I recently caught a program on the newly launched AtheistTV that featured an interview with Richard Carrier, which got me thinking about this topic. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dr. Carrier, he is a leading "mythicist" scholar. And if you've never heard of mythicism, that it is because it is (for now?) a largely rejected line of thought, that contests the historicity of Jesus: he was, according to the argument, merely a "myth", a fake messiah, rather than a real person. (If you're interested on a primer of arguments, here you go). You may recall that, when Dr. Bart Ehrman published his book, Did Jesus Exist, a heated and bitter feud ensued on the topic. Carrier responded. Ehrman responded. Other people got involved. Carrier recapped. Since then, Carrier has also written a book on the topic (which those who watch the Atheist Experience might have noted, he will be discussing at this year's Austin Community of Atheists' Bat Cruise).
Now, let me make some acknowledgements right out off the bat. I'm an atheist, but I'm not convinced that Jesus was just a myth (I, obviously, don't believe he was divine; but I remain unconvinced that the mere existence of the person is a myth). My mention that mythicism is largely rejected is not a value judgment or an attempt to dismiss or diminish it (I deliberately avoided the use of the word "fringe", which I see often applied to it); this is something that Carrier and other mythicists freely acknowledge (and Carrier rightly points out that other, now widely accepted, theories were once 'fringe' ideas as well). I am not and do not claim to be an expert on the topic...but, going on what I've read from both sides, and based on what seems to be a growing embrace of mythicism -- and, in some cases at least, for reasons that are not necessarily sound ones -- in the atheist community (however small the overall number actually is), here are some thoughts on the topic.
1. Mythicism might indeed be completely accurate. We should not, however, embrace it for any but the soundest reasons. (And I am not convinced that we actually have those reasons, yet at any rate).
It is, of course, completely possible that Jesus was merely an invention. But the only sound reason to accept such a claim is the presence of very good evidence (I'll talk a bit more about that in a minute). There are a lot of very bad reasons to accept it, however.
Foremost among these, I think, is the appeal. In general, by virtue of having a firm opinion on the god question, you necessarily must assume that those who do not share your opinion are wrong -- you would not follow Christ if you believed in Allah, you would not follow Allah if you did not believe he existed, etc. Atheists believe that there are no gods. In America, particularly, where the Christian religion is predominant, a "magic bullet" that could show the vast majority of the populace the truth would be delightful.
And in so saying, I'm sure there will be religious people who feel this is an attack, but please believe that it is not intended as such. Imagine, for a moment, if you had a way to prove the veracity of your beliefs, to demonstrate to every atheist and non-believer that what you believe to be the truth is...would it not be a great thing, particularly if you care for your fellow man and care that he has the truest and best understanding of the world about him? I merely phrase it from the atheist perspective: that, as far as we can tell, the truth lies not in a god or multiple gods, but in no god. Whatever your opinion on the god question, I don't think it unreasonable to propose that solid proof, in one direction or the other, would be a great thing: the Truth, whatever it is, would settle the question that has set us at each other's throats from time immemorial, and we would, all of us, then be free to shape our lives in light of that revelation. That seems, to me, while highly unlikely, about as nice a thing as you can dream of.
At any rate, the appeal of such a discovery is undeniable. Like finding conclusive proof that Jesus not only existed but rose from the dead would be a monumental upholding of Christianity, so too would finding that there was no such person as Jesus be a tremendous boost to atheism (at least, in predominantly Christian nations, where most people already reject contender faiths in favor of the dominant one). But -- and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough -- the timeliness or usefulness of a claim is not reason to believe it. This holds true for anything, of course. Wanting something to be true does not make it true. Unfortunately, I've seen some very smart atheists jump on the mythicist bandwagon with seemingly no evidence, but a great deal of wishful thinking, to support the move. (It is only right to note that the aforementioned Dr. Carrier has also spent a considerable amount of energy admonishing other mythicists for misleading or flat out false work in promoting the theory. See here, for example). I'm not saying that the evidence can't convince (I am not convinced, but I fully admit that the failure might be in my reception of the evidence and not the evidence itself), but merely that, if it is to be accepted, it should be done on the basis of the evidence. Only.
2. A lack of evidence, forgeries in existing evidence, etc., is not in and of itself actually proof that someone did not exist.
