Monday, April 18, 2005

Jesus denial

I created this blog 11 months ago without writing anything in it until now. Yesterday I heard from some friends about Larry King's recent show, "What Happens After We Die?" Larry had invited an evangelical Protestant, a priest, a Muslim scholar, and a rabbi. He also had included Marianne Williamson, a wonderful lecturer and teacher of the Course in Miracles -- a modern spiritual teaching in which Jesus Christ appears as the central figure, though the teaching relies less on figures and more on a path of enlightenment similar to that found in Buddhism. Rounding out his panel was Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, an organization based here in New York. Ellen apparently argued on the show that Jesus Christ never existed.

So I went to the web yesterday and found a site actually called Jesus Never Existed. Its subheading: "Uncompromising exposure of the counterfeit origins of Christianity and of the evil it has brought to the world." The site was created by one Kenneth Humphreys in the autumn of 2002, a few months after I finished a debate with a co-worker and friend, Ryan, about the existence of God -- a debate in which he argued that Jesus did not exist, and introduced me to that idea. I wrote him at least 60 pages in all, and after several weeks he conceded that I was probably right about Jesus' existence. Very few subjects have inspired me more than this one. In fact I wrote Humphreys a letter confronting him with his site's egregious misquotation of the Church Father Justin Martyr, who is made to say words implying that Jesus' existence was in doubt in the ancient world. That website is one of the more bigoted I've ever seen. It means to prove with a vengeance the concluding statement on its home page: "Christianity is the worst disaster in history," meaning the most murderous.

For a while I've suspected that this fringe idea about Jesus was, like Holocaust denial, becoming more popular. When I told my friend Kate about my debate with Ryan, she said to me that I'd given the theory of nonexistence too much credit, that is, more attention than it deserved. This suggested to me something very reasonable, that such ideas die by themselves if left alone. But the theory kept turning up in the popular media. In May 2004 the Skeptical Inquirer put out a critique of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" in which Joe Nickell, a onetime professor of technical writing and stage magician, seemed to be arguing that Jesus was a figment of imagination; so I wrote to the magazine just to say that as professional and professed skeptics they were buying into a conspiracy theory. In his book, The Disinformation Guide to Media Distortion, Historical Whitewashes and Cultural Myths, Russ Kick affirms the theory as expounded by one of its chief proponents, who goes by the Indian-sounding moniker Acharya S. (Kick uses another Christ-myther and former evangelical, Dan Barker -- the author my friend Ryan used in our debate -- to attack the Resurrection in his book, Abuse Your Illusions: The Disinformation Guide to Media Mirages and Establishment Lies). There are signs that the whitewashing of Jesus is firmly esconced, in our Republican-dominant times, on the left, and may be rising in popularity now as part of a passing arrangement of politics; but I'm not sure.

[I have since learned that the nonexistence theory was raised in scholarly circles many decades ago, back when some historians of the New Testament world still argued that Jesus was a pastiche of pagan myths. The theory that Jesus did not live never left the fringes of scholarship and was refuted decisively by historians, including atheists and agnostics, but it has since returned in newer forms. It is being argued this time by writers who are not fully trained historians or New Testament scholars, and is appearing on the Web and in the popular media. Because relevantly trained scholars long ago stopped paying much attention to the nonexistence idea in any form, refutations of its newer incarnations are usually to be found in essay format on the Web, often by non-scholars. My own blog is an example. - July 20, 2005].

I've called the movement Jesus-denial, not in the sense that it denies that Jesus was divine, or indeed that he had any particular attribute at all, but simply that he breathed and lived. I have found startling similarities between this denial and Holocaust denial -- the parallels coming to mind especially after reading Michael Shermer's book about Holocaust denial, Denying History. I mean, for instance, the claim that Anne Frank was not a real person; that ancient Christians were not as numerous as usually believed; that these Christians really were not persecuted in the numbers or in the manner that is usually believed. Overall, however, I do consider Holocaust denial more truly bigoted, more prevalent (even in those places where it was thought to be dying), and less rational.

