tackle the first half of the question first, the answer depends
on whom you ask. Ask most Americans, and you will get a resounding
yes. To get a no, you must turn to a small contingent of renegade
scholars, their adherents, or perhaps a few crackpots who like to
sound outrageous. The question may also be greeted by an occasional
According to recent surveys reported
in Newsweek and Time Almanac 1999, 85% of Americans
call themselves Christians. Of these, 75% believe Jesus was God
incarnate, that he was born of a virgin, died on the cross for the
sins of our species, and was resurrected on the third day. So three
out of four Americans are orthodox Christians. They believe God
assumed a human guise for about 33 years, talked, walked, slept,
ate, and excreted in Palestine some 2000 years ago. They merge the
historical Jesus with the biblical Jesus the divine Redeemer, the
Messiah, depicted in the New Testament. Unlike the Gnostics, an
early Christian sect that considered Jesus an illusory wraith who
only seemed to have been crucified, orthodox believers eschew a
Jesus lite, some incorporeal emanation from on high or mythic symbol
of the eternal Way. Only a god who deigned to bleed, sweat, and
weep can offer the empathetic understanding and tangible satisfactions
The remaining 10% of Christians are
liberal Christians. They don't believe Jesus was God. They view
him, rather, as a human paragon of moral virtue whom they should
emulate. As do many orthodox Christians, liberals are prone to ignore
or dismiss as inauthentic those biblical utterances by Jesus that
contradict his image of charitableness, forbearance, and compassion.
Most non-Christians also believe that the biblical Jesus reflects
a historical prototype. By and large, the world entertains a hefty
respect for the Prince of Peace. Like the Muslims, some consider
him a prophet of the Almighty.
In their perception of Jesus, a large
rift exists between the average layperson and biblical scholars.
Aside from a comparatively small band of evangelical theologians,
most scholars reject the divinity of Jesus. Some, in fact, are agnostics
or atheists. (I'll long remember the crestfallen look of a pious
student when I told him the faculty of a divinity school he planned
to attend included a large number of avowed atheists.) Many scholars
envision little similarity between the Jesus of the canonical Gospels
(Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and the supposed historical model. In
the book The Five Gospels (the fifth is the uncanonical Thomas),
the Jesus Seminar, an international consortium of 75 scholars, concludes
that only 18% of the words attributed to Jesus by the Evangelists,
the anonymous authors of the Gospels, actually issued from his mouth.
The Gospel of John they throw out altogether, and only a single
sentence from Mark makes the cut. The Sermon on the Mount they gut,
and everything that smacks of miracle or magic gets the heave-ho:
the Annunciation, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, walking on
water, the temptation by Satan, the feeding of the multitude, etc.
Thomas Jefferson would have applauded this rife expurgation of preternatural
elements. He constructed his own version of the Gospels cleansed
of the occult and supernatural.
The Jesus Seminar views the biblical
Jesus as a patchwork accretion of legend, fantasy, surmise, and
creative engineering that evolved from a few slivers of biographical
truth. The construction work was already well advanced in various
oral traditions before anything was written down. From these traditions
and a few rudimentary compilations of sayings and acts of Jesus,
the Evangelists culled what suited their purposes and tricked out
the material with their own embellishments and innovations. They
might import an incident from the life of some mythic or real hero,
put into Jesus' mouth some doctrine espoused by their own sect,
or impute to Jesus deeds and attitudes consistent with Old Testament
predictions (or what they thought were such) about the Messiah.
In light of the dense encrustation of myth surrounding Jesus, the
eminent theologian Rudolph Bultmann groused in 1926: We can now
know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus.
The minimalist Jesus served up by contemporary scholarship validates
The line between a minimalist Jesus
and no Jesus is razor thin. For a century and a half, some scholars
have taken the final step. Those who have denied existence to a
historical Jesus include Bruno Bauer, Robert Taylor, Joseph Wheless,
John Robertson, Arthur Drews, Peter Jensen, Gordon Rylands, P. L.
Couchoud, Guy Fau, and George A. Wells. Viewing the biblical Jesus
as a pastiche woven from stories of various pagan gods, demigods,
and heroes adapted to a first-century Jewish milieu, many scholars
have noted striking similarities between Jesus and his pagan counterparts.
For example, the Persian sun-god Mithra, widely worshiped in the
Roman Empire before the inception of the Christian era, had 12 disciples,
performed miracles, was buried in a tomb, rose on the third day,
was called the Good Shepherd, identified with the lamb, considered
the Way, the Truth and the Light, the Redeemer, the Savior, the
Messiah, his principal festival was held on what was to become Easter,
and he instituted a Eucharist or Lord's Supper. When in 313 C.E.
Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire,
he was influenced by the pell-mell conversion of Roman soldiers
from Mithraism to Christianity. The biblical Jesus gave them a sort
of home-grown Mithra.
Among contemporary scholars who deny
a historical Jesus, George Wells is the best known and the most
formidable. In six carefully reasoned, heavily annotated books (The
Jesus of the Early Christians, Did Jesus Exist?, The Historical
Evidence for Jesus, Who Was Jesus?, The Jesus Legend, The Jesus
Myth), Wells has propounded the thesis that the Jesus of the
Gospels is a late first-century fabrication, devised some forty
to eighty years after the time of his supposed death. Wells doesn't
accuse the Evangelists of conscious duplicity. In Palestine, in
the first-century C.E., Messiahs were a dime a dozen. By the time
the Evangelists took up their quills, vague reports about sundry
Messiahs had been conflated as episodes in the life of a crucified
savior called Jesus, then a common name. In the early phases of
the developing myth, details about his life and death were hazy.
Later, the Evangelists would naturally suppose he was crucified
when Pontius Pilate was the prefect of Judea (26 C.E.-36 C.E.) since
Pilate was infamous for his ruthless rule of Judea. The Evangelists
amplified the sketchy reports they had heard by attributing to Jesus
maxims, doctrines, actions, and a history befitting a Jewish Messiah.
Wells demonstrates that St. Paul,
who wrote several (probably eight) New Testament epistles to various
churches between 45 C.E. and 60 C.E., was unfamiliar with the Jesus
described in the Gospels because the facts about him therein recorded
had not yet been devised. (The earliest of the Gospels, Mark, was
written no earlier than 70 C. E. and possibly as late as 90 C.E).
Paul's Jesus is a shadowy figure invoked by Christians before the
Gospels fleshed him out. Paul's Jesus had died for people's sins,
was resurrected, briefly appeared to a few witnesses, and would
soon return to judge the living and the dead. Paul associated Jesus
with the Wisdom figure of Jewish literature. In that tradition,
Wisdom is represented as a supernatural being made by God before
he made heaven and earth. According to Wells, Wisdom is the sustainer
and governor of the universe who comes to dwell among men and bestow
her gifts on them, but most of them reject her; after being humiliated
on earth, Wisdom returned to heaven.
Wells demonstrates that the only first-century
references to Jesus are in Christian sources. Many Christian theologians
contend that the following passage in Antiquities of the Jews,
written by the Jewish historian Josephus in 94 C.E., confirms the
existence of Jesus since it provides independent testimony:
"About this time there lived
Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he
was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people
as accept the truth of the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him
accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him
to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him
did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared
to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied
these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe
of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not
Wells shows that the passage wasn't
written by Josephus, but was added in the fourth century, probably
by the church father Eusebius. No one before him quotes the passage,
though second and third-century Christian scholars knew the Josephus
book well. Had they known of the passage, they would have quoted
it in their theological disputes with the Jews. Wells also points
out that the passage interrupts the narrative flow of Josephus text
and that it absurdly imputes to Josephus, an orthodox Jew, the sentiments
of a devout Christian.
Having read all Wells books and many
responses to them, I, personally, am convinced that, if a historical
Jesus did exist, we know nothing about him. Now, turning to the
second half of the titular question, does it really matter whether
Jesus was a real person?
To liberal Christians, viewing Jesus
as a moral exemplar, not a god, it shouldn't make any difference.
Nothing about his teachings is unique or distinctive. All the moral
principles the biblical Jesus lays down were commonplace long before
he uttered them. According to the historian Joseph McCabe in The
Sources of the Morality of the Gospels, the sentiments attributed
to Christ are in the Old Testament. They were familiar in the Jewish
schools and to all the Pharisees, long before the time of Christ,
as they were familiar in all the civilizations of the earth Egyptian,
Babylonian, and Persian, Greek, and Hindu. The famous Golden Rule,
which many associate with Jesus, was advocated by Confucius 500
years earlier and then later, long before the Gospels were concocted,
by Hillel, a Pharisee. Hillel wrote: "What thou dost not like,
do thou not to thy neighbor." That is the whole; all the rest
is explanation. One of Jesus' signature commandments "You shall
love your neighbor as yourself" is cribbed verbatim from Leviticus
19:18 in the Old Testament.
