The Myth of the Jesus Myth
Updated: Nov 26, 2019
The skeptics' idea that Jesus was not a historical figure and that the entirety of the Christian faith was a fabrication of man is both ludicrous and has been debunked many times over by many authors, historians and theologians—particularly after Dan Brown's books inundated Western culture. However, the internet has perpetuated this ill-informed position and breathed new life into it, influencing many skeptics' beliefs. In fact, I've even met professing Christians who believe some of the conspiracy myths regarding Jesus, Paul, biblical historicity, and the Council of Nicaea. So I feel it would be beneficial to reiterate historical fact rather than allow internet memes, pop-culture, and word of mouth to cause confusion.
The first issue that I run into is that people have become so distrusting of religion in the West, that they actually doubt even the historical existence of its prominent figures. In their minds, nothing in the holy books of any religion is true—it's all pure fantasy. Of course not all holy books are equal in this regard, but the Bible has lengthy sections of purely historical accounts with very little theological content and many facets of them have been verified by modern archaeology—often to the surprise of the "experts." For example, the city of Petra in modern day Jordan was thought to be "just another biblical myth" until it was discovered in 1812. Many skeptics thought Pontious Pilate to be a mythological figure of biblical lore as well, until archaeological evidence discovered in 1961 proved him to be a real historical figure exactly as scripture described.
Time and time again, archaeology and history have corroborated the biblical account. In fact, currently there are almost zero historians, scholars, or professors of religion who question the fact that Jesus lived and died. Many, many books, papers and articles have addressed the question of the historicity of Jesus—just Dr. Gary Habermas alone has written over twenty scholarly books on the subject of Jesus' historical reality and resurrection (and is currently working on a brand new, nearly 5,000-page tome). Unfortunately, most skeptics are not willing to take the time to do the actual research.
Council of Nicaea Conspiracy
But in more popular variations of the argument, Jesus may have existed but he was just a man whose deity was invented at the now infamous Council of Nicaea. In their minds, Jesus is a giant conspiracy of the Catholic Church and purely a product of the Council of Nicaea (other variations blame the Apostle Paul). There is little support for these myths in the historical record, but sadly they have been retold so many times (Dan Brown of Da Vince Code fame was hardly the first, but he certainly made them more mainstream) that they have become commonly accepted in popular culture.
Many also have long had suspicions that the Catholic church had a strong hand in selecting which books made it into canon and therefore have doubted how reliable the New Testament texts really are. But the reality is that the early church fathers never voted books into the Bible. It was not a democratic process or even a dictated one from the Pope—these early councils simply formally acknowledged the authority of the books already widely accepted in the church as scripture (note that by "scripture" I mean inspired by God—see 2 Ti 3:16 and 2 Pe 1:20-21). We actually have a pretty airtight quality control system of authority as Jesus vouched for the books of the Old Testament as scripture (Mat 5:17-19 et al), His disciples vouched for Him, and those same disciples then either wrote or explicitly endorsed the writings of the New Testament as scripture. The Catholic church came along hundreds of years later and only officially affirmed what was already well established in an attempt to protect established canon from heretical and uninspired writings and teachings.
Paul is often cited as the fly in the ointment here as his writings and theology comprise a large chunk of the New Testament and yet he was not a disciple of Jesus (though technically James and Jude were not of the original disciples either, and it's also doubtful the writer of Hebrews was). It should be noted that even the disciples were skeptical of Paul at first—he had been an infamous leader in the slaughtering of Christians before his conversion experience after all. But not only did they come to respect and accept Paul, but they also acknowledged his authority as an apostle in the church—to the point where he was able to rebuke and correct Peter (Gal 2:11) who was arguably the most prominent of all the disciples (and certainly who the Catholic church claims its Papal authority from). Not only that, but then Peter himself publicly vouched for Paul's writing as scripture.
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. -2 Pe 3:15-16 ESV
Likewise, any argument which posits that the deity of Christ was invented by Paul or the Catholic church has to ignore the well-established historical record in order to maintain their conspiracy theory. The books of the New Testament were written shortly after the resurrection of Christ by multiple eyewitnesses—not just Paul, and not centuries after the fact by the Catholic church. The latest New Testament book written was Revelation (by John, the lone surviving disciple of Jesus by that time) and it was most likely written around 96 AD—over 200 years before the Council of Nicaea.
The deity of Christ was claimed by Jesus Himself (eg: Joh 10:30) and corroborated by the New Testament writers, it was not a foreign concept created at a later date. We know this because we have New Testament manuscripts dating back to the 2nd Century (before Nicaea and before Catholicism) which show there has been no tampering, editing or manipulation of the texts over the last 2,000 years. Furthermore, the Catholic church was not even formed until the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD under Theodosius I (not Constantine)—which was 55 years after the Council of Nicaea. So these conspiracy theories require one to play pretty fast and loose with history.
