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10 Reasons to Just Say Nay to the Naysayer Hypothesis

Apologists tell us that the gospels were written at a time when many disciples—the eyewitnesses—were still alive. If they heard an inaccurate story, they’d say, “I was there, and that’s not the way it happened!” They’d shut it down. An incorrect version of the story would not have survived.

Let’s consider this alternative world, where those in the inner circle tried to snuff out any false statements about Jesus. It quickly falls apart under examination.

Here are ten reasons why I say nay to this Naysayer Hypothesis.

1. There would have been few potential naysayers. True, the gospel story reports thousands witnessing the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but these wouldn’t be naysayers. A naysayer must have been a close companion of Jesus to witness him not doing every miracle recorded in the Gospels. He would need to know that Jesus didn’t walk on water and didn’t raise Lazarus. A proper naysayer must have been one of Jesus’s close companions during his entire ministry, and there would likely have been just a few dozen.

2. We imagine a handful of naysayers who know that the Jesus story is only a legend, but that was in the year 30. Now the first gospel is written and it’s roughly forty years later—how many are still alive? Conditions were harsh at that time, and people died young. Many from our little band of naysayers have died or been imprisoned by this point.

3. A naysayer must be in the right location to complain. Suppose he lived in Jerusalem, and say that the book of Mark was written in Alexandria, Egypt, which historians say is one possibility. How will our naysayer correct its errors? Sure, Mark will be copied and spread, but there’s little time before our 60- or 70-year-old witnesses die. Even if we imagine our tiny band dedicating their lives to stamping out this false story—and why would they?—believers are starting brush fires of Christian belief all over the Eastern Mediterranean, from Alexandria to Damascus to Corinth to Rome. How can we expect our naysayers to snuff them all out?

4. They wouldn’t know about it. Two thousand years ago you couldn’t walk down to the corner bookstore to find the latest Jesus gospel. How were our naysayers to learn of the story? Written documents at that time were scarce and precious things. The naysayers would be Jews who didn’t convert to Christianity. They wouldn’t have associated much with the new Christians and so would have been unlikely to come across the Jesus story.

5. There was another gulf between the naysayers and the early Christians: the Gospels were written in Greek, not the local language of Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the naysayers. To even learn of the Jesus story in this community, our naysayers must speak Greek, which is hard to imagine among the typical peasant followers of Jesus. How many could have done this? And to influence the Greek-speaking readers of the Gospels, a rebuttal would have to have been written in Greek—not a common skill in Palestine.

6. Imagine a naysayer knew the actual Jesus and knew that he was merely a charismatic rabbi. Nothing supernatural. Now he hears the story of Jesus the Son of Man, the man of miracles, the healer of lepers and raiser of the dead. Why connect the two? “Jesus” was a common name (or Joshua or Yeshua or whatever his name really was), and supernatural claims were common at the time. His friend Jesus didn’t do anything like this, so the story he heard must be of a different person. So even when confronted with the false teaching, he wouldn’t know to raise an alarm.

7. Consider how hard is it today for a politician, celebrity, or business leader to stop a false rumor, even with the many ways to get the word out. Think about how hard it would have been in first-century Palestine. How many thousands of Christians were out there spreading the word for every naysayer with his finger in the dike? Given the sensational story (“Jesus was a miracle worker who can save you from your sins!”) and the mundane one (“Nah—he’s just a guy that I hung around with when I was growing up”), which has more traction?

8. Jesus himself couldn’t rein in rumors. He repeatedly tells those around him to not tell anyone about his miracles, and yet we read about both the miracles and Jesus’s fruitless plea. If he can’t stop rumors, why imagine that mortals can?

Or consider Joseph Smith. Here was a man convicted of the very occult practices that he then tells about in the Book of Mormon. Should’ve been easy to pull aside the curtain on this “religion,” right? Nope.

Look at Scientologists, cults, or any of the divisions of Christianity, both major (Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses) and minor (thousands of nondenominational churches and sects). Apparently, new religions start quite easily. The incredulous, “But what else could explain the New Testament but that the writers were telling the truth?!” doesn’t hold up when we see how easy it is.

9. One way to stop the gospel story would be naysayers, but a far better way would be to show the story as false. And the gospels themselves document that it was.

Jesus said that the end would come within the lifetime of many within his hearing. It didn’t (indeed, that this was going to be a longer process than initially thought was a reason that the oral history was finally written down, decades after the events). With the central prediction crumbling, what more proof do you need that this religion was false? And yet the religion kept on going. Obviously, religion can grow in the face of evidence to the contrary.

10. Christian apologists say that there were no naysayers, but how do we know that there weren’t? For us to know about them, naysayers would need to have written their story and have some mechanism to recopy the true account over and over until the present day. Just like Christian documents, their originals would have crumbled with time. What would motivate anyone to preserve copies of documents that argued against a religion? Perhaps only another religion! And it’s not surprising that the Jesus-isn’t-divine religion didn’t catch on.

This argument is popular but empty. Don’t use it.

If a million people say a foolish thing,
it’s still a foolish thing.

(This post is a modification of one originally posted 11/2/11.)

Photo credit: Military Videos

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Jason

    I wish these ten points could make it into the popular discourse about the Bible. A closely related claim that I often hear is that the gospels are too detailed to have been made up. In other words, the gospels contain the types of specifics that only an eye witness would include. If you don’t know anything about ancient texts, I suppose you might find this compelling. It is a persuasive appeal to common sense. However, if you happen to know anything about ancient literature, you know that this is totally false. We have plenty of vividly detailed works of literature that we are sure (for other reasons) are fictional. I work on ancient texts for a living, and I assure you that if there were any simple way of determining whether an ancient text is fact or fiction based on internal evidence within the text, it would revolutionize our understanding of the ancient world. This is just not the case. The other problem is that many texts are neither totally fact or fiction. They may be based on some historical events but they also contain distortions and fictional additions. So even if some particular details proves true (which of course would require corroboration from other texts and evidence), that doesn’t mean the whole story is true.

