Suppose They Found PROOF Jesus Existed

What difference would it make?

Most laypeople are probably stumped at the claim that there is no proof that Jesus existed. How can that be? If you get yourself to Israel you can visit the places where Jesus was born and baptized. Catholics know about the relics of Jesus, e.g., fragments of the cross, thorns from the Crown of Thorns—even the foreskin of Jesus is venerated: “At various points in history, a number of churches in Europe have claimed to possess Jesus’s foreskin, sometimes at the same time. Various miraculous powers have been ascribed to it.” (Wikipedia)

And, of course, what about the gospels? What better proof than these four epic stories of Jesus? For a long time the gospels were cherished as precious eyewitness accounts: they place Jesus at a specific time and place, and mention known historical figures. Surely, moreover, they are guaranteed by “divine inspiration.”

But the gospels are literary creations, with too many mistakes to trust the inspiration hypothesis. Biblical archaeologists have sensed it would be good to have something more tangible than stories. For a long time they have been digging in the holy land, hoping to come up with artifacts that could attach Jesus—beyond any reasonable doubt—to history. The ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, for example, have been identified. Although it dates from the second century, perhaps this was also the site of the synagogue where Jesus preached (Mark 1:21). But so far, no plaque has turned up noting his appearance: “Here Jesus of Nazareth stood and preached.”

If an artifact of this kind were discovered—Aha! Proof a last!”—how would that help? It would, so to speak, break the curse that Bart Ehrman has noted:

“In the entire first Christian century Jesus is not mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher, or poet. His name never occurs in a single inscription, and it is never found in a single piece of private correspondence. Zero!”

Ehrman has stood his ground against mythicist scholars; he is sure that Jesus existed, despite this silence in the contemporary records. The gospels depict Jesus as wildly popular, drawing huge crowds from many regions, and being welcomed triumphantly in Jerusalem. But there’s no hint of any of this in records made at the time. To put it bluntly: Jesus is not there where he’s supposed to be. Hence a confirming artifact—a plaque that Jesus had visited the Capernaum synagogue—would be a big deal. Provided it could be dated, definitively, to the mid-first century.

And while the faithful could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing for sure that Jesus did walk the earth, what difference would it really make? Artifacts confirm events and personages, they confirm what people believed, but they do not confirm theology—the truth of those beliefs.

Which brings us to major issues with the New Testament. The puzzlement that Jesus is not mentioned in first century records is matched by another puzzlement: Jesus, the wildly popular itinerant preacher, master of parables and miracle worker, is also missing from the earliest New Testament writings, i.e., the epistles.

The epistles, especially those of the apostle Paul, focus on the theology of crucifixion and resurrection, but betray little interest in what Jesus himself was like—what he said and did. How is this not strange? Scholars who cherish the gospels—and we’ll consider those documents shortly—pin their hopes on reliable oral tradition that supposedly was in circulation. That is, they assume that, for decades, there were stories about Jesus—preserved with dead accuracy, no less—making the rounds in various Christian communities.

If this is the case, why are details about Jesus conspicuously absent from the epistles? Paul never mentioned the empty tomb, for example; he showed no awareness of the parables and miracles of Jesus. Why didn’t someone who was so well travelled in the early Christian world learn of these from oral tradition? Based on what he wrote in Romans 13, Paul doesn’t even seem to have been aware that Jesus was executed by Romans authorities. And this is an embarrassment: Mark’s account of the Eucharist appears to be based on Paul’s account in I Corinthians 11—which Paul brags that he got directly from the Lord, i.e., from his visions.

Yes, a genuine first-century Jesus artifact would anchor him to the context claimed by Christian tradition, but we still would be at a loss to explain why the earliest New Testament writings show so little interest in the ministry of Jesus—in fact, so little awareness of it.

