Since the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life are so unreliable, many skeptics have rightly challenged me to explain why I accept Jesus’ historicity at all. It turns out the best reasons to believe Jesus existed are intimately connected to the best reasons to believe he wasn’t a messiah.
One criterion that historians use to help establish facts is the criterion of dissimilarity–does a story or belief hinder the author’s agenda? The apostle Paul, for example, writes that believers are “justified by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 6:11). Lost to modern readers is the fact that the name Jesus was totally mundane. Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 CE) mentions around 20 other men who went by the name during Jesus’ lifetime, and it was likely the commonality of the name that led pagan historians in the second century to refer to Jesus as just “Christ,” as if that was his proper name.
If the Jesus story was invented wholesale, why would Christians have given their hero such an ordinary name? Later on, they ascribe many other names to him that they believed more aptly described his messianic stature–Immanuel, for instance which means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). That Jesus’ name would actually have been a liability to early Christians arguing for his divine origins gives historians greater reason to believe he existed at all.
Similarly, that Jesus was from Nazareth was also particularly inconvenient to Christians who wanted to argue that Jesus was the Messiah since every Jew knew the “Christ” was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem. That Jesus was actually from Nazareth is maintained by the earliest gospel Mark (1:9, 1:24, 10:47, 14:67) and independently in John (1:45-46, 18:5-7, 19:19). In both accounts, Jesus is known as the Nazarene. On the other hand, Matthew and Luke place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to fulfill the Messianic prophecy, but their stories are hopelessly ad hoc.
Matthew has Jesus born in his home in Bethlehem (2:1), but his parents are forced to move to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s slaughter of all the children near Bethlehem (2:14) in attempt to kill the future “King of the Jews.” When Herod dies, Jesus and his parents return to Israel from Egypt, but they avoid Bethlehem because they are afraid of King Herod’s son, Archelaus, so they settle in Nazareth (2:22-23). Meanwhile, Luke has Jesus leave his home in Nazareth to be born in Bethlehem because a worldwide census forces Jesus’ father Joseph to return to his clan’s hometown at the same time Jesus is due to be born. After Jesus is born “in a manger,” the couple return to their home in Nazareth.
Notice not only do both explanations contradict each other about the location of Jesus’ home, but the explanations are totally ad-hoc–that is, they require adding in several unproven hypotheses to save the original unproven hypothesis–that Jesus was born in Bethlehem–from disconfirmation. In order to believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, we must also believe Herod the Great went on a mad killing spree, slaughtering every child under the age of three within range of Bethlehem. Not only is this not mentioned by any historian of the period, it makes no sense. If Herod wants to prevent a Jewish uprising led by the future “King of the Jews,” would the best method really have been to start indiscriminately slaughtering Jewish children? Furthermore, Matthew’s explanation that Jesus’ parents settled in Nazareth because they were afraid of Herod’s son Archelaus is equally incoherent since ironically, Nazareth was also ruled by another one of Herod’s sons, Antipas.
What Luke has us suppose is equally unlikely: that Caesar Augustus called for a worldwide tax that every historian of the period forgot to mention, even though the Jews under Herod were exempt from taxation, and the method described by Luke would have violated Roman tax law. All these inaccuracies, however, actually help establish that Jesus must have actually been from Nazareth. Why else would Matthew and Luke go to such extremes to explain how he could be both from Nazareth and born in Bethlehem? Obviously, they considered it an embarrassment that he was actually born in Nazareth. Furthermore, their differences make their single point of agreement–that Jesus was born under the reign of Herod–actually seem likely, since they confirm the accounts are historically independent of one another.
In the same way, Jesus’ mundane occupation also needed explanation. If Jesus was a divine Messiah, why did he spend most of his life as a humble carpenter? Mark’s author actually feels the need to address this exact issue.
“Where did this man get these things?” the [crowd] asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” (Mk 6:2-4)
In other words, here we have good evidence to believe that people in Jesus’ own family and those who knew him from his home town didn’t believe he was the Messiah because they knew him–they knew he was just carpenter. Mark’s author defends why this is so, but it’s almost impossible to believe he would have invented these facts if they were false. Even stronger evidence comes from Matthew. While the author copies the same passage almost word-for-word from Mark, he changes it to “Isn’t this the son of the carpenter?” (13:55) indicating that he found Jesus’ status as only a carpenter something to be embarrassed about.
Finally, that Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist was another major problem for early Christians. Josephus reports that John was a charismatic teacher who baptized crowds of people for the forgiveness of sins. “At that time,” the gospel of Mark adds, “Jesus also came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (1:9). Jesus remained as one of John’s followers for some time after his baptism (Mark 1:14). We know from Josephus and Mark that John was eventually imprisoned by King Herod (Mk 6:17-18). Only after John’s imprisonment did Jesus take over John’s message, which makes it clear that Jesus was continuing John’s mission. Even more clear is that Jesus and John both were preaching the same gospel: “Repent for the kingdom of God is near” (Mk 1:15). Mark even reports that many people including Herod actually mistook Jesus for John (6:16, 8:28).
But these events were embarrassing for Christians. If Jesus’ central message was messianic in nature, why was he so easily confused with John? Why were their “gospels” the same? Why did Jesus wait until after John’s imprisonment to begin teaching? More embarrassing still, Jesus’ baptism by John not only shows that Jesus was John’s follower rather than vice-versa, but also that Jesus had sins to be forgiven. Matthew’s author proves how embarrassing it was to the Church by copying Mark’s baptism passage word-for-word, but having John insist that Jesus baptize him (3:14), which totally inverts the implied meaning of the Mark passage. Worse, it contradicts earlier accounts that indicate John didn’t believe (or realize) Jesus was the Messiah (Mt. 11:3, Lk 7:18-23).
There are, of course, many other examples of this criterion of dissimilarity, but these few examples should suffice to explain why I think it is highly likely that the Gospel authors didn’t invent the whole Jesus story. Other reasons to believe Jesus existed include Josephus’ accounts (maybe), Paul’s testimony that he met with Jesus’ disciples and his brother James who is also mentioned by Josephus, and the fact that it’s hard to imagine the movement progressing without a historical Jesus. None of these reasons are as strong, however, as the desperate attempts by biblical authors to fit the known facts with Christian beliefs.
Update: The Christian interpretation of John the Baptist presented in the Gospels–that he was “Elijah” who paved the way for Christ–isn’t likely since the Jewish historian Josephus gives John the Baptist higher prominence than Jesus, and John’s followers didn’t go away after his death (Acts 19:1-3).