Jesus' story: Gospel truth or myth?

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Jose Miguel Almaraz, in the role of Jesus, is lifted up on a wooden cross during the reenactment of the Stations of the Cross put on by Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church Friday, April 3, 2015.

In the midst of the French presidential elections, which are becoming nearly as chaotic and controversial as the U.S. election of 2016, what many people in France are talking about these days is something else: the French pop philosopher Michel Onfray's latest best-seller, Décadence.

The book is 650 pages of rambling communist philosophy centered on the claim that Western civilization is based on a huge lie: that a man named Jesus of Nazareth really existed.

Of course, Onfray - a former high school teacher turned best-selling left-wing intellectual - is merely piggybacking on a "meme" that has swept through college campuses and internet chatrooms in the United States over the last several years.

Known as "mythicisim," this is the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is an entirely fictional character with no more claim to historical status than Odysseus, King Arthur or, for that matter, the Wizard of Oz.

The advocates of this position in the United States - mostly self-taught amateurs on the internet but one or two legitimate Ph.D.s - claim that Christianity was originally an esoteric mystery cult that worshipped a heavenly "Christ" figure and only later identified the fictional Jew named Jesus as this heavenly savior.

In other words: the heavenly Christ came first, the fictional Jesus second.

Because the earliest New Testament writer Paul has few details about the life of Jesus in his letters compared with the later Gospels, some of the mythicists claim that this proves Paul "invented" Christianity.

And Onfray, who is the author of more than 100 books, is now bringing "mythicism" to a wider audience in Europe.

Like American college kids, many secular Europeans find the idea of a fictional Jesus to be a hilarious and effective stick with which to bash Christianity and, in the process, anything in Western culture they don't like (such as monogamy, work, child support payments, and so on).

But is there any truth to Onfray's and other mythicists' claims? Is it possible that Jesus never even existed at all?

Of course, it's possible ... just as it's possible we're actually floating in gigantic vats of goo, like in The Matrix, and the entire outside world is a holographic illusion produced by Skynet and our robot masters.

The problem is basic plausibility: the same epistemological standards, if applied consistently, would mean rejecting virtually all of ancient history as equally mythical.

That is one of atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman's central problems with mythicism: We don't have outside textual or archaeological corroboration for most figures in ancient history, even most famous people.

For example, much of what historians know about first-century Israel comes from a single writer, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (AD 37-100), who wrote two enormous books chronicling the history of the Jewish people (and who mentions Jesus of Nazareth in two brief passages).

Yet how often do Roman writers in his age refer to Josephus?

Not once.

And what evidence do we have besides his writings that Josephus actually existed?

None at all.

Similarly, everything we know about the Three Hundred, the Spartan warriors who held off a Persian invasion at the mountain pass of Thermopylae in 480 BC, comes from the writings of a single Greek author, Herodotus. What's more, the earliest copy we have of Herodotus' writings dates to the 10th century AD - or more than 1,350 years after the events he describes.

In dramatic contrast, archaeologists have actually uncovered confirmation of many people and places mentioned in the New Testament.

This includes important figures from the High Priest Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate to lowly Roman bureaucrats such as Sergius Paulus (the proconsul mentioned in Acts 13:6-12); Gallio (the proconsul of Achaia mentioned in Acts 18:12-17); and Erastus (the city treasurer in Corinth, mentioned both in Acts 19:22 and in 2 Timothy 4:20).

In fact, there may even be confirmation of Jesus' existence: a recently discovered ossuary, or Jewish burial box, on which are inscribed the words, James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.

The authenticity of this artifact is hotly debated. But if proven authentic, it would be the first archaeological confirmation of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.

For these and other reasons, therefore, most secular, non-Christian historians and scholars reject mythicist arguments.

The more plausible historical explanation for the birth of Christianity is that a man named Jesus of Nazareth really existed - and that he inaugurated a social and religious movement that spread like wildfire throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

In an age of "fake news," shocking claims to the contrary may sell a lot of books - Onfray's is now atop best-seller lists in Europe - but that doesn't make them true.

Anyone who cares about the truth should take the apostle Paul's advice: Test everything (1 Thess 5:21). Keep what is good - and makes sense.

Robert J. Hutchinson is the author, most recently, of "The Dawn of Christianity" (Nelson, 2017). robert@roberthutchinson.com