Seidensticker Folly #4: Jesus Never Existed, Huh?

Seidensticker Folly #4: Jesus Never Existed, Huh? August 14, 2018

Atheist and anti-theist Bob Seidensticker runs the influential Cross Examined blog. He asked me there, on 8-11-18: “I’ve got 1000+ posts here attacking your worldview. You just going to let that stand? Or could you present a helpful new perspective that I’ve ignored on one or two of those posts?” He also made a general statement on 6-22-17: “In this blog, I’ve responded to many Christian arguments . . . Christians’ arguments are easy to refute.” He added in the combox: “If I’ve misunderstood the Christian position or Christian arguments, point that out. Show me where I’ve mischaracterized them.” I’m always one to oblige people’s wishes, so I decided to do a series of posts in reply.

It’s also been said, “be careful what you wish for.”  If Bob responds to this post, and makes me aware of it, his reply will be added to the end along with my counter-reply. If you don’t see that at the end, rest assured that he either hasn’t replied, or didn’t inform me that he did. Bob’s words will be in blue. To find these posts, word-search “Seidensticker” on my atheist page or in my sidebar search (near the top).

*****

In his post, “25 Stupid Arguments Christians Should Avoid (Part 2)” (6-22-18; update of a post originally from 10-1-14), Bob stated (the high irony in relation to his post title being almost unbearable to endure): “[T]he evidence for the very existence of Jesus is paltry . . .”

Bob also wrote elsewhere on 6-11-14: “[T]he techniques Christian apologists use to conclude that the Christ story is historical would also lead historians to a similar conclusion about Superman.”

On 12-9-11, Bob opined in his post, “Jesus and Santa: a Parable on How We Dismiss Evidence” (reprinted and modified on 12-14-13, just in time for Christmas):

I can’t prove Santa doesn’t exist. Nor can I disprove leprechauns, Russell’s Flying Teapot, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or God. The thoughtful person goes where the evidence points rather than accepting only the evidence that supports his preconception. [he then cites a bumper sticker for his famous end-quotation: Jesus is Santa Claus for adults.”]

Reiterating on 12-8-17, Bob in his infinite wisdom advises us: “Be careful about dismissing the existence of Santa, because that reasoning may demand that you dismiss Jesus as well.”

And again, on 5-26-14:

Jesus could appear to you, but he doesn’t. He appeared to Paul after he died, so it’s not like he hasn’t done it before. He could appear to give you advice for a tough decision, give you comfort in person like a friend would, or just assure you that he really exists. He doesn’t. . . . 

How do we explain the fact that Jesus has never appeared to you? Jesus is imaginary.

He clarified the above remark on 8-20-18What I meant was, “Jesus as a god who could do magical things, like appear to people, is imaginary.” Since the Christ Myth theory is something I don’t talk about, the nuance of Jesus as a man vs. Jesus as a god isn’t something I usually worry about.

And on 3-5-14“Or maybe Jesus never existed. “

On 8-17-18 Bob made a very revealing comment:

I was concerned about shrillness in the Bart Ehrman camp, the “Of course Jesus existed, and anyone who says otherwise is a dolt!” camp. . . . a reasonable research question should be, “How do you know Jesus isn’t 100% fiction?” I’d put the emphases on the “How do you know?” I’m happy with a Christian scholar saying that Jesus 70% existed or even 90% existed, but the popular attitude seems to be, “Oh, please. Only a hack would even dream to suggest that Jesus didn’t exist as a real person.” That position may be embarrassing 20 years from now, if trends continue.

And on 8-16-18:

Ehrman seems to have made this a big deal such that he’d have an embarrassing time walking back his position, and I don’t know why. Does he just have a thing against Price or Carrier? . . . Your “How do you know it’s not 100% fiction?” is a nice way of focusing the question. Popular Christian apologists try to lampoon the idea, but methinks they doth protest too much.

