The question never entered my mind as a Witness (or as a Catholic, for that matter.) It seemed it was a given — just as the divine inspiration of the Bible and the existence of our god was a given: Jesus existed.
Even since leaving all organized religion, I have been told again and again (even by ex-JWs) that Jesus really did exist, and that such is the consensus of biblical scholars and historians. One frequent commentator on JWB has, in fact, repeatedly told us that only idiots question this.
In spite of all this, and at the risk of being accused of further idiocy, I’m going to pose the question: Did Jesus exist?
Like all good philosophers, we must start with defining our terms. What exactly does the question mean? You see, depending on what we take the question to mean, I could happily and honestly answer it either Yes or No.
“Jesus” is the latinized form of Yeshua (just as Jehovah is the latinized form of Yahweh — with the addition of some creative arbitrary vowels.) It turns out that Yeshua was a common enough name at that particular time and place, so that we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that there were one or more guys named Yeshua running around Palestine in the first century.
Given the plethora of preachers, prophets, visionaries, magicians, and con-men prevalent at any moment in history (but especially so in first century Palestine) it is not especially improbable that one of these Yeshua’s may have been engaged in such a livelihood.
So then, in this sense, I would not object to the statement that Jesus existed.
When people want to know if Jesus existed, I think they won’t be satisfied with my Yes answer as given above. I’m not satisfied with it myself. You see, what we all really want to know is not whether someone named Yeshua who might’ve been a preacher existed, but rather: did Jesus the miracle-worker exist? Or at the very least: was there a Jesus of Nazareth who was an executed preacher upon whom miraculous legends were eventually foisted and a religion was founded?
My answer to this is a resounding No!
Let me explain why.
Historical persons have a time and place of birth. They have a genealogy, a timeline of events in their life, and [eventually] a death date and cause of death. Finally, if they did anything newsworthy and there were journalists or historians extant during their life, they have a contemporaneous written record of their actions. For individuals who were obscure during their lifetime we may not have all of these pieces of information, but for important public figures we will have most of it.
In the case of Jesus there have been attempts to provide these things. However, as we’ll see, there are major problems with what has been provided — so much so that in some cases it would’ve been better not to have made the attempt.
Year of birth
When I was a Catholic kid I thought it was a well-established fact that Jesus was born on December 25th, of the year zero: neatly dividing BC from AD. But there is no evidence for this. In fact, the gospel accounts rule out a winter birth, and there was no year zero.
Without a birth certificate, or any other secular documents, we are left with our only two sources: the Bible books called Matthew and Luke. But these accounts contradict each other.
The account in Matthew relates that Jesus was born prior to the death of Herod (up to 2 years before Herod’s death, because in seeking to kill Jesus, he allegedly ordered the slaughter of babies up to 2 years old.) We know that Herod died in 4 B.C.E.
So, we don’t know when Jesus was born. Worse: we have two contradictory stories about when he was born!
Place of birth
Here again we have no secular documentation. All we have is the Bible’s statement that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It seems he was assigned this birthplace in an attempt to “fulfill” a prophecy. However, it seems this was based on a mistake: the prophesy was actually that the Messiah would be of the clan of Bethlehem, not born in that city.
The account in Luke, however, shows that Bethlehem was not Jesus’ hometown: Mary just happened to be in that town when she gave birth. Their hometown was actually Nazareth:
So when they had carried out all the things according to the Law of Jehovah, they went back into Galilee to their own city, Nazareth. —Luke 2:39
And he came and settled in a city named Nazareth, in order to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets:“He will be called a Nazarene.” —Matthew 2:23 (There is no such prophecy in the Bible.)
Nazareth is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. Josephus, who wrote extensively about Galilee and named 45 of its cities and villages (including nearby Japha) never mentioned Nazareth. The Talmud never mentions Nazareth, though it names 63 Galilean towns. No secular mention is made of it prior to the fourth century. Despite extensive archaeological digging in the area, no evidence has been found of the existence of this city in the first century. This has led archaeologists to conclude that:
No evidence of human habitation at Nazareth is extant from c. 730 bce – ca. 70 ce. — René Salm
The assigning of Jesus’ hometown to Nazareth may be another instance of the gospel writers’ misunderstanding of prophecy/tradition and their tendency to commit anachronisms in their writings. A Nazarene would be someone belonging to the order of the Nazarites (e.g. Samson) not an inhabitant of a city not yet in existence.
So we don’t know when Jesus was born and we don’t know where he was raised.
