Did Jesus Exist? (part two)

WaterIf Matthew, Mark and Luke were creating a Messiah from scratch, or, more probably, recording the invention of believers who went before them, then it is unlikely they would have arrived at the loser preserved in their accounts. The Jesus we find there is nothing like the Messiah anticipated in Jewish scripture nor by Jews at the time.

He is a false prophet, his good news about the imminent arrival of the Son of Man and the Kingdom of God being patently unfulfilled. His ministry is a failure, ending as it does in ignoble execution. This is not the Messiah anyone would create if they were inventing one to satisfy the longings of a thwarted people. In particular, God’s emissary would not lose control of the situation in the way the Jesus of the synoptic gospels does. He would not allow himself to be executed by the occupying forces in the manner the gospels record. (All the surviving sources attest to his death by crucifixion; we can be fairly certain he died in this way.)

A created Messiah, on the other hand, would surely have announced the arrival of the Son of Man/Kingdom of God before leaving the stage of his own volition – ascending to heaven perhaps as some of the gospel writers eventually have him do – to await the unfolding of the events he had proclaimed. Of course, the death of a godman is a recurrent theme in the mythologies of the ancient world, so it is possible that an unpleasant death would be invented for an imaginary Jesus so that he complied with the trope. But, as I’ve already suggested, the central figure of the synoptic gospels is noticeably ungodmanlike. We only see him as such through the distorting prism of Paul’s theology; without this, we can see that the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke really don’t portray him like this at all.

It seems much more likely, therefore, that what the synoptic writers are conveying are distorted memories of an individual who actually lived. A man who promised much but whose mission went drastically wrong but which would, his earliest followers believed, be completed by God himself in the near future. This latter part is, as we now know, pure invention, the gospels conveying only an imaginative interpretation of this man. It would seem, nonetheless, to be an interpretation of someone – a charismatic Jewish preacher and failed heir-presumptive – who had actually lived some years before.

As I said at the beginning of this two-part post, I don’t really care whether Jesus existed or not. The end result is the same; millions of people seduced by a significance he did not have, either as a real person or as an imaginary construct. On balance, for the reasons I’ve touched on in these posts, it seems to me Jesus – Yeshua bar Yosef – did once exist. Like we all must, he died and others set about interpreting his life in their various, incompatible ways. These interpetations are all ultimately meaningless; we can be absolutely certain that, whatever the Bible and Christians today tell us, Jesus, whether he lived two thousand years ago or not, does not exist now in any shape or ethereal form.

Did Jesus Exist? (part one)


I want to say at the outset that I don’t think it matters whether Jesus existed or not. Even if he lived, it is highly unlikely he said much that is attributed to him or that he performed the miracles ascribed to him. Neither would it be the case that he rose from the dead or became a supernatural godman afterwards. All of these supposed attributes would be, for an individual who actually existed, later accretions. The man underneath them, the so-called historical Jesus, is difficult to detect. It hardly matters to Christians; they’re really only interested in the accretions, the later add-ons, the myth the man became.

Those who think Jesus never existed raise a number of interesting points, chief of which is that what I’ve referred to as accretions, being central to subsequent Christian belief, actually came first. The accounts of Jesus’ life – the gospels – they see as later attempts to provide the myth with a ‘realistic’ back story based in history. Certainly the gospels came after Paul had had his vision and had set about interpreting it to arrive at his convoluted theology about ‘the Christ’. Jesus-belief certainly existed decades before the first gospel account, Mark’s, and was as a result entirely independent from it. In this scenario, therefore, the myth came first and the stories of Jesus were crafted afterwards as supplementary fiction.

For me, however, as problematic as the gospels are, the synoptic accounts – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are largely at odds with Paul’s theology. If they were written to bolster the myth of a supernatural godman, they don’t do it very well. John’s gospel, on the other hand, is much more successful in portraying a mythical being, which is why its implausible ‘Word became flesh’ is not very much like the Jesus of the synoptic gospels.

The synoptics of course have their own agendas and do not represent accurate biographies of Jesus either – there are too many contradictions and anomalies to claim they do – but, to varying degrees, they do not present a Jesus who is the embodiment of Pauline theology. The synoptic Jesus doesn’t, for example, promote a salvation plan involving his own death or say that faith is the means by which one enters the Kingdom of God. These are ideas of Paul’s, as are notions of grace, election, sanctification, redemption, substitutionary atonement, imputation, gifts and fruits of the Spirit and even more mumbo-jumbo besides.