I found another website called Positive Atheism, promoting the theory that Jesus did not exist. I read the transcript of Larry King's show at, and went to the American Atheists website, where Ellen Johnson, as president, introduces the worldview of atheism -- not entirely in an unappealing manner. This site was, in that sense, different from the others. I went to the section on Christianity and found essays by Frank Zindler, a former professor of biology and geology who claims that Jesus did not exist. And I began composing a long letter to Ellen, in which I referred to my few years as an atheist and described at length what was wrong with the theory that she had promoted on Larry King and was promoting on her site.

I looked up the phrase "Jesus never existed" on Google. There were 3,770 hits. The first was Kenneth Humphreys' site of that name. A good number came from ordinary postings on discussion boards. Many of the rest came from mainstream sites about history or religious history in which the article entitled "Jesus" would include in its bibliography, as one of a full variety of viewpoints, the Humphreys site. None of these latter bibliographies quoted his theory approvingly, but the very fact that his site was now commonly listed as part of the bibliographical literature thought to be worth listing struck me. It meant to me that the theory of non-existence had found a higher level of respectability-- albeit still the minimal respect of a fringe theory. Larry King's show is certainly a marker of mainstream culture, so Ellen Johnson's on-air argument against the existence of Jesus represents, to me, a kind of marker in this movement.

I Googled phrases for other world religions. "Buddha never existed" turned up 75 hits. None or very few of them, as far as I could tell, were open arguments to that effect; mostly I seemed to be turning up casual references to the idea that Buddha never existed, without affirmations of that idea. In fact the first hit was by a Christian who wondered if people of other faiths also had to put up with their religious figures being argued out of existence. It was a page about Jesus' existence.

"Muhammad never existed" turned up only 36 hits. The first came from a 1996 Daniel Pipes essay at the website of American Atheist, a different site from Ellen Johnson's organization. I have only read a few brief pieces by Pipes, but I gather that he is a right-wing author with an axe to grind against Islam, and that many of his writings support the idea that Islam is an inherently violent religion. This particular piece was a review of Why I Am Not A Muslim, a book by an ex-Muslim named Ibn Warraq. Here is an excerpt from the review:

Ibn Warraq draws on current Western scholarship to make the astonishing claim that Muhammad never existed, or if he did, he had nothing to do with the Koran. Rather, that holy book was fabricated a century or two later in Palestine, then 'projected back onto an invented Arabian point of origin.' If the Koran is a fraud, it's not surprising to learn that the author finds little authentic in other parts of the Islamic tradition. For example, he dispatches Islamic law as 'a fantastic creation founded on forgeries and pious fictions.' The whole of Islam, in short, he portrays as a concoction of lies.

I quote all this at length because the arguments are astonishingly close to what is said about Christianity when Jesus' existence is denied.

Some of the other sites quote the Pipes article, as well as a different and more recent article by Pipes. In this one, a retired CIA agent relates that in the 1950s the CIA spread misinformation around the Middle East to the effect that the Soviet Union was promoting scholarship arguing that Muhammad never existed. As for the other hits, I could find none that explicitly argued against Muhammad's existence.

This is important to me because one thing I discovered in debating Ryan was the degree to which no religion was safe if even one was attacked. I found the Jesus-as-myth theory, in other words, to build its entire foundation on the premise that religion is made up of myths, forgeries, lies, coercions, and no other history worth speaking about. I found that those who tried to "vaporize" Jesus out of existence also were saying extremely negative things about other religions, without consulting the scholars of those religions: and I don't mean Islam here, I mean the pagan Roman cults that Christianity eclipsed. So I didn't see Islam or Buddhism attacked per se in these writings; but I felt that they would be next, so to speak, if Christianity were allowed to "fall."