There are no genealogical records for Jesus except for those in Matthew (chapter one) and Luke (chapter three.) Once again, these accounts contradict each other, as highlighted below:
Christian apologists attempt to reconcile the genealogies by claiming that one of them traces the maternal line, and the other the paternal line. So, when one account tells us that Joseph’s father was Heli, and the other tells us that Joseph’s father was Jacob, one of these really means “father-in-law.” However, the exact same phrases of descent are used throughout: both where the genealogies agree and where they disagree. You can see this for yourself from the following images of an interlinear Greek translation of Luke and Matthew — you don’t need to know Greek to see that there is no differentiation between the way David is called the son of Jesse, and the way Joseph is called the son of both Jacob and Heli. So, the apologists’ rationalization is not credible.
So, we don’t know Jesus’ genealogy. Worse: we have contradictory genealogies!
Summing up what we know so far: We don’t know when Jesus was born, or where he was raised, and we don’t know his genealogy. Attempts to fill in this missing information are based on misunderstandings and anachronisms, and they contradict themselves as well as the evidence.
Just as we don’t have a birth certificate for Jesus, we don’t have a death certificate either.
According to the Bible, he was tried and condemned in the court of Pilate after Roman-hating Jews cried “we have no king but Cesar!” Even though we have Pilate’s court records, they do not mention this trial.
The details of his death are contradictory in the gospels, as are the details of what happened before and after.
|Jesus would rise:||on the 3rd day (17:22)||after 3 days (8:31)|
|Peter would deny Jesus:||3 times before the cock crowed (26:34)||3 times before the cock crowed twice (14:72)||3 times before the cock crowed (22:34)|
|Judas:||Hanged himself (27:3-5)||Fell and burst asunder (1:16-18)|
|Who purchased a field with the 30 pieces of silver?||The chief priests (27:6)||Judas (1:16-18)|
|Why was it called “the field of blood”?||It was purchased with blood money (27:6-8)||Judas bled out there (1:18-19)|
|When was the robe put on Jesus?||After the trial (27:26-28)||After the trial (15:15-17)||During the trial (19:2-5)|
|What color was the robe?||Scarlet (27:28)||Purple (19:2)|
|Who carried Jesus’ cross?||Simon (27:32)||Simon (15:21)||Simon (23:26)||Jesus alone, the whole way(19:17)|
|What was he given to drink?||Vinegar mixed with gall (27:34)||Wine mixed with myrrh (15:23)|
|What time did this take place?||The third hour (15:25)||After the sixth hour ((19:14-16)|
|What was written over his head?||This is Jesus the king of the Jews (27:37)||The king of the Jews (15:26)||This is the king of the Jews (23:38)||Jesus of Nazareth the king of the Jews (19:19)|
|The two “thieves” crucified next to Jesus:||Both reviled him (27:38-44)||Both reviled him — and they are called “rebels” rather than thieves. (15:27,32)||One reviled and one defended him and was saved. (23:39-43)|
|Where were the women who watched?||Far away. (27:55)||Far away. (15:40)||Far away. (23:49)||Up close, next to the cross. (19:25-26)|
|What were Jesus’ last words?||My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (27:46-50)||My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (15:34)||Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit. (23:46)||It is finished. (19:30)|
|What did the Centurions say?||Truly this was the son of God (27:54)||Truly this man was the son of God (15:39)||Truly this man was innocent. (23:47|
|Who were the women who first visited the tomb the next day?||Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (28:1)||Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. (16:1)||Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and other women (24:1,10)||Mary Magdalene alone (20:1)|
|Where was the stone?||In front of the door of the tomb (28:2)||Rolled away from the tomb. (16:4)||Rolled away from the tomb. (24:1-2)||Rolled away from the tomb. (20:1)|
|What did she/they witness at the tomb?||A great earthquake; an angel descending from heaven and rolling away the stone and then sitting on it. (28:2)||A young man dressed in a white robe. (16:5)||Two men in shining garments. (24:4)||Nothing at first. Later — after Peter et al. see the strips of linen and cloth, and leave — she sees two angels in the tomb, and then Jesus outside the tomb. (20:1-17)|
|Whom did she/they tell about this?||“His disciples.” (28:9)||No one, because they were afraid. (16:8)||“The apostles.” (24:10)||Mary Magdalene told “The disciples” (20:18)|
|The resurrected Jesus appeared:||First to the women on the way from the tomb. (28:9)||First to Mary Magdalene, then two disciples in the country, then all 11 apostles as they were eating. (16:9-14)||First to Cleopas and another on their way to Emmaus. Then to the 11. (24:13-15)||First to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, then the disciples (minus Thomas) in a locked room, then Thomas a week later.” (20:14,19,26)|
|Did the resurrected Jesus invite/permit people to touch him?||Yes; the women held his feet when he appeared to them (28:9)||No; he forbade Mary Magdalene from touching him because he had not yet ascended to his father (20:1-17)
Yes; he invited Thomas to touch his wounds. (20:26-27)
|Jesus ascended into heaven:||While the apostles “sat at meat” (16:14-19)||After leading the apostles out “as far as Bethany” (24:50-51)||From the Mount of Olives (1:9-12)|
So we don’t know when or how Jesus died. Worse: we have contradictory accounts of his death!
