THE MYTH THAT JESUS NEVER EXISTED
By Anthony Robert Greco
In June 2005, Brian Flemming released a film titled “The God Who Wasn’t There.” The basis of this film is that Jesus, the man who is known as the founder of Christianity, never actually existed. This belief is based on alleged similarities between the story of Jesus and older Pagan myths, the claim that Saint Paul believed Jesus existed in a mythical realm because of the supposed lack of gospel elements in his letters, the allegation that at least one of the second-hand non-Christian references to Jesus is a forgery, and the lack of such first-hand references to him. We are going to examine each of these premises.
The premise that Jesus is based on older Pagan myths is based on overstatements and misrepresentations. The examples that will be used are Dionysus, Innana, Krishna, Mithra, and Osiris. The allegations that have been made are that these figures were either born of a virgin, crucified, rose from the dead, or any combination of the few.
In the later story of Dionysus that had religious connections, he is born as a result of an adulterous affair between Zeus and Persephone. Hera, Zeus’s jealous wife and sister, has Dionysus torn apart by titans as an infant. Zeus saves his son’s heart and uses it to have his birth redone through a mortal woman named Semele. In the earlier version, Dionysus is born as a result of an adulterous affair between Zeus and Semele. As ordered by Hera, Semele is killed by Zeus’s lightning bolts. Dionysus is rescued and formed in his thigh. As you can see, Dionysus did not die and rise, he just had the process of his birth done over.
Innana is a deity from Mesopotamian culture. She was the goddess of love, sex, and fertility. Her lover was Damuzi. According to tradition, she descended to the underworld with the intention of overthrowing her sister, who was its ruler. When she arrives, the sister kills her by giving her the look of death. After she had been missing for three days and nights, one of her servants sends demons to search for her. They find her and help revive her, but she can only leave the underworld if she can find someone to be her replacement. She goes to Damuzi and finds him celebrating her death. This enrages her and she has the demons kill him. He in turn becomes her replacement. (4, 5)
Krishna is a figure from Hinduism who was an incarnation of Vishnu, born of a woman named Devaki when she was in prison. Vasedeva, Devaki’s husband, was his father. Krishna was a mischievous child and a womanizer. He was also a warrior who murdered his evil half-uncle, king Kamsa. He was accidentally killed by a hunter while under a tree. Since Devaki was married, she could not have been a virgin. The part of the story where Krisha was traded for another couples’ daughter to protect him from Kamsa, who killed six of her sons out of fear that one would murder him, has been compared to the event of Mary and Joseph going to Egypt with Jesus to protect him from king Herod. According to the gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the massacre of male children under three living in the village of Bethlehem because he was angry that he had been deceived about Jesus’ whereabouts. When Kamsa found out about the exchange with the couple that became Krishna’s foster parents, he ordered demons to kill all recently born infants because of his fear. In this part of the story, the concept of killing children is a common element, if not in a superficial way. (3, 7)
Mithra was the Iranian god of salvation, contracts, and friendship. He is from Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic faith that could be as old as Judaism. He was connected to the sun. The Romans connected him to the sun god, Sol. In the Parthian epoch, he was born from a rock or inside a cave. He slayed a divine bull who’s blood was used to create all plants and animals that benefit humans. He then ascended to heaven. Mithraism became popular among Roman soldiers around 80 CE. It was attacked by Christians in the fourth century because they saw the Mithric baptism and Eucharist as being diabolical parodies of those from Christianity. They also thought them to be inspired by Satan. After this happened, it is likely that institutional Christianity absorbed some Mithric elements. Mithraism could be where the idea of celebrating Jesus’ birthday on December 25th came from in the third century.
Osiris was the husband or lover of Isis. He was murdered and dismembered by his brother Seth. He would later be rejuvenated for a new existence in the realm of the dead. This is where some compare his story to Jesus’ when Osiris did not actually come back from the dead to be on earth, he was just given a new life for the underworld. He became king of that realm while him and Isis’s son, Horus, became king of the living and would later avenge his father’s death.
