Mythicism and the Public Jesus of History
by Craig A. Evans
Arguments for the nonexistence of the Jesus of history stumble over the public nature of much of the primary evidence. Jesus was observed by crowds of people, by friends and foes alike. The strongest evidence for the existence of Jesus is found in Paul’s letters to the Christians of Corinth and Galatia. In these letters, whose authenticity no one doubts, Paul describes his firsthand—and very public—encounters with two of Jesus’ original disciples, Peter and John, and with James, the brother of Jesus. Attempts to explain away this James as someone other than the brother of Jesus reveal the desperation of the mythicist approach to the evidence. It is important to remember that critics of early Christianity never doubted the existence of Jesus—they disputed His identity and significance. Modern critics should follow their lead.
I recently had the opportunity to engage Richard Carrier in debate over the question of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.1 Carrier is a well-known and probably the ablest exponent of the theory that Jesus never existed. According to this theory, Jesus was a “myth,” largely constructed of pagan mythology and shaped somewhat by Jewish conceptuality and language, that for whatever reason people in the first century came to believe was actually a real person of history. This view has become popularly known as mythicism, and its proponents, such as Richard Carrier, Timothy Freke, Peter Gandy, Robert Price, and others, are called mythicists or mythers.2 Although mythicism is gaining popularity in the public arena, the vast majority of scholars and historians—including many scholars who hold to very skeptical views—reject it. The existence of Jesus is a matter of historical evidence. The existence of Jesus is also the best explanation of this evidence and of the rise of the Christian movement—and is not in itself an article of faith or a religious dogma.
The principal mythicist arguments can be summed up by two claims: (1) the evidence for the existence of Jesus is weak and unimpressive, and (2) there is good reason to believe that the stories of Jesus presented in the New Testament Gospels are constructs inspired by various pagan mythologies, especially those that speak of dying and rising gods. The basic points of these arguments can be reviewed briefly…