Was Jesus Real? Asks Jesus Project Scholars December 29, 2008

Was Jesus Real? Asks Jesus Project Scholars

(This is a guest post by Trina Hoaks. Trina is the Atheist Examiner at Examiner.com.)

A new project is under way to determine if Jesus actually existed. Aptly enough, it is called the “Jesus Project.” The project, which is an initiative of the Center for Inquiry, is comprised of 20 scholars from different areas of expertise who consider the existence of Jesus to be a “testable hypothesis.”

The group, which consists of historians, biblical scholars, theologians, archeologists, and the like, will make their way through countless documents to determine what is admissible to the question at hand — a daunting task to be sure.

I have to wonder if the five years that have set aside for the project will be enough.

I also wonder, though, if this quest is worth the time, effort, and money. I for one have an appreciation of knowledge for knowledge’s sake and will be interested to hear (or read) the conclusions of those involved. I’ll admit it: I am intrigued. However, I have no doubt that no matter what they conclude, there will be people who will not be satisfied with the answers, and the debate will rage on.

Do you think this project will produce any worthwhile results?

Will they be taken seriously?

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  • J. J. Ramsey

    I think we’ll have to wait and see. BTW, there’s thread on the FRDB (formerly IIDB) about it:


  • Even if they conclude that Jesus did exist(how many men were named Jesus back then…), it means nothing to me. Who cares if he existed? Can we go back and tell him all the shit he has caused? No…

  • Dave Huntsman

    There have been thousands of religions; but they can be divided up into groups. One group are ‘historical religions’; those that claim that it is factual human history that certain humans existed on approx. such-and-such dates; that they said such-and-such words; that they did such-and-such things. Not all human religions are like that; some are stories from human pre-history that don’t even pretend to be history. But three of the biggies – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are maintained to be historical.

    No one, to my knowledge, has disproved positively the existence of Zeus. But, very few believe in him and his cohorts these days. For one thing, things that were thought to be solely caused by him – eg, lighting bolts – we now know are not from his hand. And the sun being the chariot wheels of Apollo? I’ve been involved in solar space missions; trust me, no chariot has been seen, even up close.

    So, since Christianity maintains that there was a human – no matter what else he may, or may not, have been – named Jesus that the ‘Christ’ stories were based off of, the question is reasonable (and even mandatory): Was there a historical person who actually existed that the stories or based on – or, not? You would have gotten a crazy look for asking the same question about Zeus 3 thousand years ago; hopefully it won’t take so long to come up with answers here.

    As an example:
    Bart Ehrman, North Carolina State university professor and author, was a diehard evangelical from the age of 15 on (he documents his personal journey in his excellent little book, Misquoting Jesus). Graduate of the Moody Bible Institute; then a couple of religious colleges; he became a true scholar as he less and less accepted what he was told, and instead investigated himself. His conclusions: a) all the “Christ” stories layered on top of an original Jesus person are fiction, written hundreds of years later (he documents many examples). But, b) he feels that there are some things in the many canonical and non-canonical gospels that seemed to pre-date those, and dealt with possibly a real person. He calls that person ‘the Jesus of legend’ – ie, someone who may have existed.

    Former Professor and former priest John Dominic Crossans’ books, using his own exhaustive methodology, come to similar conclusions. ie, there seem to be a core set of sayings that are internally consistent, and predate the much later generation of the Christ stories that were layered on top of them.

    The Jesus Project is the first project I think in CFI”s scientific examination of religion project. Unlike the earlier Jesus Seminar, it is intended to go into real research and generate hopefully real data and assessments, rather than just collecting opinions.

    I for one would like to know whether anyone like a Jesus-of-legend (as Ehrman puts it) actually existed. We have lots of records – essentially, consistent data – that show lots of people who existed even earlier than the purported Jesus, and names of his supposed followers, etc. It’s hardly a non-important question; since hundreds of millions not only believe in the Christ stories, but even start wars over them, torture over them, etc.

    Truth matters; which means, we need to find out what the truth is. I honestly believe that knowing the truth will make us, and the humans that follow us, free. So I hope they come up with some new, constructive data and analysis in their quest. Millions will ignore it (unless it confirms their beliefs); other millions will listen with interest. But once the truth is out there, it’s very, very difficult to put back as time passes.

    Just ask Zeus!



  • Rat Bastard

    Pretty good, Dave!

    However, I’d bet serious cash to doughnut holes that the Muslim contingent is going to point to the verified existence of Mohammed. Note that even in this case, the “truthiness” of his writings is still in question.

