In the nineteenth century, some writers (not generally qualified historians) argued that Jesus didn’t actually exist, and the gospels stories are legends. These views were generally discredited in the twentieth century as historians developed better methods of analysing ancient historical information.
But the movement began a resurgence in the latter part of the twentieth century, as the internet helped anybody who wished to publish information and gain an audience. And now the battle between the historians and the ‘Jesus mythicists’ has heated up.
What’s going on?
From disregard to disrespect
For a long time, scholars tended to ignore the Jesus mythicists. They considered their views to be outrageously extreme and unconvincing, and unworthy of even being discussed, let alone refuted. If they spent time refuting everyone they believed to be a crank, this would take time from serious scholarship
Occasionally a scholar would devote a few lines or even a few paragraphs to the matter, but little more. For example, classical historian Michael Grant (Jesus: an historian’s review of the gospels), Mark Powell (The Jesus debate) and Robert Van Voorst (Jesus outside the New Testament) all gave a page or so to the matter.
Meanwhile mythicists like Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Earl Doherty, Acharya S (aka DM Murdoch), Neil Godfrey and Richard Carrier continued to produce books that were generally self-published (critics say because no reputable publisher would do so) and promote their views widely on the internet. None of these are working as historical scholars, and only Carrier has the qualifications to do so.
But the game seemed to change a few months ago when Bart Ehrman published his book length review of the evidence and the mythicist claims, Did Jesus exist?. He pulled no punches, described some of the more extreme mythicists in very unflattering terms, and gave strong arguments against the less extreme claims. Mythicists, for long fans of Ehrman because of his scepticism about christian faith, reacted strongly against the book, and scholars went to Ehrman’s defence. Neither side respected the other’s views, and it seems like the gloves are off.
Ehrman introduced his book in the Huffington Post. I have summarised Ehrman’s arguments briefly in Was Jesus a real person?. Basically, he says that the textual evidence for Jesus is very good by historical standards, and the arguments mythicists use are based on poor historical research and a poor understanding of the period, plus old arguments and evidence that has long since been discredited.
Many mythicists have attacked Ehrman and his book. Perhaps most persistent has been Richard Carrier (here and here and more), to which Ehrman replied here and here. Carrier’s attacks on Ehrman seemed to me to be quite rude (more appropriate for an argument in a pub than a scholarly discussion) often pedantic, and broadly refuted by Ehrman and others. At best, he showed that Ehrman was careless with a few facts. In response, Ehrman was robust but icily polite.
On the historians’ side, some genuine academics (Maurice Casey, James McGrath) and some enthusiastic amateurs, though no less qualified than most mythicists, (e.g. Jonathon Burke and ‘Labarum’) responded also.
Move along, there’s nothing to see here
The whole argument is a little unedifying, but I think it is at least worth knowing about it. But beyond that, I think most of us have better things to do than going into all the details, but some of the key references are here if you want to dive in.
But as a layperson, I have to trust the experts – I don’t have access to the documents, I can’t read the languages and I haven’t studied the culture and history to any depth. And a choice between believing the near unanimous view of thousands of experts versus that of a handful of untrained enthusiasts is really no choice at all. Mythicism is effectively a conspiracy theory that accuses thousands of scholars at hundreds of universities across the western world, and I’m not sure anyone should give it much attention.