The Myth of the Risen Christ - The Problem of the Historical Jesus & The Origins of Christian Tradition

Last night I posted a video of an interview with Dr. Matt McCormick that argues against the reliability for the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection by comparing it to the Salem Witch Trials. The argument is amusing and reasonably makes sense, although in an interview he had on Think Atheist Radio, May, 8th, he admitted he didn’t think anyone would really bite on the bullet, so to speak. It turns out that there exist those who have.


One of the people commenting on the video, Rob (not one of the guilty aforementioned btw), introduced into it the lack of evidence for Jesus existence in the records of Roman civilization. The historical quest for a real flesh and blood Jesus is one of my favorite pass times. By the time I added my 2 cents worth I realized it was more appropriate for a blog post than just a mere comment.


Thank you Rob for your thoughtful comments…You bring up one of my favorite points.


I concur with the lack of direct physical evidence for an historical Jesus. But, I have often thought that (speaking in the broadest of general terms) we are dealing with 2 different Jesus’ –multiple Jesus’ if we consider all of the heterodox schools of thought that flourished in the first few centuries of the common era. There is the historical Jesus and the Myth of the Risen Christ, which Christianity is actually founded on.


The writer of “Fragments of a Faith Forgotten” comments that the origins of Christianity are lost to us in time. We have no direct evidence for Jesus, but given the messianic nature of Judaism and the preponderance of failed messiahs or self-proclaimed messiahs it seems reasonable, although not provable, that a historical man or men may have existed, although not necessarily having anything to do with the Christian tradition per se.


A “rabbi” or “prophet” with messianic intentions or, at least whose followers might interpret as messianic, is not an isolated phenomenon in Judaism[1]. It has repeated itself frequently right down through post modern times in the personage of the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, some of whose followers have developed quite a mythological response to his death that might serve as a useful template for what happened in the case of Jesus. Human beings are story tellers and there is a tendency to embellish greatly upon the lives of the heroes and spiritual teachers who have had a great impact on us after they have died. Centuries down the road it is difficult to separate fact from fantasy.


Tradition sometimes gets mistaken for history. As a recovering Catholic I grew up believing, for example, that Peter was the first Pope. Historically we know this is false. The Holy See was the bishop of Rome, an office that did not exist in Peter’s time. Symbolically, Peter’s papacy is derived from a passage in the gospels where Jesus’ gives his famous “Peter your name means rock” speech. Yet, many Catholics believe Peter’s papacy to be an historical fact. Symbolically Peter is the first Pope, or the lodestone of the foundation upon which Christ supposedly built his earthly church, despite a claim by many, that Jesus had no intention of starting a religion. Historically, Peter’s papacy has no factual validity. However, while still a believer Peter was among my favorites in the gospel stories. He represented a cranky, almost agnostic, everyman who I could relate to, one moment claiming faith and allegiance and in another doubt and lack of commitment. Of course, I am projecting myself onto this character. But, still that was how I reconciled tradition vs. history for myself at the time.


The religion of Christianity wasn’t based on the historical Jesus (just assuming his existence for the sake of argument). The historical Jesus could only be interpreted as a false or failed messiah. A radical reinterpretation of events – real or imagined – would be required by believers who wished to retain their faith in their beloved teacher. I think of it as the “Oh Shit, now what” response.


In fact such reinterpretation comes from the Apostle Paul, who did not know the historical Jesus. Paul was simply not concerned with any historical reality. He based his theology off of his alleged supernatural encounter on the road to Damascus, which reads like a psychotic break with reality. If you or I made such claims we might end up getting taken to the local hospital on a 72 hour psych hold. Paul has always come across to me as a man with questionable mental health.


This is where the “mythologicification” (clumsy, made up word) of any historical person begins. The myth of the risen Christ becomes similar to many of the pagan god-man mythologies in the ancient world. Jesus seems a combination of these stories and of the Essene Teacher of Righteousness among others. Paul, supposedly an educated Jewish man well versed in the law,” begins to twist his previous beliefs to support his new experience. If Jesus wasn’t the Messiah of tradition than what was he? For Paul it required a reinterpretation of the Messiah myth. It comes as no surprise to me that the mystery traditions of Rome, Greece and Egypt might provide inspiration. The notion of birth, death and rebirth speaks to a deep seated anxiety we humans carry about the meaning of life and what happens at death.


Further complicating the ability to track tradition back to historical fact is that allegedly the original Jewish Christians, from whom the term Judeo-Christian was derived to denote, believed that Jesus lived approximately 100 years prior to when accepted tradition said he did, or so I read somewhere (citation or correction needed). This Jesus seems to have a lot in common with the so-called Teacher of Righteousness that appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran. This teacher – although it is debatable if he truly existed as well – lived about 100 years before the commonly accepted time of the Jesus most modern Christians accept.


I understand the commitment to rigorous reasoning and analysis of verifiable data or evidence. There is no question that is of paramount importance. But, I often wonder at the motivations of those who wish to dismiss the possibility of a historical Jesus. It seems reasonable given the meticulous record keeping of the Roman Empire that a significant person such as Jesus is supposed to have been would have been on their radar. They were quick to squash rebellions and responded harshly to those who opposed them. Indeed the sacking of Jerusalem in CE 70 and the Zealots last stand at Masada are proof of this. The lack of this evidence is troubling.