    I’d venture to say further that the existence of a jesus of any sort is not sufficient to convince me that any god exists. There even is the phrase “thou shalt not have any other gods before me”, essentially acknowledging the existence of other gods that the judeo-xtian god claims to supersede. Who does that upstart think he is, anyway? People invent their own gods, and a pitiful specimen of perfection “HE” is, in every case.

    Regretably enough, I’ll also agree with you that it won’t amount to a hill of beans about the non-existence of jesus to the faithful sheeple of the world.

    btw, Odin is the man, and you’d best not forget it! :O

  • HP

    Dave, Zeus is a bad example — Zeus, Jupiter, Dis Pater, Iapetus, Indra, and Jehovah are all one and the same Indo-European Sky-Father god. People still worship Zeus, they just call him by his Hebrew name.

    There is, actually, pretty good evidence for a historical John the Baptist, a rabbi who taught that salvation was possible in this life, and that one could achieve salvation without the asceticism of the Essenes nor the strict orthopraxy of the Pharisees. And John the Baptist had a number of disciples, all of whom left his ministry to travel throughout Roman Palestine, taking John’s teachings and adding their own personal spin. Was one of these disciples named Jesus? Probably. Probably more than one. Were any of them crucified? Likely — the Romans would nail anyone at the slightest provocation.

    All these disciples of the Baptists were a bunch of radical rabbis who stood opposed to the Roman occupiers, the Pharisees, to King Herod, and the Essenes. All the contradictions in the words of Jesus (“Blessed are the peacemakers” vs. “I bring not peace but the sword”) are best explained as a composite of a number of John the Baptist’s disciples. That accounts for the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels (i.e., all the “red-letter” stuff in the KJV).

    The name “Jesus” and the connection to King David (among other signs) are post-facto elaborations intended to connect this composite Jesus to Hebrew prophecy. The Hebrews were widely respected by victims of Roman oppression, because they alone of all the subject peoples of Rome were granted an exception to the requirement to worship the Emperor as a god. So there was powerful mojo in the connection to Hebrew prophecy as far as converting Roman subjects.

    The mythic elements of the story — from virgin birth to ressurection — are all taken from wildly popular near-eastern Mystery Religions, from the cult of Osiris in Egypt (and beyond) to the mysteries at Eleusis and Ephesus. When Catholics walk the Stations of the Cross, they are reenacting a watered-down version of the pre-Christian Mystery Cult initiations.

    This is the parsimonious answer. It is consistent with the religious and political atmosphere in the eastern Roman Empire in the first century, and explains all the goofiness in the Gospels.

    There. I’ve just saved the Jesus Project a whole lot of time and money.

  • Rat Bastard

    But, HP, you will deprive them of income…think of the children! j/k, your point is well taken. The point is, they all, without exception, do not exist. I belive in NONE of them! Guess I’m a real atheist after all.

  • HP said,

    Dave, Zeus is a bad example — Zeus, Jupiter, Dis Pater, Iapetus, Indra, and Jehovah are all one and the same Indo-European Sky-Father god. People still worship Zeus, they just call him by his Hebrew name.

    You just crashed in religious literacy street cred. Within the Greek worldview Zeus was a created god, born of the titans Cronos and Rhea. Rhea was in turn daughter of daughter of Ouranos, the sky, and Gaia, the earth. King of the Gods … yeah Zeus became known as that … but only after a power struggle with elder gods.

    By way of contrast, within the Jewish and Christian worldviews, YHWH is the uncreated Creator, Lord of earth, sea and sky. YHWH is more equivalent to what the Greeks called Fate – that which even the gods are subject to. Zeus is more equivalent to what Christians call an archangel. To compare sky-god Zeus to Creator-god YHWH is to indulge in cross cultural category confusions. Same with many of the other examples you mention. You may regard them all as myths but at least get your myths right.

  • Dave Huntsman

    There. I’ve just saved the Jesus Project a whole lot of time and money.

    Actually, HP, you didn’t; what you did is give much of the evidence for why the Christ stories are wrong. What the Jesus Project is after, I think, is what Bart called the possible real ‘Jesus of legend’; the one who really might have uttered the core phrases Crossan found. (If you’re masochistic, read his The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991), or the briefer Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994) , which is a summary of the scholarship (and it is true scholarship) in the bigger tome. I got both at the local branch library.