And yet another on 8-16-18:

The big deal in my mind is that when an atheist says, “Anyway, Jesus didn’t even exist,” they can jump on that with a fairly reasonable argument, citing a broad consensus and Bart Ehrman as an atheist scholar who agrees with them. Avoiding the Jesus myth claim keeps things a little more on track, but if someone wants to jump into that fight, I’ll happily watch. Greg G and others have made a great defense of mythicism, for example.

And another and another and a third on the same day:

The story I’ve heard is that Moses mythicism was in the same camp in the fairly recent past, but it’s held as a very plausible view now, if not the consensus of scholars. The anti-Jesus mythicists might want to focus on the argument and tone down their shrillness just in case posterity turns against them as well.

I’m not a mythicist. But since when did inconvenient facts get in the way of the Armstrong juggernaut?

I don’t deny that Jesus existed.

And on 8-19-18Y’know, if I thought Jesus never existed, I’d probably say something like, oh I dunno, maybe “Jesus never existed.” Or, if you really, really cared so much about what I think, you could just ask me. What a moron. Reading others’ comments have made me consider the Christ Myth theory more favorably, but (as I tried to explain to you) it is not useful to me. So it’s me following the interesting ideas of the commenters, not vice versa.

And on 8-20-18I wonder if some of the strongest evidence for Jesus is just that “well, some dude could easily have been there at the beginning” is the null hypothesis.

And again on 8-20-18And we don’t know when the “events” took place. Yes, the gospels sort of place them in history (Herod vs. Quirinius for the birth and Pilate for the death), but that’s just what they say. If there was a real Jesus, who knows when he was actually born?

Normally, I simply ignore the belief that is called “Jesus mythicism” as intellectual suicide and outlandishly absurd and unworthy of further attention. In my opinion (and not just mine, but the vast majority of historians), anyone who holds to this nonsense is likely to be incapable of rational discussion about theology (or history or philosophy). But since this is a series (and since more and more people believe this hogwash), I’ll make an exception to my rule. I’ve collected a lot of scholarly resources that abundantly refute this historiographically ridiculous position, so I’ll list some and quote from some, too:

Early Historical Documents on Jesus Christ (Catholic Encyclopedia)

“You Can’t Trust the Gospels. They’re Unreliable” (Paul Copan)

The Gospels As Historical Sources For Jesus, The Founder Of Christianity (R. T. France)

Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or History? (book by Maurice Goguel, 1926)

A Summary Critique: Questioning the Existence of Jesus [G. A. Wells] (Gary R. Habermas, 2000)

Seldom have recent scholars questioned or denied the historical existence of Jesus.  Of the very few who have done so, G. A. Wells is probably the best known.  In this article, I will outline and then respond to some of his major tenets.

Before turning to this topic, I will first note that the vast majority of scholars, both conservative and liberal alike, generally disdain radical theses that question the very existence of Jesus.  For example, theologian Rudolf Bultmann asserted, “By no means are we at the mercy of those who doubt or deny that Jesus ever lived.” [i]

Historian Michael Grant termed the hypothesis that Jesus never lived an “extreme view.”  He charges that it transgresses the basics of historiography: “if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned.”  Grant summarizes, after referring to Wells as an example: “modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory.”  These positions have been “annihilated” by the best scholars because the critics “have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.” [ii]

Digressing to a personal story, a potential publisher once asked me to contact a reviewer.  An influential New Testament scholar at a secular university, he had voted to publish my manuscript, but only if I deleted the section dealing with Well’s hypotheses.  He said that Well’s suppositions were virtually devoid of serious historical content.  He only relented after I convinced him that Wells still had some popular appeal.

Wells is aware of these attitudes towards his works.  He acknowledges that “nearly all commentators who mention the matter at all, [set] aside doubts about Jesus’ historicity as ridiculous.” [iii]  He adds, “the view that there was no historical Jesus, that his earthly existence is a fiction of earliest Christianity . . . is today almost universally rejected.” [iv]  He concludes the matter: “serious students of the New Testament today regard the existence of Jesus as an unassailable fact” (HEJ 223).  Even Michael Martin, one of Wells’ few scholarly supporters, draws the rather restrained conclusion that “Wells’ thesis is controversial and not widely accepted . . . .” [v]

[ . . . ]

Wells’ treatment of the many nonbiblical references to Jesus is also quite problematic.  He downplays those presenting difficulties for his position (Thallus, Tacitus), and suggests late dates for others, again in contrast to the wide majority of scholars (Thallus [perhaps second century AD!], Polycarp [135 AD!], Papias [140 AD]).  Yet, he provides few reasons why these dates should be preferred (DJE, 10-15, 78, 139; HEJ, 15-18).

