The following question came to me from Facebook:
There is not one piece of evidence of Jesus’s existence until 70 years after his death, when historians acknowledge having heard of the myth. What possible evidence could you have for his existence?
A little background is necessary, of course, such as: why would I, an atheist, be defending the existence of Jesus? And, why would I, a cynic, be so insistent that someone whose existence cannot be proven did in fact exist?
First off, the reason why I would be defending the existence of Jesus. The first reason, of course, is that the conclusion I have drawn from the research I’ve done is that he unquestionably existed, and if I am to attack theists for ignoring evidence that does not support their cause, so to must I admit what appears to be the truth, even when it doesn’t seem to support my side of the argument. The second reason is that the existence of Jesus is a straw man. As I have discussed in earlier posts, atheists should be able to concede virtually everything to drive the point home that even if virtually everything Christians (in particular) say is true, it still doesn’t prove or even suggest in any way that there is a God, or that any of their other supernatural claims hold true. By asserting that Jesus did not exist, the Christian presumes that we believe the following premise: “Jesus does not exist, therefore Christianity is wrong.” So, if they can prove that Jesus exists, they can render the conclusion invalid. The true atheist believe is that Christianity is wrong, regardless of whether there was a Jesus or not.
Second, why would a cynic be so confident in Jesus’s existence? Isn’t it more accurate to say that there’s no way for us to know? Again, I’m always uncertain of that kind of assertion, because it’s all too common for Christians to say “well, there’s no way for you to know for sure whether there is or there isn’t a God, so wouldn’t it be safer just to join us?” It’s true—nobody can know for sure whether God exists. That’s why monotheism has lasted so long—it was well enough written so that nobody could ever disprove it, as opposed to (for example) Greek religion being disproven the first time we flew a plane over Mt. Olympus. But the evidence overwhelmingly supports the nonexistence of God, to the point where anyone who claims his existence must eventually simply say “well, you just have to have faith that he exists.” In other words, you have to ignore reality to think there’s a God.
Well, you have to ignore reality to believe that Jesus was never real. Now, history is an incredibly unreliable science. By definition, almost. It’s very difficult to know what will be important in history, which is why we don’t know much about the childhood of an Avonian writer until he started writing plays in London for the Queen herself. We also have to piece together history with what we have available, which is why the world knows every most intimate detail about the childhood of a teenage Jewish girl but not of the young Austrian painter who would grow up to have her killed. Finally, history is written by the victors, one of the many reasons why we’re here talking about the proliferation of African and European-based monotheistic religion and not of the dreaming rituals of the Australian aborigines.
Fortunately, there are a few rules that historians follow which make for very reliable data, even with unreliable evidence. The first is Occam’s Razor. History is rarely complex. This is how we dismiss nearly all conspiracy theories, as well as a good deal of ideologies. Occam’s razor comes up frequently when Christians find themselves forced to defend discoveries made after the bible was written: if the only way that your belief system can be justified is (for instance) by saying that dinosaur bones were systematically placed in the Earth’s crust by God for the intent purpose of putting your faith into question, you are in serious, serious denial.
Second step—if history is written by the victors, what is the stuff that the victors wouldn’t want you to know? If the Soviet history books say that V.I. Lenin spoke in baby talk or the English history books say that King Richard VI had a humiliating stutter, you can believe that those things were true. If the victors could write those facts out of history, they would have, but they can’t, because there are recordings.
Finally, look for extraneous information and figure out why it’s there. In the words of William Shakespeare (if he even existed), “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Are they giving you an alibi? What is it they don’t want you to think they were doing? Why did the Romans have a horribly written, utterly unbelievable story rife with contradictions about an escaped Trojan traveling to Italy to found Rome? Could it be that early Rome’s whole justification for Imperialism was that they were the new Greeks?
Now, with the Old Testament, we don’t have to dig too deep to attest to its accuracy, because its authors were terrible liars. Virtually all of the principal characters lived to be 500-600 years old. Really. Moses was told the Ten Commandments by a burning bush, on a hill with no other witnesses. You don’t say. The entire planet was flooded for forty days and forty nights, with the only animals surviving being those on Noah’s Ark. Tough break for the wolves, who weren’t indigenous to the Nile Basin, but a hearty congratulations to fish.
