Posted: Dec 29, 2022 8:19 am
by RealityRules

Was Jesus a myth?

On December 13, 1881, Abraham Dirk Loman entered the lectern of the Vrije Gemeente in Amsterdam – nowadays the pop temple Paradiso. A mixed audience of theologians and interested laymen was ready to listen to Loman's lecture, which had been announced under the title "The Oldest Christianity." It didn't take long before a commotion broke out in the room. Based on research on the New Testament, focusing on Paul's letters, Loman had concluded that Jesus Christ ("The Anointed One") had never walked the earth, let alone the Sea of Galilee. Jesus Christ was not a historical figure, but a myth. Loman was not a lone caller in the desert. He was part of a group of theologians who would become known as the Dutch Radical School. Among others, Allard Pierson, Willem Christiaan van Manen and Gustaaf Adolf van den Bergh van Eysinga were also part of the club.

In the nineteenth century, Nederland was still a thoroughly Christian country – albeit sharply divided. In addition to the fault line between Calvinism and the Church of Rome, there was another gap, namely that between intellectual biblical criticism and popular belief. For local priests and Christian laity, the message that their savior would be a fabrication was unpalatable; the radicals' findings were kept silent in the grave. Nevertheless, they attracted attention abroad.

In his Geschichte der paulinischen Forschung, Albert Schweitzer praised the Dutch radicals for their critical spirit, which in his view was rather lacking in mainstream theology. And as late as 1996, the German clergyman Hermann Detering published a paper on critical Dutch theologians, followed by an extensive article in the American journal, the Journal of Higher Criticism, entitled 'The Falsified Paul'.

Unfortunately, Detering died at a fairly young age in 2018 – it would have been worthwhile to exchange ideas with him about the Dutch radicals.

It is understandable that in the secularized Netherlands there is no interest in the remarkable history surrounding these theologians. It is different in the United States, where Christianity is still so influential that it cannot be ruled out that the country will slide into a theocracy. On the internet, the discussion about the historical Jesus has flared up. The stars of this discussion are Robert Eisenman, Robert M. Price (editor-in-chief of the Journal of Higher Criticism), Bart D. Ehrman and Richard Carrier – all Americans.

Epistles of Paul

A century and a half after the radicals, the discussion still largely revolves around the letters of the apostle Paul. The New Testament has fourteen. There is broad agreement among Bible experts that seven of them are authentic. That is, there are strong indications that they were written by the same person.

Paul is the most influential figure of early Christianity. Initially, he belonged to an extremist Jewish group that drove Christian Jews over the cliff. He later converted. There is a consensus that he never met Jesus in person, but only in a vision. Paul also says this in so many words in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth:

    The most important thing that I have passed on to you, I have also received in turn: that Christ died for our sins, as stated in the scriptures, that He was buried, that He was resurrected on the third day, as stated in the scriptures, and that He appeared to Kefas (Peter) and then to the twelve. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once, some of whom died, but most of whom are still alive today. Then He appeared to James and then to all the apostles. Only in the end did He also appear to me, misbirth that I was. For I am the least of the apostles, I am not worthy of the name apostle because I have persecuted God's church. But by his grace, I am now what I am.

The New Testament opens with the four Gospels and the Acts. Only then do the letters follow. These thus seem to be an explanation of the most important story, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus and the work of the apostles. In reality, the seven authentic epistles of Paul are the oldest texts of the New Testament. They do not explain the Gospels and Acts, but rather belong to their sources.

That makes the letters very interesting. Take the passage above. Why does Paul repeatedly write "as it says in the scriptures"? According to some radicals, and today especially Richard Carrier, this indicates that the earliest Christians distilled the martyrdom and resurrection of Jesus from the ancient Jewish scriptures that would eventually form the Old Testament. "As it says in the scriptures" cannot refer to the Gospels, for they did not yet exist.