The most important problem for Wells’ treatment is Josephus’ testimony.  In order to dismiss this important Jewish documentation, Wells resorts to questioning both of Josephus’ references to Jesus.  Not only does he disallow them as interpolated comments, but he asserts that this is also “widely admitted” by scholars (HEJ, 18; DJE, 10-11).  But he is so wide of the mark here that one is tempted to question his research altogether.

While virtually everyone thinks that portions of Josephus’ longer statement in Antiquities 18:3 has been added, the majority also think that a fair amount still came from Josephus.  Princeton Seminary’s James Charlesworth strongly concludes: “We can now be as certain as historical research will presently allow that Josephus did refer to Jesus.” [xi]  John Drane adds that “most scholars have no doubts about the authenticity”of the passage’s nucleus. [xii]  Written about 93-94 AD, Josephus’ statement, among other claims, clearly links Jesus to his disciples and connects his crucifixion to Pilate.  It is independent of the gospels, according to Wells’ dating.

Josephus’ second statement refers to James as the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ (Antiquities 20:9).  This also hurts Well’s thesis significantly, because it likewise links Jesus to a first century person who was known to Paul and other apostles. [xiii]  In spite of Wells’ dismissal (without citing a single scholar who agrees–HEJ, 18), Yamauchi concludes, “Few scholars have questioned the genuineness of this passage.” [xiv]

Thus it is no wonder that Wells would dearly like to squelch Josephus’ two references to Jesus.  Both clearly place Jesus in a specific first century context connected with the apostles and Pilate, cannot be derived from the gospels on Wells’ dating, and come from a non-Christian.  Wells even notes that such independent data would be of “great value” (DJE, 14).  So it is exceptionally instructive, not just that Wells dismisses both, but that he clearly wishes his readers to think that contemporary scholarship is firmly on his side when it very clearly is nowhere close.  Charlesworth specifically refers to Wells’ treatment of Josephus, saying that, “Many solid arguments can be presented against such distortions and polemics.” [xv]

[ . . . ]

Why do scholars reject Wells’ thesis?  Because it cuts out Christianity’s heart and even critics refuse to face this (DJE, 205)?  I have argued that there is another reason.  One does not impress scholars by maintaining a thesis at all costs, consistently resorting to extraordinary means to overlook any bit of data that would disprove one’s view.  Even ally Martin realizes that Wells’ arguments may sometimes seem “ad hoc and arbitrary.” [xviii]

But at several points, this is clearly what Wells does.  He often admits that a natural textual reading devastates his theories.  Then he dismisses every historical reference linking Jesus to the first century, making some bizarre moves in the process.  This most obviously occurs in his treatments of James, Jesus’ disciples, and Josephus.  Along with dating the gospels decades later than almost everyone, these and other factors combine to produce the sense of ad hoc argumentation.  But it all seriously undermines his system, as well as eroding his credibility.

Wells appears to declare virtually anything rather than admitting Jesus’ historicity.  Yet, one by one, his house of cards collapses.  This is precisely why the vast majority of scholars reject Well’s claims: he fails to deal adequately with the historical data.

Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels (Gary R. Habermas, 2005)

[A]pproximately one-and-a-half dozen non-Christian, extrabiblical sources confirm many details from Jesus’ life and teachings as found in the Gospels.8 Early Christians such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp provide even more confirmation, writing just 10 years or less after the completion of the New Testament.9 Archaeological sources do not contribute as much corroboration in New Testament studies as they do in Old Testament studies, but there are a number of indications that, when the details can be checked, the New Testament is often confirmed.10

There are a number of pieces of evidence that, especially when taken together, confirm the traditional picture regarding the life and teachings of Jesus. This is not to say that all the pertinent questions have been answered;11 but the available evidence from a variety of angles confirms the strong foundation on which we can base the general reliability of the New Testament reports of the historical Jesus.

