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Debating Jesus’ existence

We have all, no doubt, had arguments (or discussions!) about who Jesus was.

Defending our faith Chris Sinkinson
Figure Image
J.R.R. Tolkien | photo: BBC

Profound teacher? Jewish prophet? Misguided Messiah? On one thing most people agree. Jesus existed. However, a number of contemporary authors have tried to push the claim that Jesus is a figure of myth. It sounds bizarre. It is contrary to the clear evidence used by practically every historian and classical scholar. But the claim gains popular momentum and some more articulate writers have joined the circus.

Mythological figure?

Atheist critic Richard Carrier has argued that Jesus was the name given to a mythological celestial figure who was envisioned by his followers as walking the earth. Later, he says, these mythological tales were misunderstood as historical accounts. This suggestion has received little support in scholarship. Among the more liberal theologians there has always been scepticism over the historical value of miracle stories, but without this in any way implying that Jesus was not a historical figure. If the criteria of the ‘mythicists’ were applied to other ancient personalities then they would all begin to evaporate in a mythological haze.

But at a more popular level the mythicists’ claims have gained traction. The argument works by drawing parallels between the Jesus story and stories that are clearly myths. In atheist Bill Maher’s 2008 documentary Religulous we hear the following claim regarding the Egyptian god Horus.

Written in 1280 BC, the Book of the Dead describes a god, Horus. Horus is the son of the god Osiris, born to a virgin mother. He was baptised in a river by Anup the Baptiser who was later beheaded. Like Jesus, Horus was tempted while alone in the desert, healed the sick, the blind, cast out demons, and walked on water. He raised Asar from the dead. ‘Asar’ translates to ‘Lazarus’. Oh, yeah, he also had 12 disciples. Yes, Horus was crucified first, and after three days, two women announced Horus, the saviour of humanity, had been resurrected.

Horus: copy or cobblers?

The parallels to the life and ministry of Jesus are astonishing. They certainly give the impression that Christianity is a copy-cat religion that has plagiarised from earlier myths.

The central weakness of the claim is that not a single sentence of it is true. There was no Anup the Baptiser, no resurrected Asar, and Horus never had 12 disciples. The claim that Horus was crucified and raised three days later is found nowhere in the ancient world. But in the context of a well-polished documentary movie with a contemporary soundtrack the damage is done. An impression is given that lingers even after the fraud has been exposed. We need to point out the travesty of history found in these radical claims.

The human condition

More seriously, ignoring the details, broad parallels between the events surrounding Jesus and mythological stories do carry some weight. There are certainly tales of divine beings born in mysterious circumstances, suffering violent deaths from which they are resuscitated. In even broader terms, there is some kind of awareness of redemption-like themes wrapped up in the agricultural calendar like sacrifice, death and new life. Once placed in this broader framework the parallels are not quite so profound. They simply remind us that the issues of life and death and the need for forgiveness are common concerns of the human condition.

Lewis’ journey to faith

As a Professor of English Literature, C.S. Lewis understood the profound importance of myths and legends. As a Christian he could see the signs of grace in the literature of the pre-Christian world. Writing in Mere Christianity, he described them as ‘… good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.’

Part of his own coming to faith was a conversation with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis put forward the case that the gospel accounts simply provided one more example of the ancient dying and rising redeemer god myth. Tolkien knew the broad parallels, but could also see the glaring contrast. The gospels are not set in the mythological realm, but in real space and time. They are supercharged with geographical locations and chronological markers like who was reigning where and when. Such indicators place them clearly in the first-century historical world. Tolkien’s point persuaded Lewis that the parallels should lead one to say of the gospels that here we find ‘myth become fact’.

Chris is the D.L. Moody Lecturer in Apologetics, Moorlands College.