Refuting 5 False Theories About Jesus

by Kyle Dillon

Who was Jesus really?

For the past few weeks I’ve been discussing this question with my high school theology class. Although most of my students have been brought up in the church, I know they’re going to face challenges to their faith when they go off to college. Many will hear jarring claims from classmates and professors about the “real” Jesus—claims contradictory to the church’s confession of Jesus as the risen Son of God.

So I want my students to be prepared. I want them to know these claims have been around for a long time, as have Christian responses. Despite what many critical scholars claim, there is no contradiction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” In fact, studying Jesus as a historical figure can often strengthen faith. But that requires honestly engaging the critics and evaluating their claims.

Here I will briefly examine five popular alternative theories about Jesus, concluding with some general guidelines for how Christians can respond to them.

1. JESUS THE PAGAN MYTH

Though this theory has very little support among scholars today, it’s still quite popular on atheist websites (a student is therefore more likely to hear it from a classmate than a professor). The theory claims Jesus never existed as a historical figure. Rather, the stories of his birth, life, death, and resurrection were all myths the early Christians borrowed from pagan mystery religions—such as the cults of Dionysus and Mithras—which allegedly predated Christianity by centuries.

The roots of the Christ-myth theory go back to 19th-century German scholars like David Strauss (1808–1874), who argued the New Testament (NT) is simply a collection of mythical retellings of Jesus’s life, and Bruno Bauer (1809–1882), who made the more radical claim Jesus never existed. The theory gained prominence for a time in the “History of Religions School” at the University of Göttingen, but began to decline during the 20th century as scholars examined the evidence more closely. (Richard Carrier and Robert Price still make this claim today, but even non-Christian scholars like Bart Erhman refute it.)

The general consensus today is that most of the alleged parallels between Christianity and the mystery religions are either non-existent (sometimes pure fabrications), coincidental, or anachronistic. In fact, there is no evidence pagan mystery religions existed in first-century Israel, and much of our evidence for them elsewhere dates to after the rise of Christianity. So if any borrowing did happen, it was probably the other way around…

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