Qumran Evidence for the Reliability of the Gospels (Larry W. Hurtado, 1968)

The Historicity of Jesus Christ (Wayne Jackson)

[T]he Jewish Babylonian Talmud took note of the Lord’s existence. Collected into a final form in the fifth century A.D., it is derived from earlier materials, some of which originated in the first century. Its testimony to Jesus’ existence is all the more valuable, as it is extremely hostile. It charges that Christ (who is called Ben Pandera) was born out of wedlock after his mother had been seduced by a Roman soldier named Pandera or Panthera.

Respected scholar, the late Bruce Metzger of Princeton, has commented upon this appellation:

The defamatory account of his birth seems to reflect a knowledge of the Christian tradition that Jesus was the son of the virgin Mary, the Greek word for virgin, parthenos, being distorted into the name Pandera (1965, 76).

The Talmud also refers to Jesus’ miracles as “magic,” and records that he claimed to be God. It further mentions his execution on the eve of the Passover. Jewish testimony thus supports the New Testament position on the historical existence of Jesus. . . .

Another line of evidence establishing the historicity of Jesus is the fact that the earliest enemies of the Christian faith did not deny that Christ actually lived (see Hurst 1897, 180-189).

Celsus, a pagan philosopher of the second century A.D., produced the oldest extant literary attack against Christianity. His True Discourse (ca. A.D. 178) was a bitter assault upon Christ. Celsus argued that Jesus was born in low circumstances, being the illegitimate son of a soldier named Panthera (see above). As he grew, he announced himself to be God, deceiving many. Celsus charged that Christ’s own people killed him, and that his resurrection was a deception. But Celsus never questioned the historicity of Jesus.

Lucian of Samosata (ca. A.D. 115-200) was called “the Voltaire of Grecian literature.” He wrote against Christianity more with patronizing contempt than volatile hostility. He said Christians worshipped the well-known “sophist” who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced new mysteries. He never denied the existence of Jesus.

Porphyry of Tyre was born about A.D. 233, studied philosophy in Greece, and lived in Sicily where he wrote fifteen books against the Christian faith. In one of his books, Life of Pythagoras, he contended that magicians of the pagan world exhibited greater powers than Christ. His argument was an inadvertent concession of Jesus’ existence and power.

Extrabiblical Witnesses to Jesus before 200 A.D.  (Glenn Miller, 1996)

Did Jesus Exist? Books for Refuting the Jesus Myth (Christopher Price)

Did Josephus Refer to Jesus?: A Thorough Review of the Testimonium Flavianum (Christopher Price, 2003)

Scholarly Opinions on the Jesus Myth (Christopher Price, 2003)

I have often been asked why more academics do not take the time to respond to the Jesus Myth theory. After looking into this question, I discovered that most historians and New Testament scholars relevant to the topic have concluded that Jesus Mythers are beyond reason and therefore decide that they have better things to do with their time.  Here are some examples.

Howard Marshall

In his book, I Believe in the Historical Jesus, Howard Marshall points out that in the early to mid 20th century, one of the few “authorities” to consider Jesus as a myth was a Soviet Encyclopaedia. He then goes on to discuss the work of GA Wells which was then recently published.

There is said to be a Russian encyclopaedia in current use which affirms in a brief entry that Jesus Christ was the mythological founder of Christianity, but it is virtually alone in doing so. The historian will not take its statement very seriously, since … it offers no evidence for its assertion, and mere assertion cannot stand over against historical enquiry.  But more than mere assertion is involved, for an attempt to show that Jesus never existed has been made in recent years by GA Wells, a Professor of German who has ventured into New Testament study and presents a case that the origins Christianity can be explained without assuming that Jesus really lived. Earlier presentations of similar views at the turn of the century failed to make any impression on scholarly opinion, and it is certain that this latest presentation of the case will not fare any better.