    On a related note, how do the apologists get away with insisting that the gospels are true based on a crackpot theory about how other people would have necessarily corrected it, but somehow no one minded the the inconsistencies in Jesus’ genealogy, the circumstances of his birth, his last words, the order and geography of his travels, etc? After all, the gospels don’t agree on some very black and white issues. Thus at least some parts of some of them must be wrong, and thus the theory that contemporary people would have corrected mistakes is completely undermined.

  • arkenaten

    Excellent post. All lies, of course (sic), I mean, were you there? No…right. So… Thank you Ken Ham…LOL
    The question that has irked me for years is if the gospel story, the entire bible in fact, will ever be acknowledged as being little more than hogwash.
    Most sane people – including middle of the road religious types- accept this even if they wont admit it.
    But will the truth ever come out, I wonder?

    • Jason

      I think it’s more accurate to say that the Bible is a fascinating compilation of ancient texts that contains all sorts of pre-modern ways of looking at the world. The way people use it and interpret it today is hogwash.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    1. There would not be few naysayers. If Jesus didn’t go around doing miracles then people in Galilee and Jerusalem would have laughed at the apostles. The claims are incredible. That makes them relatively easy to investigate. If Jesus had fed 5000 then everyone would still be talking about this years later.

    2. The gospels were not written in contradiction to everything the apostles had said since Pentecost. Why would people wait for such a document before investigating these claims?

    3. Sure, people further away would be less likely to do personal investigations. Some, like Luke, made the trip. Still more remote believers would want to hear from people who had seen Jesus. If they didn’t exist or didn’t support what the apostles were saying then Christianity would not have spread like it did.

    4. They would not know what? The apostles message? But that is what they were accepting. Later the gospels were read at liturgy every Sunday so people found out that way.

    5. Actually most would speak some Greek. Matthew’s gospel was likely written in Hebrew first. The apostles were probably most comfortable in Aramaic so the stories would start there.

    6. You really think people were quite stupid back then. People could tell one person from the next. Yes, even those with common names. That was why they called him Jesus of Nazareth.

    7. The naysayer would have more traction. Nobody believes a supernatural claim if there is an obvious natural alternative.

    8. They were not rumors. They were true. That is why people could not keep silent.

    Those other leaders did not claim to have performed miracles with eye witnesses. Not really a good parallel at all.

    9. That is kind of anther topic. But why would Christians preserve that statement if they were not being painfully honest. If it is such a slam dunk proof Jesus was wrong then why did both the statement and the religion survive? Because it does not actually prove what you think it does and because they recorded what Jesus said even when they didn’t understand it.

    10. Actually the writings of Christian opponents did survive. Christians didn’t want to be unaware of the errors of the past so they made no attempt to purge embarrassing writings. Later they did with the index of forbidden books. That failed completely.

    So no, you are 0 for 10 on your objections. Large numbers of eye witnesses are very hard to fake. Always have been. Always will be.

    • ZenDruid

      On your last point: Actually, the Christians did everything they could to purge competing scripture. Early Coptic scripture surfaced around 1947 after being hidden since about the third century. Up until their rediscovery, the only clues we had about that material were found in Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses.

      Eyewitness testimony would have surfaced elsewhere. The Romans kept good records. But there is no mention of those specific miracles anywhere other than in the canonical text.

      • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

        I think you mean gnostic scriptures. They did get lost for a time. Not every opponent of Christianity was deemed interesting enough to preserve. But there was no great purge. It died from lack of interest. Just like 200 years from now nobody will know about The God Delusion because it is intellectually uninteresting.

        • ZenDruid

          Why then did Irenaeus have such a wild hair over the Apocryphon of John? He was quite polemical on the subject.
          Plus, it was Irenaeus who decreed that there was no place for more than four Gospels in the bible he had in mind.

      • chris buchholz

        point 1:
        “People in Galilee and Jerusalem would have laughed at the apostles. The claims are incredible. ”
        where is your evidence for this?

        Look at ancient texsts, they are full of similar stories. In face the Bible even acknowledges this, and says (paraphrased) “don’t we just say the same things about Jesus that you say about your gods?”
        Look at today: faith healers exist even in our country, let alone poor countries, and can scam people out of their money. SOME educated people laugh at them, but not the majority.
        Albino children in Africa are still hunted down and killed as witches, even today.
        “Uppity” women are killed as witches in africa, even today.

        1. the claims were not incredible (as in very exatraordinary) compared to other religions
        2. Where is this great swell of skepticism that would cause people to laugh

        • chris buchholz

          sigh i wish i caught those spelling errors, or could edit after posting

    • J-Rex

      1. You hear a story written down and copied by people about how someone fed 5,000 people forty years ago. You . Most of the people are dead and there are a few around that are too young to remember. How would you prove that wrong?
      2. People didn’t have to wait till a document was written before protesting. But if you hear someone telling you something you know to be wrong, do you respond with writing? Before the documents, if people did protest, it would have been verbally.
      6. The world was very much confined to your local community at this time. If you live in New York, you might have a friend named Steve. But if Steve travels to another city and does a lot of impressive things and you hear through word of mouth about Steve of New York doing crazy things in another city, you can’t say “That’s the Steve I know!” because you know that Steve is a common name and it’s unlikely that your Steve is the only one who’s moved to this city. You might have a hunch, but there’s not a lot you can do. You can’t prove that this is the Steve you know and you can’t prove that he hasn’t done some crazy stuff. You might convince some people around you, but you won’t be able to convince people in other cities this has spread to.
      7. It would be great to think so. The simplest explanation is the most likely. But look at the situation with Obama’s birth certificate. It is very unlikely that at the time of his birth, they knew he would become president someday so they got someone to forge a birth certificate and have a huge cover up about it. It’s much easier to believe that he was born in Hawaii. And yet people believe the former because they *like* to believe it. People believe what they want to believe, even when there’s evidence to the contrary.

