to know about the traditions concerning Jesus — or indeed, about the historical Jesus himself — will not be much helped by the surviving letters of Paul.

It is up to each of us to determine whether what Paul does say about Jesus is sufficient to conclude that Paul believed Jesus was a real person.

My wife and I were discussing this issue the other day. I told her that even if I had doubts about the existence of Jesus, I wouldn’t share them publicly. My goal as a writer is help Evangelicals who have doubts about Christianity and help people who have recently left Christianity. Telling doubting Evangelicals that I don’t believe in the existence of Jesus would kill any hope I had of helping them. Such a belief is what I call “a bridge too far.” Doubting Evangelicals would stop listening to me if I said to them, “you know Jesus never existed.” But Bruce, doesn’t truth matter? Of course it does. However, I don’t believe that mythicists have an overwhelming amount of evidence to bolster their claims. I am not saying that mythicists don’t have any evidence, they do. What I am saying, however, is that I don’t find their arguments compelling, and as things now stand, I see no reason to overthrow the status quo.

Let me be clear, I believe in the existence of the historical Jesus, not the Biblical Jesus. Almost 2,000 years ago, a Jewish man named Jesus lived and died. I can reasonably conclude that he was a Jewish rabbi or political operative who was executed by the Roman government at the request of Jewish leaders. Anything else is a matter of myth and legend. Whether Jesus was a “good” man depends on how much weight you give the stories told about him.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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  1. Avatar
    Bob Felton

    I think the question of Jesus’ historicity is akin to the matter of Paul Bunyan. Nobody sane believes there was a gigantic lumberjack, with a gigantic blue ox, but most folklorists believe there was an actual lumberjack about whom campfire tales began to be told, then made up, and those tales eventually became the Paul Bunyan story.

    So, too, with Jesus; an actual historical figure almost certainly became an aggrandized literary figure.

  2. Avatar
    Brunetto Latini

    I’m glad to read that. Denying the existence of Jesus is a bridge too far for me, though I’m no longer Christian. I tend to think there’s more than skepticism involved when that claim is made.

  3. Avatar

    I tend to agree. I do find the arguments of the mythicists intriguing, but not, at last, conclusive. I think misunderstanding, exaggeration, and maybe even outright lying–all ordinary human foibles–adequately account for what we read in the Gospels.

  4. Avatar

    The simplest answer was that there was most likely a teacher named Jesus who stirred up a lot of interest, and tall tales were told about him after he died. The tall tales gave way to fan fiction among his followers (gospels canonized and not canonized).

  5. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Neil Carter has a new blog post up about this very subject:

    (Sorry, don’t know how to insert a link; maybe one of you kind people would explain.)

    Starting a religion as high-demand as core Christianity seems to have been in its first few centuries, in the middle of an empire where many of the established religious practices were ritualistic and probably not terribly demanding, really needed some stirring preachers and charismatic leaders. I have no trouble at all believing in a charismatic guy named Yeshua who, at an age when everyone probably expected him to be settled down in the family cabinet-making business with a wife and at least a few kids, was single and out on the road preaching for a living. Miriam to Yosef: “When he was hanging with that baptizing guy down at the river, at least he was safe with his friends. Now he’s always on the road. I can’t help but worry. What if he pisses off a soldier or something? You know those Romans!” And maybe Yosef replies, “Dear, every family has one weird kid. Yeshua is just weirder than most.”

    Oh, yes, I can totally believe in an attention-gathering Jewish preacher, who was the kind of guy that legends just attached themselves to. He was preaching an apocalyptic story, the kind that attracts individuals who are very tired of having their country run by a foreign power that doesn’t have a clue about them, their religion, their history, or their culture. Easygoing cultures took Roman occupation a whole lot more in stride than did high-demand cultures like the Jews shared at the time. Top the whole thing off by the fact that during Yeshua’s preaching days, the Roman governor Pilate was much worse than most, a veritable Roman 45*. Nobody cared when he was out preaching to the multitudes, but even suggesting that some other kingdom might come to power–even a spiritual one–made him a target. He might have lived and died in eventual obscurity, if the Romans hadn’t noticed him.

    *I am referring to the 45th US president, who I don’t care to name. “Voldemort” is already taken.

  6. Pingback:Betrayal, Corruption, Trump by the Numbers, Diving, Melting –

  7. Avatar
    Steve Ruis

    Again, I must comment. The evidence people point to that there was an historical Jesus (there were thousands of Jesuses, it was a common name) at the heart of the Jesus narratives in the New Testament (NT). Scholars are almost unanimous in their opinion that the birth narratives for said Jesus (in Matthew and Luke, with Mark and John having none) are fictional. So, we have a majority opinion that fiction was employed in the writing of the gospels. These birth narratives contain names, places, allusions to time of year (shepherds staying out with their flocks overnight eliminates winter, late Fall and early Spring), they describe astronomical events, visits from foreign magicians, etc. All of this was fictional. The rest of the NT (save the gospels and Acts) do not quote Jesus, do not describe Jesus or his earthly mission or even mention Jerusalem except as a place where the Pillars of the Church reside, do not refer to him being on the Earth at all, rather Jesus is described as a celestial being, living in the Heavens. So, the vast majority of the NT writings do not refer to an historical being, rather a celestial one and the gospels contain not only fiction but literary allusions to the OT in droves, which had to have been researched and “invented” also. (Note For people who believe the NT has superseded the OT, one has to ask why so many OT allusions are made to justify the validity of the NT.) The gospels and Acts are full of fantastic miracles (which if you remove from the narrative, there is almost nothing left) and geographical mistakes and massive contradictions (esp. between John and the others). For example, Jesus, in Matthew, even gets the name of the High Priest wrong.

    Now, if one accepts that Jesus was a celestial being all along (no one claims he is still on Earth now), is Christianity “disproved”? Hardly. What is disproved is the orthodox churches peddling a false history for millennia. People may lose faith in their churches, but there is no reason to believe that Jesus worship would be in decline because he is obviously a spiritual being now, so what actually changes?

    In defense of the Biblical literalists, they generally profess that the “original” manuscripts of the books of the Bible were inspired and literally true. Unfortunately, no one has ever see any original copies of those books, actually nothing close to them, and by making the claim about the originals being perfect, they are admitting that the versions we have now have been corrupted. How they could know is beyond me as they do not have the originals to compare the current versions with. So, claiming the current Bible is infallible isn’t even defensible accord to them.

    Peace to all.

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Bruce Gerencser