Spoiler alert: We’ll probably never really know what happened on Easter. To do that, we’d have to solve a host of prior mysteries, beginning with the greatest conundrum of all: Who was Jesus? Did Jesus even exist, or was he merely a mythical figure around whom lore accumulated as Christianity grew? That’s a radical position but not one without its scholarly adherents, from Bruno Bauer in the nineteenth century through John M. Robertson, William Benjamin Smith, Arthur Drews, and George A. Wells in the twentieth to (among others) Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier, and Robert M. Price today. (In recent years, Wells has retreated somewhat from the mythicist stance of his earlier writings; see his “Is There Independent Confirmation of What the Gospels Say of Jesus?,” FI, August/September 2011.) More mainstream is the view currently championed by, among many others, Bart Ehrman, which concedes the existence of a historical Jesus but views him as an apocalyptic preacher—a rather unremarkable figure in a Judea squirming beneath the Roman boot—to whose memory later admirers attached a dog’s breakfast of messianic characteristics. Indeed, few outside the more conservative Christian churches still hold out for a Jesus who was literally half man and half god, performed miracles, and physically rose from the dead.
One could ask, of course, why secular humanists should care. I’m known for dismissing Christmas as “not the birthday of anyone I know.” Surely Easter is not the resurrection day of anyone in whom atheists, agnostics, humanists, or freethinkers believe. Yet the fact remains that we live in a culture heavily saturated—and even more profoundly historically influenced—by religion. Many of us hail from religious backgrounds whose abandonment was a pivotal event in our lives (see our series “The Faith I Left Behind,” which continues in this issue). The creed with the most adherents in this country and the most profound influence on American life is Christianity, of course—and the claim that Christianity’s founder defeated death is absolutely central to the Christian message as its most devoted adherents still understand it. For all those reasons, I think it makes sense for secular people to retain an interest in how Christianity arose and how its teachings were shaped.
First, if Christianity’s development can be accounted for entirely historically, then that is powerful evidence against claims that it displays marks of supernatural authorship. Second, and for many of us equally important, a well-formed view of how Christianity came to be enables those of us who left it to better articulate—to others but also to ourselves—what it is that we abandoned and why we did so. Finally, I for one find something inherently fascinating in this question: If Christianity is not true, how on earth did it manage to assume so central a role in the unfolding of the West? What does it tell us about human beings that a lie—or to put it more charitably, an utter error—accrued such power?
So as we enter another spring season, FREE INQUIRY is pleased to present a new scholarly perspective on what might have happened on Easter morning. On the view of philosopher David K. Clark, the core question is less what happened on Easter morning than what early Christians must have convinced themselves happened on Easter morning. No mythicist, in “Betting on Jesus: The Vanishing of the Christ,” Clark offers a fresh view of a Jesus who duly existed but whose story ended conclusively on the cross.