Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The God Who Wasn’t There

Joe Carter has a review up of a new documentary called The God Who Wasn’t There, by Brian Flemming, which takes the rather audacious position that there was no man called Jesus at all, that the Jesus of the bible is entirely fictitious and invented out of whole cloth. I’ve not seen this movie yet, but a was contacted by a publicist for the film who asked me if I would like to receive a review copy of it. I replied:

“While I wouldn’t mind having a review copy, I can tell you that you’re fighting an uphill battle with me. I think it’s unlikely in the extreme that Jesus never existed. I think it’s telling that not a single classical scholar takes such a position (the closest is GA Wells, and he is a professor of German literature, not a historian). Still, I’m certainly willing to listen to the arguments and the rest of it sounds like it would be of definite interest to me.”

She said she’d send me a copy of the film for review despite my disclaimer, but I have not received it yet (it may well be in my mailbox right now, but I don’t feel like walking through the snow to check at the moment). I don’t really write much about the bible and Christianity directly. Most of what I write is about political or scientific issues where those things play a role in one side of the conflict. But I’ve had my own journey in this regard, from president of the local Youth for Christ as a teenager to rather annoying atheist to mild-mannered (I know, but play along) deist today. And I spent many years studying the historical record in great detail, though most of that material now sits in boxes and hasn’t seen the light of day in many years.

I obviously don’t believe that the gospels or the Bible in general are reliable, at least in regard to the central question of divinity; if I did, I would be a Christian. But there is a reasonable position to take against those things and an unreasonable one, and I consider the notion of an entirely fictitious Jesus to be quite unreasonable. I think it is reasonable to view Jesus as both real and mythologized. In that, I am not only joined by most classical scholars in the world, but by many liberal Christian scholars as well. But I do think it’s telling that not a single classicist, even skeptics like Gerald LaRue, takes the position that Jesus was entirely fictional.

I tend to agree with Jeff Lowder, one of the founders of the Internet Infidels, that while there is good reason to doubt many of the supernatural claims found in the gospels and the Bible in general, there is a strong prima facie case to be made for the historical existence of Jesus. And I just don’t think the notion of an entirely fictional Jesus is a credible or compelling position to take. Nonetheless, I look forward to watching this DVD and providing a review of it in the near future.

Update: Well I got up the gumption to shovel off my deck and make a path to the mailbox (we’ve got about 3 inches of snow and still coming down hard) and sure enough the DVD is there. I probably won’t get to watch it until this weekend, but I’ll post something on it then. Today, there is basketball to watch.


  1. #1 Matthew
    November 23, 2005

    Personally I think the question here is not whether the gospels were written about someone, it would seem quite odd if Jesus were as fictional as Don Quixote, but rather at what point does the mythologized Jesus become so dissimilar from the real life Jesus (if that were even the real name) that it becomes difficult to say that Jesus exists. If the real Jesus were an irish pagan would it even be meaningful to say Jesus existed?

  2. #2 raj
    November 23, 2005

    The Internet Infidels web site makes a pursuasive argument that Jesus was not a single individual, but a composite of a number of itinerant preachers who traveled around at the time. It is interesting to note that there were more than a few itinerent Protestant (mostly conservative Baptist) preachers in the US at least up until I stopped paying attention in the early 1970s.

    The various christian churches are really Pauline, and the Roman Catholic church adds a gloss of the Mary cult, with some animalist gloss in the third world.

  3. #3 spyder
    November 23, 2005

    Keep on the sunny side alwys on the sunny side
    Keep on the sunny side of life
    It will help us every day it will brighten all the way
    If we keep on the sunny side of life.

    Even Monty Python in the Life of Brian, provided a relative structure for there to have been substantive validation in a historical Jesus. Even my dear old friend and mentor Noel King, professor emeritus of history and comparative religion at UCSC, spent a good portion of his early pre-university life investigating and researching the travels of this historic personage during the “missing” biblical years.

    But while we are discussing the novelty of the most powerful religious figures–this story came today:
    Nepal Boy Called Reincarnation of Buddha

  4. #4 Jeff Hebert
    November 23, 2005

    Ed wrote:

    Well I got up the gumption to shovel off my deck and make a path to the mailbox (we’ve got about 3 inches of snow and still coming down hard)

    See, when people complain about the heat in Texas, here’s what I tell them — you don’t have to shovel heat. You don’t have to scrape heat off the windshield of your car, you don’t have to shovel heat to make a path to your mailbox, and you don’t have to strap heat-chains to your tires in order to go anywhere.

    Just don’t e-mail me in August and laugh, that’s all I ask.

  5. #5 flatlander100
    November 23, 2005

    Oh, you’re probably one of those skeptics who refuses to believe that the Odyssey and Iliad were not composed by Homer, but were written by another blind poet of the same name.

