Did Jesus Exist? Yes and No

I have come to the following conclusion: Scholarship devoted to the question of the historicity of Jesus, while not a total waste of time, could be better spent gardening.

In this essay, however, I will focus on why it is not a total waste of time.

What seemed to be an endlessly fascinating question in the nineteenth century among a few Dutch and German radical theologians (given a splash of new life by re-discoverers of the radical tradition, such as G A Wells, in the twentieth) now bears the scent and traces of Victorian wallpaper.

Van Eysinga

Theologians in the “mainstream academic tradition” have always been reluctant to touch the subject because, after all, seminaries do not exist, nor for that matter departments of religious studies, to teach courses in the Christ Myth. For that reason, if the topic is given syllabus space at all it is given insufficient space and treated as the opposite of where sober, objective scholarly inquiry will take you in New Testament studies.

It sometimes, but not often or generally enough, occurs to my colleagues that much of what passes for real scholarship is equally slipshod, constructed on equivalently shaky and speculative premises and serviced by theories so artificial (Q, for example) that (to quote myself in the introduction to George Wells’s The Jesus Legend) it can make the theory that Jesus never existed a welcome relief from the noise of new ideas.

I umpired what was (as far as I know) the only direct conversation between George Wells and Morton Smith (Jesus the Magician, 1978) in 1985, in Ann Arbor Michigan. On that occasion, Smith said naughtily that “the only thing Professor Wells and I have in common is that we each hold a theory that the other regards as absurd.” So much for “real templates.” Especially ones that ask us to accept that “everything we have previously learned is wrong.” Not even the Novum Organum asks us to believe in that kind of paradigm shift. As for myself, the only thing I have in common with both those who want to argue the myth theory as a provable hypothesis and those who believe the gospels provide good evidence for the life of Jesus is that we are probably all wrong.

Arthur Drews

I accept that most of what we have learned about Jesus is “wrong” in one sense or another. Almost all of what the churches have taught about him–the christology that undergirds the doctrines of the Christian traditions, for example–is wrong at a literal level. It has to be because it is based on doctrines derived from a naive supernaturalist reading of sacred texts whose critical assessment had not even been contemplated before the eighteenth century.

But so too, the critical assessment is wrong, because it has been motivated by a belief that by removing the husks of dogmatic accretion–a process initiated by Luther’s liberal scholastic predecessors, in fact–a level of actuality would eventually be reached. There would be an assured minimum of truth (often assumed by the end of the 19th century to be primarily ethical rather than Christological, as doctrines like ascension and virgin birth were sent to the attic) which some historians on both the Catholic modernist and Protestant side thought would be unassailable.

It never happened of course, and the great conclusion to the whole enterprise after notable false stops in the twentieth century was the Jesus Seminar. It was never clear to me how a methodology with its roots tangled in a kind of cloddish German academic hubris (husk, husk, husk, sort and sift) could come to a salutary end. And it didn’t, unless we can assume that giving birth to a Jesus who said nothing for certain and might have said anything at all is a “result.”


I admit to being a bit prickly on the subject, having finally concluded that the sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus. Some of my reasons for saying so are laid out in a series of essays included in the anthology Sources of the Jesus Tradition, coming out in August. The main argument for Jesus-agnosticism is being developed in a more ambitious study, The Jesus Prospect, for which watch this and other spaces. (The prologue on method will be ready later in 2010.)

But before all of that, let me say a few words about why I believe Christianity benefits from discussions like this, and especially from Jesus-agnosticism (as opposed to Jesus-loving and Jesus-denying scholarship)–without ever having formally to acknowledge them.

For just over four years of my academic life I have taught in predominantly Muslim universities. Both were highly selective places, the sort of institutions contrived to train “tomorrow’s leaders,” highly aware and critical of the dangers of madrasah education, more than willing to make judicious room for the comparative study of religion. But secular approaches to the Quran were not high on the agenda of either place. Even in “liberal” circles in the Islamic world there is an enclosure for religion which is to be treated respectfully, or ignored, but not questioned extensively.