      I think you’re underestimating how easy it is for a fake belief to spread. Even today with the internet where you can easily look up information, people still post things and talk about things that can be proven wrong within seconds. What you find is that the more people believe something, the less likely others are to fact check because they assume it wouldn’t catch on if it wasn’t true. Now go back to the days where you can’t look things up. The only thing you have to rely on are your own experiences and the experiences of those around you. I’m sure there could have been naysayers at the time, but their totally mundane explanation of what happened isn’t nearly as interesting to talk about as the supernatural possibilities.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Randy:

      I’ve already addressed most of your concerns in the post. Add to that that the gospel story is a story. If you want to argue that this supernatural story is also history, the burden is yours.

      4. They would not know what? The apostles message?

      ?? The naysayers wouldn’t know about the false gospel story. If our handful of naysayers don’t know that lies are being told about their pal Jesus, who they know to be an ordinary man, how could they speak up?

      Actually most would speak some Greek. Matthew’s gospel was likely written in Hebrew first.

      Matthew being written in Hebrew first is not what the scholars say. And few biographies of disciples suggest that they would’ve been not only fluent in Greek but also able to write it.

      You really think people were quite stupid back then.

      No, but I don’t think much of your ability to understand point #6.

      Nobody believes a supernatural claim if there is an obvious natural alternative.

      And how do you explain believers in all those other religions? Are their religious claims right or are they not aware of the obvious natural alternatives like you and me?

      They were not rumors. They were true. That is why people could not keep silent.

      I dunno about you, but when the Son of God tells me to do something, I do it. Of course, the gospel stories could simply be seen as literature, with logic taking a back seat.

      Those other leaders did not claim to have performed miracles with eye witnesses.

      Brush up on your Mormonism. Joseph Smith had eyewitnesses to the golden plates.

      But why would Christians preserve that statement if they were not being painfully honest.

      OK, they were painfully honest about the failed prediction. If that’s what the oral tradition had said, it might’ve caused problems for them to twist it as they wrote it down.

      If it is such a slam dunk proof Jesus was wrong then why did both the statement and the religion survive?

      Because, unlike what you said above, strong natural explanations don’t dissuade religious believers. Consider the Great Disappointment of 1844.

      Christians didn’t want to be unaware of the errors of the past so they made no attempt to purge embarrassing writings.

      I’ve heard precisely the opposite. Can you point me to a source for this claim?

      But that’s not the main point–there would’ve been no scribes in the “Jesus isn’t God” cult to copy down their sacred writings. Any early letters debunking the Jesus story (hard to imagine anyone motivated to write one) would never have been copied.

      So no, you are 0 for 10 on your objections.

      Gotta disagree with you there.

      Large numbers of eye witnesses are very hard to fake.

      And yet simply claiming large numbers of eyewitnesses is easy to do! If you think that the gospel writers were eyewitnesses, give the evidence.

      • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

        The naysayers wouldn’t know about the false gospel story. If our handful of naysayers don’t know that lies are being told about their pal Jesus, who they know to be an ordinary man, how could they speak up

        But this “false” gospel story is the one that is spreading quickly across the Roman Empire? Especially among the Jews this would be common knowledge. Basically anyone living in Galilee or Jerusalem would expect to have heard about these miracles before the resurrection.

        Matthew being written in Hebrew first is not what the scholars say. And few biographies of disciples suggest that they would’ve been not only fluent in Greek but also able to write it.

        St Jerome said he had a Hebrew copy of Matthew in his hand. It makes sense. Matthew’s gospel is obviously written with a Jewish audience in mind. You suggest the disciples could not write Greek and then say Matthew, a disciple, must have written in Greek.

        The point is that Greek was kind of like English is today. Everywhere you went you would find a fair few Greek speakers. The language issue is a bit of a stretch.

        Actually the point I made about #6 is larger. The whole argument depends on people of that day being stupid. The idea that nobody would ask the obvious questions or investigate any claims. That the Roman and Jewish authorities who opposed the Christians would not think to look for evidence debunking Christianity.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Randy:

          St Jerome said he had a Hebrew copy of Matthew in his hand.

          And (I’ll repeat) scholars today reject the idea of Matt. being originally in Hebrew.

          You suggest the disciples could not write Greek and then say Matthew, a disciple, must have written in Greek.

          Whaaa … ? Who wrote the book of Matthew? If you claim it was Matthew the disciple, you need to show it. (Or search my blog for my argument against this claim.)

          The whole argument depends on people of that day being stupid. The idea that nobody would ask the obvious questions or investigate any claims.

          You’re mired in the story. Do you say the same thing about Wizard of Oz?

          See it from a different angle: the gospels are simply the record of oral tradition that had gone through a primitive pre-scientific community 2000 years ago. They’re not history.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    There may have even been naysayers recorded in the Bible. Matthew 28: 12-15

    “When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.”

