Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Did Jesus Exist? The Jesus Myth theory

Did Jesus exist? The Jesus myth theory

The idea that the Jesus of the Gospels was just a myth was first propagated by Bruno Bauer (1809-1882). The evidence for Jesus’ existence is so extensive that even the theological liberals in Bauer’s day dismissed him. Unfortunately, with the rise of militant atheism, the Jesus’ myth theory seems to be back with a vengeance, being propagated both by serious writers like Robert Price and G.A. Wells, as well by flood of internet advocates. Their method often involves dumping a ton of scholarly-sounding “evidence” on their readers—much of which, upon close examination, turns out to be illogical, irrelevant, taken out of context or, in the case of some internet websites, outright fabricated. Nevertheless, they overwhelm their readers with data the reader is not prepared to process, and sound so convincing that many have been misled. This chapter will attempt to address a few of the issues.
Part I
In the DVD entitled, The God who wasn’t there, Brian Flemming attempted to make the case that the Jesus of the Gospels was a myth. As mentioned above, the Jesus myth theory has been around since the days of Bruno Bauer (1809-1882) and has generally been dismissed as nonsense. Since, however, the Jesus myth theory appears to be gaining popularity, the arguments deserve a response. Flemming’s case can be summarized in seven points. Each point will be stated and answered below.
First, according to Flemming, the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel written, the other three being derived from Mark. Scholars believe that the Gospel of John was written independently of the other Gospels, but otherwise, most scholars would agree with Flemming on this point.
Second, Flemming points out that the Gospel of Mark records the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, but according to Flemming, since Jesus couldn’t possibly have predicted the destruction of Jerusalem, the Gospels must have been written after AD 70. That means there is a 40 year gap between Jesus’ death in AD 30 or 33, and the Gospel of Mark in AD 70.
Flemming is right that most scholars think the Gospels were written between AD 70 and AD 100, and that these dates are largely based on the assumption that Jesus couldn’t possibly have predicted the fall of Jerusalem.
Contrary to Flemming, however, many critics today—even some of the more radical critics—are now starting to recognize that Jesus really did predict the fall of Jerusalem 40 years before it occurred! They have reluctantly come to this conclusion because the majority of New Testament scholars believe in a “Lost Gospel of Q” which was supposedly written before AD 70 and in which Jesus alludes to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple which occurred in AD 70.
What many critics don’t seem to realize, however, is that this undermines a primary reason for dating the Gospels after the fall of Jerusalem in the first place! There is actually much more evidence that Matthew, Mark and Luke were written before AD 70 than after. But if Matthew, Mark and Luke were written before AD 70, the case for the 40 year gap is destroyed along with the case for the mythical Jesus.
Even if there was a 40 year gap, however, that proves nothing. Ancient historians (and modern ones too) often write about events that occurred much longer than 40 years before their time, but scholars don’t automatically assume the events, therefore, never happened. For example, the vast majority of what we know about Alexander the Great was written about 400 years after he lived and is recorded in only one source![1] By contrast, what we know about Jesus comes from multiple sources written as early as 20 to 70 years after he lived.
Third, Flemming argues that all we know about this 40 year time gap comes from the letters of Paul, and that Paul did not think of Jesus as a real person who lived in the recent past. This is clear, Flemming says, because Paul never mentions Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, John the Baptist, Jesus’ miracles, Pilate, Jerusalem, Jesus’ trials or anything Jesus ever said.
First, many scholars would disagree with the contention that Paul is our only source for this 40 year time gap. As mentioned above, some scholars believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke were written during this time.[2] But aside from that, most scholars, including some of the most radical Jesus critics, believe that there was once a gospel about Jesus we now call Q that also would have been written during this 40 year period.[3]
But the idea that Paul doesn’t know anything about the historical Jesus is simply wrong. Paul tells us that Jesus was a Jew,[4] and that he had a brother named James who was still alive in Paul’s time[5] (The existence of both Jesus and James is also confirmed by the first century Jewish historian, Josephus). Paul knows that Jesus had 12 disciples[6] and he knows of some of them by name.[7] He also knows that Peter was married.[8] Paul knows that Jesus had a last supper with his disciples on the night of his death,[9] that he was betrayed,[10] and was executed by crucifixion.[11] Paul also knows that Jesus’ apostles were centered in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death.[12]
In other words, by pointing out the things in Jesus’ life that Paul doesn’t mention, Flemming concludes that Paul doesn’t know anything of a historical nature about Jesus’ life.[13] Flemming’s conclusion is factually in error.[14]
Fourth, Flemming argues that the only thing Paul knows about Jesus is that he died, rose, and ascended into heaven. According to Flemming, Paul doesn’t place these events on earth but in the “mythical realm” just like the other savior gods of the time. There are numerous points that can be made in response:
1. As seen above, the assertion that the only thing Paul knows about Jesus is that he died, rose, and ascended into heaven is factually in error.
2. The theory that Jesus fits the pattern of ancient dying and rising savior gods is a view propagated by Sir James Frazer in his 1911 classic, The Golden Bough.[15] Eddy and Boyd argue that since 1911 Frazer’s views have been thoroughly and almost universally discredited.[16]
3. The myths about Mithras, Osiris, Dionysus and others really don’t look anything like Jesus at all and some were not even written until long after the Gospels had been written! This will be discussed at greater length below.
4. Far from writing in the “mythical realm” Paul argues that if Jesus did not really rise from the dead, his whole ministry was in vain.[17] That hardly sounds like someone who is basing his ministry on a myth.