American University of Beirut, Main Gate, blt 1866

The question of the historicity of Jesus does not arise naturally in Islam–or I should say among believers–any more than the “question” of Muhammad naturally arises. The status of Jesus in Islam is assured not because he is the star of the New Testament but because as Issa he is a a revered figure in Islam. He is not the unique prophet. He is not the way, truth and life. People do not “get” to Allah through him. But he is sui generis. That is, he is an indispensable rung in a ladder that leads to God through the Prophet who is unique: Muhammad.

Myth-theorists, to the extent they pay attention to other religions, tend to regard Muslim belief with the same defensive disdain one often associates with Christian fundamentalists’ view of Islam: Islam is later, derivative, probably bogus (they reason); Muslim rejection of what the prior tradition specifies about Jesus, fatally injures their own contingent tradition. –As Jesus goes, so goes Muhammad. Revelation is whole cloth, not patchwork, and it is often more annoying than interesting to Christians (and some secularists) that Islam seems to be a sequel to the Bible with a slightly revised cast of characters and substantially revised course of events.

Isa in Turkish Islamic art

Needless (I hope) to comment that western views of the sort described above are ignorant. Jesus’ “role” in Muslim teaching does not depend on any Christian beliefs about Jesus but on the Quranic incorporation of Jesus. The status of Jesus in Islam is contingent on Islam, not Christian teaching about Jesus. Muhammad ur-rasul Allah: The Prophet is the seal (guarantor) of the prophets and at the absolute center of a religious cosmos–which nevertheless includes satellites like Jesus, David, and Abraham in orbit around him.

“Say, ‘I am only a man like yourselves; (but) I have received the revelation that your God is only One God. So let him,
who hopes to meet his Lord, do good deeds, and let him join
no one in the worship of his Lord!’ [Surah Al-Kahf 18 :lll).

Interestingly, however, this apparent protest of humility actually enhances the prophet’s stature. He’s an earthen vessel, but all the more credible because he bears human testimony to the miraculous and to the reality of a personal encounter with the divine will. More than the scholars of Islam, the sufis and mystics would preserve this belief.

To the extent this encounter is reflected in prior religious traditions, Muhammad is more a prophet like Moses on Sinai than a water-walking miracle-worker like Jesus. Maybe this signals a continuity of desert tradition largely missing in the artifice of Christianity, but the Quran is far more Torah than Gospel. The directness of the dialogue between Allah and the Recorder, Muhammad himself, is the directness of the instructions of Yahweh to Moses. True, in Islamic tradition Muhammad is sometimes credited with miracles, like splitting the moon (a gloss of Surah 54.1-2). But “orthodox” Islam in its sectarian complexity does not tie itself to these supernatural occurrences: the final miracle of Islam is the Quran itself and the place of Muhammad in its promulgation. What he said, did, and taught (and there are plenty of hadith projects in departments of Islamic theology devoted to just that question) are of secondary consequence. It is vital that he existed because without that the divine will would never have been known in an authentic form and the correction of existing inauthentic forms, like the biblical tradition, would never have taken place.

The Annunciation in Islamic Context

Odd, then, that the historicity of Jesus should be of any concern at all in relation to a person whose humanity, in the letters of Paul and in the gospels (to a lesser extent, perhaps) is of no consequence to the core tradition. The battle of the post-New Testament period in the early Church, as Harnack recognized, was not to define the divinity of Jesus but to defend his humanity.

What’s usually missed in the discussion of the war between right and wrong believers before 325 is that both camps agreed on the essentials: whatever else Jesus was, “human” doesn’t do justice to it. The bitterness of battle, and the cheer-leading that has gone on for the victors ever since, leads us away from the fact that even the pro-humanity orthodox camp did not leave us with an historical figure but with a luminescent god-man whose finger perpetually points to his own breast as the source and explanation for his mission to earth.

