For those who follow the Jesus-myth movement of late you know that it has become quite popular to deny that there was any historical Jesus. People have been denying the Jesus-of-faith for ages, so that’s nothing new. What is new is the denial of any historical person at the root of the Jesus-legend, that is, the Christ. This movement seems to have several elements empowering it.
1) Rising popularity of irreligion.
By at least some reports religiously unaffiliated people, atheists, and agnostics are on the rise over the past decade or so. The trend is statistically interesting, but typically locates around Western Europe and America. Still, cultures of disbelief naturally empower the questioning of previously unquestioned religion-compatible claims such as, “Jesus was crucified, Jesus was buried in a tomb, or Jesus was God, Jesus existed.” Where rejection of a religion is not just allowed but increasingly fashionable as a sort of counterculture one can expect correlate conspiracy theories to rise. Just as Jesus-mythers are more common since the New Atheism sprouted this century, so Holocaust denial increases with Islamist fundamentalism.
2) Ambiguous Skepticism
Skepticism is a negative method, not a positive doctrine. It is a practiced abstention. It does not specify, in itself, what criteria are required to justify belief, nor how to distinguish between truth and falsity, or probability and improbability. Many skeptics have no clear sense of what core principles would justify belief in anything. Some say “Science,” or “observation,” or “common sense,” but each of these theories of knowledge really reside in philosophy more than in science itself, and without a good dose of philosophy these tend to slip into self-defeat (i.e.: “We know truth only by observation/science/common sense–even if the meaning of this sentence cannot be observed, scientifically proven, or is not itself common sense”). Where skepticism is ambiguous it is liable to leave the doubting generalist vulnerable to any attractive conspiracy theory. If one has no rubric for belief, neither is there a rubric for disbelief, and so one’s doubts are liable to flow from reactive oppositionalism, pop culture (i.e.: Internet Atheism in this case). One is liable to rank the anti-Jesus evidence far higher than the pro-Jesus evidence purely on subjective, presumptuous, or inconsistent grounds. Effectively one backs away from Jesus-belief never minding whether that retreat is less evidentially justified than to advance, and never minding what one is backing into.
3) Competitive Skepticism
With any group of people there is competition. Fundamentalists compete to see who can be more fundamentalist. Calvinists compete over calvinism. Atheists compete over who can identify and reject the most superstitions. And in historical studies, the skeptical community can find itself in a sociological sword-measuring contest to see who can find or invent the most extreme reasons for denying the historical Jesus. “Josephus was biased” shouts one man. “Tacitus was forged” shouts another. “The disciples were fishermen not modern historians” cries still others. “They were all high on Shrooms man!!!” And the spiral of doubt hastens downward with no verifying principles in sight nor anchors of credulity to halt its fall.
4) Publish or Perish Scholarship
There is an emphasis among scholars to generate new and original contributions to the great conversations of academia. Novelty is preferred in many cases, even in well-worn areas of study. It is titillating to skeptical leaning and ideologically liberal academics to propose a new conspiracy theory that challenges foundational beliefs of a major religion. There is always that hope of writing “the next big thing.” And what better chance at getting published, developing prestige, and creating a buzz than with a new theory about the most interesting man in world history–Jesus. There is a lot of material to sample from, and unlimited avenues for inventive reinterpretations such that 2 or 3 lines of evidence can be found for most anything from Gnostic Jesus, to Atheist Jesus, to non-existent Jesus, to Hindu Jesus, to Communist Jesus, etc. etc. Never mind that among actual historians, that is, published credentialed or otherwise professional historians and Bible scholars there has not be any serious doubt over whether a historical Jesus existed. Exceptions are few. Among living scholars I know of literally, 2-3 historical scholars and 5-6 semi-accomplished published skeptics. I’m not trying to exaggerate. If you know of more, please tell me. I know of GA Wells, Michael Martin, Richard Carrier, Robert Price, Earl Doherty, Thomas Thompson, and can find some others listed–but unverified as actual Bible scholars or Historians. (I’m not counting math or English PhD’s, for example). Onlookers can get duped if they don’t know how historical method works, who haven’t read much serious history, or who don’t know how to check for credibility and authenticity of one’s sources. It is no coincidence that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens buy the Jesus-myth theory but Bart Ehrman–the lone Bible scholar and published historian in that bunch–dismisses that theory as foolishness.
5) The Internet
The internet is great for providing access to whatever information can be taped, scrawled, recorded, or rumored. What the internet does not do well is discern. And whatever your conspiracy theory may be, you can find find a range of reports, articles, blogs, and videos swearing how true their theory is. Used well the internet is an invaluable research source like the Alexandrian library or a Ben Stein. But the internet does a lot of the filtering and searching for you. This is both good and bad. We are losing the art of finding information, relegating that search mechanism to the algorithms of google. And with the world of information at our fingertips, many of us have settled with that, not pushing further to get that information in our heads. We cope with the information glut by dropping our research filters (i.e.: discerning real from fake authorities), and we shop for information at our entertainment leisure, instead of striving hungrily after knowledge like a starving enslaved soul desperate for the elixir of life and liberty. When we don’t know how to research, how to discern responsible theories from conspiracies, or authorities from blowhards, we are liable to swallow theories like the Jesus-myther legend.
Please don’t hear me wrong. There are some Jesus-mythers who are really trying to do some responsible work, and they are interacting with high level scholarship. Richard Carrier comes to mind.* But when we apply such extreme theories consistently that rampant skepticism becomes either arbitrary (in where it stops) or catastrophic, collapsing most everything we’ve known about history.
* That is, if Richard Carrier really exists at all.