“So, yes—my friend has a point: To someone who has never given a moment’s thought to whether Jesus was a real person or not, he does seem like an entirely fictional character.”
he consensus is that Jesus was a real person. Maybe he was not the Son of God born of a virgin, but he was, at the very least, a person who lived in the Middle East at some point in the early first century. Skeptics of this view are called Jesus mythicists. To date, they have not only been outnumbered among scholars and historians but also widely ignored by the general public. I believe this is about to change.
There are a number of reasons why Jesus mythicism is about to go mainstream—or, at the very least, become gradually more widely-held. The first reason simply has to do with a demographic shift: Most Western countries are becoming less Christian every year. Meanwhile, by all accounts, less religious Christian countries are less inclined to believe in the historicity of Jesus. For example, 93% of Americans believe Jesus was a real person while, according to a Church of England poll, only 60% of the English hold that view.
It stands to reason that as the United States becomes less Christian, it will become less tied to the historicity of Jesus. And the United States is becoming less Christian—fast. According to Pew, between 2009 and 2019, American adults who identified as Protestants dropped from 51% to 43%, while Catholics dropped from 23% to 20%. And even for those who still identify as Christian, fewer and fewer of them are attending church. In 2020, a Gallup poll found that only 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque. In the eight decades Gallup has conducted this poll, 2020 was the first year the number dipped below 50%.
While Christians need Jesus to be historical, non-Christians do not have any particular reason to care either way. Notably, for people who have not had much exposure to Christian history, Jesus seems like a fictional character. For example, I have a friend who has never once gone to church and more or less lives her life entirely oblivious to the existence of any world religion. I told her recently that I am starting to come around to the idea that Jesus was entirely fictional. “No kidding!” she responded. “I could have told you that!”
To her point, Jesus was born to a woman who had never had sex. He walked on water. He died and came back to life. Then, he rose up into the sky and conveniently never came back down. Meanwhile, his story (we often hear) parallels those of other mythical figures who offer salvation after dying and coming back, such as Osiris, Adonis, Romulus, and Inanna. So, yes—my friend has a point: To someone who has never given a moment’s thought to whether Jesus was a real person or not, he does seem like an entirely fictional character. This point is important because more and more people are growing up like my friend, with next-to-no exposure to the Jesus story beyond the mythical bits. To these people, the mythicist view will be the default view.
But let us forget about statistics and anecdotes. Do the mythicists actually have a valid argument that Jesus was fictional? Or are they just (as is often claimed) bitter atheists and conspiracy theorists who don’t understand the history?
While there are sloppy mythicist arguments being passed around on the Internet, there are also many serious scholars who present a compelling case for mythicism. Over the past few years, a number of in-depth, well-researched books have come out arguing for mythicism. These include: On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt by Richard Carrier, Jesus: Mything in Action by David Fitzgerald, and The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems by Robert M. Price. The list of legitimate scholars who openly doubt the historicity of Jesus has grown rapidly during the past decade.
Here is Richard Carrier’s case for mythicism, as he presented it in three simple points on a recent episode of the MythVision Podcast:
- The earliest Christian literature—in particular the letters of Paul—never places Jesus in history; instead, he is only ever seen from revelation. For example, Paul has no knowledge of Jesus picking disciples; he only knows about apostles who received a revelation of Jesus. In Romans 16, Paul straight up says that the teachings of Jesus were known only from scripture and revelation.
- Jesus only appears as a real person in texts that are highly mythological, i.e., the Gospels. This basically means we only have one book that talks about Jesus as a real person, which is the book of Mark. The other gospels were written after Mark by authors who embellished the story while clearly lifting significant portions directly from Mark. And Mark is written by an unknown author who cites no sources for his information. Notably, a lot of ancient mythical characters were also given elaborate biographies that placed them in history with parents, siblings, birth-places, etc. This includes characters like Moses, Romulus, and Dionysus. In contrast, figures in history who are known to be real people either did not begin as revelatory beings, or we have clear evidence of their historicity.
- Attempts to get around these two points do not hold up. For example, there is an argument that Jesus must have really come from Nazareth because there is no other reason to attribute such an unlikely origin to him (Christopher Hitchens, for instance, finds this argument convincing). But the premise of this argument is false because there are many good reasons why that specific town would have been contrived for a mythical messiah. Also, many mythical figures were given obscure towns as their origin. For example, Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, were given the birthplace of Alba Longa, an ancient city in Central Italy.
