Jesus Did Not Exist reviewed by David Fitzgerald

A wonderful book review of Jesus Did Not Exist: A DebateAmongAtheists.


Review of Jesus Did Not Exist by Raphael Lataster

By David Fitzgerald

Paradigm shifts are not like the controlled explosion of an ancient cathedral being demolished, or a spectacular fusillade of fireworks. They are glacial in their implacable slowness, taking long, patient ages to effect the doom of what appear to immovable objects; well-grounded monuments to inertia and iron-clad certainty. But in due time, the unthinkable occurs. A gigantic mass begins to fracture, long-unnoticed cracks in its foundations break through to the surface, and then before anyone quite realizes it, it is over: in a few awesome and terrible moments, the entire colossal body shakes and groans, crumbles, struggles to remain standing, then with one final, fatal yawning lift into the air, is utterly overturned; toppling into the icy depths of the sea in pieces, never to rise again.

We are fortunate enough to be alive now, when just such a paradigm-shattering shift is underway before our very eyes – and Raphael Lataster’s exciting new book Jesus Did Not Exist gives us a front row seat to the show. No scholarly dispute has polarized the atheist community so bitterly as the argument over the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. As something of a combat reporter from the mythicist trenches of this culture war for over 15 years now, there’s little being said on this subject that surprises me anymore. But Lataster’s latest collaboration with Richard Carrier doesn’t just inform and invigorate the debate – arguably, it settles it.

For those new to the nuances of the historicist/mythicist argument, Jesus Did Not Exist makes an excellent entry point. Lataster wastes no time rightly declaring that this is a debate between atheists. It is pointless to imagine Christians could approach the issue with anything remotely like the necessary objectivity. They then should not become involved in it, nor should we as nonbelievers thrust it upon them. Christians are welcome to believe whatever they choose, but when it comes to examining historical evidence, their various brands of the Jesus of Faith don’t have a leg to stand on, and as Lataster points out, even the most hopelessly crackpot Jesus myth theory is still more plausible than the mainstream Jesus of Faith.

In setting the stage, Lataster (aided by Richard Carrier’s foreward) points out what has become increasingly obvious to a growing number of experts, both secular and devout: there is much crucially wrong with the methodology of Jesus studies. Despite this, there exists a bizarre level of unjustified certitude concerning “established facts” which are neither. Lataster notes: “It is astonishing that just about everything about Jesus is questioned by mainstream secular scholars, except for his very existence; that is anathema” (p. 28). He also questions why our sources for Jesus, near-universally recognized as sparse and problematic, “somehow, almost miraculously, become unquestionable” whenever his historicity is put under scrutiny…

Lataster introduces the players in this three-act comedy-drama with admirable candor; he’s not afraid to step on the toes of his heroes (on both sides of the argument) when they misstep. With a tip of the hat to Earl Doherty, Dr. Robert M. Price, myself and the late and much-maligned (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) DM Murdock/Acharya S, Lataster chooses to focus on the current standard bearers on this academic battlefield. On the historicist side, the only two scholars to write recent books on the subject: Bart Ehrman, well-loved secular hero with an Achilles’ heel; and the late Maurice Casey, a respected scholar who by the end had sadly morphed into a doddering uncle. On the mythicist front is his collaborator, Richard Carrier, who Lataster has no compunction to simultaneously lionize and criticize; finding him, on a personal level, annoying, egotistical, and an offensive philanderer – but as a scholar, applauding his logic, integrity and intellectual honesty. A half Spock/half Puck.

Like me, Lataster appreciates the majority of Ehrman’s work and scholarship; and even commends Ehrman’s initial appraisal of the evidence for Jesus in his Did Jesus Exist? This does not keep him from taking Ehrman to task over his misuse of that same evidence, double standards, outright errors, and most of all, what he terms “Ehrman’s Law,” his propensity to uncritically appeal to hypothetical sources (a tendency shared by all too many historicists). Lataster deftly pops this stochastic balloon with an inescapable truth: one can’t very well base your case on sources that may never have existed in the first place – and even if they did, how could you ever know that they support your own pet theory, and not that of your opponents? Answer: you can’t.

