Oh the Irony: Jesus Pre-Existed, but May Not Have Actually Existed

Theology collides with the standards of historical verification

The vast differences between the gospels of Mark and John are a tip-off that the Christian message was confused from the very beginning. How did such divergent depictions of Jesus emerge—and why were they both included in the New Testament? It must have been church politics, which would be no surprise; in Paul’s letters we find references to quarreling and infighting. What a sorry state of affairs, moreover, that most churchgoers today wouldn’t be able to list/discuss the distressing ways in which Mark and John differ.    


I have stated many times that the author of John’s gospel is guilty of theology inflation. That’s what happens when theology imagination runs wild, in the absence of objective evidence about god(s). And in the ancient world there were many mythologies and superstitions available to fuel imaginations.


In Mark’s gospel, Jesus presents himself to be baptized by John—a baptism for the “forgiveness of sins”—and a voice from the sky announces, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) Two of his disciples get the same message in chapter 9, when Jesus is transfigured on a mountaintop in the presence of Elijah and Moses. Soon after his baptism, Jesus begins his preaching, the main focus of which is an apocalyptic message: the kingdom of god is about to arrive, and he urges people to repent to be ready. The coming kingdom was his pressing message. 


Mark doesn’t explain how a peasant from Nazareth ended up playing this role; Jesus just shows up.


John’s theology is altogether different; for example, Jesus was not baptized by John. His Jesus—far from being a Galilean peasant—was present at creation:


“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being….And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  (John 1:1-3 & 14)


This level of theological excess is also found in Colossians 1:15-20. Scholars doubt very much that Colossians was written by Paul, hence this text is undatable:


“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”


Neither John nor the author of Colossians felt the need to explain how they knew all this. Religions have succeeded for millennia because holy men claim to have inside knowledge, based on dreams, visions, direct connections to god(s). Hence Christians have accepted all this theological excess about Jesus—and they have assumed, based on the detailed gospel accounts, that Jesus was indeed a preacher from Nazareth. 


But Robert M. Price demonstrates, in his essay, “Jesus: Pre-Existent

and Non-Existent,” (in the Loftus-Price anthology, Varieties of Jesus Mythicism: Did He Even Exist), that overblown theology is stranded, isolated from history. The super confidence that Jesus pre-existed—depicted in such florid terms—is deflated if we cannot find hard evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was real, that he actually existed in the real world.  


In my article here last week, I drew attention to Richard Carrier’s 2018 essay, Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan Guys. Get Over it


Price discusses this phenomenon as well. 


“In ancient New Eastern monarchies, the divine mandate of the king was renewed annually at the New Year Festival…The end of the year marked the exhaustion of vegetation, and this signified the ebbing of divine favor because of the sins of the people during the year just past.” (p. 296) The ritual included the king being abused and pretending to be defeated, “then rise up victorious.”


“The king was miming the primordial victory whereby the young warrior god (Yahweh, Baal, Marduk, and farther afield, Indra, Zeus, and Odin) had engaged the Chaos Dragon (Leviathan, Rahab, Lotan, Mot, Yamm, etc.) in combat, only to be first slain, then devoured, and finally resurrected, often by the help of his consort.” (p. 296)


“Subsequently, in the Hellenistic age, these agricultural rituals evolved into cults of mystical initiation and spiritual rebirth…Mythicists (and other critical New Testament scholars who do not go quite so far) suggest that the Christian savior Jesus began as one of these deities (or was at least remodeled in their likeness by Christian converts from competing Mystery Religions who brought some of their familiar beliefs with them). Given the many striking similarities, it seems hard to deny that Jesus either began as a dying-and rising Mystery cult savior or became one.” (p. 297)


This complex mixture of mythologies and superstitions from which Christianity emerged is not mentioned from the pulpit; nor is it discussed in Sunday School and catechism classes. Curiosity about Christian origins is not encouraged—primarily I suppose, because “why bother”—and because there is so much dangerous information available. It becomes so easy to see that Christianity is derivative. And true curiosity should prompt the faithful to wonder how in the world the authors of John’s gospel and Colossians came up with their inflated theologies about a Galilean peasant preacher—if indeed the gospels are based on a historical person.  


There are two brief sections in this essay that deserve attention especially, “Disconnecting the Christ,” and “Scripture’s Christ.” Price notes that several of the features of the Jesus story—among the favorite gospel episodes—


“…are also to be found in the stories of Cyrus the Great, Caesar Augustus, Plato, and Alexander the Great, and these were certainly real historical individuals. Might not Jesus, too, have been a real figure in history? If the others accumulated barnacles of legend on their historical hulls, why not Jesus? The difference turns out to be significant. These others are widely attested as having been integral to world-historical events. To remove them would leave gaping, unfillable holes in the historical fabric. But Jesus is in no way tied securely to the events or figures of the lifetime the gospels assign to him.” (p. 301, emphasis added)


Faithful churchgoers who, year after year, decade after decade, are told that the gospels are reliable stories about Jesus are immune to the fact that Jesus is in no way tied securely to the events or figures of the lifetime the gospels assign to him. They are not taught, encouraged to question everything. They are not prompted to wonder, to ask, “Where did this episode come from?” Isn’t “it’s the gospel truth” good enough? No, of course not. They do not appreciate the total lack of contemporaneous documentation—that is, letters, diaries, transcripts—by which the stories and teachings of Jesus could be verified. In fact, if they came across so many of the Jesus stories in other contexts, with names and places changed, they would not take them seriously at all. They are conditioned to be okay with religious fantasy literature. Price notes especially the episode of Jesus hauled before Pilate:


“…the scene is drastically out of character for the historical Pontius Pilate, whose anti-Jewish atrocities are well described by both Josephus and Philo. It is flat-out impossible for Pilate to have lifted a finger to save Jesus, much less for him to have caved before the intimidations of a crowd of nameless rabble in the streets. And to release a convicted anti-Roman insurrectionist instead? Nonsense.” (p. 302)


“Perhaps the most powerful reason to classify Jesus with Mithras and Krishna as complete fiction is that virtually every gospel episode is more naturally accounted for as a Christian reworking of older materials, most drawn from the Old Testament, though some from Homer and even Josephus.” (p. 302) Important homework here: Robert Price’s book, The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems (2001), in which he offers many examples of gospel episodes derived from Old Testament stories; and four books by Dennis MacDonald: The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (2000); Luke and Vergil: Imitations of Classical Greek Literature (2014); The Gospels and Homer: Imitations of Greek Epic in Mark and Luke-Acts (2014); The Dionysian Gospel: The Fourth Gospel and Euripides (2017). Also check out Robert Conner’s Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story. The gospel resurrection accounts abound with contradictions and fantasy elements, and Conner draws attention to their similarities to ghost folklore in the ancient world. He notes, moreover, the truly bizarre part of the story: no one actually saw Jesus


There seems to be zero awareness among Christian laity that Jesus studies—in Christian academia—have been in turmoil for decades because even devout scholars have not achieved anything like consensus on methodologies that can be used to determine which gospel stories might actually be grounded in history. Indeed, these scholars do question everything, trying to find out if there is a way to verify Jesus stories. 


And it is especially frustrating that Christian apologists do their best to divert and disguise the problems. Robert Price is blunt:


“…it seems to me, from reading many, many works of apologetics over four decades, and from publicly debating many apologists, that they defend their Jesus as ineffectually as the disciples did in Gethsemane, wielding the paper swords of special pleading and question begging. They pretend to be objective scholars but are in fact spin doctors for an institution in which they have far too much invested to ever seriously reconsider the issues.” (p. 305)





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.


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