And I found that phenomena which had their own discrete meanings in the non-Christian religions were being distorted and forced into Christian categories. What I mean is that when someone says that Jesus did not exist, and that Christ was a pastiche of pagan cults or goddess religions, which had their own virgin births and resurrections, I found that all this evidence came from the 19th century, when the West knew very little indeed about religions other than Christianity. Archaelogists and ethnographers were Christian in background, so everything they discovered in the historical record, they interpreted as a parallel to Christianity. It's as if you're a Christian and you visit a Native American ceremony, and everything you see you try to relate to what you know: "This is their version of Mass; this is their communion; this is their bishop; etc." And no doubt, the world's religions do have many common elements with different names. But these elements also often have different and autonomous meanings, not so easy to discover even after decades of work. Certainly the old European attitude about it, where religions would be studied like mice under a microscope, could not penetrate the heart. Many mistakes were made. People discovered texts or artifacts and said, "That looks to me like a Last Supper outside of Christianity," or "this must have been a virgin birth." From there it was a short jump to conclude that Christianity was nothing original.

But the terrible conclusion, of course, is that those other religions were not original either. Worse, they were now no more than precursors to Christianity. One of the greatest mistakes of traditional Christianity has been to treat the Jewish scriptures as if they were no more than a precursor to the New Testament; yet here was the same mistake being made by secular scholars. Every religion, when you argue the non-existence of Jesus, is made into a pale copy of Christianity; and Christianity is made into an unoriginal, destructive bandit. This is no way to affirm religion or to respect people's beliefs. And I wonder how many people today, when they easily accept various forms of the theories that Christianity was preceded by many virgin births or resurrections, really contemplate what they are doing, and ask themselves whether they are genuinely making that difficult entry into other worlds and other ways of thinking, or just working out their own issues concerning the faith of their childhoods.

In my research it was common for me to find statements to the effect that Krishna was crucified, or that Buddha came to earth to redeem humanity. My years practicing yoga and studying Hinduism and Buddhism paid off here, because I knew these Eastern traditions were being perverted. How many Indians died resisting British culture, including Christianity, only to have someone in ignorance state that the cross was a common feature of Hinduism? How many times do Buddhist teachers have to tell us that Buddha did not come to redeem humanity but simply taught us about suffering and ways to overcome it, before we know enough to call ignorant claims what they truly are?

If it comes to pass that Muhammad is attacked, I want to help my Muslim brothers and sisters. I have made two Muslim friends in the past few months, and have visited and prayed at a mosque; I intend to visit again. I find myself learning from them, though I'm not pulled away from my own faith. Right now, I do not see that Muhammad or Buddha (a somewhat more meaningful figure to my beloved wife, Dess) are being attacked. There is no reason, objectively speaking, why they cannot be in the future. The evidence for those figures is roughly the same as it is for Jesus: religious scriptures copied some years after the central figure's death are the earliest witnesses, along with testimonies by enemies or co-religionists, followed in due course by witnesses from "secular" historians not belonging to the religion and its environment; none of the great figures left behind, as did the Pharoahs or similar leaders, physical evidence. If Jesus alone is being attacked by secular forces (not, it should be noted, by other religions), it is probably because Christianity has had the most contact with such forces.

Here I wish to give a simple summary of why the theory that Jesus did not exist is both false and pernicious. I have 10 basic reasons.

1) It is a conspiracy theory. It says that a grand fiction has been hoisted on the world by secretive and powerful Christian organizations. It argues that all evidence pointing to invention has been suppressed, and that all evidence pointing to Christ's existence is fabrication -- all of it, from the New Testament to Jewish writings to Greco-Roman annals. It takes all the evidence from Christian, Jewish, and pagan writers and dismisses it by arguing that it all amounts to invention by reactionary power. In that it is not too different from Marxism, which regarded religion as a reactionary, counter-revolutionary opiate. But the theory is not Marxist in origin. It is, quite simply, a conspiracy theory tailored for Western audiences skeptical of religion. Like any conspiracy theory, it relies on evidence that is not there (because it is purportedly suppressed), and denies all the evidence that is there (because it is purportedly fabricated).

2) It leaves all religions open to attacks from those who, like one Christ-mythologist, regard religion as "mental illness." Many of these people are harmless on the surface, but Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong believed the same thing about religion, and destroyed both shrines and lives by the tens of millions.

