In discussing my new book with various people, I’ve been told by some that whether Jesus existed or not “doesn’t really matter.” This is, of course, a view held by non-Christians, and from a personal perspective I can see that this may be true. If you already don’t believe that Jesus is divine and aren’t a Christian, then the question of whether or not Jesus was real is purely academic. Even if he was real, from this perspective, it doesn’t change anything about your life or your beliefs. Jesus being real or not doesn’t cause such a person to change their views on God or Christianity.
This may well be true, but the question of Jesus’s existence is still a matter of extreme importance. Firstly I will say that, while the nonexistence of Jesus has many implications, the question has to be answered honestly for its own sake, it cannot be answered with an agenda. By this I mean, we cannot say that if Jesus never existed then it proves Christianity is false, therefore we need to prove that Jesus never existed.
No, that cannot be how this issue is approached. The question of Jesus’s existence has to be approached not with an anti-Christian agenda, but as an earnest effort to understand our history.
So does this question matter? Is it important? Yes, I believe it is vitally important. I believe it is perhaps the single most important question of history. If Jesus did not exist it changes our entire conception of the past and the present and it changes many people’s perception of the future.
The most intriguing question for me is, if Jesus didn’t exist, then how exactly did belief in his existence become so widespread and bring about a revolution in Roman society? This question alone has vast implications. I offer at least a part of the answer in my book. If Jesus didn’t exist then it shows that massive changes were made in Roman society based entirely on misunderstandings. When you understand the scope of the changes that were brought about in the Western world due to Christianity, to think that all of that happened because of “a myth” is astounding. Quite literally the whole of Roman civilization was changed because of this person – Jesus. And if he wasn’t even real???
The question drives directly at the issue of authority, knowledge, leadership and trust. If Jesus wasn’t real then it shows that those in power are just as fallible as anyone else, if, indeed, not more so. Are those in power perhaps more fallible due to their power? And it’s not just those in power, it shows the fallibility of humans in general – to be so overtaken by false claims and beliefs.
The question has to be properly answered if for no other reason than to set the history books straight. Jesus pervades all of Western history, even secular history. The entire timeline of Western history is created relative to the supposed birth of this person. Even secular historians divide time into the period before and after Jesus. The life of this individual is presumed, somehow, to have completely transformed the world, or at the very least the Western world. Even most secular historians take the view that this individual “did something” that “completely changed everything.”
But this goes beyond just setting the historical record straight. If Jesus did not exist then both Christianity and Islam are fundamentally discredited. The legitimacy of Christianity is entirely dependent on the existence of Jesus. Various beliefs of Christianity can be discredited without disproving the existence of Jesus, but Christianity itself is fundamentally discredited without a human Jesus at its core. That is not a reason to disprove the existence of Jesus, but it is a result. If it is widely and academically accepted that Jesus never exited, Christianity as we know it will fundamentally collapse overnight. My motivation for addressing this question is not to cause the collapse of Christianity, but I know that will be the outcome of widespread acceptance of the position that Jesus never existed.
We also have to understand that belief in the existence of a real human Jesus who fulfilled ancient Jewish prophecies is what led to the adoption of ancient Jewish mythology as literal history. It led to the perception that “divine revelation” was a confirmed real phenomenon. It led to the belief in divine creation, the belief in a young earth, belief in the divine supremacy of man over the animal world, confirmation of the the soul, confirmation of life after death, confirmation of divine prophecy, and of course an impending sense of doom with generation after generation of Westerners believing that the end of the world is a welcome event that is just right around the corner. All of this stems from the belief that Jesus was a real person. And while you don’t have to believe that Jesus never existed to see error of these beliefs, proving that Jesus never existed fundamentally discredits all of them.
As I say in my book, proving that Jesus never existed is like showing someone how a magic trick is performed. In India there are supposedly still many people who believe in magic and many charlatans that use magic tricks to deceive people. If a crowd of people watch a charlatan perform a magic trick, and they all believe that “it’s real”, you may be able to convince some of them that it’s not real if you explain to them that such things are impossible and you tell them about scientific principles, and you offer philosophical arguments against the claims of the charlatan, etc. But, if you simply demonstrate to the audience how the trick is done, all of them will immediately recognize that there is no real magic being performed. They will see that “it’s a trick”, and nothing mystical is taking place. In fact, there are organizations in India that travel the country doing just this.
Proving that Jesus never existed does to Christianity what showing someone how a magic trick is done does to the perception of magic. Showing someone how magic is done simultaneously proves that “magic isn’t real” and can also give people a new respect and interest in the art of the performance. Likewise, proving that Jesus was a myth, not a real person, can give people a new appreciation for Jewish and Christian literature, as has certainly been my experience.
I don’t view Christianity as a “trick”, however. I think that the spread of Christianity was much more like the reaction to Orson Welles’ radio performance of The War of the Worlds. I think that a fictional story was perceived to be true and people reacted to that fictional story as if it were true. However, unlike the War of the Worlds incident, the misconception was never rectified, and as a result, large numbers of people, including leadership of the Roman Empire, came to believe that the fiction was literally true.
In this view, the rapid spread of Christianity was a type of mass hysteria that resulted from the spread of the Gospel writings, facilitated by the Roman network of roads. The pre-Gospel worship of Jesus was insignificant, and would likely have died out without notice if not for the writing of the Gospel of Mark, which became a sensation. The widespread adoption of the religion resulted from belief that the Gospel stories were literally true. This is not how most traditional religions developed and spread. The rise of Christianity wasn’t the development of a traditional religion, it was like the spread of a viral video – ancient “fake news”, rapidly shared across the ancient network of Roman roads.
But regardless of how exactly this all happened, determining whether or not a real person was at the root of it is of critical importance. The implications are profound, both academically and culturally. If Jesus didn’t exist then Christianity is discredited, the legal and political weight of Christian conservatives evaporates overnight, opposition to various findings of science become baseless, and the realization that we have to solve our own problems becomes immediately real for millions of people.
We cannot let these implications color our assessment of the evidence, but we also cannot ignore the gravity of the question.