Let’s face it. Jesus is a dick.
The Gospels portray him as a cruel, sociopathic asshole who gloats over millions being horribly tortured for billions of years at his command (Mk. 9:43-49, Mt. 13:40-42, Mt. 13:49-50, Mt. 18:7-9, Mt. 24:51, Mt. 25:40-46, Mt. 5:22, Lk. 13:23-34, Jn. 15:6, etc.) and to whom he shall never ever show even the minutest mercy (Lk. 16:22-29); who calls racial minorities dogs (Mk. 7:24-29); who murders thousands of pigs (Mk. 5:12-13), and doesn’t even say he’s sorry to the town that in result just lost its livelihood and the better part of their food supply; a guy who is so horrifically disgusted by sex he tells people to cut off their own limbs, eyes, and genitals before even so much as thinking a sexual thought (Mt. 5:27-30, Mt. 18:7-9, Mk. 9:43-49, Mt. 19:10-12); who endorses the legal execution of anyone who divorces and remarries (Mt. 5:31-32, Mt. 19:3-10), even of children who talk back to their parents (Mk. 7:7-13), and, let’s be honest (Mt. 5:17-20), even gay men and raped women (and countless others; Jesus loved killing, and was in fact convicted of the very death penalty offense he himself supported—an irony lost on pretty much every Christian then or since); who not only never condemns slavery but actually endorses it as a moral model God should be admired for following (e.g. Mt. 18:23-35, Mt. 24:44-51, Mt. 25:14-30, Lk. 17:7-9, Lk. 12:36-48); who has scary paranoid rage issues even with his closest friends (Mt. 16:21-23, Mk. 8:31-33)—even to the point of committing mass public violence (yes, Jesus is literally a criminal; and not because he was falsely convicted, but because he actually committed felony assault: Jn. 2:13-16, Mk. 11:15–16, Mt. 21:12, Lk. 19:45); and who arrogantly commands you to abandon and hate your family in order to follow him instead (Lk. 14:26, Mt. 10:34-37, Mt. 8:21-22, Lk. 9:59-60)—literally boasting that he shall tear families apart (Lk. 12:51-53, Mk. 10:29-30, Mt. 19:29). He never unites or reconciles any family. Not a single intact family ever follows or befriends him. He even tells his own family to fuck off (Mk. 3:32-35). And despite being able to eradicate all disease, he eradicates not even one of them—despite visiting a planet where more than half of all children die of one. Like I said. A total dick.
Christmas, by contrast, has long ago ceased to be significantly Christian. Everything distinctive of Christmas is pagan or secular. And in the U.S. that has been the case for over a hundred years. Christians complaining today about a “war on Christmas” are like those apocryphal Japanese soldiers stranded on islands during World War II still fighting the war forty years later because no one told them they lost—a lifetime ago.
Before almost all Americans today were even born, Christmas had already evolved into a celebration and enculturation of decency, family, generosity, kindness, joy, and gentleness. Santa Claus doesn’t charge into department stores and thrash merchants with a whip and vandalize their property; he doesn’t torture anyone; he doesn’t react to impoverished minorities with disgust; he never tells you to gouge out your eyes or cut off your balls. The moral and cultural ideals of Christmas today are more defined by the Christmas Carol of Charles Dickens, and by such treasured films as Miracle on 34th Street and Elf, far more delightful and morally edifying myths than anything in the Gospels. Almost everything that has resulted in Christmas being widely beloved and celebrated today is not Christian, but pagan or secular. The giving of gifts to friends and family; the lights and decorations; Christmas trees and wreaths; yule logs and mulled wine; Santa Claus; Rudolph; even the Christmas Spirit, which is now all about the secular, humanist benefits of joy and generosity, and the good society it realizes that we can then all enjoy—and not what the Gospel Jesus said: a panicked way to avoid his torturing you forever.