    Many Jews were denying the resurrection of Jesus. This verse was likely damage control against those naysayers. After all, if the priests told this to the soldiers in secret, how did the author of Matthew find out about it? Additionally, the story made up by the priests is a very terrible lie for them to have made up. If Jesus is up walking around, the excuse to make up is that there is an imposter of Jesus, not that the grave was robbed. If the priests truly made up this story, they would risk anyone that hears that the grave was robbed could just respond, “but I saw Jesus the other day. ”

    More likely the author of Matthew made up this story to explain why so many people were denying Jesus’s resurrection;

    • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

      How did he find out about it? One of the people involved talked. There were Pharisees and Roman soldiers who later became Christians.

      As to the problem of people seeing Jesus. Yes, it did happen. That is why Matthew is so sure the story is a lie. He was one of those who saw Jesus.

      • ZenDruid

        Were you there?

        • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

          So that is the standard? Everyone who ever lived has to be physically present for it to be believable? That is is supposed to be rational?

        • ZenDruid

          That’s Ken Ham’s stock argument against evolutionists. Yeah, I know it’s ridiculous.

      • Jason

        You don’t get to invent plausible theories (e.g. one of the Pharisees who plotted against Jesus later became a Christian and told the gospel writers information that they later recorded) and then apply them as probable evidence. This is one of the biggest problems (as I have observed) with the Christian approach to these kinds of historical questions. Yes, if you are already a believer, it is comforting to come up with plausible explanations so that you don’t feel like your faith is forcing you to believe the impossible. But plausible events are not necessarily true.

        • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

          Overlapping asked a question like it was impossible to answer. I answered it just to show how if you think a little these problems are really not that big. I never claimed it as “probable evidence.”

        • OverlappingMagisteria

          It wasn’t meant to be an impossible question, though rereading it, I see that it looks like I was phrasing it that way. To me, the story of the priests paying off the soldiers seems more like it was made up for the reasons stated. Your milage may vary.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      OM:

      Many Jews were denying the resurrection of Jesus.

      The gospel story is a story. It’s the result of decades of oral tradition. Let’s not imagine it’s history before we’ve established that.

      If having naysayers is a compelling addition to the story, let’s give them credit for being good storytellers.

  • http://www.hongkongudy.com Karl Udy

    People believe what they want to believe, even when there’s evidence to the contrary.

    So true. And this is why I have little time for conspiracy theories. The probability of a conspiracy theory being false increases exponentially with each extra person involved in the conspiracy. Whether it be people denying Obama was born in America, claiming the FBI/CIA/American government destroyed the WTC, claiming the moon landings were faked, or claiming the stories of Jesus were fakes, they are on shaky ground from the beginning.

    • Dorfl

      In the Obama example, aren’t you basically using the fact that thousands of people today have come to believe something false, no matter how many times it is refuted, as evidence that thousands of people in Jesus’ time could not plausibly have come to believe something false if there were people refuting it then?

    • J-Rex

      It’s simplest explanation vs. stranger explanation, not “Explanation I want to believe” vs. “Explanation I don’t believe.”
      Questioning Jesus’ existence or the truth of the story is not a conspiracy. It is pretty ridiculous to believe that the government faked the moon landings and you could easily write us off as stupid if we believed that. But what if we had been told that a spirit had taken the astronauts up and placed them on the moon? Would it be a conspiracy to question an outlandish claim like that, even if everyone around us already believed it?
      Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The story of Jesus stands on some very shaky evidence. It’s not a conspiracy theory to question this. It just seems like one to you because you’ve probably believed it all your life and trusted the people who told you there was tons of evidence for it.

      • Jason

        I think we need to distinguish between calling the existence of Jesus a fake and questioning the details of the gospels. Early scholars were right to question the existence of Jesus, but at this point given our understanding of the evidence, it is a bit ridiculous to suggest that Jesus might not have existed at all (although possible). After all, we have fairly early evidence outside of the Bible (e.g. Josephus, Tacitus), and there are plenty of other historical figures about whom we know much less and have less contemporary evidence, but their very existence is not generally called into question (e.g. Homer, Pythagoras, but I would say it is reasonable to call into question the existence of Abraham, Moses and especially Adam.).

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Jason: I’m no expert on the Jesus Myth theory and can’t propery defend it. I’d add Socrates and Lao Tzu to your list of people who might well not have existed.

        • Jason

          Bob:

          I don’t know about Chinese history well enough to comment on Lao Tzu, but I beg you to take another look at Socrates. It’s true that what we know of Socrates is largely the product of Plato’s philosophical and literary agenda, but we have other earlier references (Xenophon), and there really is no reason to doubt that he was an influential philospher in 5th century Athens. Most importantly, the comedian Aristophanes made fun of him in the play the Clouds, and Aristophanes was famous for poking fun at contemporary Athenian politicians and thinkers. I know this is getting a bit off topic, but in the interest of upholding the same standards of evidence that you impose on the Bible, I think it’s important that we maintain high standards everywhere. Casually claiming that Jesus or Socrates didn’t exist (although still possible) is totally inconsistent with the evidence. I just don’t want to see well meaning Atheists go too far in trying to undermine their opposition and thus succumb to the ridiculous claims.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Jason:

          Would you at least agree that we have far more reason to believe that Alexander or Julius Caesar existed than Socrates or Jesus?

        • Jason

          Jason:

          Would you at least agree that we have far more reason to believe that Alexander or Julius Caesar existed than Socrates or Jesus?

