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The strange case of the missing Jesus

It is a common occurrence to hear skeptics question whether Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God or that He was raised from the dead. Such claims have been with us since the time of Jesus.

What may surprise you is that there are a growing number of people who question whether Jesus even existed.

Jesus Myth Theory

This theory began in nineteenth century German scholarship and was soon refuted by the majority of New Testament scholars. It is rare for scholars to find a consensus, but the existence of Jesus as a historical figure is one of those cases.

Despite this, there has been a growing movement among laypeople to question the existence of Jesus. This is a part of what is called the Christ Myth or the Jesus Myth Theory. Mythicists often look to pagan myths as the inspiration for the Jesus of the Gospels, but start with claims about his non-existence.

This theory has spread like wildfire on the internet, being preached on numerous websites, blogs and even a popular internet movie named Zeitgeist.

Some of the well known authors include Timothy Freke, Peter Gandy, D.M. Murdock, Robert Price and Richard Carrier. There is much variety within the Jesus Myth Theory and some of these authors disagree strongly with each other.

A Canadian influence

Canada has played a role in the promotion of the Jesus Myth Theory. Earl Doherty, a Canadian author, published a book in 1999 called The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin With a Mythical Christ?

In this book, Doherty claims that the earliest Christians did not believe in a historical Jesus but considered Jesus to be a spiritual being who existed only in a spiritual realm. According to Doherty, it was not until the second generation of Christians that people mistakenly believed that Jesus was historical.

A more well known Canadian author who promotes the Jesus Myth Theory is Tom Harpur. Harpur is a former Anglican priest and was the religion editor for the Toronto Star for twelve years.

For much of his writing career, Harpur presented a liberal but semi-orthodox version of Jesus. Beyond the existence of Jesus, Harpur also affirmed the healings and resurrection of Jesus.

Harpur eventually encountered the writing of authors such as Gerald Massey and Alvin Boyd Kuhn. This led to a rejection of the historical Jesus and the publishing of Harpur’s most controversial book, The Pagan Christ in 2003.

In this book, Harpur claims both that Jesus never existed and that the Jesus of the Gospels is based on pagan gods such as Horus, Dionysus and Mithras. The Pagan Christ was named the Canadian non-fiction bestseller of the year by the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.

Rising popularity

Why would such a theory gain such popularity when scholarship rejects it so completely?

One answer concerns the increasing skeptical attitude within our culture. Not only are people doubting the existence of Jesus, they also question the historicity of Moses, Buddha and Muhammed.

Another part of the puzzle is the postmodern reaction to sources of authority. While once people respected the authority of the Church, now there is less faith in the formal organization. If the Church is so sure that Jesus existed, then there may be a reason to question it.

Some of the skepticism about Jesus seems to emerge from the new atheism. John Loftus, a former evangelical and now prominent atheist made this comment, “Atheists all agree that the miraculous Jesus we read in the gospels never existed.”

While this is no surprise, Loftus continues, “My guess is that eventually agnosticism about Jesus will become the dominant atheist view.”

For some people, it may be that rejecting the existence of Jesus is the easiest way to prevent him from having a claim on their life. A myth cannot transform a life.

Staying informed

Christians need to be aware of this sad trend among skeptics. There will be encounters with people who do not believe that Jesus existed.

Be watching for the next column when we look at how to respond to those who do not believe that Jesus existed.

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Stephen J. Bedard is an author, blogger and speaker. He is interested in discipleship, apologetics and disability advocacy. He co-wrote the award-winning book, Unmasking the Pagan Christ, which was also made into a documentary. He is the director of Hope’s Reason Ministry and editor of Hope’s Reason: A Journal of Apologetics. Additional writing can be found on his website stephenjbedard.com