The good news of the synoptics’ Jesus, however, is that God’s Kingdom is coming to Earth soon and to be part of it one must become ‘righteous’ both by serving others and relating to them in a ‘measure for measure’ way: forgiving in order to be forgiven, being compassionate to be shown compassion, giving in order to receive, not judging so as to avoid being judged. This Jesus and his gospel are, moreover, predominantly Jewish; Matthew’s version in particular is virulently anti-Gentile. All of this is totally at odds with the magic formula of salvation-available-to-all of Paul’s make-believe. If this came first, it is difficult to see why the synoptic gospels would not present, as John does, a Jesus who is more compatible with it.

Either the synoptic gospel writers got much wrong in providing the Christ’s supposed back story or they were representing other traditions, ones that were different from and possibly even older than Paul’s interpretation. Belief in Jesus as teacher, prophet and, possibly, Messiah predates Paul (he refers to it himself while Matthew and Luke make use of an earlier sayings gospel known as ‘Q’) and it seems likely that Mark and Matthew in particular reflect these traditions, untainted by Paul’s fantasies. Of course these traditions too could have been invented, just as Paul’s theology is, but if that is the case, then, once again, the gospel writers – Mark and Matthew especially – make a decidedly bad job of it.

Next: what this ‘bad job’ tells us about the existence of Jesus.

Christians’ Favourite Delusions 32: Jesus Is God

Res2Test your Bible knowledge and see if you can work out when it was Jesus became God:

Was it:

a) After he died?
Paul thought this was when God decided to adopt Jesus. The Almighty noticed what a good man Jesus was and decided to resurrect him. In so doing, he made him his Son:

his Son… was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead. (Romans 1. 3-4, my emphasis)

Paul doesn’t say Jesus was God. In fact, he strongly suggests he wasn’t, both in the phrase ‘descended from David’ and in his assertion that he became God’s Son – not God – only at the resurrection. So, Jesus wasn’t God when Paul wrote Romans, round about 57CE. If, as Bart Ehrman suggests in How Jesus Became God (p224), Paul is quoting an earlier creed, it’s not what the first Christians believed either.* Paul does edge closer to a divine Jesus in other letters – Philippians 2, for example – but that’s not what ‘God revealed’ to him originally.

b) When he was baptised?
In the earliest gospel, Mark says it was when he was baptised that Jesus became God’s son:

(Jesus) saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1.10-11)

So in Mark, God adopts Jesus earlier in his career than in Paul’s Romans scenario. All the same, while he gets to be God’s beloved son, this doesn’t make him divine; God has many sons in the Bible and a Son of God, with or without capitals, is not the same as ‘God the Son’. Jesus himself makes this clear in Mark 10.18, where he actually denies he’s God.

c) When he was born?
Well, this is more like it. According to Matthew, Jesus is the Messiah from the time he was born. We’ve got even further back now – from Paul’s post-mortem elevation of Jesus, to his baptism, to his birth. Of course all of these can’t right. If Jesus was divine from birth – or even before – there’d be no need for him to be promoted after his death. But Matthew doesn’t actually say he’s divine; he suggests that Jesus fulfils all the prophecies of the Messiah (of course he doesn’t, but that’s what Matthew wants us to believe.) However, the Messiah, according to the very ‘prophecies’ Matthew quotes, is not divine; he’s a human warrior king. Oops.

d) When he was conceived?
Luke is determined to push it back further still. For Luke, it’s when God magically makes Mary pregnant that Jesus becomes truly and literally God’s son (Luke 1.35). Except, of course, Mary appears to have no recollection of this event later in the gospel narratives when she can’t work out why her son behaves in bizarre ways. Could Luke have made up the entire conception story? You bet.

e) Back at the beginning of time?
John’s gospel appears to say so:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.1-5)

Or does it? John says the Word (Logos) has always existed and is part of God – but does this mean Jesus? This question vexed the church for the best part of it first four hundred years. Was the Logos the same as God and was Jesus the Logos? The council of Nicaea in 325 attempted to clear the matter up but not all bishops agreed with its conclusion – that the Son was ‘begotten not made’ (whatever that means) – and the controversy raged for another few decades.

f) When the church decided he was?
Yup, this is it. A different group of bishops decided, finally, that Jesus was God at the Council of Constantinople in 381. They re-jigged the statement made at Nicaea fifty-six years earlier, which then became the ‘Nicene creed’ that’s still said in some churches today.