As I wrote once before (in Merry Christmas, God Is Still a Delusion):
[M]any atheists actually celebrate Christmas. It is not for them “a religious sham,” as [William Lane] Craig claims, but a fun secular holiday entirely based on dead pagan religions. There are no Christmas trees, or day of gift-giving, or flying reindeer porting elves named Santa Clause, or mistletoe, or commands to go caroling, or to gather family on the 25th of December, anywhere in the Bible; in fact, the Bible doesn’t even say Jesus was born in Winter (and indeed Luke’s narrative renders that impossible), whereas the 25th of December was chosen to perpetuate pagan worship of the return of the sun from its wane. In short, there is literally nothing Christian about Christmas. Atheists figured this out decades ago. We’ve been celebrating it as a secular family holiday based on cheer and giving—for quite some time now.
Which is all well and good. Because there is actually more evidence Santa Claus exists than that God does (whether with Jesus in tow or not). And yet no one believes Santa is historical—nor, more importantly, do they need to. Santa Claus exemplifies an ideal, a spirit, a concept, a way of being. Just like the three Ghosts of Christmas in the Dickens Carol. We don’t need him or them to be real. They speak to us as the resonant and edifying myths that they are. But the mythical Jesus is a horror. There is very little to admire in him. He’s scary, violent, self-righteous, oppressive, and murderous.
The awfulness of the Gospel Jesus (in contrast to everything we value about the Christmas season and spirit) has been formally documented by Hector Avalos, a prominent professor of Biblical studies, in his book Bad Jesus (with an amusing defense against radical critics at Debunking Christianity). And it has been most thoroughly documented by War on Error‘s Ben Schuldt (who plans a book on the point—which I am eagerly awaiting, because I can already tell it’s going to be awesome).
Therefore, Saying Jesus Didn’t Exist Isn’t Warring on Christmas
But today I’m going to marvel briefly at the sudden resonance of the daring claim that Jesus, like Santa Claus, also never existed, that he was always just an idea, given earthly life in the mythical tales of the Gospels, and before that, akin to the Ghosts of Dickens: someone who only existed in the beyond, whom you’d only ever meet in visions or dreams.
Those who know my work already know I’ve presented the academic case for all of this in the first peer reviewed book on the subject, On the Historicity of Jesus. But though that’s a proper, vetted academic monograph published by an academic press, it still gets conflated with crank tinfoil hatter nonsense like that of Joseph Atwill, who has no qualifications and has never published any of his arguments under formal peer review (and for good reason: they’d never pass). See Atwill’s Cranked Up Jesus to find out why bloggers and journalists need to stop referencing him, much less as an “expert” or a “scholar” or a “historian.” He isn’t any of those things, and his work does not warrant any attention outside satire.
Several articles have circulated this month praising or lamenting the rising popularity of the idea that indeed Jesus might never have existed—at all, not just the Gospel myth of him, the version of Jesus all mainstream experts agree never existed. Starting this off was a re-circulation this month of a well-done Washington Post article from 2014 by Raphael Lataster, author of Jesus Did Not Exist, a book that examines the merits of my case against a historical Jesus (in OHJ), compared with the cases for his existence by Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey—outside fundamentalist apologetics, the only two books defending the historicity of Jesus written in nearly a hundred years; neither of them peer reviewed—in fact, to this day, there has never been a peer reviewed defense of the historicity of Jesus, not since Shirley Jackson Case wrote an absurdly outdated treatise on it in 1912 (yes, 1912; merely updated in 1928…and that’s a problem; see my treatment in OHJ, pp. 592-93).
But the lamentations seem to have been sparked by a new article at Big Think by Philip Perry. Two at least have responded with bewilderment at that. Both Christian theologians. Big surprise. First was Benjamin L. Corey, who blogged “Good Grief: Yes, Jesus Was A Real Historical Figure.” Then came the Breitbart article “War on Christmas 2.0: ‘Jesus Never Existed’” by Thomas D. Williams. Perry’s article, the one that offended them, is well meaning but not very accurate. He treats Atwill again as if on par with serious, qualified historians, for example. And his description of the facts and theories is not always correct. In short, I don’t think it’s worth referring people to. It would need a lot of work first. So I can understand why this would get theologians in a huff. If their only exposure to this concept is through an imperfect media filter like that, rather than the actual peer reviewed scholarship in Biblical studies, they might understandably go off half-cocked. (Though it is telling that theologians only seem interested in rebutting news articles rather than the actual studies those articles are reporting on.)