Mission to earth? Yesterday’s gnosticism is today’s science fiction. It is all too easy to fall into gnosticism or science fiction when we examine such images in the writings, art, and liturgy of the church. Especially if we also see religion, more generally, as a species of superstition–resurrections and ascensions into heaven as undiagnosed instances of mass obsessional disorder.

Women at the Tomb

But to discover elements of the fantastic in religions like Christianity and Islam, vestiges of thought-processes that fail our requirements for modernity, is not the same as “demonstrating” that religion is fantasy.

Love, fear, joy, pleasure, mother-love, and compassion equally have their origins in emotion and human evolution and are nonetheless “real” in daily life–indeed, shape daily life–constantly expressing themselves in thought and action. Religion consolidates these aspects of existence in a way that simple curiosity and information does not. It roots them not in the self but in something external, like God, or incarnates them in messengers like Jesus and metaphors like sin, forgiveness and redemption. That is what is going on in the New Testament, not an episode of To Tell the Truth.

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

For this reason–starting with a certain lack of profundity—it is difficult not to find the musings of (many) myth-theorists frankly ridiculous. The early church found the historical Jesus all but unnecessary: that is the story. They found his humanity necessary as a theological premise, because they could not quite grasp the concept of disembodied divinity. Besides, a god without humanity could scarcely be expected to comprehend human suffering, or desire to do anything about it. History did not require Jesus; emotion did. It required as well the incredible and fantastic aspects of his personality. History required Muhammad and the non-divinity of Muhammad for other reasons. That is why the two traditions are different.

I say could not “quite grasp” the idea of a disincarnated divinity because some of the Christian fathers flirted with Neoplatonism–Clement of Alexandria, for example–and they were saved by a pragmatic hair from being gnostics themselves, as I think–if we are being honest and not pedantic–the author of the Gospel of John was.
The writer’s tortured theological prologue is our best evidence of the philosophical dilemma confronting some early christian communities.

Clement of Alexandria

But the true (non-Christian) Neoplatonists like Porphyry despised Christianity because, they said, a disembodied divinity is the only form divinity takes. To reach the far-distant god of a Plotinus you need not just a little water, a few words to a confessor and a healthy appreciation for the Eucharist but a very big invisible ladder and the annihilation of all fleshly encumbrances.

Stuck with the Bible, the gospel, a growing body of doctrine, necessitated by struggles with heretics, and the religious demands of a growing community–a lot of weight to carry–Christianity could not very easily take the turn toward disembodied and denatured divinity. If, for the pagans, the resurrection of the flesh was a nauseating idea, for the Christians it became a useful absurdity and the prelude to two millennia of “paradoxical” theology. The earliest shapers of Islamic thought were scarcely seduced by ingenious verbal strategies for mixing and mingling the human and divine: Muhammad therefore stayed vigorously human.

If, as I think, the church was largely successful in subduing the humanity of Jesus while insisting as a strictly dogmatic matter that he was both fully human and fully divine (historical and unhistorical, as in John 1.1-15?), why still bother to ask about whether he “really” existed. Shouldn’t the question really be who or what existed? It is not the same as asking whether Muhammad existed since nothing but one kind of reality has ever been claimed for him, and that is historical.

My defense of debates and discussion of the historical Jesus is not based on any confidence that something new is going to be discovered, or some persuasive “template” found that will decide for us a question that the early Christian obviously regarded as irrelevant. Still less is it based on some notion that the Church will retract the doctrine of the trinity or the hypostatic union, clearing the way for an impartial investigation into the life of Jesus. That is already possible, and as always before the journey gets us to the front door of the Church. Nothing has been more depressing than the search for the Jesus of history, and nothing more hollow than the shouts of scholars who have claimed to find him. Except the shouts of scholars who claim there is nothing to find.

Not that the shapers of the Jesus tradition, whatever their real names were, should have the final say, but they did draw the map and bury the treasure. We are the victims of their indifference to the question.

