Did Jesus Exist?

by Frank R. Zindler

The American Atheist, Summer 1998.
Updated from The Probing Mind series, January 1987

I have taken it for granted that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Some writers feel a need to justify this assumption at length against people who try from time to time to deny it. It would be easier, frankly, to believe that Tiberius Caesar, Jesus’ contemporary, was a figment of the imagination than to believe that there never was such a person as Jesus.

– N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress, 1996)

For most of my life, I had taken it for granted that Jesus, although certainly not a god, was nevertheless an historical personage – perhaps a magician skilled in hypnosis. To be sure, I knew that some of the world’s greatest scholars had denied his existence. Nevertheless, I had always more or less supposed that it was improbable that so many stories could have sprung up about someone who had never existed. Even in the case of other deities, such as Zeus, Thor, Isis, and Osiris, I had always taken it for granted that they were merely deified human heroes: men and women who lived in the later stages of prehistory – persons whose reputations got better and better the longer the time elapsed after their deaths. Gods, like fine wines, I supposed, improved with age.

About a decade ago, however, I began to reexamine the evidence for the historicity of Jesus. I was astounded at what I didn’t find. In this article, I would like to show how shaky the evidence is regarding the alleged existence of a would-be messiah named Jesus. I now feel it is more reasonable to suppose he never existed. It is easier to account for the facts of early Christian history if Jesus were a fiction than if he once were real.

Burden of Proof

Although what follows may fairly be interpreted to be a proof of the non-historicity of Jesus, it must be realized that the burden of proof does not rest upon the skeptic in this matter. As always is the case, the burden of proof weighs upon those who assert that some thing or some process exists. If someone claims that he never has to shave because every morning before he can get to the bathroom he is assaulted by a six-foot rabbit with extremely sharp teeth who trims his whiskers better than a razor – if someone makes such a claim, no skeptic need worry about constructing a disproof. Unless evidence for the claim is produced, the skeptic can treat the claim as false. This is nothing more than sane, every-day practice.

Unlike N. T. Wright, quoted at the beginning of this article, a small number of scholars have tried over the centuries to prove that Jesus was in fact historical. It is instructive, when examining their “evidence,” to compare it to the sort of evidence we have, say, for the existence of Tiberius Cжsar – to take up the challenge made by Wright.

It may be conceded that it is not surprising that there are no coins surviving from the first century with the image of Jesus on them. Unlike Tiberius Cжsar and Augustus Cжsar who adopted him, Jesus is not thought to have had control over any mints. Even so, we must point out that we do have coins dating from the early first century that bear images of Tiberius that change with the age of their subject. We even have coins minted by his predecessor, Augustus Cжsar, that show Augustus on one side and his adopted son on the other. 1 Would Mr. Wright have us believe that these coins are figments of the imagination? Can we be dealing with fig-mints?

Statues that can be dated archaeologically survive to show Tiberius as a youth, as a young man assuming the toga, as Cжsar, etc. 2 Engravings and gems show him with his entire family. 3 Biographers who were his contemporaries or nearly so quote from his letters and decrees and recount the details of his life in minute detail. 4 There are contemporary inscriptions all over the former empire that record his deeds. 5 There is an ossuary of at least one member of his family, and the Greek text of a speech made by his son Germanicus has been found at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. 6 And then there are the remains of his villa on Capri. Nor should we forget that Augustus Cжsar, in his Res Gestж (“Things Accomplished”), which survives both in Greek and Latin on the so-called Monumentum Ancyranum, lists Tiberius as his son and co-ruler. 7

Is there anything advocates of an historical Jesus can produce that could be as compelling as this evidence for Tiberius? I think not, and I thank N. T. Wright for making a challenge that brings this disparity so clearly to light.

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