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OK, Smart Guy—YOU Tell Us What Happened

Is Jesus the son of God?I’ve been on the offensive with a series of posts on the historicity of the New Testament.  In conversations with Christians, however, I’ve been asked variations of this: “Okay, smart guy: you make clear that you don’t want to interpret the gospel story as literally true.  Enlighten us then—how do you explain the facts?  What do you think happened?”

That’s a fair question, and I’m happy to make a claim and defend it.  Even if you accept my contention that the Bible is just legend and that the supernatural stuff didn’t happen—that it’s the surviving fragments of the blog of a prescientific tribe of people who lived two to three thousand years ago—that only tells us what didn’t happen.

So what did happen?  That the New Testament exists is undeniable; what explains it?  Here we go.

1.     Jesus lived.  The Christ Myth Theory, which argues there is insufficient evidence for a historical Jesus, is another possibility, but the simplest argument seems to be that a real man grounded the Jesus story.  It’s easy to imagine false legend being built on a foundation of an actual person in history.

2.     Jesus was an influential rabbi who had a following.  He was killed, and stories grew up about him after he died.

3.     The stories were passed from person to person orally for decades, eventually touching thousands or tens of thousands of people.  The religion spread quickly by evangelism and trade through the Ancient Near East, from Palestine to Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and beyond.

4.     The stories were corrupted as they went.  Some of this might have been inadvertent, but some was deliberate.  Embellishments were added to improve the story, either to satisfy imagined or real prophecy from the Old Testament (for a Jewish audience) or to duplicate a supernatural feature of a competing Greek, Mesopotamian, or Egyptian religion (for a gentile audience).  Starting from a Jewish community that spoke Aramaic, it found a home in a far-flung community that was culturally Greek.

5.     Christianity relied initially on oral history.  After decades, when it became clear that the imminent second coming wasn’t coming, the apocalyptic element of the religion was toned down, the religion settled in for the long haul, and the stories were committed to parchment.  A handful of these gospels were written in the first century, including the four that made it into the New Testament.  Dozens more were added in the following centuries.

6.     Some of these later gospels were benign, but others were dangerously incompatible.  A Christian community that accepted one tradition might consider another community heretical, and vice versa.  Church fathers wrote books against particular heresies: Irenaeus wrote against Gnosticism, Tertullian against Marcionism, and Origen against Platonism.  Different philosophies were debated, and the collection of dogmas that we think of today as orthodox Christianity was hardly the obvious winner.

  • In opposition to Paul, the Ebionites saw Jesus as preaching an extension of Judaism, not a new religion.  Paul himself documents this internal disagreement in the debate over circumcision (Gal. 6:12–13).
  • Other heresies fragmented the church before the Council of Nicaea—Montanism (an early kind of Pentecostalism), Nicolationism (hedonism), Antinomianism (an extreme view of salvation through faith alone), Sabellianism (Jesus and God the Father were not distinct persons but two aspects of one person), Doceticism (Jesus was only spirit, and his humanness was an illusion), Arianism (Jesus didn’t always exist but was a created being), rejection of Trinitarianism (God exists in three persons), and others.  But of course these were heresies only from the standpoint of the church that eventually emerged victorious.

7.     The gospels and epistles were copied over the years and modified in small and large ways to adapt to different communities’ beliefs.

8.     What we think of as the official Christian canon of books was largely fixed at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Point out anything that doesn’t fit, but this sketch best explains the facts as far as I can tell.  It is far more plausible than accepting the gospel stories as history.

Read the first post in this series: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

The word “belief” is a difficult thing for me.
I don’t believe. I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis.
[If] I know a thing, then I know it.
I don’t need to believe it. 
— Carl Jung

Photo credit: fradaveccs

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Orbital Teapot

    To Bob S,

    When we compare the various heresies with the orthodox creed, I think it’s fair to say that the latter it’s closer to the whole Bible. The heretics single out parts of the Bible and ignore other, inconvenient parts (sometimes they argue that it’s not even Scripture). But the orthodox theologians are more respectful of all the parts of the Bible, even if they may know it less than modern biblical scholars.

    And the Gospels that made it to the canon are the most reasonable and reliable, so that’s another point in favor of Christianity.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      When we compare the various heresies with the orthodox creed, I think it’s fair to say that the latter it’s closer to the whole Bible.

