God Doesn’t Exist: Historians Reject the Bible Story

You’re probably aware that the person making a claim has the burden of proof.  In the courtroom, for example, the prosecution has the burden of proof.  There are no ties—when neither side makes a convincing case, the side that failed to carry its burden of proof loses.

The same is true for people who claim “God exists”—they have the burden of proof.  That makes it easier for atheists.  But now I want to make a positive claim: that atheism explains reality better than Christianity.

I plan a series of posts making arguments in support of the claim “God doesn’t exist.”  Here’s the first argument: historians reject the Bible story.

You never find the details of the Jesus story in a history book, like you would for Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great.  Why is that?  Why is the Bible not cataloged in the library in the History section?

Christians correctly point out that the historical grounding for the Jesus story has some compelling points.  For example, there are not one but four gospel accounts.  The time gap from original manuscripts to our oldest complete copies is relatively small.  And the number of Bible manuscripts is far greater than those referring to anyone else of that time.

The enormous difficulty, however, is that historians reject miracles—not just in the Bible but consistently in any book that claims to be history.

Remember the story of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon?  The historian Suetonius reported that Julius saw a divine messenger who urged him to cross.  This is the same Suetonius that Christians often point to when citing extra-biblical evidence for the historicity of the Jesus story.

Remember Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor who reportedly ordered the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem?  He was himself divinely conceived, and he ascended into heaven when he died1—or so the stories went.

Everyone knows about  Alexander the Great, but legends about his life grew up in his own time.  Did you hear the one about how the sea bowed in submission during his conquest of the Persian Empire?

Strip away the miracle claims from Julius Caesar or Caesar Augustus or Alexander the Great and you’re left with precisely the story of those leaders that we have in history.  But strip away the miracle claims from the Jesus story, and you have just the story of an ordinary man—a charismatic rabbi, perhaps, but hardly divine.

Christians argue that we should treat the Gospel story like any other biography of the time, and I agree—but I doubt they will like where that takes them.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

1Charles H. Talbert, What is a Gospel? (Mercer University Press, 1985), p. 32.

Other posts in the God Doesn’t Exist series:

19 thoughts on “God Doesn’t Exist: Historians Reject the Bible Story

  1. Hi Bob,

    I don’t know much about the Old Testament, but the miracles of Jesus in the New Testament are not meant to be taken literally. I don’t care if Jesus did not really walk on water. The miracle stories are theological constructs that intend to convey a spiritual message. They are not historical records… It’s like The Animal Farm by Orwell. Orwell did not really claim that animals can speak and live in a society, but the narrative as it is designed intends to convey a message about people and the world we live in.

    Of course the central claim of Christianity, the resurrection, is not to be dismissed in this way. But then, no one knows what the apostles experienced after Jesus’ death. We need to accept on faith that they experienced Jesus risen from the dead, but it is not as such a part of world history. Only belief in resurrection and its consequences are part of it. All we know for sure is that SOMETHING happened in the days following Jesus’ death. It was at the very least a kind of spiritual experience that strongly affected a few people around Jesus. But what happened exactly is anyone’s guess.

    • I like that you’re not a literalist about everything, but the fundamentalist would say that you risk “cafeteria Christianity”–picking and choosing based on your personal preferences. IMO, all Christians do that (I’ve not heard any Christians demanding a return to Old Testament slavery practices, for example), but they have a point. Why accept the resurrection but not walking on the water?

      To your last point, I don’t know that “something” happened in the days following Jesus’s death. Our earliest epistles are decades after the fact, and the gospels are long after that. With that long a period for oral history to do its magic, I have no confidence in any element of the gospel story. Sounds far more like a legend than history.

      • Hi Bob,

        But at least, we know that before he died, Jesus had some close disciples. Then he was crucified and the disciples were, naturally, hopeless. But the question is, why didn’t the story end there? Obviously, something happened that changed the disciples’ mind and gave them the motivation to spread the Gospel. The rise of Christianity since the thirties is itself a testimony that something peculiar happened that convinced the apostles and many witnesses that Jesus had been sent by God. And don’t forget that many people in the first few decades of the new religion were tortured and put to death, but did not recant and expose any fraud.

        • When you say we know that Jesus had…. actually we do not know this. The only book where this is claimed as an original piece of work is the Bible.

          In the article itself you say if you strip away the myths surrounding famous leaders of history you have their story. A story recorded by many contemporaneous scholars. If you strip away the myths surrounding Jesus you have nothing. None of the history surrounding Jesus is accurate either. Herod, tax registration, Pontious Pilote etc etc.