In ancient times there was the idea that heaven consisted of several layers, inhabited by gods, demons, angels and other beings. In one of those heavens (the original Greek text of the Lord's Prayer also uses this plural) God is said to have sacrificed his son and brought him back to life. By carefully reading all kinds of passages in the ancient Jewish scriptures, this story could be brought to light. Once discovered, Jesus began to appear to the earliest Christians, according to the American Carrier, among others. Thus, according to this theory, Jesus never walked the earth (nor walked across the Sea of Galilee).

This immediately explains why the seven letters contain absolutely no biographical information about Jesus. If Jesus had existed in person, wouldn't Paul want to know all about this special figure from the other apostles? And then certain biographical facts would be reflected by the letters, wouldn't they? But none of this. There is no more than above. Paul's Jesus does not perform any miracle. About his family, profession and appearance: not a word. Also, this Jesus is remarkably taciturn; Paul quotes him only once:

    For what I have received and passed on to you goes back to the Lord Himself. On the night the Lord Jesus was delivered, He took a loaf of bread, said the prayer of thanksgiving, broke the bread, and said, "This is my body for you. Do this, again and again, to remember me." So He took the cup after the meal, and He said, "This cup is the new covenant made by my blood. Do this, every time you drink from it, to remember Me."

Paul again does not refer to the Gospels here, but rather contributes a narrative element. And he doesn't say a word about other attendees, or about how Jesus spoils the atmosphere by saying that there is a traitor in the company. These story elements do not appear until decades later in the Gospel of Mark.

Curiously, Paul claims to have "received" this quote. This implies that he did not simply hear it from Kephas (Peter) or James, but that Jesus himself whispered it to him during a vision or dream. This is another indication that Paul is not talking about an earthly Jesus.


Even outside the Bible, a historical Jesus is remarkably absent. However, the century in which Jesus is said to have lived is unusually well documented. This is mainly due to the historian Flavius Josephus. His two most important works, The Jewish War and The Ancient History of the Jews, describe in detail the events that would eventually lead to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. In these books, all kinds of figures that we also find in the Gospels and Acts are discussed extensively, including John the Baptist. But he hardly says a word about Jesus. Why?

According to Bart Ehrman, the most conservative of the modern radicals, this is probably because Jesus was much more obscure than Christians think. Yet early Christians seem to have been concerned about their hero's small role in Josephus. This is evident from a passage in The Ancient History that is as concise as it is curious:

    At that time Jesus, a wise man, lived as far as it is permissible to call him a man. He performed deeds that were considered impossible, and he was a teacher of people who joyfully took in the truth. And he brought many Jews as well as many of the Greeks to himself. He was the Christ. Even after Pilate had imposed the punishment of the cross on him at the direction of the first men with us, those who had first come to live in love did not give up. He had appeared to them on the third day, alive again. The divine prophets had said those things and countless other wonderful things about him. To this day, the group of Christians named after him has not disappeared.

This passage is known as the 'Testimonium Flavianum'. Josephus was not a Christian, that's for sure. What is certain is that Josephus would never have treated a seemingly influential figure so succinctly and vaguely. The fragment also forms a strange kink in the cable: remove the Testimonium, and the text runs much smoother. Almost everyone therefore thinks that the passage is a forgery. The perpetrator is eusebius of Caesarea, the house theologian of the first Christian emperor Constantine the Great and a notorious liar. In any case, without the Testimonium, only a shred of evidence remains in Josephus for the carnal existence of Jesus Christ.

For in the same book there is this passage: "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James." This is a remarkable parallel with Paul, who in his letter to the Galatians also mentions a "James, brother of the Lord."

According to Richard Carrier, the most radical radical, Paul means by "brother of the Lord" that James was an ordinary believer, unlike the much more important apostle Kefas, who is also mentioned in this passage. After all, Paul addresses his fellow Christians all the time as brothers and sisters. In Josephus there are several figures with the name Jesus. The words "who was called Christ" may therefore have been added by a monk who copied the text. We must constantly realize that virtually all ancient texts have been handed down to us through an ecclesiastical filter.