      But keep in mind that “the Bible” is whatever you say it is. When one school of thought picks and chooses certain books and calls that “the Bible,” our looking back and saying, “But hey–look how closely the Bible matches that school of thought!” doesn’t mean much. Of course there’s a good match–the philosophy and the book were deliberately matched.

      Anyway, our Bible is something of a palimpsest that records a lot of the ebb and flow. Consider Paul’s friction with the James fraction that he documents in Galatians. We also see this Ebionite thinking in James and Jude.

      I don’t see how today’s Christians can feel too comfortable when they’re simply the winners (and not because they’re right) in the contest.

      • Orbital Teapot

        As I said, the four Gospels we have are the earliest ones, and what has come to be orthodox Christianity closely matches them (especially the Gospel of John). Sounds like a good argument for Christianity. Of course, later Christians downplayed the parts that spoke of an impending end of the world.

        Though lots of Christians today would claim that the Bible refers to events they are witnessing now and somehow predicts, 2000 years later, the end of the world for soon.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          The many disagreements in the Bible still are a problem for me. Is the post-resurrection Jesus physical or spiritual (when he walks through walls, for example)? Do we get to heaven with faith alone, or with works (James 2:24; Rev. 20:12)? And, as you note, whether this is an apocalyptic book (the end is just around the corner) or not. And so on.

          Sure looks like a hodgepodge of incompatible ideas to me. Christians know the path to walk through scripture to imagine their own philosophy being dominant or exclusively there.

  • Paul D.

    Number 8 is a common misconception. Nicaea had nothing to do with the canon of the Bible. However, Athanasius (an important figure at the council) was independently responsible for promoting the New Testament canon we now have.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I’ll grant you that the canon was a popularity contest that had already been pretty much decided in the preceding 200+ years, but wouldn’t you say the official stamp of canonization that Niceae gave it was important?

      • Paul D.

        The Council of Nicea never dealt with the biblical canon at all.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Interesting. With further research, I think you’re right.

          But the canon was solidifying at this time, I believe. What’s your view on this–was there an event which can be said to have fixed the canon?

        • Nox

          It was more of a series of events than an event, but the official stamp of canonization was the synod of Hippo (393). Prior to this (367), Athanasius, who Paul D. mentions, wrote a letter (endorsed by Pope Damasus I) listing as canonical, the same books which were later stamped as canonical.

  • Karl Udy

    Bravo for sticking your neck out and putting your beliefs on the table.

    I want to make some comments about points 4 and 5. Although the news of Jesus and his teachings did spread orally over the first few decades, there were eye-witnesses available during that time to compare any retelling of the story. A modern comparison of the accuracy and nature of the stories told might be something like “Band of Brothers”. These were life-changing events in the lives of these witnesses and the time scale is certainly comparable to Band of Brothers.

    Along that track, a likely reason for the introduction of written records was the imminent death of this generation of witnesses. Actually at that time, orla evidence was considered superior to written evidence, so it makes sense that the stories would only begin to be written down at this point.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      In the first place, “there were eyewitnesses during that time against whom the story could be tested” already assumes that there was a historical event, but this is what is in question.

      How much of the Jesus story is actual history? We don’t know–maybe it was simply that Jesus was a charismatic, though very human, rabbi. When you asked people who knew this actual figure, “OK, so when the tomb was empty, what did you do then?” they would respond, “Hold on now–I must’ve known a different Jesus. My teacher wasn’t involved with any empty tomb.”

      In the second place, your Naysayer Hypothesis (“But if the story were wrong, the eyewitnesses would’ve corrected it!”) is very weak.

  • Orbital Teapot

    To Bob S,

    I heard that some Syriac Churches altogether reject the authority of the Book of Revelation. It’s great that some Christians have realized that the bulk of this book is nonsense.

  • http://www.atlantafreethought.org/ Steve

    That’s a very good summary of what probably happened, Bob! Thanks for sharing it.
    I’ll agree that the bible canon wasn’t established at the Council of Nicaea, but that subject is covered in the other comments. I agree with the rest of what you said.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      What would I do if commenters didn’t help me out with corrections? I forgot where I heard that misinformation about Nicaea, but I appreciated the correction.


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