Did Jesus Exist? Why do 15% of Britons Believe Jesus Christ was a Fictional Character?

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By Arif Khan – Deputy Editor of The Review of Religions Christianity Section

This month YouGov, one of the most renowned and highly influential British international Internet-based market research and data analytics firm, published the results of their latest survey around Christianity in Britain. [1] The survey mostly looked at how Britons celebrated the festivals of Christmas and Easter, with a focus on if the celebrations were religious, secular or a combination of the two.

The results, perhaps as expected, highlighted the trend of both celebrations becoming purely secular events. The report on the results summarised this trend as follows:

‘Just 4% of Britons who celebrate Christmas do so in a religious manner, whilst for six in ten (61%) it is a completely secular event. Three in ten (31%) combine the two aspects. Easter is marked in a religious fashion by 10% of those who observe this holiday, 56% have a secular celebration and 29% combine the two.‘

How is Christmas Celebrated?

This trend is something I have witnessed myself growing up in Britain.

The tradition and family aspects are stressed, the giving of presents endured, and the religious aspects are rarely emphasised. Those looking for deeper meaning in the festival of Christmas, for example, often talk about ‘the spirit of Christmas’ rather than using any Christian symbolism or rhetoric. This ‘spirit of Christmas’, however, has less to do with theology and more about people giving gifts, thinking of others, and focusing on things like the feeding of the homeless.

One area where religion and theology do enter the predominant culture is with Nativity plays at school. These plays, however, have also taken on more of a family nature, with the focus on children having ‘speaking parts’ in plays in front of an audience for the first time, rather than a focus on the words of the play. It is for this reason that children from all faith backgrounds partake in these in schools.

The findings on the survey are in keeping with the trends witnessed in British life. The statistic that just 27% of Britons believe in God is also in keeping with previous surveys. The Guardian in July 2019, for example, highlighted the decline in religious belief in Britain following the publication of a similar survey. [2] By contrasting the results with a 1999 survey it was shown that this trend had moved significantly in the last 20 years:

‘The proportion of people who say they are “very or extremely non-religious” has more than doubled, from 14% to 33% in the past two decades’.

One Unusual Statistic

Hidden amongst the regular statistics, however, there was one item that caught my attention. This is something that had become a popular topic amongst scholars of Christianity around the turn of the century, yet too many would seem an unthinkable thought. Did Jesus Christ (as) actually exist as a historical figure, or was his entire being a myth and pure allegory? The YouGov survey highlighted that 15% of Britons believe that Jesus was a ‘fictional character’.

Two authors who would agree with this 15% are Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, authors of The Sunday Times Bestseller: The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God? The book, first published in 1999, built upon other books on the same topic, yet presented the information in a more accessible way. Their central premise was clear and bold: Jesus Christ was a fictional, mythical character whose life story was mythical, and used to explain the higher principles and teaching of Gnosticism, which in their opinion is the ultimate truth.

The Pagan Saviours who were ‘Sons of God’

In their popular book, the authors show that when you look together at the myths of the following mythical gods of the ancient world you find striking similarities with the traditional Christian stories of Jesus Christ (as):

‘At the heart of the Mysteries were myths concerning a dying and resurrecting godman, who was known by many different names. In Egypt, he was Osiris, in Greece Dionysus, in Asia Minor Attis, in Syria Adonis, in Italy Bacchus, in Persia Mithras. Fundamentally all these godmen are the same mythical being.’ [3]

In the book they collectively refer to these godmen as ‘Osiris-Dionysus’.

The authors present the following events are attributed to these godmen, and we immediately recognise these as being part of the traditional story of Jesus Christ (as):

‘Osiris-Dionysus is God made flesh, the saviour and ‘Son of God’.
His father is God and his mother is a mortal virgin.
He is born in a cave or humble cowshed on 25th December before three shepherds.
He offers his followers the chance to be born again through the rites of baptism.
He miraculously turns water into wine at a marriage ceremony.
He rides triumphantly into town on a donkey while people wave palm leaves to honour him.
He dies at Eastertime as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
After his death he descends to hell, then on the third day, he rises from the dead and ascends into heaven in glory.
His followers await his return as the judge during the Last Days.
His death and resurrection are celebrated by a ritual meal of bread and wine which symbolises his body and blood’ [4]
To emphasise the final point the authors present a saying of Mithras, which strongly echoes the traditional Christian creed:

‘He who will not eat of my body and drink my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.’ [5]

When I looked into this topic around the year 2000 I was surprised to find that it had been debated for as long as Christianity has existed. The early Church fathers responded to similar criticism and their polemics are still referenced today. [6] Their approach was to claim that ‘the Devil’ had stolen the true story of Jesus Christ (as), before it occurred, and created myths around it to mislead the faithful. Others suggested these traditions could perhaps be prophecies about Jesus Christ (as).

Non-Biblical References to Jesus Christ (as)

Another area highlighted by those believing Jesus Christ (as) to be fictional is that there are very few, if any, verifiable references to him outside the New Testament text. More fuel is added to the fire when since one of the most famous non-Biblical references to Jesus, that by 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, is accepted by modern scholars to have been interpolated. [7]

Considering all this information, is it surprising that people have taken the view that Jesus Christ (as) never existed as a historical figure? What can we believe about Jesus Christ (as)? How do we know what is true about his life, and what was a later interpolation?