3) It represents a monumental step backward in our understanding of other religions and the relationships Christianity has had with them. Calling Jesus a myth requires saying where the ideas for the myth came from. Sometimes it is said that the ideas for such a Savior figure came from the Old Testament and from Judaism, but since this makes the historical break between Christianity and Judaism impossible to explain, an alternative and more desperate course is to say that Christ came out of pagan myths. When this is argued, the Roman cults, and occasionally Buddhism and Hinduism, are named as primary influences upon Christianity. These religions are romanticized, or they are made to seem like Christianity, which is a mistake in itself, but is particularly pernicious because the type of Christian religion referred to here is one that is totally destructive and immoral. Those who say that the cross had antecedents in other religions, and in the next paragraph denounce Christianity for being a bloody religion focused from the start on an instrument of torture, do not realize that they are essentially saying the same thing about the pre-Christian religions of the past or the non-Christian religions of today. They don't say so openly, but that is the fullest consequence of their arguments.

4) It is un-scientific. Any conspiracy theory, of course, fails to embrace the scientific method, which requires a relaxed, open mind and the willingness to try to overthrow your own theory, so that it can be tested thoroughly. There are many further ways in which this point could be made. You could say quite correctly that the theory of Jesus' non-existence is overly complex; it creates special explanations, circumstances, and standards for everything encountered, thus breaking the rule known as Occam's razor, which states that entities are not to be multiplied unnecessarily and that all things being equal, the simplest theory is the best. You could point out that the theory tries to prove a negative, an extremely difficult thing to do according to the principles of logic, and a goal that requires extraordinary evidence, not merely the "absence" of evidence. You could describe another no-no of scholarship, known as special pleading, which happens when the theory of non-existence says that things do not appear as common sense would dictate because of special reasons, such as suppression of evidence, and forgery. Many good theories, of course, ask you to suspend your common sense. The earth revolves around the sun, as common sense would not tell you. But notice, that is said to be a common mistake made by all people in all historical epochs. What we have with Jesus-denial is the charge that some people knew then, and know now, what most people have not known. That is very different, and it requires historical proofs, none of which are forthcoming. The only thing offered is suspicion without consummation. No experiments are run; nothing falsifiable is said; no science is therefore done.

5) It is ignorant. It comes from people who have degrees in English, German, biology -- anything but graduate degrees in history, antiquity, religion, ancient languages or Biblical studies. When it does quote scholars from those fields, it goes back to 19th century work, and avoids all recent 20th century advances in biblical studies, archaeology, ethnography, etc. It avoids scholars of non-Christian religions, too, and quotes only people who study other things, so that when, for instance, the god Mithra is said to be Christ's precursor, with a virgin birth and the like, no Mithra scholars are consulted, and only non-Mithra scholars are quoted. As such, the theory has remained on the fringes, always just outside mainstream work; before the World Wide Web, it was hard to find without looking for it specifically. I majored in Religion and attended a year of seminary; in later years I read the definitive works on the historical Jesus, and consulted those works even as an atheist; but I had never heard of a fully articulated theory of non-existence, because when you study history and religion, you don't come across the proponents of the theory; they always have training in something else. Yet they push their opinions about one of history's central questions. I am no linguist, but if you asked me to overthrow the mainstream theories about the origin of English, and told me I could not consult any scholars of English except to note where they can be debunked, you can imagine the quality of what you'll get from me.