Casey was so underwhelmed by the “regrettable mistakes” (p. 17) of Ehrman’s book that he felt compelled to take matters in hand with what was to be his final book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? And yet, Casey’s book is far worse; a shambles by every standard. Lataster’s perversely-readable take down of Casey is a fascinating catalog of incompetence: clumsy mistakes, bombastic claims without a trace of any method, severe gaps in logic, a meandering and disjointed structure, childish vulgarity and name-calling, and repeated citations – of himself, from the same book. Pure schadenfreude-fodder. And of course, Casey shows the same complacent reliance on imaginary sources as Ehrman; in his case, particularly Aramaic sources (his specialty), which he teases out of the text, albeit with no answer for how these entirely hypothetic sources can be verified, their content analyzed, or actually traced back to Jesus (or any one else).

Lataster argues there are not two, but three sides of the argument, and takes up the case for agnosticism himself. Here he does a masterful job; Lataster excels at demonstrating where each side of the debate shines, and where their arguments fail. Yet what is most remarkable – and most refreshing – about Lataster’s threefold presentation is that he doesn’t keep to the safety of the shallow, moderate middle like so many before him. There’s a reason why the book doesn’t have a watered-down, diplomatic title like “Did Jesus Not Exist?”

Lataster turns next to Carrier’s case for mythicism from On the Historicity of Jesus. In fact he provides a complete summary of the book, no easy task for a work of nearly 700 dense pages; as well as tying in the Bayesian analysis laid out in its prequel, Proving History. This includes comparing what both theories entail; a point by point outline of the background knowledge underlying Christianity and the religious milieu it arose from; analysis of all our primary sources, both within the New Testament and without, including much startling and relevant information that has been largely overlooked or dismissed by the likes of Ehrman and Casey. Lataster ends with a pair of enjoyable appendices (his response to his Christian critics, shrill over their ever-increasing irrelevance, is particularly entertaining) and a final afterward from Carrier once again throwing down the gauntlet to the Academy.

Together, Carrier and Lataster’s cases deliver a devastating one-two punch to the historicist camp; showing the deep-rooted problems with the current consensus on Jesus, why agnosticism must be the baseline position on the matter of Jesus’ historicity, and also how the scholarship from all sides ultimately points not to the blatantly fictional Jesus of the Gospels, of course, nor to any of the versions of a hypothesized stripped-down real “Historical Jesus,” but to the Celestial Jesus – an entirely mythical one – venerated by the earliest varieties of Christianity.

It’s both ironic and fascinating how all the accusations lobbed at the mythicists boomerang back to the historicists: Do mythicists have a covert agenda? Or is it Christian theology –and financing – that covertly dominates the field? Are the mythicists really on the fringe – or is it more accurate to say that the consensus breaks down on close inspection? In actuality, the difference between the majority opinion of secular biblical scholars and the mythicists is simply the ultimate conclusion; merely the tip of the iceberg. Both sides largely agree (sometimes reluctantly) on virtually all of the evidence serious mythicists build their case upon.

A book as explosive as this will attract more than its share of unfair criticisms from the professional harrumphing set, including their usual barrage of noise and empty bombast. Biblical historian John Dickson has already cried “intellectual bigotry.” Admittedly, Lataster’s breezy tone and quirky sense of humor, such as his frequent fanboy pop-culture references to Tolkien and Harry Potter, might annoy or distract some readers. To be fair though, if Lataster does play to the gallery (and he does), it doesn’t detract from the quality of his serious points – and it’s a welcome antidote to the usual pompous theologobabble dressed up in historiographical garb, spilling oceans of ink to say absolutely nothing with supreme self-confidence.

It seems churlish to point out that there’s more to be said, particularly about the still-pervasive influence of Christian theology on the field, as Hector Avalos’ classic The End of Biblical Studies makes clear (and as I discuss further in my forthcoming follow-up book to Nailed, entitled: Jesus: Mything in Action); especially when this book has done so much to nudge Jesus myth theory towards critical mass.

The history of Biblical studies is replete with paradigm shifts of this magnitude, increasingly so in the last half century. Yesterday’s blasphemy is tomorrow’s consensus. This exhilarating book is an entertaining must-read for everyone on both sides of the divide, or anyone interested in the state of the biggest argument taking place in the uneasy intersection of atheism and biblical history. It will be interesting to see the response from the secular historicist camp - if they seriously engage with the evidence presented here, what can they say? If anything can open Bart Ehrman’s eyes to the fatal flaws of the historicist stance, it will be the arguments in this book. So read it and grab your popcorn; looks like there will be explosions and fireworks after all.

David Fitzgerald is the author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All, The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion series, and the forthcoming Jesus: Mything in Action.

Raphael Lataster 2021