For a brief, free and easily accessed read specifically regarding the popular myths surrounding the Council of Nicaea, check the following resources out (the second link is particularly damning and conclusive as it references the actual notes and documents produced from the council rather than secondary sources):
carm.org: Myths about the Council of Nicaea
tertullian.org: The Council of Nicaea and the Bible
equip.org: What Really Happened at Nicaea
A second-to-none resource on the historical fact of Jesus and the resurrection is the previously mentioned Dr. Habernas. Below is a short and amazing interview with him which gives a good summary of his strictly historical/empirical arguments:
Conveniently Ignoring Primary Sources
Many Gnostic gospels and pseudopigraphal texts have also been paraded around by skeptics to "prove" their theory. Of course theologians and scholars will show the purported texts to be lacking in credibility (written hundreds of years later than they claim, written by dubious authors, or shown to contradict documented history), but skeptics aren't as much interested in the authenticity or credibility of an ancient text as much as the "scandalous" claims that it makes. Many have gone even further and questioned the authorship of the Gospels themselves trying to discredit them as pseudopigraphal despite the immense amount of evidence of their authenticity. Of course these kinds of arguments are not new—the apostles were dealing with heretical teachings and writings and defending the validity and authority of the scriptures even in the first few years of Christianity.
Muddying the waters even further are the many Islamic scholars that wrote alternative histories of Jesus to retroactively affirm and support Mohammad's often historically incorrect claims made in the Qur'an. These documents are written at least 700 years after the death of Christ by authors with extremely obvious agendas, but nevertheless, skeptics seem to deem them credible and unbiased sources—somehow more credible than the documents written by eyewitness sources shortly after the events actually occurred.
A recent book written that presents old Islamic propaganda as "groundbreaking new research" is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Dr. Reza Aslan who is not a particularly respected Muslim apologist. Essentially, Aslan asserts that Jesus was not the Messiah, but rather a political zealot who wanted to overthrow Rome, declare himself king, and condoned violence to achieve these goals. In other words, Aslan unsurprisingly re-writes history (or rather republishes old spurious Islamic claims) to make Jesus sound a lot like Mohammad. A good review of Aslan's ridiculously unscholarly and ahistorical arguments can be found here.
In the end, controversy and scandal sell, so the idea that Christianity—the world's largest religion—is a farce, is obviously a myth that will have legs and will continue to be sold in various forms until the cows (or Christ) come home. We as believers should recognize the spirit of Antichrist for what it is however and be armed with correct information (see 1 John 2:22, 4:3 and 2 John 1:7).
The Jesus Myth Theory
There are some however, particularly atheists or skeptics found on the internet, who purport that Jesus never existed in history at all and that Christianity and the New Testament are simply rehashed copies of previous religious mythologies. An internet-distributed documentary (now even on Netflix) called Zeitgeist in particular has promoted this falsehood. Of course the film provides no references for its absurd claims, but instead treats them as unassailable facts. If one were to hunt down the sources used for the film, they would find a single book that most of the information was lifted from almost verbatim—The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, which was published in 1999. The book received virtually no attention from either religious or historical scholars but was so horribly researched, it received a scathing review from an atheist New Testament scholar, Robert M. Price, who also doesn't believe Jesus was a historical figure (see footnote #1 from another refutation of the book here). The book was so poorly researched and made such ridiculous claims, it received bad reviews from even casual atheist readers. The Jesus Myth Theory, which both the aforementioned book and documentary promote, claims that the apostles fashioned the story of the Christ after numerous other pagan myths including Horus, Mithras, Attis, Prometheus, Dionysus, Osiris, Buddha and Krishna among others and that all of these myths share common elements such as: 1. They were born on Dec 25th to a virgin 2. A star proclaimed their arrival 3. Three kings came to adore the newborn "savior" 4. They became child prodigy teachers at age 12 5. At age 30 they became "baptized" and began ministry 6. They had 12 disciples 7. They were betrayed 8. They were crucified or killed 9. They were dead or buried for 3 days 10. They were subsequently resurrected I've seen these parallels paraded around on the internet as documented fact and Zeitgeist does as well, but the reality is that the story of Jesus is utterly unique in all of human literature. Once again revisionist history is resorted to in a cheap attempt to discredit and explain away a firmly established historical person. Why such a compelling figure is so consistently attacked is quite curious. But if we were to actually study the myths of each of these pagan characters, we would quickly realize that virtually none of these elements are found in their stories and that often when they are, they were actually written (or edited) after the Gospels, not before. In other words, if any writer was guilty of copying popular themes and ideas, it was the pagan writers lifting them from the pages of scripture, not the other way around. So let's look at a few of the claims and investigate for a moment.
CLAIM: Many pagan precursors to Christ were born on December 25th
The reality of course is that neither the Bible nor any Christian tradition argues that even Jesus was born on December 25th. The date for Christmas was simply chosen to align with existing pagan holidays during the early Roman Catholic church to facilitate an easy Christian transition in the empire, not because anyone believed or argued that to be the actual day Christ was born. Scripture gives no date for Jesus' birth, but a winter season is highly improbable due to the shepherds being with their grazing flocks at the time of the angelic announcement. Furthermore, if you read the actual texts of the pagan myths, virtually none of them record a December 25th date for their protagonists either. Horus was born in either July or August according to tradition, Mithras and Prometheus were never even given a birth date, Attis and Dionysus were born in the spring, Krishna was born somewhere between July 19-21st, while Buddha is said to be born on the 8th day of the 4th month of the Chinese calendar (a roaming date usually in May on a Gregorian calendar). So the claim that all of these prior pagan deities were born on December 25th and Christianity just copied the date for Jesus is patently absurd and lacking in any historical research whatsoever.
