Posted by: Ken Brown | October 29, 2008

Did Jesus Exist?

It is a common refrain amongst the New Atheists that Jesus did not exist, that he was invented out of whole cloth by the early Christians. It is noteworthy that the people making this claim are generally not historical critics, while virtually all New Testament scholars (a group which includes a fair number of non-Christians) insist that Jesus’ existence and death by crucifixion is an undeniable fact. That said, a mere appeal to authority can hardly be the end of the matter—though it should establish that the burden of proof rests on those who would deny this consensus—so it is worth discussing the matter in a bit more detail.

Just such a discussion has lately been ongoing at James McGrath’s blog. In response to his book The Burial of Jesus, James has attracted the attention of a number of Jesus-deniers and has been attempting to explain a few of the reasons why the crucifixion is almost universally accepted. Before I add my own two cents, be sure to check out these two posts, the latter of which includes this video:

That video drew attention from well-known British atheist Stephen Law, who responded here:

His argument is that the early Christians would not make up a crucifixion story as the Messiah was not someone they would expect to be crucified. The expectation was the Messiah would defeat the Romans, not be executed by them. Of course this is a blog standard argument that gets repeated over and over. He concludes anyone who thinks the story is made up is living in a fantasy land.

This seems to me an amazingly weak piece of evidence.

He is second guessing people’s motives for why they would invent a story in which the expected Messiah dies.

First, there may be reasons why they would want their Messiah to die and come back to life. In fact, aren’t there some very, very obvious reasons why they would want that? You want to invent a Messiah. But unfortunately no one has defeated the Romans or introduced the Kingdom of God just yet – which is what the Messiah is supposed to do. Hmm. What sort of story might you construct? Or perhaps the Messiah claim got tacked on to a made up resurrection story in order to give it authority, the story then being adjusted to make the Messiah claim fit.

Second, even if the tellers did have a motive not to include this element, and also had no reason to include it, so what?

This chap’s argument rests on something like this principle:

If a story, presented as true, reporting many bizarre/miraculous events, contains an element that we think the tellers would have a motive not to include, then that bit of the story is probably true.

This is feeble. After all, alien abductees are often very embarrassed about saying what’s been shoved up them. That’s not a bit they’d choose to include. Should we conclude that bit of their stories is probably true?

If this is the best Dr. James McGrath has for supposing the Jesus crucifixion story is almost certainly true, I think he’s in big trouble….

Remember, I don’t say the crucifixion of an historical Jesus is a made up story. I say it’s not unreasonable for me, given the evidence I have seen thus far, to suppose it might be.

The truth is, Stephen’s own response is the one that is “feeble.” He assumes that the mere possibility that Jesus could have been invented is proof enough that he was. He dismisses James’ argument on the grounds that he can imagine an alternative [see Stephen’s comment]. He offers no reason to think this alternative provides a better explanation for the rise of early Christianity than that it really was a movement begun by a man named Jesus who was crucified. After all, unlike alien abductees, we have plenty of concrete evidence (archaeological and textual) that many Jews were crucified by the Romans, so there is no obvious reason to deny that Jesus was as well, simply because it was his own followers who recorded it.

Even leaving aside any other reasons to think Jesus existed, James’ point about the Jews not expecting their messiah to be crucified is important. The issue is not that it was unlikely that a would-be messiah would be crucified (it was very likely indeed), but that this was generally seen as proof that the claimant was not the messiah after all. It was this latter belief that the early Christians rejected, and the most plausible explanation is that their own favored messianic claimant was actually crucified. What needs explaining is not why a would-be messiah would have been killed, but why anyone would continue to call him the messiah after it happened.

In fact, we know from non-Christian sources (such as Josephus) that there were numerous would-be Jewish messiahs in 1st C. Palestine, many of whom were killed by the Romans. Therefore, if you are going to explain the origin of a 1st C. Jewish messianic sect which claims its leader was crucified, it makes by far the most sense to think they started out as followers of one of those would-be messiahs, and subsequently reinterpreted their beliefs after his death. To claim the sect originated for some other (unknown) reason and then invented an entirely imaginary messiah that never existed and yet was still claimed to be killed by the Romans raises far more questions than it answers. UFO’s notwithstanding, James is right that such “embarrassing” details—of which there are many more, like Jesus’ baptism by John and Peter’s denials—are indeed strong evidence that there is a historical core to the story, however much it may have been embellished and reinterpreted by the early church.

To see this, consider a contemporary analogy: The cargo cults. No doubt it is possible that even if no Western traders ever visited them, the inhabitants of certain Pacific islands might have nevertheless started claiming that white men had brought them extravagant gifts from their gods (and one day would again), but it makes far more sense to see the embellishments and interpretations put forth by such cults as responses to actual encounters with such traders than as pure fiction without historical foundation. Similarly, even if you categorically deny all miraculous elements in the Jesus tradition, it makes much more sense to see those elements as embellishments and interpretations based (however loosely) on actual memories of a crucified messianic claimant than as pure fiction without any basis in reality.