There are good points to be made about this, and Dr. Carrier in particular does a good job of doing this. This goes to you can't prove he did exist. That is not the same thing as I can prove he didn't exist, and they should not be confused. Even if every mention of Jesus in historical records was inserted after the fact; if there was no such town as Nazareth; if most of what we hear about Jesus is made up and utterly at odds with the historical person; this does not prove that there never was a Jesus.
By way of example...ancient Egyptian "propaganda" monuments and tablets were often erected to praise kings and important nobles. The deeds described thereon were wildly inaccurate; accuracy was not the goal, but rather puffing up the good name of the person before the gods (and man, no doubt). A historian may well conclude that much if not most of what these flattering portrayals allege are lies. Without additional, strong evidence, however, it would be an unjustified leap to assert that the person in question never actually existed just because they didn't actually win tremendous victories and bring peace to Egypt.
I have mentioned Dr. Carrier several times so far, as he strikes me as the most scholarly and "mainstream" mythicist, so it is incumbent on me to note at this juncture that Dr. Carrier has actually said exactly this in the past: "The only effective way to argue for non-historicity is to present evidence for non-historicity (and not just demonstrate the lack of evidence for historicity)." Far too many mythicists, however, fall into the trap of "lack of evidence for existence is evidence of lacking existence".
Now, I wholly anticipate someone objecting: "but you dismiss religion for lack of evidence of its claims. Why not the existence of Jesus?" In answer, I must invoke Hitchen's Razor: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The claims of religion are extraordinary, and the evidence (as I see it) is simply not there. It is quite another thing, however, to claim, "there lived, some two thousand years ago, in the area of Roman Palestine a Jew, who probably was a religious figure of some sort, who may or may not have been a carpenter, and who may or may not have been killed for his teachings." That is to say, a person of whom we know almost nothing probably lived two thousand years ago. That is a statement so benign as to be almost uninteresting. It is worlds removed from supernatural beings with world-creating powers, sinister nemesis gods with torture chambers, etc. The one is so unexceptional that, were it not for the significance we have added to the fact (which we're only tangentially debating, in discussing the historicity of Jesus), it would not even need to be observed; the other so astonishing as to require a great deal of proving to be accepted.
3. Actually proving that an ancient person of little import (at the time) did not exist is even harder than proving that they did exist. One may say, virtually impossible.
Jesus would have been a teacher with a modest following at the time of his death. He would not have been the only one. He would have been one of many seemingly unimportant -- to non-believing contemporaries -- people. We can not prove that all the others existed based on contemporary records, so I, at least, am not overly surprised that the evidence for Jesus' existence is limited. Since the bare (not supernatural) facts of his existence are quite ordinary, it doesn't seem particularly questionable.
But what's even harder than proving that a relative nobody (at least in the eyes of his non-believing contemporaries) in ancient times existed? Proving that he didn't. If someone alleged that Jesus was born and alive today, in our modern era, with databases, modern record keeping, online records, etc., we might be able to prove that the allegation was either true or false. I say, might, because maybe Jesus' parents live in the mountains, and don't believe in social security numbers and hospital births; maybe Jesus isn't in the country legally, and so has to keep under the radar; maybe Jesus lives under a different name; "maybe" any of a plethora of scenarios that would inhibit definite knowledge, one way or the other, of the existence or nonexistence of Jesus. In this day and age, with all the means available to us to figure such things out. Resources that are certainly not available to us in regards to Roman Palestine.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the point is by way of a thought experiment. Pick an era in ancient times. Invent a character name consistent with the era. Now, would I be able to prove that he or she didn't exist? Even if I resorted to, "But I just told you to invent one, so this must be fake!" ... what's to stop you from coming back with, "I ignored that: this one's real!" How am I to prove that it isn't? It's practically a non-falsifiable claim.
In Jesus' case, for mythicists this often comes down to parallels with other belief systems, to cultural factors that seem to be at odds with the alleged facts of Jesus' existence, etc. These may (or may not) be sufficient reasons to cast doubt on the historicity of Jesus, but it is worth noting that even strong doubt isn't absolute proof. Reasonable doubt may be enough to keep someone out of prison, but it is not a guarantee that they did not commit the crime.