    There are none so blind as those who will not see…

  6. #6 KeithB
    November 23, 2005

    I just saw a great commercial from Europe: A guy spends about 30 minutes scraping the ice from his car. When he uses his key fob to unlock it, the ice-covered car next to the one he scraped beeps…

    I know there was a Jesus, I see a picture of him on Ed’s Blog every time I access it. It even indicates he wrote a book!

  7. #7 Grumpy
    November 23, 2005

    Don’t know about Ed, flatlander, but I wouldn’t mind being described as a Homer skeptic. I’ve also got doubts about Socrates and William Shakespeare.

    …there is a strong prima facie case to be made for the historical existence of Jesus…

    Is there anything stronger than, “Why would people have believed in Jesus early on, unless there was a real person?” This is what gets Jesus more benefit of the doubt than, say, King Arthur, who isn’t mentioned until some three centuries after he (may have) lived.

    Assuming the biographical details of Jesus’ life weren’t post-dated to a time after the cult had become established. Say, proto-Christianity began stirring around 1 AD and by the time it started firming up its mythos by midcentury, its origins were ascribed to a preacher circa 30 AD.

    For which I have absolutely no proof.

  8. #8 maurile
    November 23, 2005

    To expand on Matthew’s comment, whether a historical Jesus existed isn’t so much a matter of fact as it is a matter of taste. How many things must a person have in common with the N.T. Jesus to qualify as “the” historical Jesus — 5%, 20%, 50%, 90%? That’s a subjective judgment call. If 10% of the N.T. Jesus story was based on one guy, another 15% was based on another guy, 25% was based on a composite of ten other guys, and 50% was just made up, was there a historical Jesus? Two historical Jesuses? Twelve?

    Here’s an excellent usenet post on the subject by Paul Filseth. It’s worth quoting in its entirety, but then my comment would be longer than Ed’s original post, so I’ll just encourage you to follow the link.

  9. #9 Troy Britain
    November 23, 2005

    Well I got up the gumption to shovel off my deck and make a path to the mailbox (we’ve got about 3 inches of snow and still coming down hard)…

    “S-n-o-w”? What is this “snow” you speak of?

    Here in So. Cal. it was nearly 80 degrees. I’m even wearing shorts.


    As for Jebus, I look at it this way; to claim that there was a man named Jesus is an ordinary claim requiring only minimal ordinary evidences. As opposed to the claim that he was god, walked on water, came back from the dead, etc. which are slightly more than ordinary claims that require, well, you know the rest…

  10. #10 Tim Makinson
    November 24, 2005

    There is considerable evidence that the ‘historical’ Jesus may have been apocryphal and may even have been a later overlay over the top of a Pauline metaphysical christos. Certainly there seems to be no contemporary evidence of the existence of Nazareth in Christ’s time, as well as a relative lack of independent contemporary mention of Christ (and those that survive are either sufficiently vague as to leave it unclear that they are referring to the biblical Jesus Christ, or have raised suspicion of later tampering). Also the ‘census’ element of the nativity story seems to contain a large number of anachronisms and other oddities.

    As far as I know this viewpoint is considered to be fairly fringe, but not completely illegitimate, in academic circles.

  11. #11 Tim Makinson
    November 24, 2005

    “it would seem quite odd if Jesus were as fictional as Don Quixote”

    He need not be as fictional as Don Quixote, he may instead turn out to be as (semi-)mythical as King Arthur or Robin Hood.

  12. #12 TimB
    November 24, 2005

    In reading some things by Shelby Spong, I was impressed by his take, which, according to him, is based on the work of careful scholars. Along with the overlay of a Pauline metaphysical christos, as mentioned above by Tim Makison, there is the idea that, decades after Jesus’ death, several scribes embellished his life story by writing into it many Old Testament predictions about the messiah. Seasons when critical events took place were changed to artificially match times forecasted by those prohets.

    The theory also holds that many miraculous accounts were also inserted to match up with prohetic statements. I think this all had to do with making the proto-Christian account of reality conform to traditional Hebrew norms. After all, the early followers of Christ still considered their beliefs to be part of the Jewish milieu.

  13. #13 Tim Makinson
    November 24, 2005

    TimB – but the odd thing is that Christianity was quickly dominated by the Pauline tradition – deriving from a follower that was both the least Jewish in outlook and had the least personal contact with Jesus (only a vision after Jesus’ death). It would seem that this group, which was largely Romano-Greek in outlook, would have little to gain by harmonising Jesus’ life with Hebrew prophecy.

  14. #14 Ginger Yellow
    November 24, 2005

    “It would seem that this group, which was largely Romano-Greek in outlook, would have little to gain by harmonising Jesus’ life with Hebrew prophecy.”