Advent of Islam – What Does the Qur’an Teach About Jesus (as)?

For a Muslim, this puzzle is somewhat familiar territory. A fundamental commonality between Christianity and Islam is the belief in Jesus Christ as a Prophet of God, yet a fundamental area of difference is his status and the events of his life. The Holy Qur’an contains several verses that strongly argue against both the idea of Jesus being a literal ‘Son of God’ as well as part of a holy ‘Trinity’:

‘They are surely disbelievers who say, ‘Allah is the third of three;’ there is no god but the One God. And if they do not desist from what they say, a grievous punishment shall surely befall those of them that disbelieve.’ (Ch.5:V.74)

‘And they say, ‘Allah has taken to Himself a son.’ Holy is He! Nay, everything in the Heavens and the earth belongs to Him. To Him are all obedient.’ (Ch.2:V.117)

‘Allah has not taken unto Himself any son, nor is there any other God along with Him; in that case each god would have taken away what he had created, and some of them would, surely, have dominated over others. Glorified be Allah far above that which they attribute to Him’. (Ch.23:V.92)

Removing these elements from the traditional Christian story of Jesus Christ (as) distances him from the allegations that the story is another myth in the mould of Osiris-Dionysus.

Another bold claim made by the Holy Qur’an is the explicit rejection that Jesus Christ (as) died upon the cross. The Qur’an instead explains that he was neither killed, nor put to death through Crucifixion, but this is how it was made to appear. [8] (For more details see this article)

This assertation removes another allegation by those believing him to be a myth, the view that he was following a pattern of ‘dying and resurrecting’ saviour figures. The Qur’an is clear that he did not die upon the cross, and thus there is no question of a ‘resurrection’.

Conclusion

Professor James Tabor, in his book The Jesus Dynasty, discusses the reference to Jesus Christ (as) in the writings of Josephus. He believes the most accurate version of the saying is as below. This quotation shows the text, as it appears, and includes the sections struck out that Dr Tabor believes are an interpolation:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonders, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew many after him both of the Jews and the Gentiles. He was the Christ. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things about him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day (Antiquities 18:63-64).

This outlines a true historical figure. A wise man, named Jesus, who drew many followers. The faith of the followers was not reduced, even after Pilate had him placed upon the cross. Josephus adds, that to this day, the group still exist.

The interpolation in the above passage is a clue as to what has taken place with the story of Jesus Christ (as). The scant facts mentioned in the New Testament accounts have allowed others to draw a large range of conclusions about Jesus Christ’s life and works. The Christian creeds that emerged appear to also have departed from the original teaching of Jesus Christ (as) and incorporated strong elements from other Pagan traditions of the time.

In trying to remove the interpolations and additions in this account of Josephus, we must be careful not to throw out the whole passage and reject Jesus Christ (as) existed at all. It is a difficult task and largely occurs only in academic circles relating to New Testament studies.

Into this complex world the religion of Islam, through its text the Holy Qur’an, has brought clarity and insight. Modern Christian scholars are reaching similar conclusions today, 1400 years after the revelation of the Qur’an, that are supporting the Qur’anic teachings.

Dr James Tabor cannot help but highlight in the conclusion of The Jesus Dynasty:

‘The striking connections between the research I have presented in The Jesus Dynasty and the traditional beliefs of Islam. The Muslim emphasis on Jesus as a messianic prophet and teacher is quite parallel to what we find in the Q source, in the book of James, and in the Didache…there is little about the views of Jesus presented in this book that conflicts with Islam’s basic perception’. [9]

Thus, it can be said that when you take the Islamic viewpoint on Jesus Christ (as) you have a figure free from the influences of Pagan tradition, and a story that is largely in-line with a leading scholar on Archaeology and New Testament studies, Dr James Tabor.

We reach the, perhaps, unexpected conclusion that the religious tradition that best preserves the true teaching of Jesus Christ (as), and robustly defends his personage from accusations of being a myth, is in fact the religion of Islam.

About the Author: Arif Khan is a Biblical researcher, Editor of the ‘Tomb of Jesus’ website and appears in Paul Davids’ film – ‘Jesus in India’, first aired on the Sundance Channel. Arif is currently serving as the Deputy Editor of the Christianity Section of The Review of Religions.

ENDNOTES

[1] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/philosophy/articles-reports/2020/12/29/yougov-study-christianity-britain – 29th December 2019

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/11/uk-secularism-on-rise-as-more-than-half-say-they-have-no-religion – 11th July 2019

[3] Timohty Freke & Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries, 1999, pp 5

[4] Ibid, pp 6

[5] Ibid, pp 2

[6] Ibid,

[7] https://jamestabor.com/the-ancient-jewish-historian-josephus-on-john-the-baptizer-jesus-and-james/ – published 21st February 2017

[8] Holy Qur’an : Chapter 4, verses 158 to 159

[9] Tabor, Dr James, The Jesus Dynaster, London, 2006, pp287

Related Posts:

  1. Christmas and Jesus(as): What’s the Connection?
  2. The Meaning of Christmas
  3. What Jesus (as) Really Said About Heaven and Hell: A Response to an Article in TIME
  4. Commemorating Jesus as a Muslim

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