If so many non-Christians (including atheists) believe in a historical Jesus, there has to be something to it, right? As it turns out, not really at all.
Hearsay and Bias
One of the basic logical elements of our legal system here in the U.S. is that hearsay is inadmissible as evidence. If a witness on the stand said, "My friend told me that this guy committed the murder," how far do you think that would get the prosecution's case? So, we obviously only should consider what's told to us by people who were actually there -- eyewitness accounts.
Even within eyewitness accounts, testimony is, of course, subject to bias. It's one thing for one of the alleged disciples -- who had a vested interest in claiming that Jesus existed -- to recount the story of Jesus. It would obviously be much more convincing coming from either an unbiased source or a source biased in the opposite direction (who had something to lose by admitting Jesus' existence).
So, we only should believe first-hand accounts, and among that subset, we should place a lot of suspicion on biased sources.
Who Wrote About Jesus?
With those guidelines, let's take a look at who was talking about Jesus and when.
Well duh, of course Christians wrote about Jesus. Even the Gospels in The Bible itself could technically be considered historical recordings of the life of Jesus. However, even if the obvious bias in such writings wasn't enough to discredit them, there are two important things to take into account about the Gospels. First, the earliest Gospel was written after 70 C.E., long after when Jesus was supposed to have lived. Second, it is the overwhelming opinion of most historians that none of the Gospels were written by people who were eyewitnesses. First, even if Mark and Luke truly wrote their namesake gospels, they weren't disciples of Jesus and don't have eyewitness testimony to give -- it's all second-hand. Second, John and Matthew were disciples, but John's Gospel has been fairly soundly discredited as having been written by him (even many Christians admit this), and the credibility of Matthew's authorship is tenuous at best.
Ultimately, we have biased accounts written by second-hand sources several decades after the events happened. There isn't a court or reputable historical society that would accept these writings as proof of any kind.
Add to all of the above the fact that The Bible went through many changes and that which writings would be accepted was literally voted on, and it's easy to see that there isn't much to base validity on within The Bible itself. See the excellent book Misquoting Jesus for more on these changes.
Pontius Pilate often is pointed to as having written about Jesus. Pilate was the judge at Jesus' trial and the man ultimately responsible for condemning Jesus to death. So, if Pilate had written of Jesus, this certainly would be impressive evidence of Jesus' existence. Christians will readily cite letters that Pilate wrote to Seneca mentioning Jesus and confirming facts from The Bible.
There's just one problem: The only known letters -- or writings of any kind -- from Pilate mentioning Jesus are from a novel. Yes, a novel ... like, in the fiction section.
The letters so many Christians quote from or cite as evidence come from the book Letters of Pontius Pilate: Written During His Governorship of Judea to His Friend Seneca in Rome, a novel written in the late 1920s. Since the time of that book's printing, the fact that it was a work of fiction has been increasingly obfuscated. One example of such obfuscation is that the author of the book -- and thus all of the letters -- is credited as an "Editor" on the cover of the book (shown at right) rather than the author. Seeing "Edited by" on the cover of any book obviously leads readers to believe that the contents were not written by the person named as editor, and in this case the assumption follows that Pilate actually wrote the letters.
Unfortunately, it is surprisingly easy to claim something as fact -- even in the Internet Age -- and have that message snowball to the point that the uninformed masses never would waste time double-checking since it's unlikely that such a "commonly accepted fact" wouldn't be true. But to give credit where credit is due, at least the reviewers on Amazon know better ...
There were non-Christian people from the era who genuinely mentioned Jesus, though ... what of them?
The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius is often cited as having written of Jesus. He was born in 37 C.E. -- at least four years after Jesus' supposed death -- and he didn't even mention Jesus until 93 C.E., which was after the Gospels themselves already had started coming out.
Pliny the Younger's writings also serve as evidence to many Christians. Sorry, he was born in 64 C.E., so he's nothing but hearsay either.
Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus also were born after Jesus' death. Seriously, what's the guy gotta do to get some ink during his lifetime?
With Great Fame Comes Great ... Obscurity?
The lack of timely written mentions of Jesus really is the most damning evidence against the existence of a real, flesh-and-blood, historical Jesus. Despite claims in The Bible of Jesus' fame preceding him, no one wrote about him within his lifetime. Here are some examples of The Bible claiming that word of Jesus reached far and wide during his time on Earth:
Matt 14:1 -- At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus
Luke 5:15 -- But so much the more went there a fame abroad of him: and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by him of their infirmities.
So, Jesus was a rock star, and yet there's not a single instance of someone writing anything about him during his lifetime -- including by his followers. No historians recorded these miraculous events by this prominent fellow. No philosophers pontificated about his Sermon on the Mount. No followers jotted down how Jesus was changing their lives. Keep in mind, these aren't just poor illiterates who may have written of him, this collection of potential writers included rich politicians, scholars, and religious leaders -- many of whom surely knew how to write. So, this super famous guy went around healing the sick, walking on water, and so forth, and everyone collectively thought, "Meh, I'll write it down later."
No, it wasn't until the actual cult of Christianity started gaining popularity that people began writing about Jesus. Why do you think that is?
Been There, Done That
A writer on Listverse does an excellent job with a top-10 list of Christ-like figures who predate Jesus and how they share similar stories. It's also well known that early Christians adopted aspects of other religions in an attempt at conversion, and that goes even further to explain the similarities in the story of Jesus. It's much easier to convert people when there isn't much to convert from. Some of the similarities include a Dec. 25 birthday, a miraculous birth/virgin birth, death and resurrection after (specifically) three days, healing the sick, walking on water, and so on.
Here's the top-10 list of Christ-like figures he gives:
Here are the conclusions we can take from the above: There is a story of a famous man that very closely mirrors other fables that already were circulating at the time, and this story was only written well after the man's alleged life, and then only by people who never could have met him. All other noteworthy men of that era were written about during their lifetimes -- so there was a precedent for that sort of historical record-keeping -- yet not a single word was written of this man during the height of his living fame or even for decades afterward.
Jesus may have been a real man -- to deny that would be closed-minded -- but there is no sound evidence that he was. In the absence of religious bias, no historian would argue that this man probably existed.
Further Reading (/Viewing)
I need to give a shout-out to two fantastic resources on the topic, a critically-acclaimed book and a superb documentary. The book is called The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus. The book is incredibly thorough, gives sources and citations, and is easy to read. This book is especially good for a non-believer who nevertheless thinks that there's a decent chance that Jesus was a real man with no divine powers.
If you don't have time for that, the documentary The God Who Wasn't There is right up your alley. It's an incredibly fun movie, but while it gets its facts right, it takes a kinda "Gotcha" style reminiscent of a Michael Moore film, which serves to tarnish its credibility in many people's eyes. Nevertheless, like I said, it's fantastically entertaining, and it cites a lot of evidence that Jesus is likely myth only.
-- The Atheist Apologist --