    Interestingly enough, by the way, Crossan’s scholarship still is not compelling that a real living human lived who said those things; all the evidence, including cultural, is indirect. But he then makes his own jump, and says he thinks the guy did exist. One of his reasons: His study of Roman rule in Mediterranean culture (and he shows in the first book that there was such a thing as Mediterranean culture that superseded, eg, Hebrew culture), says that the whole idea of one of John the Baptist’s followers – one of the more believable things – throwing a tantrum at moneychangers in the orthodox, profit-making Jewish temple – and then getting immediately crucified for it – is something that just strikes a chord of believability in terms of something that really could have happened. In fact, someone doing such a thing could have had nothing else happen to him except an immediate “casually brutal” crucifixion.. (Note, he then goes on to show why 90 % of the Passion story’s details are true b.s. (my initials, not his!), and that how casually he would have been disposed of, how burial would have been prohibited by the Romans – as with the thousands of others crucified in Jerusalem during that period – etc. etc. Good stuff.

    In my view, people like Crossan have drawn a believable circle of good circumstantial evidence and analysis around the “Jesus of Legend” (NOT dealing with the later Christ mythology you deal with).. What the Jesus Project still hopes to do is to bridge that last gap from that circle to the center: is that original ‘legend’ based on a true human being – or not?



  • Zeus, Jupiter, Dis Pater, Iapetus, Indra, and Jehovah are all one and the same Indo-European Sky-Father god. People still worship Zeus, they just call him by his Hebrew name.

    Well, the problem with that statement is that YHWH is not at all cognate with Zeus/Jupiter linguistically, which is not particularly surprising when one considers that Hebrew is not an Indo-European language. (Various modern and ancient languages, including Greek and Hebrew, and linguistics were the subject of my undergraduate education.)

    The problem with figuring out the historicity of the Jesus reported in the New Testament is the paucity of historical source material. To a Christian believer, the preservation of the New Testament texts and their overall coherence coming from a universally acknowledged plurality of human immediate authors seems nothing short of miraculous, and indeed there is very little ancient Greek literature of similar age for which there is anywhere near the amount of manuscript attestation or manuscripts as close in time to the events described.

    The core of doubting the New Testament comes from considerations of the kind mentioned by David Hume in his explanation of why he doubted reports of miracles in general. It is easy for a Christian to doubt any historical claim in the Quran, and plausible enough to a Christian that Mohamed may not have had any historical existence at all–as some Muslim scholars claim. But whatever the project concludes–and we can know ahead of time that it will NOT conclude that Jesus was the promised Messiah or the Son of God–a Christian might reply that the conclusion was reached simply because of the presupposition that accounts of miracles cannot be taken at face value.

    There aren’t enough surviving contemporaneous records with a good chain of transmission to say much definitively about whether or not there was a man Jesus (that’s just Greek for Joshua, of course) who had twelve followers called apostles and who said many of the sayings attributed to him in the New Testament writings. Nothing about the Jesus Project is likely to turn up any new source material–it will be simply an exercise in providing a summation of long-discussed inferences from the existing source material. That may possibly seem like new information to some readers. How convincing it will be to the masses remains to be seen.

  • geru

    My simple take on this is that there is a 100% certainty that there existed lots of guys called Jesus at that time. But it is also 100% certain that none of them were born of a virgin, healed the sick, raised the dead or resurrected after death.

    So why should any of these guys even considered to be Jesus? You could just as well say that Caesar was Jesus, he also didn’t do any of the things described in the bible, but he did live at about that time.

    I know, this is quite simplified, but my point is, if Jesus didn’t do any of the things that makes him different from all the other people spreading the same recycled philosophies, why should it matter if someone had him in mind while writing some fairy tales, or not? Other than for for the sake of the trivial knowledge.

  • you will be happy to know that jesus was a real man and he is very much alive in the Spirit World and so is the Creator.
    On May 9, 1986 I awakened to see jesus Walking towards my bed and he said you are my mother from the Holy Land Lifetime and you are a walk-in who returned to earth at this time to channel for me and the Guides and prove everlasting life.

    Scientifically speaking when humans die on Earth the Spirit leaves the body with all its intelligene and memories both good and bad and from the after life they can return to give us happy thoughts or they can if they choose return and seek vengance against humans who killed them and sent them to their death.

    Contrary to popular belief they do not sprout little wings and sing in an angelic quire the way we have been led to believe, their intelligence is in tact and they want to find channells like me to help convince the world theya re alive just as they were when they walked the earth and I believe there shouldb e more scientific research into what I am saying.

  • It’s nonsense, along with just about all the rest of Bible history and archaeology. There are so many people so invested in Jesus existing, it doesn’t matter if there is evidence – they will gladly manufacture it. And this has been going on for *two thousand years*, give or take.