Fifth, Flemming argues that since the Gospels are filled with outrageous improbabilities, the Gospels cannot be understood as historical. The DVD includes clips of Robert Price, a noted proponent of the Jesus myth theory, saying the gospels are filled with “outrageous improbabilities.” Price gives only three examples. The first one is the slaughter of the babies during the time of Herod the Great. Price asserts that the story is mythological, being derived from the book of Exodus. But this is like arguing that the assassination of John F. Kennedy must be mythical being derived, perhaps, from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln!
Of course, Price would agree that it would be nonsense to argue that the story of the assassination of Kennedy was derived from that of Lincoln, but so is Price’s dismissal of the killing of the babies simply because the book of Exodus has a story about the death of the firstborn. The fact is that Herod even had members of his own family killed, so there is nothing improbable about Herod ordering the death of a few babies in order to eliminate one who might one day threaten his throne.
Another “outrageous improbability” mentioned by Price is the Jewish supreme council meeting on Passover eve to get rid of Jesus. Although holding trials was one of those things Jews were not supposed to do on feast days,[18] Jesus may well have been viewed as a special exception. The Jewish leaders knew full well the potential danger involved in having someone believed to be a Messiah at such a huge feast as Passover. If rebellion broke out, the Romans may step in and kill people by the thousands as that had done before. When Jewish leaders heard of Jesus’ “triumphal entry,” they may well have concluded that this was (as we would say) a matter of national security that required immediate attention. When viewed from this perspective, the story doesn’t seem improbable at all.
The final “outrageous improbability” mentioned by Price is the story of how Pontius Pilate released Barabbas, “a killer of Romans,” and turned Jesus over to the crowds after trying to get Jesus released. Three responses:
1. Price is right that the idea that Pilate would show any kind of concessions to the Jews is unusual, but Pilate’s career depended on keeping peace in Judea, and even military men often make political concessions when it is to their advantage.
2. We don’t know who instituted the custom of releasing a prisoner on Passover. It may be that Pilate was just carrying out a custom begun by a previous governor and that to drop the custom now could just add fuel to a potential fire.
3.  Pilate’s attempt to release Jesus was probably not because he felt any compassion toward Jesus, but simply because he hated the Jewish leaders and was not above denying their request to kill Jesus for no other reason than spite.
Price’s “outrageous improbabilities” are not nearly as improbably as he imagines. They are certainly no reason for rejecting the historical reliability of the Gospels.[19] But even if they were improbable, N.T. Wright, once noted, “History is filled with improbabilities, but my goodness, they happened!”[20]
Sixth, Flemming argues that since allegorical literature was extremely common back then, and since the story of Jesus fits the pattern of ancient mythical heroes, it is clear that the Gospels take Paul’s myth and make it appear historical, just like many stories on the internet which start out as fiction and are eventually believed as actual, historical events. Four responses:
1. Just because allegorical literature was common back then says nothing about the genre of the Gospels since biographies and histories were also common.
2. Flemming lists 22 supposed characteristics of the “hero tradition” and argues that Jesus has 19 of the characteristics while Romulus and Hercules only have 17 and, Zeus only has 15. A closer look at these characteristics, however, will show that the whole thing is artificially contrived. When the actual similarities are counted, Jesus doesn’t even make the list[21] (see the footnote).
But on the other hand, even if the Gospel writers had conformed their stories to some accepted “hero pattern” that would not necessarily mean the stories were unhistorical. For example, some have shown that Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Napoleon also fit the ancient “hero pattern.” In fact, Abraham Lincoln fits the hero pattern better than Oedipus, who is at the top of the list![22]
3.  The historical reliability of the Gospels has been confirmed over and over again. Eddy and Boyd apply to the Gospels “six broad diagnostic questions historians routinely ask of ancient documents in order to assess their historical reliability.[23] They convincingly demonstrate that the Gospels pass every test.[24]
4. Barbara and David Mikkelson (from Snopes.com) were interviewed in the DVD to show that fictional stories can become believed as actual history. That’s true, but no one dismisses Herodotus, Josephus, or Tacitus on that account simply because fictional stories can become believed as actual history. We should remember that few of those who spread internet rumors would be willing risk their life for their rumors. Everything we know about early Christians supports the fact that they were so convinced that what they believed about Jesus was true, they were willing to face beating, imprisonment, torture, and even death. Besides, as seen above, the broad historical reliability of the Gospels has been verified over and over again.
Seventh, since there were ancient Jews and Jewish Christians who thought Jesus had been killed a century earlier under Alexander Jannaeus or Herod, this diversity of opinion about Jesus supports the idea that Jesus of the Gospels was a myth based on earlier stories that circulated before the time Jesus was supposed to have existed.
The idea that early Christians had significant disagreements about when Jesus lived is simply not true. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, First Timothy (all first century AD), and even early church fathers like Ignatius (d. AD 98/117), Justin Martyr (AD 100-165), Tertullian, (AD 160-220) and Irenaeus (Fl 175-195) all agree that Jesus was executed during the reign of Pontius Pilate who ruled Judea from AD 26-36.[25] That Jesus was executed during the reign of Pontius Pilate is also confirmed by non-Christian historians like Josephus and Tacitus.
On the DVD Price doesn’t say where he gets the idea that Jesus lived during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC), but in his book, Deconstructing Jesus,[26] he says that this fact is attested in both the Talmud and in the “Toledoth Jeschu.” Price doesn’t bother to mention that the Talmud and “Toledoth Jeschu” weren’t compiled until the fifth century AD or later.[27]
So essentially, Price is throwing out the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, First Timothy, Ignatius, Josephus and Tacitus—all less than 100 years after Jesus death—in favor of two documents written 400 or more years after Jesus’ death! Some might say that something other than objective scholarship is going on here.