          Bob:
          I guess I would have to say yes to that (even though I don’t really have any doubts about the existence of Jesus or Socrates). I think it would be a more useful distinction to say that Alexander and Caesar are historical figures about whom we have much more reliable information than Jesus or Socrates. But this doesn’ t mean that they more likely existed. The amount we know about each figure is consistent with who they were in their respective communities. Alexander and Caesar were both high profile military/political leaders and thus had lives people wanted to record from the very beginning. Jesus and Socrates were largely private individuals who only became really famous after they died. Thus by the time their lives were recorded more legends had developed and more details filled in. Let’s not forget, though, that both Alexander and Caesar were considered divine. Alexander presented himself as the son of Zeus and after Caesar died, a cult was established for him. So Socrates is actually the least suspect of the four in the sense that he was the only one never worshiped, and thus his biographers were at least free of religious motivations. And by the way, if you want to refute these claims about the naysayers and the gospels, all you have to do is point to all these famous ancient figures to whom miraculous deeds are attributed. Surely it would be easier to correct a false story about a general or emperor than an illiterate peasant rebel (Jesus) or a blue collar worker who liked to talk (Socrates).

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Jason:

          I agree except where you said that the vastly greater evidence for Alexander & Caesar doesn’t mean that they more likely existed than Jesus or Socrates. Why not? What, besides disproportionate evidence, would make you weigh the likelihood of one person from history more than another?

          Let’s not forget, though, that both Alexander and Caesar were considered divine.

          That’s true, and historians discard those supernatural claims from the historical account. What you’re left with is pretty impressive. But discard the supernatural claims from the Jesus story and you’re left with some dude from Palestine–not much.

        • Jason

          Bob,

          I don’t think we’re that far apart on this issue. Again, I’m just trying to point out that considering Jesus and Socrates weren’t well known until late in life and not really well known until they died, it’s not surprising that we wouldn’t have much info about their lives. Let me put it this way. If Alexander the Great supposedly did everything know about him but all we had was one or two brief texts written 30 years after he died, I would be inclined to question his existence since we can logically reason that such a powerful military and religious figure would have generated a lot more contemporary press. In contrast, my expectations are different for figures like Socrates and Jesus who didn’t attract attention until right before their deaths. It’s not an accident that we hardly know anything about the childhoods of either Jesus or Socrates, and this lack of information is certainly not evidence that they did not exist. But again, I do agree on a basic level that we can still be more sure about people like Alexander or Caesar. Maybe this oversimplified chart will clarify. It is meant to show my opinion of the amount of factual information we can reasonably expect to get from the sources (and thus how sure we can be that they existed at all):

          Totally Legend Mostly Legend Half Legend/Fact Mostly Fact Totally Fact
          Adam, the Tooth Fairy, Moses, Buddha, Jesus Socrates Alex the Great
          Caesar, George Washington

        • Jason

          My list was distorted when I posted it. Here is the same in vertical format. The most legend is at the top and the most fact is at the bottom. I wouldn’t question the existence of anyone below Moses, but our knowledge of Jesus and Buddha is very limited.

          1. Adam (Probably not even based on a real person)
          2. The Tooth Fairy (Obviously legend, but perhaps based on someone who gave money to kids, like Santa Claus)
          3. Moses (The transitional figure. I really have no idea if he was real in the sense that there was a Jewish slave who led a slave revolt in Egypt. There is an early non-Biblical reference to his name which suggests that he was real, but there is no way to tell if any of the non-supernatural info in the Bible is true. There are enough geographical accuracies relating to Egypt to be sure that whoever wrote the story had firsthand knowledge of Egypt. Of course Christians use this to argue that the whole store of the Exodus is true, which is silly.)
          4. Jesus (We can be pretty sure that he was a real messianic prophet who at some point gained a large following and was killed.)
          5. Buddha (There are many late Mahayana Buddhist texts with no connection to the historical Shakyamuni Buddhi, but the earlier Pali canon at least provides us with a reliable outline of his later life in summary. I considered putting Buddha before Jesus.)
          6. Socrates (Now we’re really getting into the realm of historical reliability. We can reliably know in what city he lived, what he did for a living, what famous politicians he hung out with, what students he had, and even a little bit about his family life.)
          7. Alexander the Great (Definitely existed and a lot of reliable information but still a lot of legend.)
          8. Julius Caesar (Less legend than Alex.)
          9. George Washington (Definitely existed but still a few bits of legend–think Cherry tree!)
          10. Barak Obama (Definitely exists, no legend, but plenty of rumors–where was he born! :)

        • C.J. O’Brien

          “What you’re left with is pretty impressive.”

          What you’re left with, in ancient terms, is individuals who were actually semi-divine. (The proof was in the pudding; stories of miraculous birth were the whipped cream and cherry on top.)

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Jason:

          In contrast, my expectations are different for figures like Socrates and Jesus who didn’t attract attention until right before their deaths.

          OK, but this is an argument of the form “here’s why you can’t discount the accounts of J and S” rather than “here’s why you should believe them.” Alexander and Julius had plenty in the latter category.

          Again, I don’t have much interest in arguing pro or con the Christ Myth theory.

          Your spectrum looks pretty good.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Karl:

      claiming the stories of Jesus were fakes, they are on shaky ground from the beginning.

      Legend is a pretty well-populated category.

  • smrnda

    After studying psychology I become much and much less confident that eyewitness accounts or people’s memories were really very reliable. Experiments have been done (look up Elizabeth Loftus) which shatter the idea that a bunch of people together will make sure that they all get the story right and that distortions do not occur. A group of people following a leader could very well get a lot wrong over time.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I haven’t read anything by Loftus; thanks for the tip.

      For me, the Challenger Memory Experiment is the best example of the fallibility of human memory and the difference between a distinct memory and an accurate one.