Unsurprisingly, evangelical Christians in America do not so much reject these arguments as they completely ignore them. Influential religious YouTube channels, such as Southern Seminary, insist that the evidence for a historical Jesus is overwhelming, without going into it further. Evangelists are very vehement in the defense of creationism — the idea that the creation story should be taken literally. However, they rightly sense that the historicity of Jesus is much easier to defend, since even most secular historians still assume it by default.

et many evangelists understand that the evidence that their hero once lived is meager. That is why they focus, cleverly enough, on theories that the Jesus character is based on pre-Christian (half-) gods such as Horus, Dionysus, Sol Invictus and Mithras. These ideas are indeed popular among those who question the historicity of Jesus, but their arguments are notoriously speculative. Yes, the theme of resurrection from the dead is common in such cults. And all kinds of Christian symbols and motifs are also rooted in pagan times.

Fictional character

But as evangelical Christians rightly argue, none of this is proof that Jesus never existed. It only proves that Christianity originated within Greco-Roman culture. It can be proven that the traditional ecclesiastical image we have of Jesus is based on fabrications. That is entirely based on the four Gospels in the New Testament. Here we find a Jesus who hears echoing from heaven immediately after his baptism: "You are my beloved Son, in You I find joy." At least that's what it says in the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the four Gospels. The rest of the story is well known. He brings the dead to life. He multiplies fish. He is crucified, after which his dead body mysteriously disappears. When three women enter the tomb with the intention of embalming Jesus, they find only a "young man dressed in white" who says that Jesus will reappear to his followers in Galilee.

Who wrote the Gospel of Mark is unknown. Some suspect that Ignatius of Antioch had a hand in the creation of the Jesus character as we know it. The motive: luring simple people to Christ with stories of miracles.

After Mark, other, more complete gospels appeared, in which it is described for the first time that Jesus was born by a virgin. However, early Christian writings on heretical movements show that not all Christians believed in this new Jesus-of-flesh-and-blood. They placed his life, suffering, and resurrection in the heavens. Theologians think that these so-called 'Gnostic' currents were a further development of the 'original' Jesus story, but according to the radicals it went the other way around. The reason that the 'earthly' version of Jesus ultimately triumphed is simple: from 380 onwards, it was strictly obliged to believe this throughout the Roman Empire.

Regardless of whether a pacifist rabbi has ever been crucified, as the American Robert Eisenman thinks, the Jesus of the Gospels is a fictional character loosely based on the epistles of Paul, the books of Josephus, and possibly other sources. The indications for this are numerous. The Gospels are Hellenistic fables, intended for an audience of Greekized Jews in the Roman Empire. Paul's Jesus has evolved into a man with qualities. Yet he never becomes fully human. In his collection De schrift betwist Maarten 't Hart writes:

    He never laughs, he never sings, he never whistles, he has no interest in the opposite sex, you never hear anything about interest in good food. Nothing human seems to be his own. In the afterword to the translation of the four Gospels, Mario Molegraaf says about Jesus' weeping at the tomb of Lazarus: "We find this the sympathetic moment of an otherwise unsympathetic personality." But Jesus is too shadowy to even be unsympathetic.

And yet this Jesus became the most famous person in history. The fact that the four Gospels contradict each other does not bother believers. Traditional theologians argue in defense that the Jesus story was handed down orally for at least forty years before anyone wrote it down. But in the first century, literacy was so great that people would have taken notes during Jesus' preaching. And if his followers had consisted mainly of illiterate fishermen, Christianity would never have broken through. For how could an illiterate fisherman who does not speak Greek impress educated Jews in Alexandria, for example? Apparently, the writer of Acts also struggled with this problem. A miracle brought an outcome: "All were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak loudly in foreign languages." Abraham Dirk Loman undoubtedly thought his own. Or to quote Maarten 't Hart: 'The greatest miracle is that there are still Christians around who believe these kinds of totally absurd stories.'

Translated into English from with Microsoft Edge

The Bible quotes come from the NBV21 of the Dutch-Flemish Bible Society. The Josephus quotes come from Against the Greeks, a translation by F. Meijer and M.A. Wes. The quotes of Maarten 't Hart come from his collection De schrift betwist.