          It is also claimed that very early xtians were put to death which may or may not be true. However what is true is that later xtians murdered millions in the most brutal and gory ways in the promulgation of their dogma. Hardly the basis of a nice goody lovey dovey faith that is proclaimed today.

        • And in addition to that by xtians own doctrine Jesus did not actually die. Well he did die in the ‘sure and certain knowledge of a resurrection’ so not really dead then. And anyway he was a God or the Son of God or God himself in human form. And what was so special about death by crucifixion. Thousands were killed this way and given what we know about our justice system and the mistakes we make with cross checks and balances it is pretty clear hundreds that were killed that way then, would be ‘innocent’ by todays standards. And many must have been less innocent than Jesus who caused a fair bit of civil unrest chasing money lenders out of the temple etc. Probably were not giving the churches a cut.

        • Litesp:

          You may be a little too pessimistic. We do have some extrabiblical evidence for the people and places named in the New Testament–King Herod and Pontius Pilate, for example.

          Still, that’s a pretty flimsy foundation on which to build the supernatural claims of the Bible.

        • On the topic of “Jesus died,” I agree. Jesus didn’t die for our sins; he had a rough weekend for our sins.

      • RF:

        No, I’m not sure that we know anything. That the disciples were hopeless and then regained their hope is simply part of the story. That’s all we know for sure. We haven’t yet moved from legend to history.

        The “why would they die for a lie?” argument is without merit, IMO. Material for a future post, I think!

  2. Hi Bob,

    Actually, I’m not RF: I’m RF2, aka Teapot.

    What do you find unacceptable in these statements:

    - Jesus had followers
    - Jesus died crucified
    - Then the followers were shaken
    - But they got over for some reason and quickly started to preach a new religion, first in Palestine, and then elsewhere

    ?

    Doesn’t sound like legend to me. In fact, no serious historian would claim that 100% of the New Testament is unreliable.

    • The Celestial Teapot? Welcome!

      Those statements are plausible. Could’ve happened. Or maybe not–maybe it’s just a legend. Impossible to tell.

      But what additional statements are you going to add to your tale? More details about their struggle or beliefs? Or miracle stories? If the latter, then we’ve seen this before. We know what bin to put this tale into: “Legend.”

      That doesn’t mean that the miraculous story needs to stay there. Stories have moved from the Legend bin to the History bin (the gorilla was considered just a story by the West, for example), but no miraculous story has (from the standpoint of historians).

      But let’s be open-minded and look at the facts. Maybe this’ll be the first time.

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  9. Which christians say that we should strip away the miracles and look at the story of Jesus as purely biographical? That is ludicrous.
    julius caesar and augustus caesar, and subsequent roman emperors, claimed divinity as desendants of the goddess venus, who was supposedly an ancestor of the julii clan. Major differences between Jesus and the caesars:
    1. no one is still worshipping the caesars today.
    2. None of the caesars performed any miracles
    3. Their burial places are known (though the remains of some were desecrated)
    4. Their quasi-divinity enhanced their political status
    5. none of them claimed to the way to God.

    So we can hardly strip away Jesus’ miracles when seeking to know who He is. Why not? Precisely because His actions PROVE who he is.
    Also, your statement that historians rejecting the bible story proves that God does not exist makes absolutely no sense.
    While working on my bachelor’s i studied suetonius. It is plain that his work is all propaganda: it demonizes all the “right” caesars (the ones the people hated) and deifies all the “right” ones: the ones who founded the empire (in order to make it appear salvageable and avoid its demise per popular revolt).

    • Which christians say that we should strip away the miracles and look at the story of Jesus as purely biographical?

      Many Christians claim that the gospel story is historically true biography, right?

      1. no one is still worshipping the caesars today.

      Agreed, though I’m not sure how this is relevant.

      2. None of the caesars performed any miracles

      Caesar Augustus was born of a virgin and ascended into heaven (a senator witnessed it).

      Or does that sound like fiction to you?

      So we can hardly strip away Jesus’ miracles when seeking to know who He is. Why not? Precisely because His actions PROVE who he is.

      And how do we know about his actions? Because of the gospel stories. Why believe that they’re any more accurate than the story of Merlin the magician, especially because historians reject all miracle stories claimed in history?

      Also, your statement that historians rejecting the bible story proves that God does not exist makes absolutely no sense.

      I’m not sure what your concern is. Are you saying that historians have nothing to offer and shouldn’t be listened to? I’m sure not. But if you respect historians’ methods, I’m simply recommending that you apply them uniformly, including to the Bible stories.

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