6) It is arrogant. The only way to test ideas is to come into dialogue with other ideas, chiefly those constructed by people with knowledge of the subject. Often good theories are complex, and require a lot of reading and hard work to sift the evidence. But the theory of non-existence holds mainly that evidence can be judged, not according to its content, but according to who wrote it. Therefore, the Bible can be dismissed; Biblical scholarship can be dismissed. In this the theory betrays its ignorance of Biblical scholarship, which is full of agnostics and even some atheists. It seems entirely unaware of what current scholars, secular and biblical, are saying, but it nevertheless relies heavily on a very dangerous phrase, "Most scholars believe that" (fill in the blank: Jesus was a myth-figure, he said nothing of what's in the Gospels, etc.) A true scholar can get away with summarizing his or her field; but if you're not in the field, forget it. Even so, most people who rely on common sense know that the vast majority of scientific work on the ancient world, its scriptures, languages, archaeology and beliefs, has been done in the 20th century. Biblical scholarship has incorporated all that work and is now typically based upon it. The definitive works on Jesus are not apologetics, and they openly defy religious or church dogma; but skeptics have long since stopped listening, and they operate on the assumption that the only options on the table are Biblical literalism or Biblical atheism. Basically the attitude is, "I do not need to read those who are trained, because they are biased; I do not need any special training myself, and I have no relevant biases." Well, Copernicus dared to believe that everything he'd been taught on a certain subject could be wrong; but he was a master practitioner in that field. Tell that to those who think they are following in Copernicus' footsteps: you will simply be told in reply that you love your subject and therefore cannot be trusted to know it well.

7) It is extreme. No secular and relevantly credentialed historian holds the theory, for at least one very simple reason: there was too little time. Myths are told about people who lived far away, in another time and place ("a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away"); no one living in the local area can contradict the myth, and the imagination can let loose. Christian writings started surfacing only 20 years after Jesus "purportedly" lived, so the question comes up: why didn't anyone contradict the claim that Jesus lived and interacted with famous local figures? Well, they did, according to the theory, but their testimonies were destroyed by the Church; or in a variation, they didn't speak up, because the Romans killed them all off in the war 40 years after Christ's "purported" lifetime. No historian has produced a comparable example of a myth that overcame all historical objections so quickly. But Christ is said to be such a myth. And people -- reasonable, well-educated people (but not well-educated about religion) -- are finding such arguments reasonable in rising numbers, I fear. Why is evolution being disbelieved these days in favor of creationism? Because our schooling in science, our scientific literacy, is abysmal. Why, then, with our commonly abysmal education about religion, do we not exert more skepticism toward the things we hear and say about religious topics?

8) It is radically partisan and self-contradictory. The destruction of Christianity's root beliefs always takes precedence over consistent and fairly applied standards. Logic is always sacrificed to the goal. This one can only be explained at length by diving deeply into the content, so I will leave it for another post. But see John Meier's multi-volume work on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, which systematically lays out the logical criteria needed for this kind of work.

9) It is denial, and not history. History describes what happened. Denial is concerned to say that such-and-such did not happen. It does not say that things happened in an alternative or under-appreciated way, only that they did not happen. It is not a positive description; it offers no positive alternative -- and by positive I don't mean happy, I mean simply a map of events rather than non-events. The only events described are writings, or acts of forgery, often by no-names ("Christian scribes") working in the dark. Actual events, other than writing, go without much description or investigation for their own sake; they are brought in only for the conspiracy theory. Individuals contributing anything are said to be mythical beings invented by the true agency, the collective cult with its need for survival and power. Individuals are cut out of history entirely, and shorn of their personal names, except occasionally for individuals who did have a certain genuis at forgery: those are the only people named, dated, and described at length. Bodies are taken out of history, and men such as Christ become disembodied ghosts or ideas -- a terribly unhistorical project, even an Orwellian one. Any piece of evidence that the theory does not like goes down the "memory hole." And of course, in this case what is being denied is not merely neutral, but something that is all too often denied: suffering. The rejection, torture, and capital punishment of an innocent individual is pushed out of existence or otherwise shorn of its meaning. To deny history is always to deny pain and suffering.

10) It is bigoted. It is committed to destroying or defaming Christians, of course, and is sometimes especially hostile to Roman Catholicism. But it is necessarily exploitative of other religions, even those it nominally champions. Moreover, it always denies the deep relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and seeks to overturn mainstream biblical scholarship's deep and healing dialogue with Judaism, by making Christianity exclusively a pastiche of non-Jewish religions which the Jewish people, historically, despised -- not least because paganism oppressed them so cruelly. In many ways, the theory represents anything but progressive scholarship shedding light on victims, whether they be Jews or Gentiles; the only oppression it recognizes is that committed by Christianity. Its conclusions are welcomed, disturbingly, by anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic bigots.