  • http://www.hongkongudy.com Karl Udy

    Legend is a pretty well-populated category.

    There are not enough generations of story transfer for your legend hypothesis.

    • smrnda

      I’m not sure how long it takes for legend to start replacing actual truth. Rumors get started about living people which end up being regarded as truth simply because they get repeated so often.

      Take the unfounded rumor that Mr Rogers was a Marine in WWII (I also heard he was a Navy SEAL, even less plausible since I don’t think the SEALS had existed so long ago.) It’s not true, but many people believe it. It’s documented to be false but people who hear it end up repeating it, and they only find out it’s false if someone says ‘hey, check online. It isn’t true.’ If it wasn’t for online repositories of information, rumors like that would be harder to check.

      I’d say a legend about someone could be built practically overnight, and the harder it would be for people to fact-check, the more likely it could spread. It isn’t like people in the 1st century AD could check online or head to a library if they heard a story.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        smrnda:

        I’d say a legend about someone could be built practically overnight

        I’d say it could take 5 minutes. I know I’ve caught myself in passing on incorrect stories and then being (oops!) corrected rather quickly. How many errors have I passed along where there was not someone to correct me?

      • http://www.hongkongudy.com Karl Udy

        smrnda,

        I’d say a legend about someone could be built practically overnight, and the harder it would be for people to fact-check, the more likely it could spread. It isn’t like people in the 1st century AD could check online or head to a library if they heard a story.

        But people in the first century could, and did, fact-check. Could people who personally knew Mr Rogers believe he was a Marine? Could a friend of a friend of Mr Rogers (who knew that this connection existed) persist in this belief? To the extent that it is possible that a legend could grow up within these two groups of people, then that is the possibility that the records of Jesus in the NT are “legends”.

        • smrnda

          A friend of mine was mistaken about the place I was born – she thought I had been born in NYC. I have no idea where she got that fake information, but she had spread it around a bit and I only corrected one person when it happened to come up and I had no idea why someone I barely knew should have assumed I was born in NYC. People who heard her get the facts wrong *could* have fact checked, but didn’t. Mr Rogers second cousin might have *heard* he was a Marine and, unless he happened to bring it up in the right place, might never get corrected, or might not get corrected until the rumor had spread beyond the power of correction.

          You also might want to look up research on memory – Elizabeth Loftus is a good researcher. Eyewitness testimony and memory is not that reliable, particularly when subjected to group pressure.

          How would first century people fact-check? They would have to ask people, and people would repeat what they had heard. If someone says “hey, here’s a gospel and here are some eyewitnesses” how do you check that those people actually were eyewitnesses? With Mr Rogers, we actually have some official records that can be checked that would unlikely to be falsified.

    • Kodie

      I agree with smrnda – embellishments and rumors are easy to start and don’t take that long to spread, even without modern technology. If someone is a persuasive enough storyteller, or prone to exaggerate, or someone took someone else literally and repeats it as fact, it doesn’t take that long for a legendary version of a story to get out and start running. People are also prone to revisionism if they want to frame a story in a different light to others.

      I can invent an example of a star football player from high school. When I was there, he was really obnoxious and arrogant, but after graduation, he died in unfortunate circumstances. Of course you can imagine his family was heartbroken and grieving and many of his old friends as well, spoke up and exaggerate his better qualities. They will speak of him as popular and liked by everyone (but not me) and a really good guy, charitable, caring, courageous, etc. It would be socially inappropriate of me to say why would you guys even like him? He was a bully and he made my life miserable in high school, he lied to girls, he beat up nerds, and he cheated on tests so he wouldn’t get cut from the football team. Because he’s dead and his family and friends hurt, you can’t say boo. Because his family wants to preserve his memory, they petition to the town to dedicate a statue to him in a public park and manage to raise money from the families of his friends mostly, and nobody else’s opinion counts because it’s just too rude. He shouldn’t have a statue – he’ll always be an ass to me who doesn’t deserve a statue. He didn’t deserve to die either, but that’s life. He shouldn’t be remembered by anyone but his family and friends as someone who matters, because other people have a different story that is suppressed. Families in their grief stick to their version of events, always. How dare you speak ill of the dead, you know? Did he walk on water, literally? Of course that’s just an expression based on the delusion that Jesus literally did walk on water, but I think it’s always been that sort of expression.

      • smrnda

        What you said about people with strong persuasive skills or who are gifted storytellers fits in with the research on memory that I’ve seen. I recall an experiment where they interviewed the parents of college students and asked for anecdotes from the person’s childhood. The experimenter would then pick something that had not happened and ask “So, tell me about when you got lost at the mall when you were 8.” People with good visualization skills tended to ‘fall’ for the false memory and report more vivid false memories, probably because their minds could better fill in details. People often exaggerate since your mind is always filling in gaps you don’t remember with ‘most likely’ type information as well.

        I guess the other thing are that there are other Jewish exorcists and miracle performers who have been recorded throughout history. Jesus just seemed to do better because of greater cross-over appeal with the non-Jewish population perhaps.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Kodie:

        Great anecdote. My favorite is from a friend of mine. One day when he was in school, it had rained a lot, and the stream behind the school was flooded. Some of the kids decided to float down the stream. Things were going well when an unseen branch caught his collar and he was pulled under. He was rescued by a fellow student. Clearly a dramatic incident that would be burned into one’s memory.

        Years later, alumni were asked to write about their memories of the school. That student who saved my friend wrote of that incident, but in this version, it was she who had been caught, and my friend saved her life!

        The first observation is that there’s a difference between a vivid memory and an accurate one, but also that my friend doesn’t even know who saved whom in that childhood story.