For those who are interested, here is a breakdown on how these two theologians try to combat this:
Williams uses the “but lots of real people have no evidence for them” argument. As typically used, this is often factually false (indeed, Williams implies as an example George Washington…seriously); but even when someone comes up with a factually correct example (though Williams gives no examples), they do not relevantly resemble Jesus—which is precisely the problem (OHJ, Chs. 6 and 11). Can we find an example of someone, whom we can confidently say existed, who also was only ever recorded as a worshiped deity, whose only narratives are extensively mytho-fantastical, and who was first reported as being met in celestial visions? I have yet to find such a person in the records of history. It’s correct we should have next to no evidence of a nobody (OHJ, Chs. 8.3 and 8.4), but Jesus is not in that category, either (a rapidly and widely worshiped demigod, with extant letters about him written by his contemporaries).
Williams quotes asscrank Tim O’Neil (whose qualifications still elude me) as merely citing the Arguments from Tacitus and Josephus, incorrectly stating that most historians accept those as proof Jesus existed. In fact, even Ehrman agrees they are both weak tea, and can’t reliably support the historicity of Jesus—for the very reason Perry cites: even at best they just repeat what Christian informants told them two lifetimes later, based on decades-old mythical Gospels, rather than having fact-checked those claims in any way (OHJ, Chs. 8.9 and 8.10); and at worst, they are almost certainly forgeries (Ibid.). It’s amusing to see an apologist respond to an argument by ignoring the argument and just repeating the claim that argument just refuted.
Williams then cites Christian broadcaster James Kennedy (!), who has no relevant qualifications (his Ph.D. is in modern Christian education; masters in divinity and theology; nothing in ancient history), asserting that the “evidence is all on Christianity’s side” because we have “twenty seven books of the New Testament, nineteen pagan writers, and three Jewish writers” who “testify to Jesus Christ’s historical reality.” That’s false. Most of the books of the NT don’t mention Jesus as anything other than a celestial savior deity (OHJ, Chs. 7 and 11); the others are all myths written lifetimes later (e.g., the Gospels), or forgeries (e.g. 2 Peter). We have only one relevant Jewish author to consider: Josephus. The other two Kennedy means are Rabbis cited in the Talmud (Rabbis who didn’t write the Talmud, but are being quoted centuries later by whoever did); but the Talmud, besides being centuries late, only knows of a Jesus who died, by stoning, a hundred years before Pontius Pilate (OHJ, Ch. 8.1). And only four pagans actually have any chance of being relevant (OHJ, Ch. 8.10-11), the rest are just repeating what Christians or the Gospels were telling them centuries later (OHJ, Ch. 7.2-7), which is useless as evidence (OHJ, Ch. 7.1)—and of those four worth looking at, two never actually mentioned Jesus (Thallus & Suetonius: OHJ, Ch. 8.11); one never said Jesus was an actual historical person (Pliny: OHJ, Ch. 8.10); and the other is Tacitus. So with his bloated math, Kennedy is sounding a lot like James Bishop.
That’s it. That’s what convinces this Ph.D. in theology. Just. Wow.
Corey does better. Thank goodness. Williams sounds like a lying apologetic asshat. Corey sounds like he really has epistemic standards. He just doesn’t know the facts; it’s clear he hasn’t actually researched this, but assumes what other Christian apologists are telling him is true. This is how his arguments go:
Corey mentions that “the number of legitimate secular or historical scholars who make this claim are exceedingly few” which is a sign of honesty (that he mentions there are some; even Bart Ehrman is still lying about there being none). This makes a fair point that no one should be declaring mythicism conclusively proved yet; it’s a viable theory in the field, and you can have informed opinions about it, but you can’t beat people over the head with claims that they are idiots if they aren’t persuaded.
Then Corey says “dismissing the Gospel accounts outright is the genetic fallacy,” which is true: if you are going to dismiss them, you need to make a strong case for doing so. Which, as it happens, we’ve done. Under peer review even (OHJ, Ch. 10; and Proving History, Ch. 5). It’s actually exceedingly hard to make a case for trusting anything in them. And that’s something many scholars agree with, though many still can’t bring themselves to admit it.