Not only does the Jesus myth theory fail miserably, the evidence for Jesus’ existence is so strong that it appears that those who promote it are engaging in something other than objective scholarship. In fact, I would put them in the same general category as those who deny the holocaust.
Part II
Borrowing from ancient myths
Proponents of the Jesus myth theory often argue that Jesus fits the pattern of ancient Greco-Roman heroes or Middle-East dying and raising savior gods.  The theory that Jesus fits the pattern of ancient dying and rising savior gods is a view propagated by Sir James Frazer in his 1911 classic, The Golden Bough (followed by Joseph Campbell). In the Jesus Legend, Boyd and Eddy argue that since 1911 Frazer’s views have been thoroughly and almost universally discredited by reputable scholars. That doesn’t keep such ideas from being propagated widely on the internet, however. What many Jesus myth theorists don’t bother to tell their audience is that much of the evidence for the supposed parallels come from long after the time of Jesus! If there are parallels at all it may be because pagan authors are borrowing from Christianity!
The idea that Jesus fits some supposed pattern of dying and raising savior god’s looks impressive at first but falls apart when you start examining the imagined parallels more closely. For example, the myths about Mithras, Osiris, Dionysus and others really don’t look anything like Jesus at all! The supposed parallels are arrived at by ignoring the vast differences and cherry-picking the stories for imagined similarities—and even then the imagined parallels are often quite a stretch. For example, Mithras was not born of a virgin, he was born out of solid rock (perhaps the rock was a virgin).
The “resurrection” of Osiris was not so much a resurrection as a reconstruction. His body was reassembled and rejuvenated after being dismembered. Far from being a resurrection, however, he never returned to this life but remained in the underworld (To use this as an imagined parallel for the resurrection of Jesus borders on the dishonest).
Dionysus was born when his mother was impregnated by Zeus (hardly a virgin birth!!!) who disguised himself as a lightening bolt (the old lightening bolt trick :-)   When Dionysus’ mother was burned up by Zeus, Zeus rescued his unborn son by sewing him into his (Zeus’s) thigh. Dionysus was then born out of the thigh of Zeus.
The birth of Adonis occurred when the gods turned his mother into a myrrh tree and Adonis was born from that tree (must have been a virgin tree!)
According to another myth, Attis was conceived when his mother gathered the blossom of an almond tree which had grown from the castrated sex organs of the god Cybele!
Augustus’ “virgin birth” occurred when his father’s wife was said to have slept overnight in a pagan temple during which time a snake crawled up inside of her and impregnated her!
Horus was not the son of a virgin either, but rather the mythological son of Osiris and Isis.
The idea that these are really parallels to the birth of Jesus is absurd, but even more absurd is the idea that pious Jewish Christians would borrow from such bizarre pagan (idolatry) stories to fabricate a story about the birth of their Jewish Messiah, and that they would then be willing to suffer for the fictions they knowingly created!
Further, many of those (especially on the internet) who propose such parallels rarely offer documentation and many of the supposed parallels are fabricated out of thin air. The internet authors just assume everyone will believe them.  Before any parallels are accepted, documentation should be requested—not on some internet website or some New Age occult book—but from primary resource documents—like ANET, Ancient Near Eastern Texts--where the entire context can be read.
This, of course, is not to deny that there are parallels. Of course there are! The very nature of Egyptian religion, for example, was that the Pharaoh was supposed to be the incarnation of a god. And of course many religions tell miracle stories. But to think that just because there are some imagined parallels, this proves the Gospel writers used those parallels to fabricate their story of Jesus is absurd.
Using the same kind of logic we could argue that John F. Kennedy was a fictional character because he fits the pattern of other American heroes—war hero, President, assassinated, etc. Some have shown through extended parallels that Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Napoleon actually fit some ancient “hero pattern” as well as some of the ancient heroes or gods! It is not enough to show some imagined parallel. Some actual connection must be demonstrated between the two people or events that are supposedly parallel! In other words, just because John F. Kennedy was assassinated does not mean the story was fabricated based on the assassinations of earlier presidents!
But even if there were genuine pagan parallels, pagan myths would likely have been disgusting to Jewish authors of the Gospels or to a former Pharisee like Paul: The idea that Horus was born when his mother, depicted as a Falcon, was hovering over an erect phallus! That Augustus was born when his mother was impregnated by a snake in a pagan temple! The dismembering and reassembling of a pagan god’s body parts! The idea that Paul’s whole life changed dramatically and he started borrowing from non-Jewish or pagan myths to create some kind of mythical Jesus, and that he was then willing to suffer numerous beatings, imprisonment and even stoning for the myths he knew were fictional—would be laughable were it not for the fact that people are believing it!
Far from creating a Jesus from pagan myths, Paul argues that many people actually saw Jesus alive after his death and that if Jesus did not really rise from the dead, his entire ministry was in vain (1 Corinthians 15). It is understandable that many people would not believe Paul’s message, but it borders on dishonesty to argue that Paul did not really believe what he was writing, but was just creating Jesus’ myths based on some ancient pagan dying and rising savior god parallels!
Paul and the historical Jesus
Some Jesus-myth theorists argue that Paul really knew nothing about the historical Jesus, since Paul doesn’t mention anything about Jesus life. This is factually in error. Paul tells us that Jesus was a Jew (Galatians 3:16; Romans 1:3), and that he had a brother named James who was still alive in Paul’s time (Galatians 1:19. Since no reputable scholar doubts that Paul wrote Galatians, this alone should be enough to confirm the existence of Jesus). Paul knows that Jesus had 12 disciples (First Corinthians 15:5) and says that he met personally with three of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, James and John (Galatians 2:9). He also knows that Jesus’ disciple, Peter, was married (First Corinthians 9:5). Paul knows that Jesus had a last supper with his disciples on the night of his death (First Corinthians 11:23-25), that he was betrayed (First Corinthians 11:23) and was executed by crucifixion (First Corinthians 1:23). Paul also knows that Jesus’ apostles were centered in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death.