Unless…we grant that the authors had no interest in history; they were under the spell of theology. Once it had been worked out that a resurrected god—by no means a rare belief in the ancient world—was a key to securing eternal life, then theology was all that mattered:

“What Jesus did no earth was irrelevant to what he could do for you now that he was exalted to the highest throne of heaven, and it was the heavenly Jesus that was sold to the masses, not some dead carpenter from Galilee.” (p. 57, Richard Carrier, The End of Christianity, edited by John Loftus)

Mythicist scholars argue, moreover, that the absence of the earthly Jesus in the epistles advances their argument that an earthly Jesus wasn’t there at all—which would also explain his absence in the contemporary records. The gospel writers were theologians, just as much as the authors of the epistles, but they—as storytellers—used that format to advance the same agenda.

Do not minimize this admission near the end of John’s gospel (20:31):

“But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

This is a confession of the propagandist agenda, and has been noted by scholars for a long time. In his 1935 book, Jesus, Charles Guignebert, professor of Christian history at the Sorbonne, wrote:

“It was not the essence of Jesus that interested the authors of our Gospels, it was the essence of Christ, as their faith pictured him. They are exclusively interested, not in reporting what they know, but in proving what they believe.”

“…exclusively interested, not in reporting what they know…”

We are justified in suspecting that they knew very little about Jesus. There is no evidence they had access to “reliable oral tradition,” and by the time the gospels were written, Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans. Very few eyewitnesses to Jesus-events would still have been alive. It’s no wonder that the gospel writers do not name their sources; not even Luke—don’t be deceived that he postures as a historian at the opening of his gospel. And John’s author, who wrote 70 to 80 years after the death of Jesus, went so far as to invent a disciple unknown to the synoptic authors. This is a nice try, and worth a good laugh (John 21:24):

“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.”

Of course, propagandists assure readers they’re telling the truth.

It’s not hard for laypeople to see what the gospel writers were up to—but it requires determination and savvy. The church has always advised, “Don’t look too closely”—encouraged by the apostle Paul’s contempt for thinking (I Corinthians 1:20-21):

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”

Just believe, i.e., turn off curiosity and skepticism.

This can be an adventure: go through the gospels on the lookout for items that betray their fantasy origins: the voice of a god coming from clouds; the garment of a holy hero cures a woman; a paralytic suddenly is able to walk because a holy hero forgives his sins; a mentally ill man is cured when the holy hero transfers his demons into pigs; the holy hero glows on a mountaintop while he chats with long-dead holy heroes; the holy hero can perform voice-activated resurrections, change water into wine, walk on water, and make a storm disappear by shouting at it.

If laypeople can escape the tutelage of priests and preachers—and just say No to the apostle Paul’s mindless advice—they know very well that, if they come across these story elements in comic books, Disney animations, sci-fi epics, world folklore and fairy tales—or Harry Potter, they can enjoy them as fantasy, but should wonder how in the world they’re expected to take them seriously in religion.

This brings us back to the problem of the gospels; they are the only documents that tell us about Jesus, and are woefully inadequate. They suffer from precisely the same problem as Jesus-holy-sites in Israel and the countless relics: there is no verifying documentation. So even if a dramatic Jesus-artifact were discovered, we’re still stuck with this fantasy literature, heavily weighted with theology, much of it pretty bad (see my articles, “Who the Hell Hired Matthew to Write a Gospel?” and “Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot”).

After plowing through the gospels to make lists of the fantasy stuff, there’s more homework to do. We know how the gospel writers created their stories, in the absence of real information. They scoured the Old Testament and other ancient literature for ideas, and used their imaginations.

See, for example:

• Robert Price, The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems
• David Chumney, Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts
• Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions
• Robert Conner, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story
• Dennis MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark

I actually prefer the gospels as the battleground. Trying to get Christians to study the issues that prompt doubt that Jesus was a real person—well, usually they won’t hear of it, since everyone knows that Jesus existed, except for a few mean-spirited atheists!

So I’m happy to back out of that debate. Let’s return to the gospels—even take them at face value, if that’s the way they want to play the game. How shall we start? The very first verse of Mark, first gospel written, contains an error—and it all goes downhill from there.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here. A brief video description of the Library is here.