When trying to determine whether something is true or not, it is common in statistics to run two tests. One if it is true and if it is not (called the null hypothesis). I think it would be useful to examine the life of Jesus using this approach. I’ll take two possible hypotheses, one that Jesus was the Son of God and God in human form, performed miracles and rose from the dead in the standard Christian view. The null hypothesis is that Jesus was just an ordinary teacher with no superhuman powers. I think that a lot can be gained from comparing the two hypotheses and seeing which is the more plausible.
Case 1: Gospels
First, take the Gospels. Imagine if you were the son of God and wanted to leave a message for all humanity for all time. First of all, you would want to write it yourself so it could not be distorted. It would be free of contradictions and above criticism (seeing as it was written by a deity). It would be necessarily detailed and long in order to cover all the problems of life and to give full answers to them all. It would naturally describe the church you were going to create and its structure. It would speak not just to your immediate neighbours, but people living thousands of year’s later living on the other side of the planet. Your messages would be clear and unambiguous containing great insights into both life on Earth and the afterlife.
Now imagine if Jesus was only a teacher. He would say some useful things but he would lack insight into the afterlife and everything beyond his limited surroundings in Palestine. He would not be able to give rules for modern life which he would not have any comprehension of. He would not describe a church he had no intention of setting up nor write a holy book. He could tell vague stories but nothing Earth shattering.
I think it is clear that the evidence suggests we cannot reject the null hypothesis (I’m going to avoid overly technical language from here on out as you probably get the message). Instead of a clear, detailed Gospel straight from God himself, we only have an incredibly short and brief account riddled with contradictions and omissions. We have no firsthand accounts of Jesus or anything from himself. There is little indication that Jesus even intended to set up a new religion and gave incredibly little advice as to how it would look. He mostly spoke in vague parables whose interpretations are very wide and can be taken to mean very little or a great deal. It is so bad that Catholic Church does not believe the Bible is reliable enough to be read by itself but must also include Church teaching and tradition (very little of the Church hierarchy comes from the Bible). So score one for the null.
Case 2: Miracles
Second, let’s take the miracles that Jesus performed. If he was God made man, then we would expect truly spectacular feats. Literally anything would be possible for him. He could move mountains, drain oceans or cure the entire world of disease. Being God, he could easily provide irrefutable evidence that would not leave anyone in the slightest doubt as to who he was. An ordinary teacher would not be able to perform any miracles and even if miracles were ascribed to him, they would be vague and open to criticism.
So what’s the evidence? Well, firstly, Jesus is claimed to be born of a virgin, which is quite an achievement, but one that is impossible to prove either true or false. There is literally no way it could be ever proved conclusively. But what was the point of a virgin birth? There is nothing proved and nothing to gain from it (other than supposedly fulfilling a line of the Old Testament that was misunderstood as a prophecy), so it seems a rather pointless miracle. The next miracle is the turning of water into wine. This too is doubtful as it is very easy to convince drunk people of anything (I have personally convinced drunk people that a glass of water was really vodka). At the end of party no one will be paying close attention so it would be easy to procure barrels of wine and have people presume it was a miracle.
The most common type of miracle that Jesus is supposed to have performed is that of healing. He is claimed to have healed lepers, cured people of blindness and even raised someone from the dead. All of which is compatible with Jesus having special powers, but there is a secular explanation too. It is plausible that Jesus went from town to laying hands on sick people and even if this had no effect some people would recover naturally. If Jesus administered to hundreds and only a handful recovered, then it is possible that we only hear about those who recovered while the rest are ignored. It does seem slightly odd that if Jesus did have the power to cure anyone, he only choose to heal a handful. Add a placebo effect and some exaggeration as the stories are passed orally and the null hypothesis seems very plausible. (It is worth noting that the Kings of England and France used to claim to be able to cure disease with their hands, a practice that thousands of people believed, yet no religious person would believe today.)
