Interesting conversation by email today with a friend*, who was trying to call me out on my insistence there was a historical Jesus.
We reached the point that these conversations go, where I realise they thought I meant that the Jesus Christ of the NT was historical. I corrected them – the consensus among NT scholars and historians of the early Jesus movement is roughly:
There was a man named Joshua who was a follower of John the Baptist, an itinerant apocalyptic preacher from Galilee who caused a kerfuffle one Passover in Jerusalem and got himself executed.
And that’s about all we can say about him with any kind of historical agreement. All the Sunday school stuff: the birth, resurrection, claims to be the Son of God, salvation, and so on. All that is myth, according to consensus. My friend made this comment:
So basically everything that makes Jesus significant theologically, religiously, culturally, everything. Is all myth? For anything but the most irrelevant details, Jesus is a myth?–friend (edited for typos)
I’d never thought of it that way, but yes. I immediately thought of Simon Bar Kokhba. Historically a much more substantial messiah, one who made a far, far bigger impact as a historical figure. But 99% of people have never heard of him, because his mythology is pretty modest (though not entirely lacking). The difference between Jesus and Bar Kokhba—the only grounds on which Jesus matters to anybody but a tiny group of historians—is all the post-death mythologization.
I do believe there was a historical Jesus, but it is helpful sometimes to remember how little that matters to most people. The only Jesus that matters to the rest of the world is the Jesus that we all agree was mythical.
* My friend’s theological position is self-proclaimed ‘militant atheist’ — by which I think they mean that they see religion as an active evil in the world that should be resisted. I’ll let them say more in the comments if they wish.