The odd case of the atheists and the historical Jesus

When it comes to the discussion of religion among atheists (if they’re not being massively condescending) it is clear that they operate on the clear conviction that they work on the basis of evidence and if believers did too then, well they probably wouldn’t be believers.

Except it seems when it comes to the question of whether there actually was a person called Jesus. Then it seems a whole bunch of atheists disappear down the internet black hole of conspiracies. I first became aware of the atheists who focus on the question of the historical or as they argue mythical Jesus when I read this on Slate Star Codex

Gwern reviews On The Historicity Of Jesus. Short version: the prose is annoying, but the case that Jesus was completely mythical (as opposed to a real teacher whose deeds were exaggerated) is more plausible than generally supposed. Please read the review before commenting about this topic.

This leads you to Richard Carrier, the author of several books advancing the ‘mythicist‘ case. His basic argument is that Jesus was never an actual person but was in fact the product of a revelation to Paul about a heavenly Messiah. You can listen to him on Premier’s Unbelievable show for example here.

Every now and then this idea that Jesus was not a real person gets a prominent boost (often from a tweet from someone like Richard Dawkins) and when you follow that up believing people are politely told that not to get involved.

Discussions over whether the figure known as the “Historical Jesus” actually existed primarily reflect disagreements among atheists. Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved.

I think this is because (and it seems to be a popular notion among atheists), that as a Christian I have skin in the game. I believe and therefore I am biased. They have no bias, their unbelief is pure, their reason unsullied by toxic faith, they are the enlightened. It also doesn’t appear to have dawned upon them that some of us may have actually been convinced by the sum total of the available evidence first.

But anyway these enlightened souls can enlighten the rest of us because they are not at all invested in the idea that Jesus might actually have been a real person. Yet curiously they do seem to get quite worked up about it. Carrier’s own opinion of Jesus isn’t positive. At all. Thankfully he’s just an impartial observer.

I’m more curious as to why this debate, about Jesus of all people, has found such a home among avowed atheists. What’s going on? Why aren’t they just ignoring it?

Then I wonder how would they react if Christians started doubting the historical existence of Socrates? After all Socrates and Jesus have quite a lot in common.


One of the most famous philosophers in history

Sayings entered popular speech

Never wrote anything down

Everything we know about him came from others

They don’t always agree on what he said or did

Most of what we know came from his student


One of the most famous religious leaders in history

Saying entered popular speech

Never wrote anything down

Everything we know about him came from others

They don’t always agree on what he said or did

Most of what we know came from his student(s)

As Dale Allison, Professor of New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, says in this interview about why he rejects mythicism.

Socrates is to the point here. Plato’s view of him is very different than Xenophon. Many of the details and impressions differ. There is much here for scholars to wonder about and debate. But Socrates wasn’t a myth.

In academic circles the question of whether Jesus was historical is settled (he was) but this lack of debate bugs Carrier, he’s sure they’re missing the big picture. To make matters worse their lack of respect both for Carrier and his question (to which he has devoted considerable time and energy) irks him more than just a bit. Take this response from the eminent Larry Hurtado for example:

Despite Carrier’s evangelistic prophecies that the scholarly world will come to see that he, though now a voice in the wilderness, is correct in judging Jesus of Nazareth to be a mythical invention, there is in fact no sign of fulfillment.  He is a paid advocate of his views (having been hired to produce these books), not a disinterested or dispassionate assessor of things.  He is not expert in the very subjects on which he writes in these books, and his mishandling of the evidence shows this all to clearly.  I conclude that, in so far as scholarly judgment of the matter is concerned, Carrier’s often-strident efforts will be judged as the last hurrah of the “mythicist” claim, although internet die-hards are likely to remain doggedly committed to it.

It struck me as I read the points, counter-points, furious rebuttals and denials that this must be how a historian feels talking to a holocaust denier or a climate change scientist feels talking to a climate-change denier, or how Richard Dawkins feels talking to a creationist. It doesn’t matter what argument you put forward they believe their version, in fact every time you make an argument that only increases their belief that they are right.

Carrier for all his protestations to the contrary about being willing to be convinced if only there was some proper evidence doesn’t give the impression that he could ever be convinced that he’s wrong. That certainly seems to be the conclusion that agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman came to:

I have not dealt with all the myriad of things that Carrier has to say – most of them unpleasant – about my book. But I have tried to say enough, at least, to counter his charges that I am an incompetent pseudo-scholar.   I try to approach my work with honesty and scholarly integrity, and would like to be accorded treatment earned by someone who has devoted his entire life to advancing scholarship and to making scholarship more widely available to the reading public.
      I am absolutely positive that Carrier and his supporters will write response after response to my comments here, digging deeper and deeper to show that I am incompetent.  They will expect replies, so that then they can write yet more comments, to which they will expect more replies, so that they can write more comments.  I am finding, now that I am becoming active on the Internet, that engaging in discussion here can mean entering into a black hole: there is no way out once you hit the event horizon.   Many critics of my work have boundless energy and, seemingly, endless time.   I myself have lots of energy, but not lots of time.  I have had my say now, in an attempt to show my scholarly competence.

But how has a theory that has been rejected by every possible academic authority found such a home amongst atheists of all people? How? For that we need to consider how conspiracy theories take hold.

Conspiracy theorists operate from a set of facts untethered to reality, and people who call their bluff are often ignored or labeled as part of the proposed conspiracy.

When people believe “there is no credible source of news,” said Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital institute in Budapest, “there can be no real source of debunking.”

That, judging by the reactions to Hurtado and Ehrman whose academic credentials are widely considered to be quite respectable, seems to be what is happening. But that doesn’t answer the question of why?

Two main reasons seem to be at work. First dissatisfaction with the way the world is. Atheists are people highly dissatisfied with the way the world is because of the vast resilience of religion which they view with contempt. So they are susceptible to an idea that purports to prove them right and the world’s largest religion to be founded on a myth. I imagine that the political landscape in the US and the utter loathing for evangelicals might only be adding fuel to the fire, but who knows?


Conspiracy theories also supply a seductive ego boost. Believers often consider themselves part of a select in-group that — unlike the deluded masses — has figured out what’s really going on.

I think Carrier and company fall into this category. As atheist Jonathan Tweet said after a debate with Carrier:

Since no other historians have adopting Dr Carrier’s view, he is, by his own estimation, the world’s leading expert on Christian origins. If his hypothesis is right, he is the only historian who understands how Christianity really started and how the gospels were really written. In fact, he’s not just 100 years ahead of other scholars, if he’s right then he is 2000 years ahead. Dr Carrier doesn’t press this point himself, and in fact he backed off of it when I questioned him about his “100 years” comment, so it falls to people like me to point it out. He also claims to be ahead of other historians in his use of Bayes’ Theorem. Perhaps in the future, Dr Carrier will be recognized as history’s most important Jesus scholar, as well as the founder of truly modern historical research. Perhaps. 

It is an odd phenomenon where some atheists are fighting hard to persuade other atheists not to abandon reality and disagree with the united scholarly consensus on the historicity of Jesus.

A vast amount has been written about the historical Jesus and there are scholars who think that almost nothing can be relied upon and those who think there is a significant mythologising of Jesus (adding a virgin birth, angels, ascension and so on) and those who see Paul as changing the original simple message of love that Jesus preached and so on and on. Yet they all have one thing in common – they all think it goes back to a real person called Jesus.

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