So we don’t know when Jesus was born, or where he was raised, we don’t know his genealogy, and we don’t know how or when he died. In short we don’t know anything about Jesus that we know about real historical persons.
The Missing Written Record
Nothing was written about Jesus during his alleged life, or immediately after.
There is a common misconception that the gospels were written by his disciples shortly after his death. This is not true. First of all, we don’t know who wrote these works. The designations of them as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were made long after they were written. They were originally untitled, and only one of the works even makes a claim as to authorship (John) the rest are completely anonymous. In the work we call Matthew, for instance, the author never identifies himself in its pages. It wasn’t called Matthew until sometime in the second century. The same is true for Mark and Luke. John is also anonymous other than its claim to have been written by “the apostle whom Jesus loved,” but reputable scholars dismiss this as fiction and see the hand of several authors.
Secondly, the evidence indicates that these works were written decades after the supposed death of Jesus.
Despite their placement in the Bible, the letters of Paul were written first: after Saul had his epileptic fit and imagined the voice he heard in his head was that of a dead man [there are three contradictory accounts of this incident in the Bible.] Saul then changed his name to Paul and created Christianity by merging the Gnostic ideas with the mystery religions of the time.
So much for the gospels. But what of secular historians? If there really was a man who walked on water; magically healed the blind and lame; resurrected the dead; fed 5,000 people on two loaves and five fish; whose death coincided with “darkness falling all over the land” at midday, an earthquake, and the resurrection of “many people”; who came back to life days after dying, and flew up into the sky — don’t you think someone would’ve thought these things noteworthy enough to write them down at the time?
But no one did write them down at the time.
I used to think that such lack of evidence was simply due to having very few documents that dated back so far. I was wrong. Even Christian apologists admit that this period of time is one of the best documented in history.
Philo, for instance, was a philosopher and historian of the Jews. He lived 20 BCE – 50 CE, so his life spanned the purported time of Jesus. He wrote some 50 works that still survive on: history, philosophy, and religion. He wrote a lot about Pontius Pilate, yet he was totally silent about this wonder-worker Jesus who supposedly appeared before Pilate!
Here are some other historians of that period whom we could safely assume would have written about a miracle-worker in Judea at the time Jesus supposedly lived:
- Aulus Gellius
- Dio Chrysotom
- Dion Pruseus
- Florus Lucius
- Pliny the Elder
- Silius Italicus
- Theon of Smyrna
- Valerius Flaccus
- Valerius Maximus
True, there is a mention made of Jesus in the works of Josephus. I read his Antiquities of the Jews while I was still a Bible-believing Jehovah’s Witness, and even then I could tell that the passage about Jesus was an interpolation by some other hand. The passage doesn’t fit within the context, and the style is completely different. It is an obvious forgery, and again, there is no honest dispute about this by Christian scholars. The fact that someone felt that such a forgery was necessary emphasizes the fact that had Jesus lived, Josephus (just like all the men listed above) would surely have written something about him.
There is also a passage in Tacitus which refers to Christians being persecuted under Nero. Given its late date, even if it were genuine, it would be underwhelming, but in fact it is a known interpolation: a forgery. To quote the experts:
This passage, which would have served the purposes of Christian quotation better than any other in all the writings of Tacitus, or any Pagan writer whatever, is not quoted by any of the Christian fathers… It is not quoted by Tertullian, though he had read and largely quotes the works of Tacitus… There is no vestige or trace of its existence anywhere in the world before the 15th century. — Rev. Robert Taylor, The Diegesis, 1977
According to Mclintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia of Theological Literature:
Enough of the writings of [these] authors remain to form a library. Yet in this mass of Jewish and Pagan literature, aside from two forged passages in the works of a Jewish author, and two disputed passages in the works of Roman writers, there is to be found no mention of Jesus Christ.
Their silence is deafening.
