God Failed to Make the Case for Jesus

 There’s too much fake news and bad theology in the New Testament

There’s a fun song from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, that always brings to mind the task of Christian apologists: “A Policeman’s Lot Is Not a Happy One.” How can apologists be happy about their lot, having to defend the faith—having to strain so hard—against increasingly heavy criticisms, against so much evidence that falsifies the faith? For centuries there has been the internal warfare, i.e., Catholic apologists have had to argue with Protestant apologists, explaining why their version of Christianity is the right one. Protestant apologists return the favor. Within Protestantism itself, there’s just as much struggle: Southern Baptist apologists must explain why their worship and piety are right—while the Episcopalians get so much wrong.


With the rise of science, apologists faced an entirely different challenge: so much in Christianity is out of sync with new understandings of how the Cosmos works—and where we are, on a Pale Blue Dot, lost in space. The god of the Bible, hovering close overhead, was nowhere to be found as very smart humans scanned the heavens with telescopes and satellites. Apologists have had to put a spiritual spin—sometimes a real stretch—on items in the Bible and in their creeds that can no longer be taken literally. Correction: cannot be taken seriously.   


Then, a couple of centuries ago, historians began scrutinizing the Bible as they would other documents from the ancient world. They realized that the gospels don’t qualify as history; these tales of Jesus overflow with miracle folklore, fantasy, and magical thinking. Even devout New Testament scholars cannot agree on a methodology for separating fact from fiction in these stories. Liberal apologists again attempt to put a spiritual spin on gospel stories they know full well can’t have happened, e.g., Jesus healing blindness with spit and mud. Evangelical apologists stick up for these stories as actual miracles, and have to explain how these Christian miracles are real, in contrast to similar miracles claimed by other ancient cults. I wonder if some apologists, weary of all this defense of make-believe, aren’t tempted to find other careers. 


And it’s getting worse. There are now serious scholars who argue that Jesus might not have existed at all. They suspect that, beneath the layers of folklore and fantasy in the gospels, there’s nothing real: the Jesus depicted in the gospels is a historicized mythical figure. After all, that has happened quite a few times in the history of religion and fable. Here, of course, apologists appear to have the “weight of history” on this side, as well as the momentum of 2,000 years of church proclamation. “Don’t be silly,” apologists declare, knowing full well that the consensus of secular historians is that Jesus was a real person. But this consensus is based on the assumption that New Testament scholars are firmly grounded in reality. These devout scholars may have a strong Jesus-bias—after all, he’s their lord and savior—but surely their credentials as historians guarantee their work. Apologists have been successful in selling their claim that Jesus mythicists—those who argue that Jesus didn’t exist—are a fringe, crank group. 


That’s becoming an increasingly tough sell, however, because it’s hard to hide the lack of evidence. Valerie Tarico certainly is no crank, and her 2017 blog post—co-written with David Fitzgerald—illustrates just how feeble the case for Jesus is: Evidence for Jesus Is Weaker Than You Might ThinkThe monumental 2014 book by Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (600 pages, 392 Amazon customer reviews, 84%, 5 Stars), provides thorough documentation that Jesus academicians have failed to deliver what they claim, i.e., verifiable information about Jesus. Last year, an anthology edited John W. Loftus and Robert M. Price was published: Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Did He Even Exist?


In one of the essays, “Chapter 15: A Rejoinder to James McGrath’s Case for Jesus,” Neil Godfrey analyzes the efforts of McGrath to defend the historicity of Jesus. Most laypeople, we can be sure, are puzzled that the topic is up for debate: “Just open the gospels, the history of Jesus is right there!” They are not aware that Jesus studies have been in turmoil for decades, precisely because the gospels, having been written decades after the death of Jesus, cannot be trusted. At the end of John’s gospel we find the claim that “…this is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24), and the author of Luke’s gospel tells his readers that the reported events “…were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses…” (1:2) Full stop: any novelist can make such claims, and authors of religious propaganda specialize in such bragging. Historians have noted for a long time that there is no contemporaneous documentation of any kind to validate any of the word or deeds of Jesus. No letters, diaries, transcripts, Roman government records. 


So what are the defenders of Jesus to do? McGrath finds it hard to believe that the early Christians would have invented the story of a messiah descended from David who ended up getting crucified. How would anyone be won over to the new faith with such a story? The messiah was supposed to be triumphant. Wouldn’t his ignominious death have been a turnoff? Hence the story—so much cognitive dissonance—would not have been invented. But this ignores the apostle Paul’s interpretation of events. Godfrey points out that Paul, quoting Psalm 110 and 8 in 1 Corinthians 15, embraces the messianic role of Jesus: “Paul makes it clear that Jesus has fulfilled that Davidic hope by orders of magnitude.” (Kindle, page 355)


