I have heard quite a few questions about Jesus lately, and always respond that I'm not convinced of the fellows existence to the consternation of many. I've thought about writing a little myTake about this a lot lately but kept putting it off. I finally finished reading through Dr. Carrier's peer-reviewed book, On The Historicity of Jesus, Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. I would highly recommend this book if you wanted the best argument for the non-existence of Jesus, but I'll just give a very brief discussion on some of the more prominent arguments for Jesus' existence that do not convince me and explain why so I don't have to keep writing the same thing each time.
It is important to clarify that the discussion here is not about the magical Jesus that changes water into wine and meets kings etc. This is about the various historical Jesus' posited. Also, whether or not some historical Jesus exists doesn't bother me either way, I just found this topic interesting.
Authentic Paulean Epistles
The paulean epistles are widely regarded to be the earliest writings of the New Testament being written within 30-50 years of Jesus' supposed death. Historians will point out that this is pretty rapid, and is the best evidence for early christian belief. If the epistles say that Jesus was historical then it's most likely that he was. People who promote the historical Jesus will point to two passages as evidence for a historical Jesus:
This passage is important to the historical position because of verse three in which it says Jesus, "came from the seed of David according to the flesh". The historicist argument is pretty straight forward, if Jesus came from the line of David (genealogy) and was born then he obviously was historical.
My problem with this passage is several fold. First, this is necessary according to Old Testament prophecy. It makes sense for this line to be fabricated because the Messiah needed to come from the line of David. Second, Paul never says here that Jesus was born, had a father, or anything of that nature. Thirdly, Paul uses a very strange word here. When Paul talks about normal human birth he always uses the greek word "gennaô", but here he uses a different word "ginomai". This second word, "ginomai" is never used for human birth and instead appears to mean something more akin to "manufactured" it is the word Paul also uses to describe the manufacture of Adam's body which obviously was made by god and not a natural birth. Later Christians were disturbed by this and we actually have evidence that they tried to change Paul's words to get rid of this problem.
This passage is important to the historical argument because it says, "God sent forth His Son, born [made] of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons". Easily, if Jesus was born of Mary, or any woman then he was a historical person.
Again however, this seems problematic. Firstly, this also has rhetorical or a theological purpose. In order for us to become brothers of the Lord we need to be of the same mother. This is explicitly stated "that we might receive the adoption". Secondly, if the whole chapter is read it appears to be quite obvious that the "woman" being referenced is an allegorical tool. He's not talking about a real woman, but our own sinful nature which breaks the "law". He later in the same chapter explains that he is talking about the bondwoman. Lastly, the word again used here is "ginomai" and not "gennao" which is troublesome for the reasons aforementioned.
Lastly, this passage is also proffered as evidence that Paul believed in an earthly, historical Jesus. The verse in particular that is given is, "But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother." Again, the point is clear, if Jesus had a historical brother, then he obviously was historical.
My issue here is that it isn't as clear as people make it to be. Firstly, we know that Christians utilize fictive kinship language, Paul consistently calls the church "brothers and sisters" and his other writings, ie Galations 4, make clear that all Christians are adopted brothers of the lord. We don't know whether or not Paul is intending to talk about an actual earthly biological brother, or utilizing this kinship language. Secondly, people will often pretend, or perhaps actually think, that this verse says, "James, the brother of Jesus" which may be better evidence for this biological relationship, but he doesn't, he says "Brother of the Lord" which I must say seems like a strange way to write it. Lastly, the context of this passage is that Paul is repeatedly and emphatically stating that he did not receive the message of Christ by men, rather he received it by revelation. In order to provide evidence for this he mentions all the people he met in Jerusalem three years after he had the revelation where he met Peter the apostle, and this other guy, James.
That's it. This is problematic to me. Why would Paul's epistles be so void of the tale of Jesus' earthly life? Why didn't he mention Jesus' disciples? Why didn't he mention Pilate, the Sanhedrin, Jesus' travels, Pilate executing Jesus etc? This seems very strange. Paul also says that the only way he knew, and apparently anyone knew, about Jesus was from revelation. This wouldn't make sense if there was a historical Jesus who proselytized and walked around Judea.
I actually won't go into detail on these because most people acknowledge and admit that they can't be used as evidence, but I'll briefly explain why. The gospels can't be used as evidence because they're quite wildly deliberately fictional, appear to be extended allegories, and contradict each other in many ways. I may speak more about this another day, but I'll just point out that every professor that has studied the subject point out that the methodology utilized to get historical information out of the gospels has shown that they're either fallacious in nature or fallaciously applied.
