Answering Jesus Mythicism

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In 1952, C. S. Lewis famously formulated his Jesus trilemma in the classic Mere Christianity. In this book, Lewis lays out the three available options when it comes to how one can view Jesus: liar, lunatic, or Lord.[1] However, with the historically persistent and now rising view of Jesus mythicism in the background of discussions surrounding Christianity, it is now past time to add a fourth option to Lewis’s list: legend. This position dismisses Jesus’ existence on the grounds that his life and ministry “are not historically true.”[2] While many Christians might be tempted to quickly dismiss the belief, we need to pay attention to the legend position due to its (albeit minor) persistence. [3] Thus, it is important that Christians know how to respond to this challenge.

Theology vs. History

First and foremost, Christians must recognize that the theological nature of the Gospels does not undermine their historical validity which is often asserted by Jesus mythicists. It is crucial to recognize that history and theology are necessarily linked together. The only reason I affirm the Apostles’ Creed (or any other orthodox statement of faith for that matter) is because I think the Gospel stories about Jesus actually happened. We should embrace New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham’s sentiment that “theology and history may meet in the historical Jesus instead of parting company there.”[4]

Are the Canonical Gospels Historical Books?

Rather, we can trust the historical validity of the Gospels for two reasons. First, the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are clearly books that focus on the life of Jesus in ways that identify themselves as biographies, leading New Testament scholar Craig Keener to note that “it therefore comes as no surprise that most Gospels scholars today have embraced the view that the Gospels are ancient biographies.”[5] The very nature of the genre of ancient biographies corresponds to at least an attempt to record historical events of some sort.

Second, we have good reason to think that the Gospels were composed within living memory of Jesus and his followers,[6] meaning that most readers of the Gospel accounts in the late first century and early second century would have generally been familiar with the subject matter in question. This is especially important, as writing within living memory of the events being described prevents the possibility of the Gospel authors going rogue and making up whatever they wanted about Jesus. Readers would have served as a check and balance against such a practice.

If Christians can begin to improve their familiarity with the history of the Gospels and arguments for their reliability, then responding to objections like those pushed by Jesus mythicists will become quite natural.

At the same time, this does not mean that all four canonical Gospels simply tell the same story verbatim. That would defeat the purpose of having four Gospels! Each of the Gospels presents a unique perspective on Jesus and focuses on various aspects of his life in some regard while agreeing on the core aspects of His teaching and nature.[7] In fact, in terms of probability, it seems quite likely that multiple sources speaking about the same (or similar) events would have – and record – different perspectives. New Testament scholar Michael Licona notes that there are a few plausible reasons for this, ranging from Jesus telling the same story multiple times in different ways, Gospel authors emphasizing certain actions of Jesus over others, or Gospel authors relying on diverse sources.[8]

So, what’s the Point?

The point is this: while Jesus mythicism is trending in popular circles, the Christian can be confident in Jesus’ historical existence, as we have early, multiple historical attestations to his existence. Moreover, the Gospel accounts stand up to scrutiny,[9] and the small differences between the accounts are not discrepancies or contradictions but common, expected outcomes of different perspectives among the Gospel authors. If Christians can begin to improve their familiarity with the history of the Gospels and arguments for their reliability, then responding to objections like those pushed by Jesus mythicists will become quite natural.

What’s more, Christians are commanded to be prepared to address objections to Christianity. 2 Corinthians 10:5 makes this clear: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” You may take Jesus’ existence for granted, but many do not. I’m convinced that the reason Jesus mythicism remains popular is precisely because many Christians are no longer contending for the faith. As Christian engagement with the faith decreases, popular level arguments against Christianity – like Jesus mythicism – increase.

So, Christian, are you contending for the faith? If so, great. Keep contending! If your answer is no, I humbly encourage you to start doing so. Nothing less than then public credibility of Christianity itself hangs in the balance.

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[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperOne: New York, 1952), 52.

[2] Brant Pitre, The Case For Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence For Christ (New York: Image, 2016), 5.

[3] Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazereth (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 20-21.

[4] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 5.

[5] Craig S. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Realiability of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), 25.

[6] Keener, Christobiography, 15, 17,19, 369-400, 449-496.

[7] Keener, Christobiography, 17,  puts it this way: “they tell the same essential story (and many of the same essential substories) yet with variation in how they tell them.”

[8] Michael R. Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 117.

[9] For a brief, general defense of the historicity of the gospel accounts, see Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018).


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MA Ethics, Theology, and Culture

The Master of Arts Ethics, Theology, and Culture is a Seminary program providing specialized academic training that prepares men and women to impact the culture for Christ through prophetic moral witness, training in cultural engagement, and service in a variety of settings.

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Eli Kunkel

Eli Kunkel

Eli Kunkel (BS, College of Education, North Carolina State University) is currently pursuing MA degrees in both Christian Education and Christian Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition, he teaches middle & high school courses in Apologetics, Cultural Engagement, and Competing Worldviews at Bethesda Christian Academy, in Durham, NC.

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