The supposed non-biblical confirmations provided by Josephus and Pliny the Elder, among others, are nothing more than the type of hearsay retelling that the gospels are. It’s the same problem historians face with the exodus of Israel from Egypt. For such a massive event to have occurred it is belied by the surprising lack of evidence. The reality is that no honest skeptic or believer can claim either way with 100% conviction, although I believe that the skeptic has the more realistic answer.


Naturally the existence of an historical of Jesus is important, if for no other reason, than if he is a fiction then the whole spectrum of traditions that is Christianity is invalid, except perhaps the so called Gnostic Christian groups who were unabashed mythmakers and seemingly unconcerned with historical reality as they were concerned more with spiritual reality and what we may loosely refer to as “metaphysics” today. The material world was a cosmic accident to be rejected. There’s was a Neo-Platonism with a Christian template.


Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon is an example of an elaborate religious hoax. It would be arrogant to assume that ancient peoples of Palestine were not sophisticated enough to create such elaborate hoaxes to meet their political or spiritual agendas or, for that matter, just because it amused them to do so. Certainly, there will be many who will disagree adamantly about my position on Joseph Smith. They too might wonder at my motivation for such claims. As an aside I will tell you – my motivation is an uncharitable debunking of a dangerous religious and political element.


The historical reality of Jesus is one of my favorite debates. It mostly entertains me. I hope it sharpens my critical thinking, although I am quite guilty of leaping over the chasms of missing evidence with credulity that should probably not be part of a skeptic’s thinking. My excuse is that I am relatively new to such active doubt and am still developing my critical reasoning faculty. As a former believer I often suspended such thinking in order to support the beliefs I strenuously held on to.  I am confident that many here on Think Atheist will assist me in working on this.


It seems to me that while not provable beyond any reasonable doubt that there is an historical man or maybe men that Jesus of Nazareth is based on. Additionally it does seem reasonable to not entirely dismiss it given the messianic nature of Judaism, especially in 1st century Palestine. The phenomenon has occupied many Jewish thinkers and scholars for centuries. One of the most accessible works for the general reader is Robert N. Levine’s “There is no Messiah and you’re it,” in which he explores the problem of false Messiahs and than offers a possible “transformation” of the concept itself.


Obviously if Jesus doesn’t exist the tradition is a fraud. But, it seems that no historical basis for proving or dismissing Jesus exits or is forthcoming except by the more dogmatic skeptics and believers who are entirely convinced of their position. Frankly, no useful discussion can be had with such rigid minds.  It seems that those who often dismiss the possibility of a historical Jesus have the same attitude as I have toward Mormonism, in so doing I am trying to shut up the opposition and dismiss them wholesale despite that to a true believer no such reasoning works. Think Obama v. the Birthers – no matter what kind of evidence you can offer it will be dismissed by the true believer. You will be accused of being a part of the cover-up. Paranoia is profound. I think the question of historical reliability has a more honest intent among religious philosophers such as Dr. Matt McCormick.


I am willing to accept the possible existence of Jesus as easily as the possible non-existence. The question is if Jesus’ existed then was he who his followers claimed to be? That has always been the central question for me. In the end I must answer with the most profound skepticism. The answer is no. If he existed at all he was simply another teacher or guru who spoke his version of the truth and was executed for his troubles.


 I don’t see in him a particularly moral or righteous man and clearly some of his so-called ethics are anti-human. They certainly do not offer a healthy response to life. His personality as reported in the four canonical gospels is inconsistent. He is utterly human and picks and chooses what aspects of tradition he will practice and justifies his denial of other practices as any post modern Christian does


Christianity is based on the myth of the Risen Christ and not on any historical person, existence or non existence is irrelevant at this point because it is about the myth and the man is secondary, indeed not even important as Paul demonstrates. It is the myths that force me to ultimately reject the veracity of Christianity. So whether or not Jesus actually existed the religion that claims him as founder has nothing to do with him at all.


I am excited to hear your opinions, comments or refutations. Thank you for indulging me.




[1] The Pharisees in the Gospels are depicted as being concerned over Jesus being another false messiah. They petitioned Pilate to have the tomb guarded to prevent Jesus’ disciples from spiriting his body away in the night so they could claim resurrection. As one of them suggests “this would be worse than the last time,” which suggests to me that claims of messiahship were not uncommon at the time or in the past.


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Comment by Albert Bakker on May 12, 2011 at 3:13pm

"But, it seems that no historical basis for proving or dismissing Jesus exits or is forthcoming except by the more dogmatic skeptics and believers who are entirely convinced of their position. Frankly, no useful discussion can be had with such rigid minds."

Thank you for reminding me, this rigid mind immediately ordered a copy of Jesus Neither God Nor Man.

Comment by Ezra T. Klatt on May 12, 2011 at 3:56pm

 I was reminded by the interview with Dr. McCormick that I listened to. I often am just as guilty of being dogmatic. He says he's resaonable first, atheist second. I kind of like that.

Comment by Albert Bakker on May 12, 2011 at 4:13pm

It's been a while that I have been digging into this stuff in any serious way. I've read Thomas L. Thompson as well about the historicity of OT figures. I need to read this book I ordered and Frank Zindler's.

If you missed this CFI interview then highly recommended, if only for the entertainment value.

Comment by Ezra T. Klatt on May 12, 2011 at 6:05pm

Thanks Albert. I am listening to it now.



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