Who Was Jesus? Lunatic, Liar, Failed Prophet, Cynic, Sage, Celestrial Being...

Over at The Secular Frontier John MacDonald singled me out for my journey from someone who previously believed Jesus was the Son of God, to thinking he was a failed apocalyptic prophet, to taking an agnostic stance on the question, ending up as a Jesus mythicist. At the international conference on the historical Jesus, put on by GCRR, I had summed up my recent journey, saying:
I have resisted taking a stand on Jesus Mythicism, arguing instead that, “At best Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet.” Halfway position. Not so sanguine now. I have since changed my mind. For a few years I embraced agnosticism. I have now established myself enough to take a stand on this issue. At what point can we say all traces of any real Jesus are gone, and that they’re gone because he never existed as a real person in the first place? We have to work with what we have, not what we hope will be discovered. What we can conclude is that whatever traces of a human being we might find behind the ancient tales of Jesus, at best they are indistinguishable from him not existing at all. Any real Jesus is therefore an unnecessary figure we can do without. That’s good enough when it comes to god and science. It’s good enough here. See: SOURCE.
Many atheists are changing their minds on the historical nature of Jesus, but MacDonald singled me out even though I have never argued for the mythicist viewpoint. I guess he wanted my attention. Okay, hi John! I hope 2023 is a good year for you! That being said, since I've never argued on behalf of my current viewpoint, I'm not going to argue with MacDonald either. Nonetheless, I want to refer everyone to the influence of the authors in my co-edited book with Robert M. Price, Varieties of Jesus Mythicism.

In addition to those authors there's the influence of Richard Carrier. In the first place he convincingly shows the book of Acts is fiction. In the New Testament that book is supposed to connect readers of Paul and the gospels to the 1st century historical church, and it fails, miserably. His talk in 2015 was significant for me. Carrier also wrote a significant recent essay, How We Can Know 1 Clement Was Actually Written in the 60s AD, which leads readers to question what we know about early church history itself, apart from the book of Acts. That essay puts all traditional timelines up for questioning and debate. So readers can understand my current view, especially if you read Bart Willruth's 2 Part essay, Reassessing Paul's Timeline. If Willruth's essay was available before we published our Jesus Mythicism anthology, I would've included it. Willruth says:
Robert Price, in his book "The Amazing Colossal Apostle" suggests that Paul's letters date from the late first century CE to the second century CE. While we differ on where to assign a re-dating of Paul, we both recognize that there is no reason to hold to traditional dating. In his post, "How do we know the Apostle Paul Wrote His Epistles in the 50's AD", Richard Carrier acknowledges that "I don’t consider this matter as settled as mainstream scholars do. Paul’s Epistles do fit remarkably well in the 50s B.C."
Willruth argues "we have enough reason to point to Paul's probable timeline of letters in the 40's -30's BCE." Then says, "If this chronology is correct, Paul would never have heard of Jesus of Nazareth and couldn’t have been writing to Christians as we would recognize them." He concludes:
I would submit this paradigm for further examination; that Paul’s letters, perhaps in mixed pages, sat unused for decades. They were then discovered at some point up to the time of Marcion ca 144 CE, who found the teachings useful, in the milieu of Hellenized Judaism, to fully divorce his movement from Yahweh and the Jewish scriptural tradition; he would have been countering the emergence of Rabbinical Judaism with its internalization of the law, and he found in Paul’s letters, the identity of a new god of mercy and love, with all the arguments in place to show the error of Torah adherence. In opposition to Marcion, the proto-orthodox party likely edited those Pauline letters and created a new biography and context for Paul (Acts) which placed him into the paradigm of Christianity superseding Judaism but remaining a part of the continuum of the Jewish revelation.
Must I embrace one particular version of Jesus mythicism, before I can be a Jesus mythicist? I think not. I reject the traditional Jesus belief we find in the four canonical gospels and in the letters believed to be from Paul. THAT Jesus did not exist! Period. I'm first and foremost a Jesus mythicist of that version of Jesus. Every atheist and agnostic is a Jesus mythicist in that same respect too. No one needs to put forth an alternative version of the original mythicist Jesus before being known as a Jesus mythicist.

So why the bickering and the in-fighting between atheists and agnostics over this question? Much of it has to do with chest thumping: "I know more than you do, na na na boo boo!" It's also somewhat about playing to a particular audience, a Christian one. Christians choose who to debate, just as surely as a reigning debater chooses whom he'll debate. So some of this chest thumping is the attempt to sound reasonable to that audience. Otherwise, this question would be discussed reasonably and dispassionately.

To put it into perspective, there are a number of alternative suggestions for how the Jesus belief originated. If we were to compare any of them--the ones in our anthology, along with several others--they are far and away eminently more reasonable than the traditional "historical" Jesus we find in the canonical gospels. Again, any reasonable version of Jesus that does not accept the traditional view, where Jesus was born from a virgin, blah blah, and blah blah, are more reasonable than the traditional one. Period.

Oh, and one final thingy. While I think Jesus mythicism is justified by the lack of evidence, I never did a Bayesian calculation on that hypothesis. So I never assigned any probability to it. I take it the agnostic view would be represented by a 45% to 55% probability (no agnostic stays exactly on 50% all of the time). So if I were to come up with my own probability, even after reading what MacDonald wrote, it would be somewhere around a 60-65% chance that Jesus is a mythical creation. That means I'm about 5% to 10% off from being an agnostic on the question whether there was a historical figure who formed the basis of the Jesus we find in the New Testament. There are no black or whites with me. How about you? Keep in mind, any imagined, fictional, or mythical Jesus has to include some understanding of a specific human person, or a conglomerate of human persons.


John W. Loftus is a philosopher and counter-apologist credited with 12 critically acclaimed books, including The Case against Miracles, God and Horrendous Suffering, and Varieties of Jesus Mythicism. Please support DC by sharing our posts, or by subscribing, donating, or buying our books at Amazon. As an Amazon Associate John earns a small amount of money from purchases made from Amazon. Buying anything through them helps fund my work here, and is greatly appreciated!