    But viewed in the same sense that we view other historical figures, there’s no reason to doubt that there was a founder of what would eventually (after many twists and turns) become Christianity – but who that person who formed the initial cult was, and their real intent during their own life, and their own hopes for the religion (or even if they had any intention to form a religion at all) can’t be known. So, sure, there was probably a “Jesus” – in the sense of a person who was the driving force for the movement inside of Judaism that would eventually be called Christianity, then break away from Judaism and become it’s own religion. But other than that, nada, nothing, zip. In my own reasonably deep studies about the historical evidence of the Gospel figures . . . uh, it’s really, really scant. The best “proof” is the Bible, itself, which is an intensely unreliable document.

    And these waters are very muddy. The lies and deceptions are, themselves, almost two thousand years old – given that we already know that a great deal of the supposed evidence of those times has been forged, how can we trust any of it? Thousands of years of charlatans, religious crazy people and repeated mistakes have made the subject hidden beyond the ability for anyone to sort out the truth from all the lies and errors.

    They’re wasting their time. We won’t know anything real about “Jesus” until we invent a time machine.

  • Tao Jones

    This is incredibly important as far as I’m concerned. Five years is too long for me to wait for the results.

    If it turns out the way I think it could, we’ll likely have a very good understanding of how the *stories* of Jesus came to be. Maybe then more people will realize how incredibly unlikely the stories are.

  • I for one hope that they conclusively prove the existence of Jesus with full godly powers. That sets a precedent for the existence of Odin, Ra and all those gods who were a lot more fun at parties (although the free wine trick was good) and altogether larger and more interesting. OK the Old Testament has dragons, giants and talking animals but Thor slew giants and dragons all the time and had a lot more sex to boot.

    I wanna see some serious historical study of the other gods, it’s time we found out the truth about dragons.


  • TJ, maybe it’s just that I did spend a year researching the historicity of the figures in the Gospels – but almost all of the “research” will be repetition of stories, many fables, which will be twisted to fit a hypothesis.

    It’s actually really depressing to what extent Bible history and archeology have been corrupted by religions. They use totally different standards of proof than every other field of history or archeology, and they are not better, more stringent standards. These people who are doing this study are not trustworthy – and neither is the material.

    What will come out of the study – and I say this with tremendous confidence – will be lies. Because the truth is fairly easy to find and not terribly interesting, like I said above: there is no reason to doubt that there was a founder of the Jewish movement that would become Christianity. But past that, nothing. That’s what an honest analysis of the information says: beyond there being a founder of Christianity whose name may or may not have been Jesus . . . nothing.

    I’m sure their work will be more interesting, if without any real intellectual or historical or archeological merit. But an interesting lie is still a lie.

    (And if I am coming off strong here, it’s because of that research I mentioned. I was appalled at the difference in standards of Bible history and archeology in comparison to the rest of those fields. Appalled. So when they say that they’re bringing in Bible scholars and Bible archeologists into the study – I am appalled. It’s the same as inviting an ID proponent to your study about the truth of evolution – it’s really that bad.)

  • J. J. Ramsey


    The mythic elements of the story — from virgin birth to ressurection — are all taken from wildly popular near-eastern Mystery Religions, from the cult of Osiris in Egypt (and beyond) to the mysteries at Eleusis and Ephesus….

    This is the parsimonious answer.

    Until you actually have a look at the actual stories to which the accounts of Jesus are being compared. It’s interesting, for example, to see Osiris’ story being massaged into “Ascended to heaven after being resurrected” when the original story is more like “Went to the underworld after his body was put back together and temporarily revived after having been ripped apart.”

    What the Jesus Project could do is help atheists clean house and finally discourage the bad scholarship that mythicists have put out, instead of having academics and amateurs and cranks hash it out on FRDB. Having the Jesus Project last five years and having it be open will be helpful, I hope, since that will allow for both opportunity and time to reply.

  • Rat Bastard

    Invitation of biblical scholars is going to taint the study. Any atheist here who has discussed religion and existence of any deity is well aware of the number of logical fails that will be presented before, if he/she persists, will boil down to the person admitting “faith”. Once you get there, it’s over in terms of logic. I fear that there will be pressure from the religious people to find some explanation for the veracity of the myths. If I handed in a paper in English class that was as bad factually as the bible, I’d have my ass handed to me (barring it was a fiction story assignment).

  • The cynic in me says that it will not matter what they find. It isn’t like the religious are susceptible to things like science and reason!