The existence of Jesus is also confirmed in the Gospels. Although Jesus-myth theorists simply dismiss the Gospels as myth, C.S. Lewis once made the point that his whole life focused on the study of myth, and the Gospels simply do not fit the genre of myth! This is confirmed by more modern scholars like Richard Burridge, David Aune, and others who have done extensive comparison studies of genre in ancient literature.
That the Gospel writers were not intending to write myth is clearly shown in the Gospel of Luke. The writer of Luke implies that he is getting his information from written sources as well as eyewitnesses of Jesus (Chapter 1). He says Jesus’ birth took place during the reign of Caesar Augustus (Chapter 2). The writer then places Jesus ministry “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” It is hard to understand how the writer could have been any more clear about the fact that he was intending to write about a real historical character in an actual historical context. The general historical reliability of Luke (and his sequel “Acts) has been extensively confirmed by Greco-Roman scholars like Sherwin-White,[28] Colin Hemer[29] and others.
The existence of Jesus is also confirmed by Matthew, Mark, John, the rest of the New Testament writings, and even writings outside the New Testament, e.g. Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Clement, Ignatius, mention Christ or Jesus.[30] It is amazing that Roman authors like Tacitus, Josephus or Pliny would mention Jesus at all because to a Roman, Jesus was a mere peasant in the backwater province of Galilee or Judea—one of many religious leaders of the time.
The Roman historian, Tacitus (AD 120) writes about Christians who get their name from Christ “from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate…”  There can be no doubt that Tacitus is talking about Jesus even if Tacitus doesn’t mention Jesus’ mother or father.
Pliny the Younger was a Roman governor who writes a letter to Emperor Hadrian in about AD 112 telling about how Pliny had tortured Christians to find out about their religion. He says that what he found was that “on a fixed day” these Christians “were accustomed to come together before daylight and to sing by turns a hymn to Christ as a god, and that they bound themselves by an oath, not for some crime but that they would not commit robbery, theft, or adultery, that they would not betray a trust…” Lucian, the satirist (early 100’s) writes about Christians who worship a crucified sage. The Jewish Mishna talks about how Jesus practiced sorcery and led Israel astray (remember, I said that not even Jesus enemies denied that he did miracles—they just attributed them to magic, sorcery, demon possession etc). But the Mishna does acknowledge Jesus’ existence.
Clement of Rome (AD 97) writes about Jesus by name as does Ignatius (AD 110) who not only calls Jesus by name but even mentions his mother: “
Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified and died…who, moreover, really was raised from the dead…” (to Trallians 9).
Ignatius (d. 98/117), reputed to be a disciple of the Apostle John, certainly believed that Jesus was a historical person and not just a mythical fabrication. Ignatius, by the way, was so convinced he was willing—even eager—to be eaten by lions as a personal sacrifice to Jesus, his Lord.
Papias (late first to early second century) who seemed to delight in talking to those who had known the disciples of Jesus personally (of course, Jesus had to be a real person for Papias to have talked with his disciples).
Justin Martyr (100-165) who wrote, “Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the times of Tiberius Caesar…”  Justin is certainly talking about a real historical person.
Probably the most famous reference to Jesus outside the New Testament comes from the first century AD Jewish historian, Josephus. Some Jesus’ myth theorists attack Josephus saying that his writings about Jesus have been proven to be a forgery but this is factually in error. Neither Josephus, nor his passages on Jesus have been proved to be a forgery, though virtually everyone—Christians and non-Christians alike—agree that a few phrases have been added to what Josephus wrote by later scribes. The following passage appears in Josephus:
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day”.
No one—not even Conservative Christians—denies that the parts underlined were added by a later scribe, but most scholars seem to think the rest of the passage is genuine. The reason for this is because Josephus also mentions Jesus in another later passage when Josephus talks about Jesus’ brother James. That passage says:
“Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”
This second passage seems to assume that Josephus’ readers have already been introduced to this Jesus called the Christ (Josephus says, “called the Christ” to distinguish this Jesus from many other Jesus’s Josephus mentions). Of course Jesus myth theorists argue that both passages were entirely added by later scribes but this begins to look more like the skeptics are just manipulating the evidence to justify their denial of Jesus’ existence.
So in order to deny the existence of Jesus you have to explain away Matthew, Mark, Luke/Acts, John, numerous reference in Paul’s letters, the rest of the New Testament, Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny, Lucian, Clement of Rome, Papias, Polycarp, Justin, and others. To deny the existence of Jesus, or to say that we don’t have enough evidence, begins to look suspiciously like holocaust denial in the sense that no amount of evidence would suffice to convince the skeptic.
Nonsense on the internet
Some web sites try to make a big deal out of the fact that Jesus was not born on December 25 and that this was only added by the later church to conform to a pagan festival. The fact is that the Bible says nothing about Jesus being born on December 25. Why 4th century (and later) Christians chose to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25 has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the historical study of Jesus.
Second, some argue that the Christian cross or the Celtic cross actually comes from the Cross of the Zodiac which pre-dates the time of Jesus. While different churches in various ages have portrayed the cross in different ways, the fact is that the New Testament says absolutely nothing about the type of cross on which Jesus was crucified. For all we know, he may have been crucified on a literal tree on which a crossbar had been attached. It just doesn’t matter.
