Yes, Jesus (Very Likely) Was a Real Person

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Several years ago, I had a slight disagreement with Richard Carrier on Twitter (cue eyerolls).

No, I never read his books. I never read them because I was not interested in investing in books that I believed to espouse misinformation. I also don’t care to pay for something that financially benefits someone who has the reputation of interacting with detractors in such horrid ways, as he is known for.

My encounter with him was no different. He called me a troll. He mass tweeted to his followers that I am a “dick” and shouldn’t act like one if I didn’t want to be treated like one.

All I said was I’d read commentary about both the mathematics and his incorrect interpretations of ancient writers. I trust the experts, and I do so because they lay out why we know what we know, and why there are flaws in flawed arguments.

The being said, Karen Garst, an author I greatly admire, wrote a piece that started by speaking rather fondly of Dr. Carrier. Given her title, that of “Faithless Feminist,” it surprised me given Carrier’s most recent goings-on.

But let’s take Dr. Garst’s article point by point, as I feel there is still some clearing up that needs to happen in the realm of Jesus historicity.

The first stories about Jesus did not get written down until at least two decades after his death — these are the letters of Paul.

I have to disagree here because, first, the letters of Paul are not stories about Jesus. We are not able to glean much out of Paul’s letters in terms of who the historical Jesus actually was. Outside of his death (and alleged resurrection), the only other fact we get is that Jesus was born “of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) and he had a brother named James (Galatians 1:19).

Even if Paul gave us more, those are merely the earliest writings we have found that tell us anything about Jesus. There is also the Q Source, a hypothetical document that is mostly comprised of the sayings of Jesus and was a source for the Matthean and Lukan authors. Matthew and Luke also had separate sources which may date as early as, or before, the Q Source.

Every transcription likely included some changes, however minor.

A lot are changes made in the other texts of the New Testament. The authors of some used Mark as a source 90% of the time (like in Matthew) or 50% of the time (like in Luke). These were often rebuttals to other works because things were written incorrectly. Mark, as an example, was clearly written by a Gentile. Mostly because Mark does things like, oh I don’t know, getting the Ten Commandments wrong.

Also, if you read the end of John 20, it states,

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Seems like a good closer, right? Except there’s an entire chapter following it! If you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to spot.

From Garst,

In Seneca’s treatise On Superstition, he wrote (in a negative manner) about every known cult in Rome. But he never mentioned Christianity or a Jesus group.

Seneca died around 65 CE. Roughly 30–35 years after the time the historical Jesus would have lived. Also right around the time Paul of Tarsus would have died. The number of Jews that occupied Roman territory during that time, if Josephus is to be believed, is somewhere around 1.2 million. Christianity, or the Jesus cult, was a tiny fraction of that. Even if we say 10%, that’s just a bit over 100,000. Realistically, though, the number never surpassed 1,000 in the first century.

Given that he was writing in the middle of the first century CE, it shows how little was known about this new religion by the writers of the day. Early Christians were well aware of this and even inserted a phrase in one of Josephus’ work to validate their claims.

I’ve included this because I think it’s fair to point out where Garst went right with her piece. This is something either wholly ignored, or explained away with no valid justification, by most Jesus mythicists (though, I must admit, I’m not sure Garst really fits that label). The entire paragraph after this statement is an argument I have used during a debate where I argued against the idea that a resurrection was likely to have taken place.

There was often a death or trial called a passion with a resurrection like Osiris or a terrible event defeating the forces of death like Mithra.

Osiris was revived in his physical body by Isis (no! Not that one!), but was incomplete, so he became ruler of the dead. I disagree there, but I can’t argue with the parallels between Jesus and other ancient deities or political figures. If anyone has read scholar Geza Vermes’ book The Nativity, they would see there are a number of things in the birth narratives alone which are borrowed from non-mythological, historically verifiable, REAL people who were deified.

Even if Jesus were a real person, he wasn’t the messiah portrayed in the Old Testament.

Hi Karen! I’m Matt and I wrote my very first book about this. It also includes a chapter where I argue for why we can at least be okay with a historical Jesus.

However, there is no reference to a messiah in the Old Testament that comes to the people except at the end of times.

Er…except, not exactly. “Messiah” comes from the Hebrew word “mashiach,” meaning “anointed.” The Greek word is “christos.” People who were anointed in the Hebrew Bible include King Saul, King David, King Solomon (a lot of kings), as well as Cyrus the Great (Isaiah 45:1) who was a Persian and not Jewish. There were a lot of people called “messiah” in the Hebrew Bible, and the Book of Daniel does make mention of a “coming Messiah,” as Garst demonstrates. But the problem too is that, just as Christianity is divided today, so was Judaism in antiquity. Particularly when it came to the Messiah.

Daniel was actually the latest book added to the Hebrew Bible before it was canonized (in some sects of Christianity at least), but that idea was only championed by select groups of people. Most notably by those who wanted something that seemed to indicate Jesus was being talked about before he came.

Matthew took an early version of a gospel, Mark, and added bits and pieces to make it more congruent with the Jewish faith.

Just adding this to show Garst does know more than most about this subject matter (and it’s something I had mentioned before).

And in Paul’s letters, it seems as if Jesus is simply a spirit, not a real person. He never discusses a ministry, a trial, any miracles, where he was from, etc.

This is important because it’s in stark contrast the Luke’s gospel where Jesus is physical; he sits and eats with others. I’m just adding this as bonus commentary to an excellent point Garst had made.

If you have parallel stories that people believed in at the time, it clearly points to not having a clear idea of who this person might have been. Doesn’t it seem odd that if Jesus were real and truly the son of god, he would have been sure that his sayings were written down accurately? Was he even literate himself?

I get frustrated with points like these because I think we forget about how people form opinions and how information is spread. Everyone has an axe to grind, no doubt. But, because some people think President Obama was born in Kenya (contrary to verifiable evidence), does that mean he’s not real? There are people who think our current POTUS is simply paving the way for a “truly Christian” President to take over, and that’s why they’re okay with 45 being the dumpster fire that he is.

And ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many different opinions or ideas of who Jesus was are out there. Those don’t determine whether he was real or not. Instead we can look at things like the Criterion of Dissimilarity, Aramisms (terms in the Bible that make more sense translated into Aramaic and, thus, are likely to be traced back to someone who spoke the language natively, like Jesus [okay, it’s not definitive, but it is a helpful clue in this regard]), or even the writings of Paul. After all, they do include passages of working with those who worked closely with Jesus, and even family members. Those are, at best, third-hand accounts of witnesses to Jesus. It may be the best we can muster in this search.

Also, to answer the question at the end of the paragraph, Jesus was most likely not literate being that he was impoverished and lived either as a carpenter or a stone mason (the Greek is “tekton” which translates more literally as “someone who works with their hands,” and, given there is more stone than trees in the region…). Also, in Acts 4:13 it says the apostles (at least Peter and John) are illiterate.

I do agree with Garst that Christianity is no different from many other myths. They objectively borrowed from many other faiths, themselves having borrowed from the cultures that influenced them (Judaism and Greek Hellenization). Certainly, those myths sometimes enveloped important leaders within their ranks. However, just because myth surrounds the man doesn’t mean the man is myth completely.

Or woman. Woman too.

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