I'll now address the secular mentions of Jesus that are given and point out why they haven't yet convinced me.
Josephus was a very reliable (for antiquity) "secular" meaning non-Christian Jewish historian who may have made a few references to Jesus 60 years after Jesus' supposed death. The argument of course being that if Josephus, a well known and reliable historian, knew that Jesus existed then he probably existed. There are two specific references pointed out:
James The Brother
"brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James," This passage doesn't seem Josephan at all and the researchers show that parts are likely an interpolation, namely, "the Christ." Josephus, a non-Christian jew, would not call Jesus the Christ. Secondly, Josephus as a reliable historian writing for a non-Jewish audience would have to define what the term "Christ" meant and he never does.
If this phrase is removed then we would simply have "brother of Jesus who's name was James". But which Jesus are we talking about? Josephus at the end of this passage talks about, "Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest" which would make more sense to me.
The Testimonium Flavianum is incredibly problematic. It's fawning over Jesus and strange placement in the text makes no sense as being written by Josephus, this is very obvious, so I'm going to give the whole quote so you can read yourself.
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared
All scholars agree that this portion is an obvious Christian fabrication/ interpolation, but some still try to redeem the passage by saying that while it has been altered, it's likely that there was still some mention to Jesus here. Why? I don't know; however, even if so there's no way to tell what and thus this isn't good evidence to me. Additionally, no one knew about this passage until Eusebius was writing in 324AD, not even the fellow who owned the library before him.
I don't know why, but many people will also talk about Pliny's interrogation of Christians as a proof for Jesus' existence. Pliny had no idea who the Christians were and had no idea what they believed as of 110AD and had to interrogate (torture) the Christians to find out what they believed. He never discusses a historical Jesus, just that they worship Jesus, a god.
This doesn't seem like evidence to me. We know that the gospels were in circulation by this time, and none of these people had met a historical Jesus, they were just reciting various beliefs.
Suetonius & Tacitus
These two passages compliment each other. Suetonius was writing about 20 years before Tacitus, but both reference the persecution of "Christians" during the reign of Nero. Again, this doesn't have anything to do with Jesus, rather it's about "Christians" thus this provides no evidence for Jesus. However, this doesn't even appear to be true. Suetonius told us repeatedly about the rebel Chrestus in 49AD, and says that the followers of Chrestus were in fact expelled. Tacitus' reference to Christians has also been shown (via ultra-violet examination) was actually tampered with and it had originally said Chrestians, not Christians. This seems quite telling to me.
Those are the main arguments, and why I don't find them convincing yet. Here, I'll add two more random ones that seem to come up a lot.
Argument from embarrassment.
This argument is basically, "a dying god would have been incredibly embarrassing to the Jews and it's not a story they would ever come up with." This argument simply doesn't hold water. In fact Isaiah talks about the "suffering servant" and had long been believed to be a messianic prophecy. Additionally, lots of embarrassing religions were really successful at this time, one such example was a religion in which all of the priests had to castrate themselves.
Argument from recency.
This argument is basically, "the gospels were written so quickly after Jesus' death that nay-sayers could easily have decried this and pointed out that in fact he never existed." There are two problems with this. Firstly, that it wasn't that quick and rapid legendary developments can and in fact does happen. The gospels are typically dated to ~70-90AD. Taking the earliest we're still looking at about a 40 year gap in antiquity. This was the average human lifespan back then. The gospel writers (not the disciples, but pretending) were not children when they supposedly met Jesus. They were adults, and to be generous I'll say they were 20. This means that these authors were supposedly 60 (highly unlikely) at the time of writing and anyone who would have met and dealt with Jesus were at the very least 40-50 years old. Not likely to remember or have the ability to write a rebuttal. We also know that rapid legendary development can and does occur. In fact, even today in the information age it only took 30 years for thousands of people to believe that an entire UFO and alien body were recovered at Roswell... Secondly, the Christians were in charge of what information survived the middle ages. They weren't likely to preserve any information that criticized their religion.
Anyway, long one I know, but I tried to be as brief as possible. If you're aware of anything I missed please let me know. Also, if you think my understanding of the ones I mentioned were wrong feel free to call me out. For far better work visit Dr. Carrier's works or site. Thanks for reading!