To tackle the first half of the question first, the answer depends on whom you ask.
Most Americans will answer with a resounding "yes." To get a "no," you must turn to a small contingent of renegade scholars, their adherents, or a few crackpots who like to sound outrageous. The question may also be greeted by an occasional indifferent shrug.
According to recent surveys reported in Newsweek and the Time Almanac 1999, 85% of Americans call themselves Christians. Of these, 75% (nearly 65% of all Americans) 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. They believe God assumed a human guise for about 33 years, talked, walked, slept, and ate in Palestine some 2,000 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 they seek.
Wells, Professor Emeritus of German at the University of London, 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, magnanimous indeed, 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.
The remaining 10% of Americans who call themselves Christians are considered "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 an 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. The book The Five Gospels (edited by Robert Walter Funk) (the fifth is the non-canonical Thomas), based on the work of the Jesus Seminar, which brought together a group of biblical 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. They gut the Sermon on the Mount, 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 a background, character, and deeds consistent with Old Testament predictions (or what they thought were such) about the Messiah. The Evangelists were not averse to imaginative glosses on Old Testament passages. Matthew, for example, transformed a "young woman" who would bear a child (Isaiah 7:14) into a virgin who would bear Jesus and converted a prophecy about Israel (Hosea 11:1) into a prophecy about Jesus. In light of the dense encrustation of artifice and 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 Bultmann's skepticism.
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 an 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 worshipped 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 Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in 313 C.E. (Common Era), 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 an historical Jesus, George A. 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 demonstrates that St. Paul, who wrote several (probably eight) New Testament epistles to various churches between 45 C.E. and 60 C.E., knew next to nothing about 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 also 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 disappeared."
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 an 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 but 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 (a member of an ancient Jewish sect). 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 nearly 65% of Americans who think God incarnated himself in an 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 company?"
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 find him."
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.
Gary Sloan is a retired English professor from Ruston, Louisiana. He has written articles on Christianity for Free Inquiry, The Skeptic, The Humanist, American Atheist, The Freethinker, Freethought Today, Exquisite Corpse, The American Rationalist, and other magazines.
Make an IMPACT
Email your feedback on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.