  1. To claim the sect originated for some other (unknown) reason and then invented an entirely imaginary messiah that never existed and yet was still claimed to be killed by the Romans raises far more questions that it answers.

    Good point, well said, Ken. On any informed historical inference to the best explanation, the Jesus myther explanation comes well down the list as a poor account of the facts. The analogy with cargo cults is a fine comparison, too.

  2. “The truth is, Stephen’s own response is the one that is “feeble.” He assumes that the mere possibility that Jesus could have been invented is proof enough that he was.”

    No, Ken. Read the post. I did not say it’s proof the story was invented. I don’t even say it was invented!

    I simply have doubts about whether such a person existed – doubts I am told I am silly to entertain. My main argument is not the one you quote. Anyone wanting to know what I really think should check the Jesus historicity thread on

  3. Stephen,
    My apologies. I’ve updated that portion of the post to better reflect your position. That said, I don’t see that my argument itself is affected.

  4. Thanks Ken – I don’t mind being criticised, but not for things I have not said!

  5. I like your cargo cults example but it does not work as (i) we have independent evidence that ships did visit, (ii) even if we did not the very close similarities between the stories and real ships, etc. would make it probable that real ships visited. None of this is present in the Jesus story. Do see my latest post:

  6. Stephen,
    I don’t think your objections to my cargo cults example work:

    (i) we have independent evidence that ships did visit,

    As I said, we have loads of independent evidence of crucified Jewish rebels, including at least a few messianic claimants.

    (ii) even if we did not the very close similarities between the stories and real ships, etc. would make it probable that real ships visited. None of this is present in the Jesus story.

    I simply don’t see the distinction. If we came to an island where the natives went on and on about how they were once visited by a ship (indeed, they have built their whole religion around it), the fact that we know that other islands in the area were also visited is very good evidence that this island also was visited.

    The case is precisely the same with the crucifixion of Jesus. Granted that we know many other messianic claimants were crucified at the same time, when we meet a group who have built their whole religion around the claim that their leader was crucified, this is indeed very good evidence that he was.

    In fact, the evidence is better in this case, because unlike gifts from foreign traders, the crucifixion of one’s leader was not a preferable situation. Everyone wants gifts, and so might be reasonably likely to invent such a story based on the tales of others, but no one wants their leader to be executed.

    I think you are overlooking just how shameful crucifixion actually was. It would be equivalent to a modern cult going around telling everyone their leader was executed on the electric chair. Even if you lacked direct evidence of the execution, the very fact that the group admits to such a shameful death is itself strong evidence that it happened. Such a death is simply more likely to be covered up than made up.

  7. If I may also add to your exposition on the crucifiction…

    It was actually more than shameful – in the eyes of the Jews, who Jesus and his disciples came primarily to ‘save’, it was a curse.

    “If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and you hang him on a tree, you must not leave the body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is a curse of God. You must not defile the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” – Deuteronomy 21:22-23

    For Jewish people someone who was hung on a tree was cursed and cut off from God (I shalln’t go into the exegesis as there are others who have already done the work on the web). Essentially, the religious leaders wanted the people to see that this absolutely wasn’t the ‘messiah’ which is why they screamed “crucify him” rather than just let him get off with a flogging or stoning – Odd that they would crucify him when Jewish peoples main form of punishment was stoning wouldn’t you say?

    If you wanted to form a religion, and you wanted to sell it to the Jewish people, this would be the worst kind of sell you could have.

    “Hey come join our new religion – it’s 100% real, our leader/saviour is cursed, and you can be a part of that curse too!”

  8. Alex,
    You’re quite right. Here’s R.T. France, from his commentary on Matthew:

    “Christian readers have become so used to the cross as a word and a symbol (and indeed a cause for ‘boasting,’ Gal 6:14) that it is hard now to recapture the shudder that the word must have brought to a hearer in Galilee at the time. Crucifixion was a punishment favored by the Romans but regarded with horror by most Jews, and was by now familiar in Roman Palestine as a form of execution for slaves and political rebels. It was thus not only the most cruel form of execution then in use, but it also carried the stigma of social disgrace when applied to a free person. To have a member of the family crucified was the ultimate shame. Crucifixion was an inescapably public fate, and drew universal scorn and mockery” (pg. 410)

    He also cites Cicero (In Verrem 5.64.165) who calls it “the most cruel and revolting punishment” and Josephus (Jewish War 7.203) who calls it “the most pitiable of deaths.” The Temple Scroll from Qumran (11Q19 64.7-12) states that “If a man passes on information against his people or betrays his people to a foreign nation, or does evil against his people, you shall hang him on a tree and he will die…. If it happens that a man has committed a capital offense and he escapes amongst the nations and curses his people and the children of Israel, he also you shall hang on a tree and he will die. And their corpse shall not spend the night on the tree; instead you shall bury them that day because those hanged on a tree are cursed by God and man; thus you shall not defile the land which I give you for inheritance” (trans. by Florentino Garcia Martinez and Eibert J.C. Tigchelaar, in The Dead Sea Scrolls: Study Edition, pg. 2.1287).

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