Romans had been known to crucify literally thousands of people and they would often use whatever was available. So let’s just assume, for a moment, that generations of Christians living hundreds of years after Jesus designed the Christian cross based on the Zodiac (frankly I think that is absurd, but bear with me). Even assuming that this is what happened, it has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the historical crucifixion of Jesus which is attested not only in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and Paul’s letters, Hebrews, and First Peter, but also in non-Christian sources like Josephus, Lucian and the Mishna. In fact, Jesus’ crucifixion is even mentioned in New Testament apocryphal books like the Kerygma Petri, the Acts of John and the Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Peter.
Third, some argue that the use of terms like “light” and “darkness” shows that the New Testament writers were borrowing from contemporary culture which also used such terms. This is actually true to some extent. The ideas of good=light and evil=darkness is found in the Jewish documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls which were written long before Jesus was born. When John talks about light and darkness (especially in First John) or Jesus being the light of the world (Gospel of John) he is using categories that Jews would have been very familiar with.
When John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word (Logos) was with God and the Word (Logos) was God,” John is probably thinking of how “in the beginning” in Genesis, God created everything by speaking it into existence. The Greek Stoics understood Logos to be “the rational principle by which everything exists” (Carson, 114). In either case, John is using terminology that he expected his readers to understand—he was basically saying, this Logos is a real flesh and blood person (John 20-21), let me introduce him to you. His name was Jesus! This was similar to what Paul did when he came to Athens and said, I’ve seen your statue to the unknown god. Let me introduce him to you (Acts 17:22ff, my paraphrase).
So, did the apostles and New Testament writers use words, phrases and categories (like “light, darkness, Logos” that would have been familiar to their hearers and readers? Of course! How else could they communicate? But it is a huge difference between saying that the New Testament writers occasionally used familiar words and examples to communicate truth, than it is to say they fabricated the entire story based on previous pagan myths! Jesus’ myth theorists may disagree on John’s interpretation of Jesus being the light of the world, but there must have been an actual historical Jesus for the writer of John’s Gospel to have made that interpretation in the first place!
Fourth, some argue that Jesus was represented by the sign of the fish because Christians were following the astrological Age of Pisces. The letters in the Greek word for fish are the first letters for Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior. Some have suggested that back in the days when you could lose your life for being a Christian, Christians would meet someone who they suspected to be a Christian and draw one half of the fish symbol and if the other person was a Christian, he or she would respond by completing the sign. On the other hand, you could choose to believe that Christians just chose to use an idolatrous pagan religious symbol for their Jewish Lord and savior. Which seems more probable?
Fifth, some internet writers assert that every religion has their own miracles as proof of the divinity of their gods and of their religion. That’s not exactly true. Next to Christianity, the next largest religion in the world is Islam with over a billion adherents. Many Muslims are fond of saying that the only miracle of Muhammad was the Qur’an itself—which non-Muslims don’t think is a miracle at all.
It is true, however, that there are miracle stories in other religions. Some internet writers seem to assume that since other religions use miracles to substantiate their claims, all the miracle claims are irrelevant or even worthless. That assumption decides the case before even looking at the evidence and pretty much throws the baby out with the bathwater. A better approach would be to look at the miracle claims on a case by case basis. For example, take the Hindu miracle claim that the goddess Parvati (what evidence is there that this “goddess” even existed?”) created a boy of our her own body dirt, just so the boy could guard her bathroom! To comfort her, the god Shiva brought back the severed head of an elephant which was then attached to the boy’s body!
And we’re seriously going to compare this mythology with the miracles of Jesus? Jesus’ more spectacular miracles like walking on water or turning water into wine may be hard for some to believe but they are certainly not as bizarre as attaching a severed elephant head to a boy’s body as a comfort to the mother!
A better example may be the miracles of Apollonius of Tyana who, like Jesus, also lived in the first century AD. His miracles are attested in only one source written over 100 years after his death (if he even existed at all!). By contrast, the miracles of Jesus are attested in multiple sources (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and possibly Josephus) all less than 70 years after Jesus died. Not even Jesus’ enemies denied that he did miracles. They said that his amazing signs and wonders were magic tricks, sorcery or the work of Satan, but no one denied that Jesus did amazing signs. And since Jesus’ miracles were one of the reasons his followers believed in him, it is unlikely that they would have willingly faced such persecution if they knew all the miracles were just fabricated stories. Taken together that at least provides reason to believe that there was some historical event(s) that gave rise to the stories and that they weren’t simply fabrications.
I once had an e-mail discussion with a Jesus’ myth advocate who argued that there were literally thousands of “holy men” in India who did magic tricks. I pointed out that since he recognized that there are holy men of India who do things that people think are magical or miraculous, why not concede that Jesus did things that others considered miraculous also? Why assume that the stories were all made up based on ancient myths?
When it comes to evidence, which makes more sense: 1) that after Jesus died his Jewish followers just fabricated a life of Jesus based on pagan myths, even though the evidence suggests that they suffered for propagating their “gospels and, as we have seen, the life of Jesus they supposedly fabricated would have been very offensive to most people in the Greco-Roman world OR 2) that Jesus’ followers continued to believe in him after his death because they were sincerely convinced that he had done genuine miracles and had risen from the dead! Even if I were an atheist, the second option would make much more sense to me.
Let me press this point a bit further. Most Jews in Jesus’ day were expecting the coming of an “anointed one”, a Messiah who would restore the kingdom to Judea. In other words, in Jesus’ day most Jews were looking for a Messiah who would kick the Romans out of Judea! There were numerous would-be-messiahs both before and after Jesus, but in every case when the “messiah-wannabee” died, their movement died out with them. It was always assumed that a messiah who died was a contradiction in terms. A messiah who died couldn’t possibly be the true Messiah!