The New Testament is a little more difficult to simply brush away. For one thing, Romans kept pretty good history. Also, the New Testament was written as more of a history of man, not of the supernatural. But it also appears that the authors of the New Testament were talking about the life of a man who most certainly existed.
Without getting too deep into the history, the New Testament is a spinoff of one very specific part of the old testament: the birth of a Messiah. The claim, as we all know, is that Jesus of Nazareth was that messiah. Now, right off the bat, we have a very believable premise: that a group of people around the Jewish year 3100. After all, the Torah gave pretty specific data on when the messiah would be coming around, and that was the time. They also gave a very specific location: Bethlehem.
The Bible does say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He better have been, or the whole premise for the book is shot. However, how he got there, and why he didn’t stay, and why there are no documents which indicate that he was there, is inconsistent and very difficult to believe. It’s perfectly believable that the Romans wouldn’t have cared about some Jewish kid in a cellar, but weren’t they there specifically for a census? And then, while it’s completely believable that King Herod would have ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, it’s a little strange that there would be no record of every single child in an entire principality being killed, and once the story goes on to describe how Joseph, Jesus, and Mary escaped the massacre, the story gets far-fetched indeed.
Seems the New Testament authors are liars after all. They’ve failed every rule of historical believability—the story is so convoluted that it’s hardly believable, the details are so intricate that they seem to be covering something up, and the story sure does come out making Jesus look good and the Jews in power look bad.
But wait… if they’re lying about the birth of Jesus, why didn’t they just say “yeah, he was born in Bethlehem. He’s the messiah, isn’t he?” Why start the story with a tale so ridiculous that even Jews at the time would think it was too far-fetched to be real? Remember, these are the people who don’t bat an eyelid when they say their hero can pull thousands of tasty cooked fish out of thin air if the occasion called for it. It seems that they’re going out of their way to explain away how someone who everybody knows was born to a carpenter in Nazareth could be the messiah born of a virgin in Bethlehem. It would be pretty embarrassing for Christians if their dude wasn’t even born in the right place to the right people. So the story of the nativity seem to prove two things: 1. there was a Jesus of Nazareth, and 2. he wasn’t born in Bethlehem.
The same can be said for the end of the story. According to the Torah, the messiah was to expel the Romans from the Holy Land, give the land back to the Jews, and usher in the end of existence, carrying his chosen ones with him to heaven. Jesus was about three years into his preaching when the Romans grabbed him, tossed him up on the cross, and he died. There’s a reason why the Bible focuses so much attention on Jesus’ last days—because it takes a serious amount of spin to justify why their hero was caught in less time than it takes to get a B.A. in Theology. The fact is that Jesus met very few of the criteria of the Jewish messiah, and those criteria that he did meet, he knew perfectly well what the conditions were and he went out of his way to meet them (really, you don’t think that by the end of his ministry Jesus couldn’t find a better mode of transportation than an ass?).
Go back to what the original intent of the New Testament was: to prove that Jesus was the messiah. If they made this dude up, they did a shitty job. You could say that the entire thing was a meticulously spun tale, crafted just right to make it seem like a real person with real flaws but with divine lineage, but they just weren’t that good at telling bullshit stories 2,000 years ago. No, there’s really one big obvious answer: there really was a Jesus of Nazareth. He really did preach. He really did go after the moneylenders at the temple. He really did preach on the mount. He really did ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, and he really was betrayed and crucified. Because even 2,000 years ago, nobody would have thought it was a story even worth listening to if it weren’t about someone they knew was real.
And again, at the end of the day, it just seems like it’s not a smart thing to argue against. There’s a chance that Jesus wasn’t real. But if the atheists are eventually the victors of history, they would be smart to leave Jesus in there. There’s just too much to explain to justify his nonexistence, and in any case, two thousand years from now historians may look back and say, there sure is a lot of documentation of this Jesus fella, and how embarrassing would it be for our atheist overlords if that guy really existed?