By diminishing the Jesus factor in
their moral computations, liberal Christians would derive some gratuitous
benefits. They would no longer have to blink at or rationalize the
unsavory side of the biblical Jesus: his insistence on eternal damnation,
his enmity toward those with beliefs different from his own, his
anti-intellectualism, and his dictatorial mode of instruction.
As for the 75% of Americans who think
God incarnated himself in a historical Jesus, most would be devastated
to discover that Jesus never existed. Their belief in Jesus gives
them an indefatigably sympathetic confidant, assuages their fear
of death and bereavement, wards off existential angst, assures cosmic
purpose, and aligns them with the good guys. So handsome are the
psychological pay-offs of belief that many, perhaps most, devout
orthodox Christians are impervious to all countervailing logic and
evidence. Their will to believe vanquishes every disquieting fact,
every contrary line of reasoning, no matter how compelling to an
impartial eye. Psychologists have a frightening arsenal of terms
for the mental habits designed to preserve cherished beliefs: dissociation,
absolutist thinking, dichotomization, object permanence, nominal
realism, phenomenalistic causality (!), and worse.
A few years ago, I got a crash course
in the mental ploys believers use to sustain faith in the reality
of Jesus. In 1996, in a series of letters to the Shreveport Times
and the Monroe News-Star, the largest newspapers in north
Louisiana, I presented a detailed exposition of George Wells thesis
that the historical Jesus is purely mythic. The letters elicited
over 100 responses, about three-fourths published and the rest sent
to my home. With few exceptions, the respondents skirted the substantive
issues Wells raised. Many launched ad hominem attacks on
me. Here are some of the evasionary tactics they used:
Accused me of hypocrisy. It seems the wacky writings of Gary
Sloan, belittling and mocking Christians, are endless. In a country
where liberals incessantly preach tolerance, it is amusing how truly
intolerant he is of Christians.
Reprimanded me. I fail to understand why Mr. Sloan enjoys and
is proud of condemning holy things. Is it just that misery loves
Ridiculed me. Here's Sloan again, with his copious babble, confirming
his brilliance and superiority over all of us dumb Christians, telling
the world how we don't know doodly-squat about Jesus. Until now,
the world has lived in ignorance. Hail, the bringer of light! Mr.
Sloan, read Proverbs 14:2 and may Jesus bless you.
Demonized me. There are people who enjoy doing evil things.
Sloan takes delight in trying to destroy people's belief in Jesus.
When I read his letters, I can just see an evil Satan sitting there
writing the letter. The master spirit of evil is using Sloan's body.
Described my future. I shudder to think of the fate that awaits
this foolish Enemy of God. It looks like Sloan wants the whole enchilada
death, followed by the White Throne judgment, humiliation, condemnation,
then thrown into the bottomless pit by an archangel with an attitude,
to swim around in burning fire with his master, the devil, for eternity.
Pitied me. I don't disdain Mr. Sloan. I see him as someone searching
and someone Jesus hasn't given up on. I pray this poor, confused
soul will accept his Savior someday.
Thanked me. Does Sloan realize that with each letter he writes,
he draws Christians even closer to Christ? As a believer in Jesus,
I want him to know that with each letter, he strengthens my faith.
Invited me to church. Like a lot of others, I've been reading
the letters about Jesus written by Gary Sloan. People keep telling
him he's wrong, but I haven't seen one person invite him to church.
So I would like to extend him a personal invitation to visit our
small Baptist church this Sunday.
Stigmatized the intellect. Mr. Sloan will never find Jesus with
his mind and intellect. Professing themselves wise, they become
fools. He will find him with his heart and spirit, or he will never
Reviewed orthodox doctrine. Jesus was not only real, he was
holy when implanted in Mary's womb and was holy when Mary delivered
him. Jesus was never just man. He never gave up his holy nature.
The fact that Jesus is God is proven by his resurrection from the
dead. Nothing Sloan or Wells can say will change the facts.
Affirmed their conviction. Sloan doesn't understand that
there is no argument he (or Wells) can make, no power he can bring
to bear that will make us change our mind. We're going to see our
loved ones, we're going to see Jesus.
Not all my respondents can be dismissed as Bible-belt fundamentalists
or uneducated rubes. The respondents included lawyers, physicians,
bankers, journalists, and university professors. So, once again,
does it matter whether Jesus existed? Obviously, for many Christians,
it matters immensely. And, as the above responses indicate, true
believers aren't about to be seduced by the facts.