The only exception to this rule is Jesus. Now as a historian, I would want to know the reason for this exception. One option is that Jesus’ followers—rather than disbanding like every other messiah group—just decided to totally re-write the story of Jesus based on pagan myths—and then, according to virtually all ancient sources, they suffered severely for propagating the gospel they created.
Another option is that Jesus really taught that he was the Jewish Messiah and that his followers continued to believe him even after his death because 1) they genuinely believed he had fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, 2) they genuinely believed he had done miracles by the power of God and not, as Jesus’ enemies asserted, by the power of Satan, and 3) they genuinely believed that Jesus had physically come back to life after his death.  Even if I was an atheist, this second option would seem much more plausible to me because it better explains the evidence.
Sixth, some internet writers assert that the number 12 is used repeatedly in the Bible because it represents the 12 constellations of the zodiac, for example 12 disciples, 12 tribes of Israel, etc. But which is more historically probable, 1) that Jesus chose twelve disciples to make the point that his disciples were symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel or 2) Jesus (or the Gospel writers) were borrowing from pagan Zodiac myths which they would have seen as sinful and idolatrous?
The truth is the even the most skeptical “Jesus scholars” like John Dominic Crossan, Burton Mack, Robert Funk, and Marcus Borg believe that Jesus actually existed.
E.P. Sanders, one of the foremost Jesus scholars—not an Evangelical Christian-- in the world is writes about the historical things we can know about Jesus which he believes are about as certain as anything in history can be.[31] Those things are:
·         Born about 4 BC
·         Spent early childhood in Nazareth
·         Baptized by John the Baptist
·         Called disciples
·         Spoke of there being twelve of them
·         Confined his activity to Israel
·         Taught in towns and countryside of Galilee
·         Preached the kingdom of God
·         Went to Jerusalem c.a. 30 AD for Passover
·         Created a disturbance in the temple
·         Had a final meal with his disciples
·         Arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, particularly the High Priest
·         Executed by Romans on orders from Pilate
·         Jesus’ disciples fled
·         Jesus’ disciples “saw” him after his death—though in what sense in not certain
·         As a consequence, they believed he would return to found the kingdom
·         They formed a movement to await his return and win others to faith in him
·         Some Jews persecuted some parts of this movement
That doesn’t tell us everything there is to know about Jesus, but it’s not a bad start. That fact is that even among non-Christian scholars who specialize in the historical study of Jesus, the Jesus-myth theory is pretty much the academic equivalent of holocaust denial or the flat earth society.
Making Christianity more palatable
Some Jesus-myth theorists argue that Paul and the Gospel writers created the story of Jesus largely based on Greco-Roman myths and other Middle Eastern myths for the purpose of making their new religion more palatable to the Greco-Roman world. This argument is unconvincing on several counts.
First, if Paul and the Gospel writers were really trying to make Jesus more palatable to Greco-Roman readers for evangelistic purposes, why would they not make him look more like the warrior-heroes that the Greco-Roman world admired—Hector, Achilles, Odysseus, Jason, Aeneas, Ajax, etc. The Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus as a non-violent prophet of love, compassion and turning the other cheek would be the exact opposite of the role model idolized by most Greeks and Romans.
Second, if Paul and the Gospel writers were really trying to make Jesus more palatable to Greco-Roman readers for evangelistic purposes, why not downplay the Jewishness of Jesus. Jews were not generally viewed highly in the Roman world because of their “intolerant” view that there was only one God and because of their unpatriotic refusal to sacrifice to the emperor. But the Gospels portray Jesus as thoroughly Jewish to the core! According to the Gospels, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, a descendant of David, was circumcised according to Jewish law, and as a young boy, learned from Rabbis in the Jewish Temple. Jesus frequently quoted from the Jewish Bible as authoritative Scripture (never from any literature respected in the Greco-Roman world!).
Jesus held up Jewish heroes like Abraham, Moses, Jonah, David and the Jewish prophets as positive examples, but he is never once portrayed as showing any respect for or even acknowledgement of Greco-Roman heroes (why is that, if the Gospel writers were so eager to make their “Jesus” palatable to a Greco-Roman audience?). 
According to the Gospels, Jesus healed a leper and told him to present himself to the priests in accordance with Mosaic Law. Jesus taught very Jewish-sounding teachings in the Jewish synagogues of Galilee. He attended the Jewish feasts of Dedication (Hanukkah), and Passover. He instructed Peter to pay the Jewish Temple tax. When someone asked him how to have eternal life, Jesus’ initial response was to keep the Ten Commandments which he elsewhere summarizes by citing the Jewish
Shema of the Old Testament: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Jesus’ last supper was a celebration of the Jewish Passover and his “new covenant” was an allusion to the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31.
According to the Gospels Jesus taught that he was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies of the Jewish messiah. He says he was sent to the Jewish people and when a Greek woman from Sidon asked for healing he challenged her by suggesting that it was not proper to give the “children’s” food to “dogs” (not a very good way to make Jesus palatable to a Greek audience!). 
Finally, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in deliberate fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy about Israel’s king (which, in the context of Zechariah, is God himself) coming to His people.  So the question again is, if the Gospel writers were so concerned to fabricate a story about Jesus based on pagan myths so they could make their gospel more palatable to the Greco-Roman world, why did they make him so “Jewish”? Why didn’t they make him more like the Greco-Roman heroes?