So, Jesus didn’t become wholly and officially divine until 381, a mere 350 years after he lived and 300 after Paul and the gospel writers. How scriptural is that?

Jesus wasn’t divine, wasn’t God incarnate, wasn’t the Son of God with capital letters, wasn’t the Messiah, wasn’t and isn’t the saviour of the world. He was a first-century preacher and prophet whose prophecies were a disaster, whose mission to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth failed and who died and was buried. He was resurrected only in the ideas of other men, who tried and eventually succeeded in making him into something he wasn’t.


* I’ve not referred extensively to Ehrman’s writing in this post but undoubtedly his many books, especially How Jesus Became God, have influenced me, as has Barrie Wilson’s How Jesus Became Christian. Jonathan Hill’s Christianity: The First 400 Years, published by Christian company, Lion, was also useful.


Christians’ Favourite Delusions 29: The Resurrection Can’t Be Disproved

Or can it?Burial

The resurrection can’t be disproved, or so says a Christian on Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined blog. If it could be, the commenter tells us, he would abandon his Christian faith. Of course it isn’t up to sceptics to disprove the resurrection, or any other of religion’s fantastic claims. It’s up to those making them to demonstrate their veracity, just as it would be for me to prove I keep an invisible pink unicorn in my garage. There would be no obligation on anyone else to disprove it.

That being said, the resurrection is rather easy to refute. First, let’s qualify what we mean by the term, or rather what Christians usually mean by it: that Jesus rose from the dead in or as the same body that had, a couple of days earlier, died on the cross. There are, it’s true, some liberal Christians who find this such a preposterous idea that they concede the resurrection happened only in some sort of metaphorical fashion. They’re probably right, so our truck is not with these particular believers, even if their evangelical brethren take them to task for their apostasy. No, we are refuting the idea that Jesus rose physically from the grave, fully alive again, after spending slightly under two days completely and entirely dead.

Here’s how we can know this didn’t happen:
1. There’s only one eye-witness account of the resurrected Jesus, and that’s Paul’s (in Galatians 1.11-12 and 1 Corinthians 9.1 & 15.45; I’ve covered this more fully here.) And what does he ‘see’? Not a resurrected body, just a beam of light and a voice, both in his own head as the text makes clear (the Greek states baldly his experience was ‘within’ him). His resurrected Jesus is therefore a vision or an hallucination or an epileptic event. It is most emphatically not an encounter with an actual man returned from the dead.

So much for our only eye-witness. What about the others?

There are no others:

2. All the other resurrection accounts were written, third, fourth, fifth hand, some 40-70 years after the supposed event, so they’re not exactly reliable. They are, in fact, positively unreliable. In these accounts, Jesus is unrecognisable to those who knew him; he walks through walls; disappears at will and beams up into the sky.

I’m sure it won’t escape your attention that these are not something a flesh-and-blood body can do. They are not, as a result, descriptions of real experiences and belong, like Paul’s inner experience, to the realm of fantasy/visions/hallucination. Paul himself was of the view that others’ experiences of the ‘risen Christ’ were exactly the same as his own (1 Corinthians 15.6-8).

Not only this, the gospel accounts of these visions were embellished between the time they occurred (if they did) and their being recorded many years later by different groups of interested parties. They were also significantly tampered with. For example, Mark’s gospel originally had no resurrection appearances; these were added later – possibly 40 years later – 80 after the events they supposedly describe.

And so we come to the most conclusive of the arguments against the resurrection:

3. The dead stay dead. Always, with no exceptions. Once the brain is dead it cannot be revived – certainly not 40 hours after it is extinguished. “Ah, but wait!” say Christians, “Jesus was (the Son of) God so the normal laws of nature don’t apply. He is the one true exception.” But this is special pleading based on circular reasoning: Jesus rose from the dead because he was (the Son of) God. How do we know he was (the Son of) God? Because he rose from the dead. As such, it’s no proof at all – even if, in Romans 1.14, Paul seems to think it is. The man Jesus died and then… he stayed dead.