The really good news is that to the extent we don’t know who Jesus was or even whether he was, Christianity is spared the awful theological and religious certitude that drives Islam to do sometimes outrageous and violent things in defense of that certainty, the totalizing imperative that all religions in their history have struggled to keep in the cave.

The incredibility of the divine and the uncertainty of the human is a potent defense against a totalizing imperative, an inadvertent safeguard created by the extravagance of early doctrine. The vulnerability of Christianity is a vulnerability created by critical examination of its sacred writings–the legacy of its scholars, including its religious scholars, its secular scholars, and even scholars whose speculation outruns caution and evidence. It was Christian scholarship that first put Christianity at risk. Islamic scholarship has played no equivalent role in relation to Islam.

In the end, Jesus and Muhammad are more unalike than alike. If both are unique, they are unique in different ways and not because either’s claim to invulnerable authority can be treated as true or false on the basis of evidence.

Because of accidental but real historical circumstances, inquiry has invulnerated the Christian tradition in a way that has yet to happen, and may never happen, in Islam. If it does happen, it will not be because the west compels it, or because science requires it or because secularism requires it. Islam is not in retreat from the forces of reason. It will certainly not happen because some absurd theorists, mainly western, under-informed and under-equipped, and working on western assumptions, claim that (like Jesus?) Muhammad never existed.

But that is a subject for another time…

Over at the Centre for Inquiry…

Update: Since this post appeared, Paul Kurtz has resigned as chair emeritus of the Center for Inquiry, from his seat on the board, and from editorship of the flagship periodicals, Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry. This is the tragic denouement of a tragic fall, but one out of which grace may yet appear. Sad that our primary cipher for such a process is a religious one–the crucifixion–but it’s perhaps in circumstances like this that we learn to comprehend the power and subtlety of the religious symbol.

A debate is going on between the puissant professor Paul Kurtz and the unillustrious Ronald A. Lindsay, his replacement if not his successor.

Let me be the first to call for Mr Lindsay’s resignation.

In little more than two years, he has driven the organization deeply into debt, reduced both the prestige and intellectual capital of a once-serious contender to be the best humanist and secularist organization in the world, tried to use the CFI “pulpit” for his own narrow range of interests, basically First Amendment issues–and at some point in the near future will probably sell the whole kit and caboodle to a more stable organization, like Americans United. He will then wash his hands of the whole matter having mergered what he could not accomplish.

He is abetted in this by a board that wants the organization to heal itself, an interesting attitude from people who don’t believe in the paranormal, and co-workers who would have trouble finding executive positions at a sardine factory.

In the end, this debate is not about Kurtz v Lindsay (with interjections from onlookers like me and D J Grothe) but about vision.

There are a dozen organizations, more or less, that do what Mr Lindsay wants done. There are a number of adherents that want a full frontal atheist position from CFI, and an equal number that share what Mr Lindsay interprets to be the “political stance” of CFI–though that stance recedes daily into obscurity, if it was ever coherent to begin with.

CFI would be very foolish indeed to untether itself from its roots in the American secular and democratic form of humanism. But it needs to be asserted that the American form of humanism has been about tolerance, not ridicule–sophisticated critique of religion and dogma, not mockery.

It is fundamentally rude, wrong and treacherous to trade Paul Kurtz’s mentoring captaincy for a bunch of drunken sailors who think they know how to steer the ship. Clearly they don’t. The rocks are in view.

Let me also say, to Paul Kurtz and his defenders: Come away. The mission you are on, the game plan you are following, the chart you are looking at, is being invented day by day. Gertrude Stein could tell you: there is no there there, anymore than God is in his heaven.

It’s a plan at the mercy of every opportunistic wind, every atheist bestseller, every publicity stunt and anti-religious brainstorm that comes down the pike. There is no strategy here, just a weekly ad hocism that focuses on what lawsuit to join or what headline to chase.

True, CFI has always had an interest in being heard in the area of First Amendment matters. But that has always been a sidelight, not the headlight.

For my own part, I urge everyone who has an interest in the future of CFI to support Paul in pursuing the greater lights of his conscience and vision.

