The news that 40 per cent of British people, according to a recent poll, do not believe that Jesus was “a real person” is pretty shattering whichever way you look at it.
The idea that Jesus of Nazareth is a mythical person, the so-called “Jesus myth” position, is something that was pushed by several Soviet-era pseudo-scholars, but is believed by hardly any respectable academics these days. Let us remember what a mythical character is: someone like King Arthur, Merlin, or one of the Knights of the Round Table – people whose story was written down hundreds of years after they supposedly existed, people who supposedly lived in an era (the fifth century) of which historical records are scant, people who may have a relationship to actual historical personages of whom we know little and about whom we will never be certain.
There may have been a bloke called Aurelius who may have been the model for King Arthur, but the fact is that King Arthur, especially the King Arthur of Malory, is a product of the imagination. The same goes for Father Christmas, who is a character from a masque by Ben Jonson, who has leaped off the page and taken on a life of his own. But he never lived, except in people’s minds.
As for Jesus of Nazareth, he lived at a time from which numerous historical sources survive, and the written testimonies to Him date from a few decades after his death at the most.
St Paul wrote his first letters in about 55AD; Jesus was crucified less than two decades prior to that; Paul’s letters contain quotes that antedate his letters. The first written testament to Christ contained in these quotes may date back to just a few years after the crucifixion. (See for example 1 Corinthians 11:23 et seq.)
So not only does the story of Jesus have verisimilitude, but it also has historicity, unlike the story of King Arthur, which is packed with anachronisms, and has no supporting historical evidence.
If 40 per cent of British people think Jesus never really existed, then this is a terrible indictment on their ability to understand history, a topic that is taught in all our schools. This does not have anything to do with religion, per se. It is evidence, however, that 40 per cent of us cannot distinguish between history and myth, historical personages and fictional characters. We are, in short, seriously confused. Everyone should be concerned about this.
If this statistic is true, it is also seriously bad news for the Christian religion, because the Christian religion makes historical claims: there was a person called Jesus and he died on the Cross to free us from our sins, and this really happened. If Jesus is a myth, then Christianity is rubbish. I am forcibly reminded of the Empress Helen and Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena. The Empress, you may remember, went to Jerusalem to discover the relics of the Passion because she wanted to show everyone that these things really happened, and that the story of Jesus was not a myth like that of Mithras. Funnily enough, none of the early critics of Christianity ever suggested Jesus was mythical: it seems that the Romans were far better educated and more sensible than many of our contemporaries.
So what then is to be done? Before anything else, the Church needs to reflect on its failure. If 40 per cent believe in the Jesus myth, this is a sign that the Church has failed to communicate with the general public. We need to develop new strategies of communication, and that initiative has got to come from the leaders of the Church. The Church of England commissioned this poll, but all Church leaders need to consider implications and fashion