With Easter coming, some people are debating whether the resurrection of Jesus really happened. Others are debating whether Jesus was even real.
In ten years of writing for news and opinion sites, my most popular article about religion was one titled, “Five Reasons to Suspect Jesus Never Existed
.” The article emerged from a conversation with history writer David Fitzgerald
and was based on his book, Nailed.
Fitzgerald holds the controversial perspective that the figure of Jesus at the heart of Christianity is historicized mythology
, meaning that the original kernel was a set of ancient religious tropes or myths that got historical details added as they were told and retold by people who believed them to be real.
By contrast, best-selling New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman
(and most secular historians and mainline Christian theologians) argue that an actual radical rabbi provided the kernel of the stories, but that accounts of his life then got overlaid with fragments of mythology drawn from Judaism and surrounding religions. In other words, they hold that the Bible stories are mythologized history.
The third perspective, of course, is that held by many (though not all) Christians—that the gospel stories are gospel truth.
Outsiders can debate all they want
, but Christians need
to believe that Jesus was real, and defenders of the faith line up a series of proofs that they claim settle the question. Now Fitzgerald has produced a three-volume set, Jesus: Mything in Action,
in which he tackles those proofs one by one and then lays out how Christianity could have emerged even in the absence of a historical Jesus.
Tarico: What first made you wonder if, perhaps, Jesus never existed?
Fitzgerald: It’s funny; for the first thirty-five years of my life, the very idea that there might not
have been a real Jesus never occurred to me. Ironically enough, it wasn’t until I became curious to know what Jesus really said and did that I began to seriously look at our evidence for Jesus. That‘s when the doubts set in. At first, I just wanted to figure out which parts of the gospels were later legendary add-ons. Over time I became increasingly convinced that Jesus himself is a completely mythical figure of the early Christians. That led me to write Nailed
Tarico: What are a couple of the key points that took you from that first wild, trippy thought—Whoa, what if Jesus never existed?—to your current position, that he probably didn’t.
Fitzgerald: Honestly, I’d put it even more strongly than that – now, I actually can’t see how there even could
have been an actual Jesus. The first red flag for me was realizing just how little evidence actually holds up to inspection at all. Another was seeing how differently Christians talked about Jesus before and after the gospels were written. And then there’s the general level of bluff and bluster and just ridiculously overstated claims of Christian biblical scholars. The closer you look into Jesus, the more the cracks in his story keep appearing.
Tarico: Since writing Nailed, you have spent several years amassing evidence in support of your argument. Why?
Fitzgerald: Just to be clear; it’s not my
argument – many of these ideas aren’t even new. Critics have been pointing out some of these problems since the first and second centuries. Nailed
laid out the top ten ways the official story of Christianity just doesn’t hold water. For the most part, I’m incredibly pleased and gratified that the book has been so well-received by the secular community. But I was quite surprised by the reaction from some atheists. It wasn’t that they just disagreed or thought I was wrong; that’s not special. It was the ferocity with which they insisted there WAS a Jesus and it was crazy nonsense to think otherwise. So I wrote Jesus: Mything in Action
to answer my fellow atheists who think we have good reason to accept that Jesus was at least a real person, if not the Son of God. Spoiler alert: We don’t.
Tarico: Why do you think there is so much resistance among non-believers to the idea that the person of Jesus could be a composite or a religious myth? Obviously, someone like Bart Ehrman would say that it’s because the evidence is against you.
Fitzgerald: I think there are several reasons, including the reaction I had when I first developed this growing realization: Hmmm… I’m starting to think this guy never existed… at all!
The idea blew my mind; I couldn’t get my head around it. How could we have this gargantuan, feuding Christian world if there had never been a Jesus? And I suspect for many atheists, such a jaw-dropping notion raises the same alarms they get when they see crackpots talking about Atlantis or Bigfoot being real, or the moon landings being fake. To be fair, there are
several Jesus myth theories that are just nonsense (for instance, the idea that Christianity was invented by the Romans as social control.)