    On the contrary. Precisely because they (Paul in particular) were so far removed from both Jesus and the Jewish tradition, harmonising Jesus’s life with OT prophecy gave (their version of) Christianity much needed authority and palatability (if that’s a word).

  15. #15 countlurkula
    November 24, 2005

    I do believe Ginger’s right. Backing up the Jesus story with the OT prophecies (however contrived the fulfillments, but that’s another story) gave it an ancient pedigree.That was important for Christianity’s acceptance in the Roman world.

  16. #16 Tim Makinson
    November 24, 2005

    Why would the Greeks and Romans care about obsure details of Jewish prophecy? They were sufficiently far away from Judaism that the his missioneries could say what they liked about what prophecies he fulfilled without fear of contradiction. They could tailor the prophecies to fit Jesus’ life rather than vice versa, if ‘prophetic’ authority were needed (which is unlikely – prophecy was far less integral to Greek & Roman religion than to Judaic).

    The fact that there were these details of Judaic prophecies implies to me that they were either there before Paul, or were part of an wider infusion of Judaism into Christianity after Paul.

  17. #17 raj
    November 24, 2005

    Why would the Greeks and Romans care about obsure details of Jewish prophecy? They were sufficiently far away from Judaism….

    Not necessarily. I don’t know the details, but Jewish enclaves may have been scattered throughout the Roman Empire, and Paul’s letters may have been directed to members of those enclaves.

  18. #18 Perry Willis
    November 24, 2005

    The “historical Jesus” was a main area of reading for me for more than 20 years. During all that time the “Jesus myth” theory was always a non-starter for me. Until I read Earl Doherty’s website. It blew me away. It wore down my resistance. It convinced me. No other theory explains so many odd facts about the New Testament and the early Christian record as does Doherty’s. And I’ve yet to see any of his critics lay a glove on him. So having said, I don’t think any film could do justice to this theory. The only way to grasp the incredible power of it is to read Doherty’s website, which can be found here.

    To get a good idea of just how strong Doherty is you might also want to read Richard Carrier’s review of his book here.

    I understand why people reject the “Jesus myth” theory out of hand. I did too. But I was wrong. Read Doherty. It will reward the effort. Personally, I consider it the greatest work of historical analysis I have ever read. I cannot recomend it highly enough.


  19. #19 Grumpy
    November 24, 2005

    The funny thing about John Spong is that, after writing about how Jesus was likely make-believe, he concludes every chapter by saying, “And that’s why I love Jesus even more!”

    Pity the Earl Doherty links aren’t working, Perry. Guess I’ll have to… Google them or something.

    P.S. I vaguely recall being seated next to Doherty at a FFRF dinner some years ago, before he published, though after I had read his website. Alas, he wasn’t too chatty and I wasn’t too asky.

  20. #20 Ed Brayton
    November 24, 2005

    I fixed Perry’s links.

  21. #21 countlurkula
    November 25, 2005

    Tim asked “Why would the Greeks and Romans care about obsure details of Jewish prophecy?”

    It’s the ancientness of Christianty (continuity with the OT) that is salient, not so much the fine details of prophecy. (The author of the Gospel of Matthew almost seems to be thinking “Yeah, I know these fulfillments aren’t totally convincing, but I had a quota to meet”) The classical world was of course pantheistic and very accepting of various gods but you didn’t just crash the party and expect a totally free pass. It helped for a religion to be well and long established, or at least to appear to be. (I’m going on the authority of the scholar Bart Ehrmann here). I hope that clarifies the point.

  22. #22 Tim Makinson
    November 25, 2005

    “It’s the ancientness of Christianty (continuity with the OT) that is salient…”

    This presupposes that the Old Testiment was already a significant document within Christianity. Can anybody verify when the OT became prevalent canon within the early Christian community.

    “It helped for a religion to be well and long established, or at least to appear to be.”

    Did it? My impression was that this was a period of considerable religious experimentation. Did Mithraism (one of Chrsitianity’s major competitors early on) need an ancient pedigree in order to compete?

  23. #23 Scott H
    November 30, 2005

    Tim asked “Why would the Greeks and Romans care about obsure details of Jewish prophecy?”

    I believe i remember reading in Bart Ehrman that Judaism was rather attractive to some Romans and Greeks, at least partly because its traditions were rooted in ancient scriptures. The argument is that the people of the era tended to trust authority more and trust novelty less than we do today, so a fixed set of writings gave the Jews’ religion a cachet that others lacked.

  24. #24 maurile
    January 10, 2006

    Ed, did you ever get around to watching this?

  25. #25 Ed Brayton
    January 10, 2006

    maurile wrote:

    Ed, did you ever get around to watching this?

    A little bit of it, but I haven’t finished it yet.

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