This case could be expounded upon in numerous ways. Slate, for instance, provides five reasons for questioning the historicity of Jesus. A more in-depth case from Carrier can be found in his 700-page book on the subject or in his talk “Why Invent Jesus.” But even as a quick, three-point argument, the case against Jesus’s historicity seems eminently reasonable. And yet it has not been given a proper hearing by either religious scholars or the public.
As mythicist author Earl Doherty shows in a survey, historians rely on the consensus view to brush aside the mythicist theory rather than to examine it. Carrier has also observed that most scholars who study Jesus are biased against the mythicist view because they are essentially trained to presuppose that Jesus existed as a real person. In a 2017 talk, Carrier explained, “Even secular experts in this field have been trained with a body of Christian faith assumptions that are this lens through which you look at this evidence and select which evidence to look at.” As a result, the consensus that Jesus was a real person is based on this framework of Christian faith assumptions. And those assumptions, he argues, do not hold up to scrutiny.
When called out for their bias, religious scholars are quick to point out that even most secular scholars find mythicism unconvincing. Popular author Bart Ehrman is often referenced in this regard. It is true Erhman—who has made a career out of debunking the Bible as a divinely-inspired text—is a vocal advocate for historicity, but I also find his motives questionable. On a recent podcast with Michael Shermer, Ehrman explained his frustration with the mythicists: “As admirable as some of the intention is, I think mythicists are shooting themselves in the foot because they convince those who want to be convinced, and the people they really ought to be trying to convince just laugh at them.” In other words, Ehrman thinks arguing for mythicism is the wrong tactic for deconverting Christians. Although I find Ehrman genuine in his views, it is possible that he is motivated against taking the mythicists seriously because he does not want to be laughed at by the very people he is trying to reach. Ideally, deconverting Christians should be an entirely separate project.
But let us assume the mythicists do not have a strong case against the historicity of Jesus. Even so—to return to my original point—it seems likely their numbers are on the verge of growing rapidly.
Given the demographic shift away from Christianity, as noted above, there are bound to be people (like my friend) who grow up simply assuming Jesus was a fictional character—regardless of whether the academic mythicists have a strong argument or not. Meanwhile, a growing number of mythicists authors—such as Carrier, Fitzgerald, and Price—are writing books and regularly appearing on podcasts and YouTube channels. Again, regardless of whether or not their arguments are any good, they sound good to anyone who cares to listen.
When Carrier recently debated Dennis R. MacDonald on the question of mythicism, no one in the comments section was laughing at Carrier (as Ehrman might have worried). Rather, I am seeing highly engaged comments that lean skeptically against historicity. For instance, a commentator named Doston Jones writes:
“So, Dr. MacDonald concedes that our earliest extant Gospel (gMark) is so heavily mythologized that it’s completely lacking of veracious historical information concerning Jesus. Yet, he pins his entire historicist argument on a hypothetical and contested source text (Q) to establish the historical basis for Jesus? That’s not very persuasive.”
It only makes sense that Jesus mythicism would find a growing audience online: The Internet loves a good contrarian view! And unlike many contrarian views that are potentially harmful to society (such as anti-vax conspiracies), I do not see any practical harm from speculating about whether or not a character from the first century was a real person or not. Christians will disagree with this, but, again, the historicity of Jesus is the least of their concerns in terms of losing their numbers. For the rest of us, Jesus mythicism is a harmless YouTube rabbit hole to venture down. This point is validated by the fact that many outlets discussing Jesus mythicism—such as the MythVision Podcast and the David C. Smalley Podcast—are responsible channels that do not feed off conspiracy theory hype.
None of this is to say that Jesus definitely did not exist as a real person. He very well might have. Carrier puts the odds at a one in three chance that he existed. As someone who knows less about the topic than these experts, I am happy to grant historical Jesus even better odds. But when it comes to the consensus, I do not see any way for historical Jesus to maintain such a strong advantage. From this moment on, it seems highly probably that the mythicist view will continue to become more well-subscribed to, and the new mainstream view—correct or otherwise—might become that Jesus is nothing more than a fictional character.
Peter Clarke is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. He can be found on Twitter @HeyPeterClarke