The first major scholar of the synoptic Gospels to cast serious and profound doubt on the question whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person was Bruno Bauer (1809-1882). Bauer is the central figure in Albert Schweitzer’s famous book of 1906, The Quest of The Historical Jesus. Schweitzer, believing that Jesus had existed, rejected Bauer’s thesis. He attempts to argue in The Quest that Jesus must have been a “thoroughgoing eschatologist,” who died under Pontius Pilate in the mistaken belief that he, Jesus, was in fact the heavenly “Son of Man” who was destined to fulfill the prophecies of centuries-old Jewish Apocalyptic narratives such as 1 Enoch and the Book of Daniel. It is not a convincing argument.
Bauer proposed that the (original) author of the Gospel According to Mark composed the story of Jesus of Nazareth as imaginative literature. The other three Gospels were constructed on the basis of (among other things) this story, and everything in the history of Christianity–all that is founded upon the rock of that story–is likewise not grounded in any verifiable or even plausible historical reality.
Unfortunately, the question of Jesus’ historical existence has been muddled and distorted and rendered a “stupid controversy on the internet.” As far as I can tell, the element of distortion and fallacy goes back to Bauer himself. Now, one obvious reason why I cannot put forward this claim with total confidence has to do with an embarrassing failure of modern scholarship. Inexplicably, Bauer’s work on the New Testament has never been translated into English. Wtf?
In 1841, Bauer published his Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte der Synoptiker. This is his great work on the historical incredibility or implausibility of the synoptic Gospels, which so impressed Schweitzer. But much later in his life, in 1851 and 1877, Bauer published other books on Paul and on the allegedly Greco-Roman origins of Christianity and the New Testament. It is in these latter books that Bauer became the first serious representative of the so-called Christ Myth Theory, a.k.a. Jesus Mythicism. This topic consists of the history of scholarly attempts to demonstrate both the negative proposition that Jesus never existed, and the positive proposition as to how exactly Christianity did originate in history, despite the non-existence of any such figure as Jesus. In the history of this literature, from Bauer’s writings on Paul in 1851 to the 21st century writings of Earl Doherty, Thomas Brodie, and Richard Carrier, there has never been anything like an agreement among mythicists as to how the worship of Jesus Christ and other aspects of earliest Christianity originated in the ancient world in the 1st or 2nd century CE.
The reason is obvious: the evidence for establishing the positive proposition of the Christ Myth theory is insufficient for the job. And why would that be? Any number of factors would explain why this is so. But let’s not be stupid about this. No historically literate person can suppose that the political establishment of a strict, monotheistic (“one true god”), Chalcedonian (“Jesus was both man and god”), and intolerant form of Christianity in Europe from 380 to 1789 CE had nothing to do with the loss of any evidence from ancient times that we might have inherited for the history of earliest Christianity. The past is a dark hole, and it is a fantastic delusion of both Christian and anti-Christian historical scholarship in the modern era to assume dogmatically that we must have sufficient evidence to reach a compelling verdict on these matters.
It is fallacious not to distinguish the following propositions:
- That Jesus of Nazareth existed has been an unshakeable presumption or axiom of Western, Judeo-Christian culture since the Council of Nicea (325 CE).
- The Gospel portraits of Jesus of Nazareth are not credible as narratives of real historical events.
- Surviving historical data, including the New Testament scriptures, do not constitute credible evidence that Jesus of Nazareth existed.
- It is likely that Jesus never existed.
- Jesus never existed, and Christianity originated thus and so.
Presumptions and axioms cannot be proved. If they could, they would not be presumptions and axioms. But they certainly can be questioned, doubted, and shown to be fallacious, fantastical, or delusional. Bauer showed in 1841 that the synoptic Gospels make no sense as history. Among other things, they fail to explain why their Jesus would have been executed by the Romans for sedition. Or how anyone came to believe that he was the Messiah. Or had been resurrected from the tomb. Or what it would have meant in Palestine circa 30 CE to believe in a messiah, hope for his arrival, or accept the report of his resurrection from the dead. And so on. These are only a few of the hopeless and foundational incoherencies of the synoptic Gospels.
Schweitzer gives a long list of such questions, both in his specific chapter on Bauer, and in chapter 19 (“Thoroughgoing Skepticism and Thoroughgoing Eschatology”), in which he opposes his own views and those of his ally Johannes Weiss to the skeptical conclusions of Bauer and William Wrede. Schweitzer does not actually attempt to refute Bauer or the skeptics. He pleads against them. He says that they lack “intuition” of Jesus’ true historical nature. But he does not attempt to argue, specifically, that propositions 1-3 in the above list are false. Far from it.
Here is the central conclusion of The Quest for The Historical Jesus:
The historical Jesus of whom the criticism of the future, taking as its starting point the problems which have been recognized and admitted, will draw the portrait, can never render modern theology the services which it claimed from its own half-historical, half-modern, Jesus. He will be a Jesus, who was Messiah, and lived as such, either on the ground of a literary fiction of the earliest Evangelist, or on the ground of a purely eschatological Messianic conception.
Ch. XX, “Results,” p. 396
Schweitzer himself incorporates Bauer’s skeptical, negative conclusion about the historicity of Jesus into his own conclusion, explicitly. And it makes no sense. How can “criticism” portray a “Jesus, who was Messiah, and lived as such,” on the basis of a literary fiction? Schweitzer equivocates.
Schweitzer’s equivocation is a necessary consequence of modern Christianity’s attempt at a dual allegiance both to itself and to the empirical study of reality. (Most Christians today have only the one allegiance to their own faith.) It’s embarrassing. But that’s what a society based on biblical religion demands of its conscientious historians: dishonesty, equivocation, having it both ways, lying, and confusion.
Such is what we also get from the brash, middle-minded, best-selling pseudo-historian Bart Ehrman (by training, a textual critic of ancient Christian literature), who pretends to provide a neutral, professional, even-handed, and so of course objective assessment of Christianity’s historical claims, but who in fact is little better than a shill of America’s theo-conservative publishing industry. Ehrman pretends to be a disciple of Schweitzer, and so much is true when it comes to politically judicious and theologically sensitive equivocation.
But anyone who reads The Quest knows that Ehrman and his best-selling colleagues in the Jesus industry are full of shit. The real Schweitzer was a skeptic, who honored the fearless honesty of Bauer.
Jesus Christ is the deity of a world religion. Faith automatically proves that he existed, that the Bible tells the truth about him one way or another. The great German critics of the past exposed the emptiness of the concept of an actually historical Jesus. But hold on now, contemporary scholars of religion have worked up a great consensus that yes he sure as hell existed. But their work is lifeless and stupid and generally nothing but a repetition of discredited claims from the 19th century, which anyone of curiosity can read about in Schweitzer’s great book. But people don’t trust old books or try to read them. There is a ridiculous notion on certain internet forums dedicated to biblical studies that only contemporary scholars currently employed at reputable institutions have authority to pronounce on matters Biblical. For evangelicals with a college degree, this guild is akin to the Catholic Church’s Magisterium of yore.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.Matthew 23:13
Trust us, Jesus existed. Trust us.