There is nothing more negative than the results of the critical study of the life of Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of God, who founded the kingdom of heaven upon earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any existence. This image has not been destroyed from without, it has fallen to pieces, cleft and disintegrated by the concrete historical problems which came to the surface one after another. — Albert Schweitzer
So, we don’t know the events of Jesus’ life. Worse: we have contradictory accounts of his life!
If there ever was such a person as Yeshua he is lost to us. We really don’t know anything about him: nothing that we know about historical individuals.
A Borrowed Life
Jesus was the Son of God who suffered, died, and came back to life. But He wasn’t the first Son of God who suffered, died, and came back to life. He brought salvation; but He wasn’t the God first to do that either. His dad was a God and his mom was a mortal woman; He wasn’t the first God there either. It’s the same with miracles, disciples, ascending to heaven—the list goes on and on.
In the 100s AD a flim-flam Pagan preacher named Alexander invented a new God, Glycon, and set up a prophetic oracle to Him. Alexander was a con man who made up a new God specifically to fit the religious beliefs of the faithful—so he could win their trust and take their money. Glycon gives us a picture of what a God looked like when He was specifically made up to fit the religious ideas of ancient culture.
You’ll discover Glycon was not a xeroxed event by event copy of any Pagan God.Alexander invented new myths for his new God, but he kept the old God properties. Prophesies made and fulfilled. Divine birth. God-sent dreams. Heaven. Hell. Miracles: healing the sick, raising the dead. Back then, when people invented new Gods, these are the properties they gave them.
When we look at our holy Jesus, we see the same properties Alexander gave Glycon. Prophesies made and fulfilled. Divine birth. God-sent dreams. Heaven. Hell. Miracles. Healing the sick, raising the dead. We see the goodies that ancients everywhere associated with Gods. Our precious Jesus is trimmed out with exactly the same God properties as the other Pagan Gods.
Flawed Teachings and Examples
One of the “proofs” put forward in favor of Jesus’ existence is that he reputedly “spoke as no man spoke.” But how much did he say that was truly original and/or profound?
Well, we have the “golden rule.” That’s pretty good. But Buddha (or his creators) said essentially the same thing centuries before, as did Confucius:
Hurt not others with that which pains yourself. — From the Udanavarga 5:18, attributed to Buddha, 560 BCE
What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others. — From the Analects 15:23, attributed to Confucius, 557 BCE
They were both scooped by the writings of the Hindus some 26 centuries earlier: “One should always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated.” (From the Hitopadesa, 3200 BCE.)
Jesus’ other great and equally famous quote is: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” But this wasn’t original either. Nor was it a new idea to the Jews whom he was supposedly enlightening; it is in fact a quote from Leviticus 19:18.
There are many things Jesus reputedly said that constitute particularly bad advice:
- Take no thought for tomorrow. (MT 6:34)
- Don’t resist if someone physically abuses you, instead cooperate in letting them abuse you further! (MT 5:39)
- Don’t assert your rights. If someone forces you to do something against your will, do what they demand twice over! (Mt 5:41)
- Dismember yourself if your limbs offend you. Gouge out your eyeball if it makes you stumble. (MT 5:29-30)
- Castrate yourself. (MT 19:12)
- Hate your family and your life. (Luke 14:26)
- Stay in a miserable, unloving marriage unless someone has cheated. (MT 5:32)
- Don’t ever marry a divorced woman; you’ll be committing adultery. (MT 5:32)
- If someone robs you, give them more of your possessions. (MT 5:40)
- If someone sues you, always settle out of court. (MT 5:25)
- Sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor. (MK 10:21)
- Thinking lustful thoughts is the same as committing adultery. (MT 5:28)
- There’s nothing you can eat that can “defile” you. (MK 7:15) [Poisonous mushrooms anyone?]
- Follow the Mosaic Law to the letter. [If anyone tells you that you don’t need to follow the Law (e.g. Paul and most Christians), those in heaven shall regard them as the “least” among humankind (MT 5:17-19).]
- Be more self-righteous than a Pharisee. (MT 5:20)
As for the example that he set, we see him: committing violence against those he didn’t like (whipping the money-changers); calling people names; committing acts of vandalism; disrespecting his mother; making a racial slur; etc. Please see WWJD for more details.
So the biblical accounts [the only accounts we have other than the rejected “lost gospels” which are even more incredible and infantile] do not lead one to conclude that Jesus the “son of a god” or Jesus the “great teacher” or Jesus the “perfect man” ever lived. The lack of secular accounts lead to the conclusion that Jesus the “miracle worker” never lived.
In short: the Jesus of Christianity never existed.