Corey also uses the ‘but we should expect to have no evidence of a nobody’ argument, which is valid only insofar as it means this is not evidence against historicity (hence OHJ, Ch. 8.3-4); but it also isn’t evidence for historicity, either. No evidence is no evidence. You can’t base a certainty on no usable evidence. Only agnosticism can follow, in the absence of anything else. But unlike the other ‘rabbis of his time’ Corey mentions, Jesus was a widely worshiped demigod within just a decade of his life, known across three continents; and we have numerous letters written about him by an actual contemporary…which never clearly place any of his activity on earth, and never mention anyone ever having met him outside of dreams and visions (OHJ, Ch. 11).
Corey mentions Pontius Pilate as someone who also “had little evidence of his existence in history” until the famous inscription was found—although, again, that inscription still makes his existence a lot more secure than Jesus. Yet he still was better attested than Jesus even before we found that. He was clearly attested by a contemporary, Philo; and thoroughly researched by a historian of the next generation, Josephus, who cites primary and eyewitness sources on the matter. Would that we had either for Jesus!
Corey uses the Argument from Tacitus and the Argument from Josephus. He does not appear to know what’s wrong with those sources (as I discussed earlier for Williams). He also still thinks Suetonius and Thallus refer to Jesus (neither do) and that Pliny refers to Jesus as a historical person (he doesn’t). This suggests he’s relying on other Christian apologists, who aren’t telling him the truth about these things.
Corey says “one of the biggest things left unexplained by those who claim Jesus never existed is the birth of Christianity itself, and the dedication of its followers,” which is curious, because all mythicist books, even by the cranks, do exactly the opposite: they elaborately discuss how Christianity arose and roused allegiance without an earthly Jesus. That Corey doesn’t know this is further evidence he is repeating what dishonest apologists are telling him. He clearly hasn’t actually checked any of the literature on this; much less the peer reviewed literature of the field (OHJ, Chs. 3 and 12).
Corey thinks it’s “implausible” that a “religion based upon the specific teachings of a specific leader, a religion that you were killed for joining, took root and spread…even though the supposed leader never existed.” He evidently didn’t notice Mormonism. Based on the specific teachings of the angel Moroni. Who never existed. Likewise the Cargo Cults, many based on the teachings of non-existent persons, arising in the same generation and location as that person is supposed to have lived (OHJ, Ch. 5, No. 29). Or the Luddites, whose founder, Ned Ludd, also never really existed (OHJ, pp. 9-11). The letters of Paul depict Jesus as being met and known only in visions or dreams; and his teachings derived from those, or “discovered” hidden in the scriptures (e.g. Romans 16:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). And Corey even cites the example of Paul, having converted from killer of Christians to persecuted follower, even martyr…notably, without ever having met an earthly Jesus (Galatians 1:13-22). If Paul could be converted so radically and passionately by merely having a vision of Jesus, just as Joseph Smith claimed to be by a vision of Moroni, so could all Christians have done from the very beginning. It is, after all, only after the Christ’s scripturally-attested death that Paul says even Peter (Cephas) saw Jesus (1 Cor. 15:3-5). This is not implausible at all. In fact, it’s commonly how religious sects begin: with alleged visions and spirit communications from their celestial endorsers. Meanwhile, converting that celestial being into an earthly person in allegorical myths was also typically what happened in those days, especially in savior cults exactly like Christianity (OHJ, Ch. 5, Nos. 31, 45, and 48; with Ch. 4, Nos. 13 and 14).
And that’s all Corey has. His case at least makes sense—coming from someone who hasn’t read the literature in the field and thus doesn’t know all the things I just mentioned. Which is why it’s worth noting that the atheists he keeps encountering who are so certain we can’t reliably claim to know Jesus even existed, are driven to that certainty by actually having found out all those things. And more.
Both Williams and Corey wish their readers a Merry Christmas…mistakenly thinking Jesus—even the mythical one of the Gospels, much less any historical one there may have been—has anything at all to do with Christmas anymore. That ship sailed over a hundred years ago. I’m quite happy to wish you all a Merry Christmas, too! Because I know Christmas is to Christ, like Saturday is to Saturn and Thursday to Thor. Because I know everything we actually value and do that is Christmas—the spirit of it, the aesthetic of it—is now totally, charmingly, secular. We don’t need to defend a historical Jesus to love Christmas and make everything good out of it, any more than we need to defend a historical Santa Claus to the same end.