Third, the core of the Christian message as presented by all four Gospels as well as Paul’s writings et al. was that in Jesus of Nazareth, God became human and died an atoning sacrifice for our sins. The death of Jesus, according to the Gospels and Paul, was a human sacrifice. But according to mythology expert, Edith Hamilton whose book on mythology has been used as a textbook on mythology for decades, the Greeks thought human sacrifices “were abominable.” Hamilton writes that “Any deity who demanded them was thereby proven to be evil.”[32]
So if Paul and the Gospel writers were fabricating a story about Jesus to make it evangelistically palatable to the Greco-Roman world, it would be hard to imagine a worse way to do it than to present Jesus as a human sacrifice of atonement to the Jewish God. The very idea would have been thoroughly and terribly offensive to the Greeks! Even Paul acknowledges that his gospel is considered “foolishness” to the Greeks! (1 Cor. 1:23).
Fourth, according to the Book of Acts, when Paul (the Jewish former Pharisee) and Barnabas healed someone in Iconium and the people conclude that Zeus and Hermes have come to them, Paul and Barnabas not only commanded them to stop worshiping them but told the people to “turn from these worthless things to the living God who made the heaven and earth…”(Acts 14:11-15). That hardly seems like a good way to make the gospel palatable to Greeks!
When Paul arrives in Athens and sees all their idols he does not affirm their polytheism, but preaches to them about the one true God who created the heavens and earth and everything in it (Acts 17:16-31). His message was not well received by the Greeks. When Paul came to Ephesus he almost caused a riot when his opponents charged that Paul says, “that man-made gods are no gods at all” and as a result of Paul’s gospel, “the great goddess Artemis will be discredited” (Acts 19:23-27). This hardly seems like a good way to make the gospel more palatable to the Greeks!
Of course, Christianity’s critics will challenge (without valid reason) the essential historical reliability of Acts, but even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that the Book of Acts was not historically reliable, the fact still remains that the Book of Acts is a first century Christian writing that presents Paul as being thoroughly opposed to Greek polytheism. That seems like a very strange position to take if the Christian writer of Acts—who also wrote the Gospel of Luke!—was just fabricating a story about Jesus supposedly based on Greek myths for the purpose making his gospel evangelistically palatable to the Greco-Roman world. No, the idea is not just strange, it is laughably absurd!
The view of Paul presented by Luke in the Book of Acts, is also backed up by Paul’s own letters in which he specifically tells his readers to flee from idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14, cf. Gal. 5:20; even the most skeptical critics agree that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and Galatians). In fact Paul repeatedly condemns the worship of idols and even says that when the pagans (Greeks/Romans) sacrifice to idols they are sacrificing to demons (1 Cor. 10:20-21)! If Paul is trying to make his gospel evangelistically palatable to Greeks and Romans, he has a very strange way of doing it!
So in other words, the monotheism of the Gospels would have been offensive to the Greeks. The Jewishness of the Gospels would have been offensive to the Greeks. The concept of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice would have been offensive to the Greeks. The non-violent “turn the other cheek” prophet of love and compassion view of Jesus would have been unimpressive (to say the least) to the Greeks. And Paul’s whole presentation of the Gospel was thoroughly antagonistic to the Greco-Roman worldview.
The idea that Paul and the Gospel writers were fabricating a story about Jesus in order to make him more evangelistically palatable to the Greco-Roman world is just plain silly.
Faith and evidence
After much discussion with a Jesus myth advocate he finally said that he would only believe evidence but even then, he said, he never believes anything 100% because better evidence might one day emerge.
He was probably surprised to know that I agreed with him to some extent. I don’t think we can know anything with absolute certainty (we live by faith, not by sight). What often happens, however, is that while people believe all kinds of things with very little evidence, they often demand absolute certainty before they will believe Paul or the Gospels. The truth is that many people really don’t want to believe Paul or the Gospels and will grasp at anything that gives them an excuse not to believe.
It is also a fact that people are rarely consistent with the amount of evidence it takes to convince them. For example, I’ve never heard of anyone who doubts the existence of Alexander the Great, yet almost all the evidence for his life wasn’t written until four hundred years after he lived! But there are many people who are skeptical about Jesus even though we have about a dozen sources affirming the existence of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, John, Paul’s letters, Hebrews, the letters of Peter, Jude, Josephus, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and possibly Papias and Polycarp) all written from 20 to 100 years after Jesus died.[33]
Some of the scholars who are so skeptical about what we can know about Jesus, write books telling us all about the religion, culture and society of early first century Judaism largely based on just one source—Josephus—who wrote around the same time that these critics say the gospels were written. The critics are often very selectively skeptical.
The theory that Jesus was just a myth or legend based on earlier Greco-Roman heroes or Middle-Eastern dying and raising savior gods, is just plain silly. Yet there are numerous Jesus myth advocates who are propagating their myth, especially on the internet, and convincing many.

[1] The source is Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander written in the early second century AD.
[2] See, for example, J.A.T. Robinson. Redating the New Testament. Philadelphia : SCM Press, 1976. John Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke. Downers Grove, IL : IVP, 1992.
[3] According to Q (if Q existed), Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, was tempted in the desert for 40 days, was called the Son of God, healed people of diseases and performed exorcisms, claimed to have a unique relation with the Father, had strong conflicts with the Pharisees, and predicted the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. If Q existed, as most critics believe, it would be a crushing blow to the Jesus myth theory. Flemming argues that the Gospel writers were just historicizing Paul’s “myth.” But if Q existed, it would date from about the same time that Paul writes his letters, making it extremely unlikely that Q was historicizing Paul. So in other words, we would have two independent sources for the existence of Jesus that both date to the time of Flemming’s 40 year “gap.”
[4]  Galatians 3:16; Romans 1:3.
[5]  Galatians 1:19.
[6]  First Corinthians 15:5.
[7]  Galatians 2:9.
[8]  First Corinthians 9:5.
[9]  First Corinthians 11:23-25.
[10] First Corinthians 11:23.
[11] First Corinthians 1:23.
[12] Galatians 1:17-18; 2:1.