    However, I think it could be worthwhile for those of us in the reality-based community if it ends up strengthening the case either for or existence Jesus. Suppose they find compelling evidence that Jesus did exist. I’d certainly accept this and stop referring to him as a fiction.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Rat Bastard: “Invitation of biblical scholars is going to taint the study.”

    vjack: “It isn’t like the religious are susceptible to things like science and reason!”

    Holy overgeneralization, Batman!

    You do know that higher criticism, like, oh, Wellhausen’s JEDP hypothesis, came from religious scholars, right? Don’t be too quick to reject what the liberal scholars have to offer.

  • JimboB

    The results of the project:

    If there is favorable evidence for the existence of Jesus, Christians around the world will praise the Jesus Project for their open-mindedness, hard work & dedication to the Truth(tm).

    If there is unfavorable evidence for the existence of Jesus, Christians around the world will condemn the Jesus Project for being closed minded, biased, liberal-media-loving Secularists.

  • VorJack

    Just to be clear, I’m not sure there are going to be results or findings. To hear Robert Price talk about it, this is just going to be a big scholars society where they discuss and debate but never take a vote or agree on a consensus. Apparently, the way that the Jesus Seminar took votes on everything really annoyed some of the members.

    My impression is that the published “findings” will consist of a lot of scholarly papers that lay out the range of arguments. There will be no single conclusion.

    Price is interviewed about the project here.

  • JimboB

    My impression is that the published “findings” will consist of a lot of scholarly papers that lay out the range of arguments. There will be no single conclusion.

    Well that’s no fun 😛

  • Pat

    If Jesus really was a messenger from the almighty, wouldn’t the evidence be both overwhelming and incontravertable? I find it impossible to accept the idea that a being who could will the universe into existance would need a device as crude as the Bible to pass along information.

    Can God be less than all powerful and still be God? If God is all powerful, how then could he/she/it ‘want’ anything? By the same token, if I can make God angry, haven’t I exercised power over God, leaving he/she/it less than all powerful?

    Oh yeah….now I remember, God moves in mysterious ways.

  • What the Jesus Project could do is help atheists clean house and finally discourage the bad scholarship that mythicists have put out, instead of having academics and amateurs and cranks hash it out on FRDB.

    That’s an interesting perspective. The quality of atheist argument does have to improve considerably if it is to have much influence on the opinions of skeptical people brought up as Christians.

  • I want to quote a excellent piece of writing reg. this project:

    While some archeologists are scholarly, there are also a great number of contra-scholarly academics who, whenever it contradicts their set-in-concrete positions, evade and dismiss irrefutable scientific evidence contributed by impeccable scientists (like Prof. Andrey Feuerverger and Prof. Wolfgang Krumbein), even when corroborated by the findings of a court of law (which found the charges of forgery of the Yaaqov ossuary baseless).

    These contra-scholarly academics, secular Jews in concert with Christians, are committed to maintaining the status quo of Christian Hellenist perceptions, which date no earlier than Paul, to the exclusion and contradiction of documented history: the Judaic context demonstrated, inter alia, by Prof. Elisha Qimron in his work on Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT.

    From at least the 4th century C.E., the world has accepted the Church’s definition of Jesus as their divine Son of God displacing (superseding) the Torah with himself as “grace,” as described in the Christian NT. Thus, Jesus is intractably anti-Torah (antinomian) and contradictory to documented history: the Judaic context, which defines the historical Jew as a Torah-teaching (pro-Torah) Pharisee Ribi: Yehoshua. Playing games with these names changes neither character any more than switching the names of a rose and an onion would change the characteristics of either. Jesus is the intractably contradictory polar opposite of Ribi Yehoshua. Thus, the very phrase “Historical Jesus” is an intractable oxymoron, pre-ensuring that any quest for it is impossible.

    If there are any real scholars in this field, let them acknowledge the historically-documented Judaic context that defines and constrains the very real, historical Jew who was a Torah-teaching Pharisee Ribi — and let that, instead of Paul and post-135 C.E. Hellenist Roman fabrications, mold their conclusions about him and his teachings.

    Instead of looking for the oxymoronic “Historical Jesus,” start looking, for the first time, for “Historical Pharisee-Ribi Yehoshua.” You can start your search, and find an enormous amount of information, at http://www.netzarim.co.il.

    Paqid Yirmeyahu (member of Mensa)
    Paqid 16, The Netzarim, Ra’anana, Israel
    Israeli Orthodox Jew (Teimani Baladi Dardai)
    Advancing Logic as Halakhic Authority
    Welcoming Jews & non-Jews

    From Anders Branderud

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