    • Jason

      Karl:
      Actually, you are wrong about this. There is sociological evidence from modern “cargo cults” in the south pacific that shows that it takes very little time for a wide variety of religious legends to form. Kodie and smrnda are right, but there is no need to invent hypothetical examples. Legends about the Messiah figure John Frum formed extremely quickly. The link below gives an overview but is not a particularly scholarly article. I believe the sociologist Rodney Stark discusses the development of the legends about John Frum in more detail in his book The Rise of Christianity.
      http://www.damninteresting.com/john-frum-and-the-cargo-cults/

      Of course, as I stated, this does not mean that Jesus was non-existent any more than John Frum was non-existent. It does, however, show that fake stories about real people can spin out of control very quickly (Especially when there are religious motivations).

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Ned Ludd (leader of the Luddites) from the early 1800s might be another example of a legendary figure.

  • smrnda

    I actually question whether the number of eyewitnesses can really be placed at the number Christian apolgists usually claim. In one of Paul’s letters he says the resurrected Jesus was seen by over 500 people. However, aside from his alleged vision, Paul himself never saw Jesus, and he seems to indicate that, of the apostles, he only saw a few (such as Peter I think.) So Paul is saying there were lots of eyewitnesses even though he wasn’t there – it wouldn’t be infeasible for the number of alleged eyewitnesses to grow as a story spreads.

    My whole take is that ancient history is going to be harder to sort out than recent history, just since methods of recording facts weren’t so evolved. I mean, faking your own death would probably have been easy up until the 19th or 20th century. Now, unless your body ends up at the morgue and is properly identified a ‘rumor’ that someone died would be pretty easy to figure out isn’t true. We require more proof thes.e days because we have the option of more proof, and we should probably accept that many ancient accounts can’t be taken as accurately as we wish they were

    • Bob Seidensticker

      In one of Paul’s letters he says the resurrected Jesus was seen by over 500 people.

      I respond to that claim here.

      Paul is saying there were lots of eyewitnesses even though he wasn’t there

      Apologists say that this passage from 1 Cor. 15 is an early creed that he put in, indicated that it preceded that epistle. But because it looks different, it could’ve been added later–unfortunately for the apologist, this cuts both ways.

      My whole take is that ancient history is going to be harder to sort out than recent history, just since methods of recording facts weren’t so evolved.

      Especially since we have so many known pseudepigraphs (books written under a false name)–the pastoral epistles written by “Paul,” for example.

      • smrnda

        I’ve always taken Paul’s “500 people” to be like me saying that there was a play I didn’t see but that I know it went on because the show was sold out. Why would anybody take my account seriously?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          And yet apologists pretend that this is seriously strong evidence. “See there–Paul couldn’t have said it if it weren’t true! Because someone would check and show him to be a liar.” But a little thinking shows this argument to be pretty flabby.

        • smrnda

          I’ve heard that too, but we basically have a letter from a guy named Paul telling people that ‘hey, about 500 people were reported to have seen that guy alive after his crucifixion. Ask them, they’ll tell you.’ However, he isn’t supplying any names.

          And what would happen if someone went to fact check? They’d find another guy, like Paul, who would say that they heard that 500 (or perhaps 200) people saw the resurrected Jesus. Everybody would know someone who knew someone who saw him, and after a while this seems to be evidence.

          Speaking of exaggeration, ever heard how the Inuits have so many words for snow? There’s actually just 2, and there’s a book about how the falsehood was spread called the “Eskimo Snow Word Hoax” or something to that effect.

          As far as how Christianity caught on, probably because it gave people of ordinary status a feeling of belonging and importance.

        • Bob Seidensticker
    • chris buchholz

      That is what always annoys me about all the apologetics I read: the claim they kept making “we have 500 witnesses!” No, actually we have one man claiming there were 500 witnesses. We don’t have 500 witness statements, in fact we don’t even have one witness statement. Now this really makes me angry to think how apologetics authors twist this around.*

      Anyone could make a similar claim. And due to the cost, transportation, and communication technologies of the day, probably get away with it. Who would have the resources to hire interrogators to go looking for these 500 people and interview them? Not the christians themselves most of them were poor. Nor would very many were anti christian. And who would bother? Most officials didn’t like the Christians mainly because they refused to sacrifice to Jupiter and other gods, and the officials were worried either about the wrath of the gods, or the wrath of the people (who believed in the wrath of the gods). BUT they didn’t really care about disproving Jesus being a god, that was not the issue, so no one would have bothered spending the money to try to disprove it. Roman officals mainly wanted christians to keep up sacrifices, NOT to stop worshipping Jesus

      Finally, the idea that it could be done if possible presupposes that anyone would even think to do it. Even historians of the time were only beginning to question if events were true or not. The very idea of testing and analying and ensuring truth was pretty new.

      * I feel similarly angry when people say “we have 10,000 copies of the new testament” when really we have thousands of scraps of paper, some not even containing an entire sentence. Once i stopped studying apologetics books and started studying ancient history, i felt lied to, because i was lied to.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        chris:

        No, actually we have one man claiming there were 500 witnesses.

        I respond to that claim here.

  • C.J. O’Brien

    Randy:
    7. The naysayer would have more traction. Nobody believes a supernatural claim if there is an obvious natural alternative.