It is also worth mentioning that most of the figures that Jesus is compared to were known only as deities, not historical persons. The only possible exception in the above examples is Krishna. Most of them were not even considered messiahs. To be fair, one could compare the later myth where Zeus makes Dionysus rebirth happen through Semele to Mary having Jesus as a result of God’s intercession, but it does not say anything about her being a virgin like Mary is alleged to have been. Same thing goes for Vishnu interceding so Devaki would give birth to Krishna and Innana coming back to life. Plus, it seems likely that later on, Christianity got the word “hell” from Norse mythology, which used the word “hel” for its version of the underworld. In the earlier texts of the New Testament, the word “gehenna” was used. (4, 5,7)
The second premise that Saint Paul believed Jesus existed in a mythical realm because he knew nothing about him as he was made out to be in the gospels is based on misrepresentation and extreme speculation. One of the arguments for this premise is that Paul says that he received the information in a vision. If you are a non-believer, a simple alternate explanation is that he got it from witnesses and only said the former to have the divine element. There are plenty of elements from the gospels in his letters which show he did indeed believe that Jesus existed as a person. In 1 Corinthians 11:23-30, he mentions the betrayal and talks extensively about the Last Supper. In chapter 15:3-7, he references Jesus’s death, burial, and alleged resurrection. He also mentions the apostles, with Peter being the only one identified by name. In Galatians 4:4, he mentions that a woman gave birth to Jesus under the law. (7)
The third premise that at least one of the second-hand secular references to Jesus is a forgery is based on overstatements. The Jewish historian named Flavius Josephus mentions him in a passage titled the “Testonium Flavium” and makes a small reference in a later passage. These can be found in his work from the 90s CE, “Antiquities of the Jews.” There was a lot of skepticism about the passage, first referenced by the church father Eusebius in his writings, because it confirmed Jesus as the risen Messiah. As a traditional Jew, Josephus would not have said this. However, other versions were found that merely confirmed Jesus as being the founder of a new movement. Since the passage was not mentioned by any church father before Eusebius, some scholars believe that he was the one who tampered with it because without the words that are believed to have been added, it makes the passage sound too indifferent towards Jesus for any church father to want to reference it. There are also some scholars who think that Josephus never mentioned Jesus, therefore the passage is a total fake. This is unlikely since Origen, another church father, indicated in his writings that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Messiah when he was talking about the smaller reference to him in ‘Antiquities.” If Josephus had not mentioned Jesus, Origen would not have known this because he lived longed after Josephus was alive. Of course, since Josephus was a Jew, Origen may have just assumed it. (6, 8)
Another reference is from the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, written around 115 CE in his work titled “Annals.” In his passage, he speaks of Christians being persecuted by Nero because of the fire that took place in Rome and that Jesus, referred to as ‘Christus,” was where the name of the movement originated. He even says how they spread a “pernicious superstition” after Jesus was killed. The church fathers left this one out because of how negative it is towards Christianity. Lastly, there is sort of an indirect reference from another Roman historian named Suetonius that was also written around 115 CE. He talks about Nero’s persecution of Christians, “a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” Since Nero started persecuting Christians in 64 CE, this one shows that Christianity already had the ball rolling by that time. There would have been at least a few witnesses to Jesus who were still alive. (2)
The fourth premise that there are no first-hand secular references to Jesus is an overstatement. During his ministry, Jesus was not a very important figure outside of his circle. He seems more important than he was in the gospels because they were written by his followers. Many point out there being no records of Jesus’s execution in Roman archives; but the Romans executed a lot of unknown men, such as the two that were executed along side Jesus, and they were not even the ones who wanted him dead, the Jews did. If the Christian movement was based on a conspiracy instead of an historical figure, Christians would have definitely tampered with the works of historians who were writing when Jesus was alive to make what they were preaching seem more credible. However, there are no such forged supplements to any of these historians’ writings. (1, 7)
While there might not be a way to “prove” that Jesus was an historical person in a way that some people want, all of this definitely points towards him at least having existed as a human being. As with a lot of ancient history, it is hard to come up with undeniable proof. Was Jesus divine? That depends on your faith.
For more information:
1“Crassus and the Defeat of Spartacus” (N.S. Gill on About.com)
3Encyclopedia for Epics of Ancient India (Mythfolklore.net)
4Encyclopedia Mythica” (Pantheon.org)
5Encyclopedia of World Religion (Mircea Eliade)
7Jewish Virtual Library (JewishVirtualLibrary.org)
8Wikipedia Encyclopedia (Wikipedia.org)