Call it what you will,humanism is too important a quest to be left to small minds who now only seem interested in perpetuating their incompetent blundering by challenging his advice, his wisdom and criticism.

Free inquiry? Give me a break.


Renfrew: A Fable

Once upon a time there was a fox named Heinrich who owned a circus. He was proud from his red and white muzzle to his absurdly long tail that his circus was the most popular one in the kingdom of Erkundigung.

There were many other circuses–some with bigger tents and more beautiful performers. But when it came to dazzling, glittering spectacle, Heinrich’s was the best: dancing bears and talking donkeys, goats who balanced themselves on ropes strung high above the center ring, a chorus of wolves who howled songs from the Rosenkavalier, penguins who wore clown hats and kicked balls at ranks of terrified hens, dogs who did triple turns off rings onto the trapeze.

Each night, alone in his wagon, Heinrich counted the day’s receipts. Each day the take was better. Heinrich slept well and snored loudly.

Heinrich took his show from Munich to Berlin, from Cologne to Dusseldorf. When the wagons rolled into the towns and villages in between, children and their parents lined the streets smiling brightly, waving kerchiefs and sometimes, as his carriage passed at the end of the parade, placing a garland around Heinrich’s neck. He had the keys to thirty three towns and cities, a tidy income, and the reputation of knowing what people liked to see. Whenever questioned about his success, he said modestly, “I am a fox, and foxes have a knack.”

It was hard work. No one knew how hard. Most of the performers, from the high-rope head Nanny goat, Gertrude, right down to Otto the emperor penguin and Ambrose, the juggling lion, had been friends of Heinrich for years.

But, as time passed it became difficult for Heinrich to ask the performers to do the old tricks, jumps and skits. “Age is the enemy of swiftness and with fame comes infirmity.”

Their timing was slower. They missed cues. One evening Gertrude tumbled from her high rope and had to be carried from the ring whinnying in pain. Otto on another evening forgot his glasses and kicked the ball toward the stand instead of the hens, knocking an ice cream cone out of a little boy’s hand. Ambrose could not be trusted to make his way through a single verse of Die Gedanken sind Frei without forgetting the lyrics.

The younger performers, not as brave or talented or famous as the old stars, began to grumble.

“Heinrich is going to spoil it all for us,” a young lion said. “We need something new.”

“Heinrich is too old. We know what people want,” squawked a hen. “But does he let us do it our way? Never.”

“For one thing,” said a lion, “We don’t need so many acts.”

“Exactly,” said a young penguin, who had been waiting five seasons for Otto to disgrace himself. “What do you suggest?” :

“Get rid of the penguins,” said the goat.

“Get rid of the goats, said the lions–we can help.”

“Get rid of the lions,” said the wolves.

“Get rid of the donkeys,” said the donkeys.

As he watched the animals squawking and braying and whinnying their preferences fron the shadows, a sullen gray wolf named Renfrew stepped forward. Heinrich had employed him for years to balance the accounts, and in recent times to buy gallons of ice cream for little boys who had become victims of Otto’s nearsightedness.

“I have a modest proposal, said Renfrew. “Get rid of Heinrich.”

“We can’t,” said the animals in unison.

“He’s the only one who knows how it all works,” said the lions.
“He’s the only one with brains,” said the donkeys.

“He’s the only one who keeps us from tearing each other apart,” said the goats.

“He’s the only one who knows the way to Munich,” said the hens.

“He’s the only one who knows how the tent goes up,” said the dancing bears.

Renfrew smiled. “You silly beasts. You’ve been taught to believe that by the old miser. Now, if you had a clever new ringmaster–say a wolf with skills at keeping the books and staving off dissatisfied customers–we could do new and wonderful things. And don’t worry: I know the way to Munich and I can learn how the tent goes up. Who’s with me?”

A pig named Cherise stepped forward: “I am,” she said firmly pulling herself up to her most resolute height.