    This reflects a fundamental failure to understand one of the key differences between our modern, scientifically supported emprical-rational worldview and the ancient mind. Reflect that there is always an obvious natural alternative. If what you say were broadly true, whether in antiquity or in modern times, no faith traditions based on supernatural claims could ever have taken hold. Yet they did, and do, all the time, so there must have been countervailing tendencies against a bias toward skepticism regarding extraordinary claims. And it is not my position that due to being ignorant or superstitious ancient people did not have that bias, or were not capable of adopting a rationalist stance toward phenomena. They did have, and they were. The diffeence is this: to an ancient person, the empirico-rationalist approach, while available in theory, was not as obviously useful in assessing the truth of fantastic claims made about what would have been understood as singular events.
    For premodern people generally, the most obvious response to hearing the sort of possibly legendary/mythical, certainly supernatural and religious claims was not to dispute the mundane facts of the matter, it was to dispute the significance of those events on the same plane that their significance for salvation and orientation to the divine was being asserted: the mythical. So the obvious response to an unwelcome myth was not interrogating the mundane events in the course of which it originated, but proposing a counter-myth. And we see these in the record: Jesus was the bastard son of the Roman soldier Pantera; the disciples removed the body from the tomb to fake the resurrection. Note the strategy and the orientation: Jesus appears to have been born of a virgin, no dispute, but that has no significance because Mary lied about how she got pregnant. The tomb appeared to be empty, no dispute, but that has no supernatural dimension because there was a vested interest in moving the body.
    In short, the kind of sweeping supernatural significance beeing attributed to the life and death of Jesus loomed much larger in the minds of those disinclined to believe them than the grounding of those claims in a more or less straightforward narrative. The result was that naysayers engaged at that level, and not where, in an era of photographs and newspaper coverage, we would engage: did it really happen that way? The ancient skeptic would say, if it happened that way, does that matter, is it significant, do I need to adopt beliefs that put me in the group claiming those events’ cosmic significance. If not, then it doesn’t matter whether it really happened that way or not, and the kind of evidence gathering it would take to answer the less interesting question becomes unnecessary and irrelevant.

    • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

      CJ,
      You really believe people in the first century were that stupid? You think that nobody thought that maybe the eye witnesses were mistaken or maybe they made it up or maybe they were crazy. People have always been skeptical.

      I don’t get what you call a counter-myth. When people say Mary lied about being a virgin that is not an alternative myth. That is an alternative theory of history. I don’t get why anyone would say something happened but it does not matter rather than saying it did not happen.

  • C.J. O’Brien

    “You really believe people in the first century were that stupid?”

    I specifically disclaimed that I was saying that people in the first century were stupid, or “ignorant or superstitious” (the terms I used). They were actually ignorant and superstitious in the main, but what I meant is the belief that they were moreso than modern people is nothing but a modern prejudice. What they were was ignorant about a larger set of phenomena, and superstitions had a different orientation.

    “You think that nobody thought that maybe the eye witnesses were mistaken or maybe they made it up or maybe they were crazy.”

    We’re not talking about eyewitnesses, we’re talking about stories and whether people believed them or not, and on what terms. Talk about eyewitnesses assumes there was something to witness, or at least that some persons who told these stories claimed to be eyewitnesses, but we have no evidence that either of those things are true. Which leaves us stories and how people responded to them.

    “People have always been skeptical.”

    I said as much myself. But what you are doing is claiming that skepticism always took the form of a facts-first inductive process of reasoning within an empirical-rational worldview. It simply did not.

    “I don’t get what you call a counter-myth. When people say Mary lied about being a virgin that is not an alternative myth. That is an alternative theory of history.”

    Leave no question un-begged.
    Look, the nativity myths are so derived, the concern with the doctrine of virginity so late, that there is no reason to believe that any such person as the Mary of the gospels ever existed. There’s likewise no evidence for the existence of Pantera. She was invented to give Jesus a divine birth, he was invented to deny it. However, “myth” as terminology is slippery. Read the sentence as “So the obvious response to an unwelcome narrative was not interrogating the mundane events in the course of which it originated, but proposing a counter-narrative.”

    “I don’t get why anyone would say something happened but it does not matter rather than saying it did not happen.”

    Sure you do.
    Say some guy walks up to you on the street and says “My cousin from Duluth was executed for murder, but he rose from the dead and now he sits at the right hand of God and will return to judge the living and the dead.” Is the first thing you think “No way this guy has a cousin in Minnesota”?

  • JoFro

    Obviously the author of this article thinks people 2000 yrs ago were all a bunch of idiots…and peasant followers? Heck, that Nicodemis dude was truly peasanty, wasn’t he?

    • Kodie

      There is really no good way to relate to modern humans that it’s not the ancients who were so much less intelligent or incapable of intelligence as we are today, but they are not capable of more intelligence and modern humans are a lot less intelligent than we like to pretend we are.

      If you are fooled by the argument that an ancient person would definitely not make up a lie or that ancient texts are infallible somehow by the same normal human foolery we still have, then you are in a different but similar fallacy. You are somehow pretending that modern humans are trickier, or that ancient people actually were at some level of guilelessness because they hadn’t invented modern ways to cover their tracks, be persuasive even if they were lying, or BS their way through. Sure, and for some reason god was more magical at one time than he is now, and these perfectly innocent storytellers had nothing to gain by glorifying a dead friend. I mean, given their virtuous ancient sensibilities, why would Jesus even need to show up? So of course he did, because lying was among the sins people needed to have adjusted or forgiven.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      JoFro: That’s not what I said, and your complaint is no rebuttal. Give me a concrete error and I’ll respond.

      “That’s ridiculous!” is no argument.

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  • GeorgiaPeach23

    “And it’s not surprising that the Jesus-isn’t-divine religion didn’t catch on.” Sure it did — Islam.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      The “Jesus is divine” religion knocks on doors to ensure that everyone knows that Jesus is not divine. Islam, by contrast, says that there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. Quite different, I think.

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