Other miracles such as Jesus walking on water during a storm which instantly became calm or the feeding of 5000 are hard to explain. They could be miracles (though we have no reliable sources) or they could be metaphors (how Jesus stands by people during storms of life or Jesus can feed people’s spiritual needs rather than bodily one’s).The raising of Lazarus from the dead could have occurred when Jesus visited a sick man who subsequently got better. The story could have got exaggerated with further telling (he was dying, he was almost dead, he was dead). Or it could be another metaphor, another parable Jesus was so fond of. Jesus also allegedly performed exorcisms and removed demons from people, a point that is usually ignored by modern Christians (except for fundamentalists) and treated as an embarrassment, so they can be rejected.
Based on the evidence, we cannot reject the null. It is safe to say that the miracle stories were undoubtedly exaggerated, but we cannot know for sure by how much. In places of doubt we must go with the simplest and most likely explanation, which casts doubt on the miracles. A key piece of information is the limited nature of the miracles. They were often performed only on front of the disciples (those who were most desperate to believe) and only affected a handful of people (if Jesus could cure anyone or save anyone from death why help so few). The miracles are mostly quite petty and are more akin to magician’s tricks than divine intervention. There is also the point that the miracles were limited to a small area in Palestine and no sources outside the Bible recorded it. Surely if Jesus was the son of God and wanted to convince the whole world, he would do better than this? Extraordinary claim demand extraordinary evidence and this just isn’t present.
Case 3: Resurrection
The most important claim is that Jesus rose from the dead. Without this, there would be no Christianity so this is absolutely crucial. God-made-man would know this and try to make this as convincing as possible and leave nothing to chance. The resurrection would be public so as the gain the widest audience. If you are about to undergo the most important event in human history, then you wouldn’t do it half arsed.
However, the Gospel account is unbelievably brief. This is supposedly the culmination of the Bible, the most important part, what everything before was leading to, yet all we have is a few brief pages. The crucifixion narrative is riddled with contradictions and shows clear signs of being exaggerated over time. The resurrection narrative also contains many contradictions and none of the sources agree on who went to the empty tomb and what they saw.
Surely the Resurrection, the most important event in Christianity would be described in detail proportional to its importance? Instead it gets only a page in the Gospel of Matthew and Mark (even the passages in Mark are believed to have been added later and the original did not contain anyone seeing Jesus risen). Both accounts only mention one appearance of Jesus after which nothing more is said. Nothing is said of where he went or what he did, making the resurrection a bit pointless. In Luke there is more detail, yet here Jesus seems to resemble a ghost who disappears in front of them and re-appears later (though he does eat food). He doesn’t appear to any but his most fervent believers nor is there any mention of what he did next. John is the account that stretches beyond a handful of lines and here too Jesus resembles a ghost who is able to appear in rooms where all the doors are locked. Here again there is no mention of an ascension.
The evidence then is incredibly weak. We have some vague apparitions in front of biased witnesses that are as likely to be spirits or ghosts as to be a physical body returned to life. Jesus is often described as being unrecognisable to the disciples. At no point does Jesus appear to the public which surely would have been strong evidence for the resurrection. It seems strange that what would be undeniably convincing evidence was hidden away. None of the Gospel accounts have an ending or say what happened to Jesus which is an unusual omission. The resurrection accounts are incredibly vague and rushed as though they were of little importance. Based on this, it is highly unlikely that they are true and far more probable than the grieving disciples experienced a hallucination. There is simply too little evidence to reject the null.
Based on the evidence I have examined, I conclude that we cannot reject the null hypothesis that Jesus was not the son of God but merely an ordinary teacher. The limited nature of his teachings and alleged miracles do not suggest a deity but rather a myth no different from the thousands of other claimed Gods and prophets. The accounts are too biased and contradictory to be reliable. The resurrection is the weakest link of all, containing so little evidence as to not be credible. There are a thousand simpler explanations that do not rely on supernatural causes that can just as well explain the miracles of Jesus. We are asked to believe in an all-powerful deity who can only provide mediocre evidence. For these reasons, the null hypothesis is the far more credible explanation.