CLAIM: Many pagan precursors to Christ were born of a virgin
The next claim of ancient copywrite infringement is that being born of a virgin is a very common theme among holy figures. However if you read the myths in question, you actually don't find that trend anywhere. Isis brought Osirus back from the dead briefly to have sex with him in order to produce Horus, so she is most certainly not a virgin. Krishna was the 8th son born to the princess Devaki and her husband Vasudeva, so definitely no virginity in that story. Dionysus was born a demigod from the mortal mother Semele who was impregnated by Zeus who regularly had sex with many mortal women, so that story is definitely out.
The other myths take a less sexual and more symbolic approach however. Nana was the mother of Attis and the texts do not claim her to be a virgin but they do claim she gave birth after eating the fruit of an almond tree which sprouted out of the blood of either Agdistis or Cybele (depending on the source) which were both hermaphrodite goddesses. So Attis does seem to be an asexually produced being, but it hardly bears any resemblance to the birth story of Jesus. Mithras was born out of solid rock which again is asexual, but it's hard to ascribe virginity to a stone. Buddha might be the closest in this regard as he was said to be conceived asexually when his mother, Queen Mayadevi, had a vision of a white elephant with six tusks entering her side. However she was married to Suddhodana at the time and therefore the texts neither state nor imply virginity. So none of these stories resemble the virgin birth of Jesus whatsoever, nor do they even resemble each other, so claiming they're all essentially the same story copied over and over is pretty ridiculous.
CLAIM: Many pagan precursors to Christ were crucified, buried 3 days and resurrected
Death and rebirth is certainly a popular theme in pagan mythologies, but none of them include crucifixion (practiced by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and then perfected by the Romans), burial for 3 days, and then the resurrection of the same body. Horus never even died, he simply merged with the sun god Ra in later traditions. Mithras also never died in his mythos. Attis was the god of vegetation, so he "died" every winter and was "reborn" each spring, but the seasonal cycle of plants is hardly crucifixion and winter is much longer than 3 days of even symbolic burial. Similarly, Dionysus died each winter and was reborn each spring. Krishna was killed by a hunter who mistook him for a deer with absolutely no mention of a resurrection—though as an offshoot of Hinduism, there is certainly the belief in reincarnation. Buddha died when he was 80 years old of natural causes and while Buddhism also believes in reincarnation, that process is not 3 days long and the new recipient of the life force of the previous being is not even the same person or soul, let alone the same body. So once again, the claim that all of these stories are virtually identical and that the story of Jesus was copied verbatim from them is so poorly researched that it's laughable.
Likewise, nearly every single one of the arguments of the Jesus Myth Theory have been discredited by academics and scholars for a number of reasons, including parallelomania, logical fallacies, revisionist history, misrepresentation or ignorance of the source texts, and the use of false cognates among others. That of course doesn't discourage often smug diatribes from those armed with misinformation however. But as Peter commanded believers to "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15), we should have an informed response to these arguments. Of course we should also do so with gentleness and respect as Peter says in the same passage. For further refutations on the Jesus Myth Theory and the Zeitgeist film, check out these resources:
3. Detailed Agnostic Perspective: Skeptic Project's Point-by-Point Refutation of Zeitgeist Jesus Myth Lies
4. Short Agnostic Perspective: Skeptoid's Background and Worldview Explanation of Ridiculous Zeitgeist Claims 5. The Case for the Real Jesus (book) by Atheist-turned-believer Lee Strobel
Many Roots, Same Fruit
There are many, many people in the Western world who are very skeptical of historical texts in general, and religious texts particularly. Critical Theory has almost entirely taken over higher education and academia, so students are conditioned to develop a highly critical, almost suspicious view of classical works. In that framework, historical works must not be taken at face value, but endlessly reinterpreted through the modern lens of textual criticism. Even Christian colleges and seminaries have fallen into this academic trapping—a well-known saying among seminarians is that seminary is the place “where faith goes to die.” The scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett said it this way, "Anybody who goes through seminary and comes out believing in God hasn’t been paying attention." Indeed some of the most famous and outspoken religious scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, are professing atheists and products of Christian seminaries.
The irony is that the case for a historical Jesus is overwhelming—if we reject the evidence for His existence, we would also have to reject a great multitude of other widely acknowledged historical figures as merely myths and legends. The issue isn't the lack of evidence, the issue is the uncomfortable reality one is faced with in the person of Jesus. So the universal reactionary impulse is to avoid that discomfort by whatever means possible. Whether it's questioning His historical existence, His deity, His miraculous powers, His death, or His resurrection, the purpose remains utterly consistent: rationalize the reality of God in the flesh away. Otherwise you'll have to confront the implications which upend your reality.