It is further worth noting that belief has the capacity to overcome even very reasonable doubt. Theologians are adept at crafting clever, sometimes downright brilliant, responses to practical objections to their faiths, because they ardently believe them to be true. They operate under the assumption that the religion is true, therefore discrepancies must have an explanation compatible with belief. Thus, to convince a firm believer that Jesus is merely a myth would take a great deal of evidence, far beyond doubt. While a minor point from the perspective of history, the existence of Jesus is a crucial point in, the cornerstone of, Christianity; to illustrate its falsity to believers would take a substantial body of irrefutable evidence.
4. Whether Jesus actually existed or not is no more relevant than whether Buddha, Mohammed, or Joseph Smith lived.
I have several times now alluded to the fact that there is nothing -- when the supernatural elements are removed -- from the idea of Jesus' existence as to raise too many red flags in regards to historicity. Someone, of whom we know very little, inspired followers to commemorate and worship him. This has happened hundreds, probably thousands or tens of thousand of times throughout human history; quite possibly more.
It is no more evidence of the truth of Christianity that Jesus existed than it is evidence of the truth of Islam that Muhammad existed, or the truth of Mormonism that Joseph Smith existed. The average Christian does not reject Islam because he believes Muhammad was not a real person. The average Muslim does not follow Islam because he's positive that Joseph Smith never lived. A religious leader's existence is not evidence that their claims (or those attributed to them) are correct.
Sure, if you could definitively prove that religious figures never existed, you would sway most believers (there will always be a contingent who ignored the facts [see: creationists], but most people are rational and will adjust their opinions when confronted with solid facts). But, even if you are persuaded, it is true that definitive proof is lacking (Dr. Carrier, in the interview I mentioned, put the possibility for Jesus' existence at 1 in 12,000 based on his reading of the evidence, but admitted that by more conservative estimates it could be 1 in 3). Based on the nature of the topic, it's further very possible that definitive proof might never be forthcoming -- at least, not in the direction mythicists argue. (If Jesus was real, we may yet find evidence of that existence; if Jesus was not real, what convincing evidence could we find of his nonexistence?) All of which brings me to my final point...
5. Tacking mythicism on to atheism is a potentially unwise thing to do.
I understand the appeal of mythicism. It is the magic bullet, at least if you live in a predominantly Christian nation. It's as close to proof of God's non-existence as you can come to get. As such, it requires a great deal of proof.
In my mind, mythicism seems like a step too far based on the evidence we have -- the burden of proof is on the person making a claim, not the person who remains unconvinced by the claim. It seems that a person who insists that Jesus was real has to prove that to convince us; a person claiming that Jesus had supernatural abilities has to prove that to convince us. On the other hand, a person claiming that Jesus did not exist has to prove that as well. Not just to people who don't really care if he did or not, because they reject the larger claims surrounding him, but to people who believe that he was real.
It's all well and good to admit the possibility, to make the argument that the only evidence we have for Jesus' existence is flawed, suspect, even wholly unreliable. It's fine for scholars to make the case that the data, in fact, points in the opposite direction, that church leaders invented a perfect messiah (provided the evidence actually indicates that). The more accurate knowledge we have, the better; the more honest examination of facts, the better.
But I can't say I'm thrilled to see atheists embracing this as an "atheist" idea. Atheism isn't concerned with the historicity of Jesus. It's concerned with the divinity of Jesus (and Allah, and G-d, and all the other gods out there). If tomorrow evidence of Jesus' existence is found, if the city of Nazareth is unearthed, or Ted Cruz gets a copy of Jesus' birth certificate -- atheism doesn't change. I'm not saying atheists shouldn't explore the matter, shouldn't encourage research into the topic. But I do think there is a risk to atheism seeming to promote or endorse the idea as a tenet of atheism. There is one ultimate question on which atheism hinges: if a god or gods exist(s), we are wrong. If no god(s) exist, we are right. Jesus' existence is only relevant in that respect: is he a god or demigod, or not? To get hung up on historicity -- which has the potential to persuade no one to a new opinion, neither atheist nor theist -- is to potentially be wrong, on a point that can only be proven, if it ever can be proven, against us (that is, evidence of existence can be discovered, if it exists, but, short of a confession from the church founders, solid evidence of nonexistence is going to be impossible to locate). And, more importantly, on a point that is merely tangential to atheism.
If there is truth to mythicism, scholars will (if it's possible) unlock it in time. In the meanwhile, atheism's position is no stronger for sticking its neck out for a position that might well just be hokum.