“Splendid,” said Renfrew. “You are in charge of raising money for ice cream. You do like ice cream, don’t you?”

“Ever so much” said Cherise.

“And who else?”

“I am,” said a Labrador retriever named Bartleby, whose job for many years had been bringing Heinrich his supper and washing the dishes afterward.

“Splendid,” said Renfrew. You are now the master of accounts. “And you are also to find out how the tent goes up.”

“As for myself, I will run everything. Just leave it to me. You will have your jobs–and I will finally have a position worthy of my talents. What could be happier?”

At this there was feint applause from the animals, though privately they wondered: Renfrew had worked in the shadows for years. Cherise, it was well known, ate more ice cream than she earned, and Bartleby, though a fair enough dishwasher, was untried in other affairs.

Still, they reckoned, a job is a job, and who would hire high-flying dogs and talking donkeys in a bad economy?


On return to his caravan on a Saturday night, Heinrich found Renfrew sitting at his desk counting the day’s returns.

“Can I help you?” Renfrew asked with a thinly disguised and toothful smile on his muzzle. “I think you must have the wrong wagon”

“No, this is my wagon,”said Heinrich.

“No dear chap: it’s mine. So is the circus. We have arranged for you to travel with us in a somewhat more modest wagon for a time. And of course, we’ll continue to use your name, your itinerary, and the goodwill you have generated. But you must not get any ideas. I’m running this show now. Changes will be made.”

Heinrich disappeared into the evening and sat in despair in a much smaller wagon, one which had previously been used for the chickens. “I should have got rid of that wolf years ago,” he thought. “And the labrador too. And the pig.”

The following day, Renfrew, dressed in a fine new suit and vest, cravat and opal tie-pin, called the performers together.

“I have been looking at the books,” he intoned ominously. Cherise smiled and struggled to keep her eyes above the table. “We must get things under control.”

“Control?” repeated a donkey who did not know the word.

“First, we will not go to Munich. Second, we will not go to Cologne. third, we will not go to Dusseldorf. That is my plan.”

“Where will we go,” asked a rat, whose function depended on circumstance.

“We will stay right here,” said Renfrew. “Until conditions improve.”

“When will that be?” asked a young dog.

“When I decide,” said Renfrew. “And one other thing.”

“What?” said the performers in unison.

“Just staying put isn’t enough. Costs are mounting, especially the cost of feed. We must also let some of you go. Bartleby smiled broadly and Cherise grunted in approval.

“So for the time being, I am putting the lions, the goats and the penguins on furlough. And since the chickens are only needed for the penguins, the chickens must go too. I will review the situation with the donkeys in six months.”

“But people will not come out here to this muddy town in the middle of nowhere to see talking donkeys,” said a lion.

The donkeys nodded enthusiastically.

“You are suggesting I don’t know what I’m doing,” said Renfrew, “and that is insubordination. You’re fired.”

“But you’re firing us anyway,” said the lion.

“Nonsense,” said Renfrew. “I said furlough. Bartleby, put a note in this lion’s file saying that he said I said something I did not say nor mean to say. Does anyone else wish to challenge me?” said Renfrew. “Bartleby, please take down the names of all those who wish to challenge me.”

But no one did.

Six months later, the circus was still in Teufelsdrockh. It hadn’t traveled from the spot. Holes were beginning appear in the tent, but only the high-rope goats might have repaired it, and they had been fired. The crowds were down to five and six–everyone who came still remembered Heinrich’s circus. But the new show consisted of a few talking donkeys, a tap-dancing dog, and a rat who scuttled back and forth across the ring for no purpose.

“We could hire some new performers,” said Bartleby to Renfrew as the financial picture blackened.

“We would need money for that,” said Cherise,” not nearly as happy a pig as she once had been.

“We will do what I decide,” said Renfrew as he looked out of his window onto the muddy lot. “When I decide. By the way, dog: I notice the eastern half of the tent has collapsed. I don’t suppose you know how to fix that, do you?”

Moralia: Boni pastoris est tondere pecus, non deglubere