Jesus, Mohammed, Shakespeare: Did they really exist? (part 1)

For about a year now, I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around the cultural phenomenon known as the “Jesus-as-myth” hypothesis. It’s an idea that is gaining steam, not with credible historians and scholars, but among “popularizers” who state categorically as fact that “Jesus never existed” on numerous websites, blogs and discussion boards. This crackpot conspiracy theory may be simply stated as follows:

Since there was no contemporary historian living in Judea in the first century who recorded the life of Jesus, then there is no proof that Jesus existed.

What is being contended against is not the historicity of the miraculous works, the resurrection, or the divinity of Jesus, but the very existence of a historical person named Jesus of Nazareth. The Jesus-myth hypothesis was first proposed by Bruno Bauer in a work entitled Christ and the Caesars in 1877. Prior to the 1800s, no pagan, Jewish, Muslim, or atheist critic of the New Testament ever thought to challenge the veracity of the person called Jesus. Then Bauer came along and claimed that the bulk of the New Testament was written in the late second century — a full 150 years after Jesus lived — and took skepticism to the next level by claiming that the very existence of Jesus was doubtful.

At the time, Bauer was thought of as a radical fringe free thinker. Even his former students, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, both atheistic communists, sought to distance themselves from his writings. The idea then gained some popularity among scholars in the early 20th century, but when serious critics began to see the solid evidence for the first century dates of New Testament books — still interpreting them as pseudonymous works written after the time of Apostles, but accepting that they were written early enough to have been read and circulated by the earliest Christians — they rejected Higher Criticism for a modified form of liberalism.

The works of Bauer and the German Higher Critics were not respected even in their own day, even by atheists and skeptics such Mark and Engels. Most of their works have never been translated into English. One liberal theologian, Dr. John Henry Ludlum, one of the greatest linguistic scholars ever to come out of Yale University, began to study the Higher Critics in German only to see that the whole thrust of their work as baseless conjecture to support a political agenda of anti-semitism. In fact, Bauer and several of the 19th century German critics sought to prove that Christianity could not have had its roots in Semitic Judaism. Therefore, the Jesus-as-myth hypothesis has had a serious credibility gap even among liberal theologians.

To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars.’ In recent years, ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus’ or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary. – Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (Scribner, 1995).

There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more. – Burridge, R & Gould, G, Jesus Now and Then, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004, p.34.

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