There are other reasons that lend support to the fact that the resurrection did not happen (for example, all the noise about an empty tomb, which is nothing more than a distracting sleight of hand. So what? What does an empty tomb prove? Certainly not a resurrection.) These three, however, are sufficient evidence that Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead – and without the resurrection, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19, Christianity falls apart:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…

How right he was.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to take my invisible pink unicorn for a walk.

The Great Resurrection Miscalculation

How long was Jesus in the tomb before he ‘rose again’? Three days you say? Wrong! Read on and discover the secret of the Great Resurrection Miscalculation.


Jesus is wrong about no less an issue than his claim that he would rise from the dead after three days. In Mark 10.33-34 he prophesies:

the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.

On the surface, this seems pretty accurate for a prediction of events made some time before they actually happen (it wouldn’t be a prediction otherwise). Except, of course, this prophecy, like others of Jesus’, was written forty years or more after the event. Even then, Mark or whoever wrote the earliest gospel, can’t get it right. He tells us clearly in Mark 15.34 that Jesus dies at 3pm on Friday; Matthew and Luke agree. Jesus then reappears, fully recharged, ‘very early’ on the Sunday morning (Mark 16.2). But 3pm Friday to the ‘very early’ hours of Sunday is less than 48 hours – not three days, not even two.

What is the cause of this failed prophecy? For some reason, Mark assumes that ‘on the third day’, when he believed Jesus rose from the dead, means the same as ‘after three days’, the words he has Jesus prophesy. The third day after the crucifixion would indeed be the Sunday, but it wouldn’t be, and isn’t, three full days after it, as Mark’s Jesus seems to think.

The problem is not Mark’s alone, however. Matthew’s Jesus is even more emphatic that he will be buried for the three complete days:

For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12.40)

Thanks to Jesus’ insistence in Mark and Matthew that he would spend three days in the tomb, the belief that he must have done so – contrary to the ‘evidence’ in those same accounts that it was less than two – appears to have become securely established by the time of the fourth gospel. Its writers, however, find their own unique way round the problem. Their thinking seems to have been along the lines that ‘if Jesus said he was going to be buried for three days and three nights, then he must have been. He was the Son of God after all, and he wouldn’t get a thing like this wrong. Therefore, if, as we know, he rose on the Sunday, he cannot have been crucified on the Friday. He must have died on the Thursday’. And so the writers of John’s gospel shift the crucifixion back a day, to around noon on Thursday (John 19.14). It’s an ingenious solution. Thursday to Sunday – near enough three whole days. There’s even some neat symbolism as a bonus: the earlier execution equates with the slaughter of the sacrificial lambs on the Thursday, ready for that evening’s Passover. Problem more than solved!

Except it creates a whole raft of new ones, not least the glaring inconsistency between the synoptic gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion on the Friday – after Jesus’ and the disciples’ celebration of Passover the previous evening – and John’s gospel’s account of the crucifixion during Thursday afternoon, well before the Passover meal would have been eaten. Significantly, no-one in the history of Christendom has ever been persuaded by John’s Thursday crucifixion, otherwise we’d remember it on ‘Good Thursday’ instead of ‘Good Friday’, and have a different day off work.

Does any of this matter? Probably not, but it does demonstrate that:

i) if Jesus’ words in the synoptic gospels are to be taken literally, then either he can’t count or he badly misjudges the timing of his resurrection. If scheduled for three days after the crucifixion it should have occurred on the Monday;

ii) the resurrection probably didn’t happen at all, and more than forty years later Mark and Matthew trip themselves up trying desperately to convince people that it did, and that Jesus knew it would;

iii) the gospel writers are prepared to rearrange already highly improbable events to make equally unlikely prophecies appear true;

iv) because the Bible cannot get its own faked, after-the-supposed-event prophecies right it can’t possibly be trusted about other claims it makes. 

Happy Easter, y’all.

Adapted from my book Why Christians Don’t Do What Jesus Tells Them To …And What They Believe Instead. Buy it on Amazon UK or Amazon US.