That's enough for now. I'll be returning to this subject.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin,

looks like you wrote this a while back and not a single person responded. I kind of felt sorry so I decided to leave a comment.

Looks like you are pretty emotional over the whole deal that jesus didn't really exist. I'm sorry you feel so bad about it.

As I read your commentary, I could feel your pain. Unfortunately, most of what you said reeked of "truthiness" - you want to believe it so it must be true.

Sure, it's all true. Jesus really existed (despite not a single piece of historial evidence and that the earliest "christians" didn't believe in an earthly existence of jesus).

Hercules also existed, and so does santa. They are all there, in the spirit world waiting for you.


July 31, 2006 3:39 AM  
Blogger Dockrrrk said...

Although I believe a man named Eoshua Bar-Yosef existed in the Roman province of Judea born during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus and who died, undoubtedly by crucifixion, during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, I'd also have to comment that beyond that, we probably can't surmise anything about this individual or what his exact intentions were. Obviously though, his existence and the manner of his death filled a tremendous need at the time, with various spins as to what his teachings consisted of. If one steps beyond that, one is entering the world of myth and wish-fulfillment.

August 04, 2006 8:55 PM  
Blogger Thank God I'm an Atheist said...

Whatever you may say about Kenneth Humphreys and his conclusions about Jesus Christ and Christianity, the scholarship on his site,, is excellent. His history of the Jewish people is especially good and comports with the best historical research. My only complaint is that more footnotes are needed for it to be a true, scholarly publication.

August 15, 2006 5:43 PM  
Anonymous Jesus_Existed_but_not_for_the_livingdead said...

Hi Kevin, great blog- there is too little written in defense against blather like It's so obvious that Humpheries begins with his own beliefs and distorts all evidence to fit them- the very opposite of scientific methods. Anyone who would seek out the original context of his Christian quotes will find very different meanings than he attributes to them in his efforts to bury Christianity. Like so much of what supporters of this drivel accuse Christianity of, they disbelieve because they want to and they don't mind using lies and distortion, a reflection of their own psychology. As dense as they are, they are unwilling to percieve the real heart of Christian doctrine despite it's misuse by corrupt individuals in it's two thousand years in becoming the world's largest religion- it's isn't Christianity's transgressions but it's love, light and redemption that they hate as they pursue their hollow and mechanistic worldview. Their own methods and characters fulfills Christian beliefs- that they live their lives through the diabolical- offering nothing to the world but subversion of what brings hope and comfort. Thank you and keep up the good work.

September 14, 2006 9:03 PM  
Blogger Kevin Rosero said...

Hi, and thanks for that note of support. Yes, I agree with you that mythicists routinely find the meaning that they wish to see in the original Christian quotes, rather than understanding what the original author was saying or trying to say. To understand an author's words, mere skepticism about the author's intentions is hardly enough; it's barely a first step. And preconceived conclusions about the author's intentions are, of course, deadly to the pursuit of truth. Of course such pre-conception produces distortions. The text under study will then be interpreted to carry the meanings that the reader expects to find. I could not agree with you more that this is the very antithesis of science.

But let me add that I don't believe that atheists or mythicists hate light, love and redemption; it's that when they look at religion they don't see those things (or don't wish to find them present in religion). They do not, I feel, wish to subvert those things that bring hope and comfort. They simply oppose religion, which they include among those things that bring destruction as well as false hope. Rarely do I encounter an atheist on the internet who counts religion as something that offers, not just hope, but also challenge. Religion is not mere comfort, and I don't want either side of the debate to forget that.

Having said all that, it's been a while since I posted "Jesus Denial", and I have since moved on to other ways of talking about the idea that Jesus did not exist. Indeed, as I've posted elsewhere on this blog, the very phrase "Jesus Denial" is problematic and I simply refer now to "mythicism." Also, it's been a long time since I was concerned with Humphries; the only theory I pay attention to now is Earl Doherty's, and I doubt that even Doherty's theory is going to hold my interest much longer. So I'm going to close this post for further comments.

September 16, 2006 12:12 AM  

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