[13] Flemming also argues that Paul never quoted from Jesus. While Paul doesn’t quote Jesus verbatim, scholars have demonstrated that Paul was to a great extent simply passing on and contextualizing the teachings of Jesus. The evidence for this is documented and discussed extensively in David Wenham’s book, Paul; Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?” The idea that Paul didn’t know anything about the real historical Jesus is just factually wrong.
[14] Scholars call Paul’s letters “occasional” letters, which means that Paul was addressing specific problems and issues in specific churches. He was not writing to re-tell the story of Jesus any more than a missionary might repeat the story of Jesus when they write a letter back to their home church from the mission field. Paul’s letters were primarily about exhortation, not historical instruction. Paul was not intending to have to prove his point by citing sources.
[15] Frazer, Sir James. The Golden Bough. London : Macmillan, 1911-1915.
[16] Eddy, Paul and Gregory Boyd. The Jesus Legend. Grand Rapids : Baker, 2007, 142-143.
[17] First Corinthians 15.
[18] Philo, Migration of Abraham, #91.
[19] What Flemming and Price really mean by “outrageous improbabilities” undoubtedly has to do with Jesus’ miracles and resurrection. It is not that there is anything really historically suspect about the Gospels. It is just that some people cannot or will not believe in the Jesus portrayed by the Gospels. This is the core issue. Most of the other arguments against the general reliability of the Gospels are pretty much smoke and mirrors.
[20] Interview on the ABC News Special, The Search for Jesus, 2000.
[21] The 22 characteristics are listed below with an asterisk (*) next to the ones the DVD says are true of Jesus and an X next to those in which the story of Jesus does not fit the pattern. 1) The hero’s mother is a royal virgin*, 2) The hero’s father is a king*, 3) The hero is often a near relative of his mother*, 4) The circumstances of his conception are unusual*, 5) He is reputed to be the son of a god*, 6) At birth an attempt is made often by his father to kill him*, 7) He is spirited away*, 8) And reared by foster parents in a far country X, 9) We are told nothing of his childhood *, 10) On return he goes to his future kingdom*, 11) After victory over a king or Jinn or dragon X, 12) Marries a princes X, 13) He becomes king*, 14), King reigns uneventfully* 15) The king prescribes laws* 16) He later loses favor with his subjects* 17) He is driven from the throne of the city* 18) He has a mysterious death* 19) Often at the top of a hill* 20) His children if any do not succeed him* 21) His body is not buried* 22) He has one or more sepulchers* The DVD argues that when Jesus is compared to other mythological heroes, Oedipus and Thesius meet 22 of the characteristics, Jesus meets 19, Romulus and Hercules meet 17, Zeus and Jason meet 15, Robin Hood meets 13 and Apollo meets 11. A closer look at these characteristics, however, will show that the whole thing is contrived. While Jesus' mother was a descendant of David, she was a poor peasant, hardly a "royal" virgin. Jesus’ adopted father was not a king, he was also a peasant—unless you count God as his father but that is counted under his reputation as son of God. To count this twice is stacking the deck. To say that the hero is often a near relative of his mother is also contrived. Most people are near relatives of their mothers! Jesus adopted father made no attempt to kill him as the fathers of heroes in other hero stories. It is true that we are told almost nothing of his childhood, but that is a characteristic on ancient bios, or biography, not just of heroes. Jesus’ future kingdom is not just Galilee or Judea, but the world. The whole story of the Gospels is how Jesus will one day be the king, but he was never an earthly king and never ruled, eventfully or uneventfully. Jesus certainly taught the crowds, but not in the sense of an earthly king prescribing laws. He did not loose favor with his subjects, but with those who never were his subjects to begin with (unless you count Judas). He couldn’t be driven from the throne of the city because he never sat on the throne. There was nothing mysterious about his death and his body was in fact buried. The whole thing was contrived to make it look like Jesus was just like ancient mythological heroes, but when you count up the actual similarities, Jesus doesn’t even make the list of “heros.” If you actually read the Gospels and then read the stories of these mythological characters, you will find that they are as different as night and day!
[22] Eddy and Boyd, 149.
[23] Ibid, 407ff.
[24] See also Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 2006.Blomberg, Craig. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL : IVP, 1987. Evans, Craig. Fabricating Jesus. Downers Grove, IL : IVP, 2006. Perrin, Nicholas. Lost in Translation; What can we know about the words of Jesus. Nashville : Thomas Nelson, 2007.Roberts, Mark. Can we Trust the Gospels? Wheaton : Crossway, 2007. Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1992.
[25] Contrary to Price, the Gospel of Peter is no exception. The Gospel of Peter says that Jesus was tried under Herod. Far from being a disagreement about when Jesus lived, the Gospel of Peter actually agrees with the Gospel of Luke which affirms that Jesus was sent to Herod by Pontius Pilate, who then sent Jesus back to Pilate. This Herod is Herod Antipas, a contemporary of Pontius Pilate and the son of Herod the Great.
[26] Price, Robert M. Deconstructing Jesus. Amherst, NY : Prometheus Books, 2000, 249.
[27] Fifth century AD for the Toledoth Jeschu and Palestinian Talmud. Seventh century AD for the Babylonian Talmud.
[28] Sherwin-White, A.N. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1978.
[29] Hemer, Colin J. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Winona Lake, IN : Eisenbrauns, 1990.
[30] See Habermas, Gary. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO : College Press, 1996; or Van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus Outside the New Testament. Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 2000.
[31] Sanders. E.P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. New York : Penguin, 1993, 10-11.
[32] Hamilton, Edith. Mythology; Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York : Mentor, 1969, 248.
[33] Although Polycarp died in the mid second century, what he wrote can be dated to about AD 110.