But then the death was followed by resurrection, which reversed the bad part of the story, as Godfrey notes: “What was being preached was that Jesus, through death and resurrection, had become the ultimate fulfilment of the all-powerful and cosmos-ruling Davidic Messiah. Admittedly it might have been difficult to persuade many people that the crucified Jesus was the messiah, but Paul was never a witness to Jesus and was able to persuade others of his belief in Jesus’ victory over death nonetheless.” (Kindle, pp. 355-356)


Moreover, “…the Davidic Messiah is ruling from heaven with everything, even the future and death itself, under control. What is appealing and persuasive is the story as we read it: apostles witnessing the risen Jesus and accounts of preaching backed up by miracles. But whether the story is grounded in ‘history’ is another question.” (Kindle, p. 357)


Once the Christian propagandists came up with “death itself being under control,” who would have cared that the messiah had been crucified? Nor would there have been much worry if any real history was at the core of the story. Neither was that Paul’s concern, as Godfrey notes: “The first believer we have on record boasts that his belief came about entirely through visions and revelation in Scripture and from that foundation he made converts. Only decades later does a ‘fleshed out’ story in our gospels, set in a time and place no longer accessible to most readers, emerge.” (Kindle, p. 358)


Yes, that’s the problem with the gospels: set in a time and place no longer assessable—to people who want to find out that actually happened. 

McGrath hopes to find an ally in Paul, i.e., the famous text in Galatians 1:18-19, in which he writes, “Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days, but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother.” Doesn’t that settle it? If Paul met Jesus’ brother, then clearly Jesus really did exist. There has been substantial scholarly discussion of this text, for several reasons. Cephas here means Peter, and it has been so tempting to think of the Peter as described in the gospels—but the stories of that Peter hadn’t been invented yet. If Paul had spent fifteen days with that Peter, why don’t we find many references to the gospel stories in Paul’s letters? How come Paul never mentions the Empty Tomb on Easter morning—wouldn’t Peter have been eager to share that story? Something is seriously off here. 

There has been much discussion as well of the meaning of “the Lord’s brother.” Is this a reference to a biological brother, or does this mean a brother in the inner circle of the early followers of Jesus? Godfrey quotes scholar R. Joseph Hoffmann who is not a mythicist, but is not much swayed by this text as evidence for Jesus: “In the light of Paul’s complete disregard of the ‘historical’ Jesus, moreover, it is unimaginable that he would assert a biological relationship between James and ‘the Lord.’”  (Kindle, p. 361)  

It’s probably not smart to rely heavily on Galatians 1:19 as evidence for a real Jesus, because it’s hard to establish that this verse was actually what Paul wrote. That is, there could very well have been tampering with the text by copyists. Godfrey quotes A.D. Howell Smith (from his 1942 book, Jesus Not a Myth): “There is a critical case of some slight cogency against the authenticity of Galatians 1:18-19, which was absent from Marcion’s Apostolicon…” (Kindle, p. 363) For an another in-depth discussion of this text, by the way, see Chapter 9 of Richard Carrier’s Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ.

New Testament scholars—McGrath included—who are impressed with the extensive mass of details about Jesus in the gospels, are confident that a real person must be there somewhere. And there has been so much speculation about what bits, what fragments of Jesus-script, can be considered authentic. There must be some, right? Godfrey quotes historian Donald Akenson:

“It is appropriate to discuss the questions of when specific [New Testament] texts were written, how the early versions were stacked together, and what their dates of origin may be, and how these matters of dating relate to early Christianity and to the questions of the ‘historical Jesus’…from the viewpoint of a professional historian, there is a good deal in the methods and assumptions of most present-day biblical scholars that makes one not just a touch uneasy, but downright queasy.”  (Kindle, p. 369)

Godfrey also notes the problems of verifying any ancient histories, e.g., those of Rome. He quotes Moses I. Finley:

“Where did the [ancient historians] find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit—irrespective of possible reliability—we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated.”  (Kindle, p. 370)

“…ultimately by pure invention…” Which is what so much in the gospels looks like. “With Jesus,” Godfrey says, “there are no sources independent of Christianity itself.” Which is a gentler way of saying: no sources independent of the propaganda pieces written to promote the early Jesus cult. 

Doesn’t this add to the incoherence of Christian theology? There is so little in the New Testament that we can trust—the gospels are bad enough, leaving aside the egregiously bad theology of the apostle Paul. If the Christian god wanted a story of Jesus that would stand the test of time, couldn’t he have foreseen the time—since he’s all-knowing—when serious historians would come along and be justifiably suspicious that the Jesus stories look far too much like fairy tales?

Why couldn’t god have assured that there would be a substantial paper trail, i.e., really thorough documentation by which to verify the words and deeds of Jesus? What we have looks far too sloppy! No wonder there is growing suspicion that there might not have been a real Jesus underneath the gospel presentation of events. If these texts were divinely inspired, it looks like god fell down on the job.   




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here


Please support us at DC by commenting on and by sharing our posts, or subscribing, donating, or buying our books at Amazon.