Professor Marshall was correct that neither any earlier attempt nor Wells have swayed scholarly opinion. This remains true whether the scholars were Christians, liberals, conservatives, Jewish, atheist, agnostic, or Catholic.  And even GA Wells himself has now conceded that a real figure called Jesus lay behind some of the teaching contained in the synoptic Gospels.

Michael Grant

In his book Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, Atheist historian Michael Grant completely rejected the idea that Jesus never existed.

This sceptical way of thinking reached its culmination in the argument that Jesus as a human being never existed at all and is a myth…. But above all, if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. Certainly, there are all those discrepancies between one Gospel and another. But we do not deny that an event ever took place just because some pagan historians such as, for example, Livy and Polybius, happen to have described it in differing terms…. To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars.’ In recent years, ‘no serous scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus’ or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.

[ . . . ]

Rudolf Bultmann

Even the famously liberal Professor Bultmann, who argued against the historicity of much of the gospels, questions the reasonableness of Jesus Mythers themselves in Jesus and the Word.

Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the Palestinian community.

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Someone informed Bob of this paper. His response was as follows:

I can’t imagine I’m missing much by not reading it. (link)

Why read it? He has no credibility. Posts like that are the equivalent of The National Inquirer or Weekly World News. (link)

I haven’t read enough to have an informed opinion, so no, I’m not a mythicist.

I’m sympathetic to the mythicists’ arguments, and I own the relevant books by Carrier and Price, but I haven’t read them. As a result, I don’t want/need to engage with those arguments.

For my purposes (showing the foolishness of Christianity), mythicism isn’t a useful tool. I’m sure that if I read those books, I’d have yet more information that would be useful, but the main argument is just a tangent. Getting into that morass simply allows the Christian to say, “Well, Bart Ehrman says you’re wrong, so whaddya gotta say about that??” and so on. (link)

Bob appears to want to play it both ways, as to the existence of Jesus. He compares belief in Jesus to that of Santa Claus, and makes a direct comparison to Superman (a mere cartoon character), and also to leprechauns, Russell’s Flying Teapot, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He states flat-out that “Jesus is imaginary.” He talks about Jesus needing to assure usthat he really exists. He doesn’t.” That doesn’t sound like a very robust existence to me, or like existence at all. Does it to anyone else?

Either he is unwittingly contradicting himself (in his overall haze of confusion), or he is cleverly playing it one way to atheists and another to Christians. Or else (to give the most charitable slant possible to this data, which I sincerely hope is in actuality the case), Bob used to deny the existence of Jesus and no longer does, though he remainssympathetic to the mythicists’ arguments.” People change their views over time. I certainly have. If this is the case, then he needs to go revise (and/or retract) the mocking, smart-ass “doesn’t exist”-type statements that I have documented, lest he confuse his readers as to his position.

Bob’s responses under fire to a fellow Catholic, on his blog (on 15-16 August 2018), suggest that he has either forgotten his own statements (the most charitable, “amnesiac” / “I’ve written 1000+ posts” take) or is deliberately misrepresenting them (the cynical, Bill and Hillary Clinton / obfuscation take):

I’ve never argued that Jesus never existed. Pro tip: taking what Armstrong says at face value can embarrass you when it blows up in your face. He has a tenuous grasp on the truth. You need to fact-check whatever he says. (link)

I’ve never argued either way. What’s your reluctance? Are you remembering all those posts where I argued the question? Point them out to me. Oh wait–I have a stalker who hangs on my every word. Maybe you could ask him. But be sure to get links to the quotes because he has a hard time with reality. What’s hard to understand here? “Jesus never existed” is an argument that doesn’t help me. It’s a tangent. I have far more useful arguments if I were to argue against Christian claims. (link)

Getting back to the atheist propensity to ignore solid criticism: “Grimlock”: who was active on my blog for months and claimed to be interested in dialogue, also commented:

Why should I read anything by Armstrong? I see no compelling reason to do so. (link)

Obtaining valuable information and knowledge are certainly things to strive for. But that doesn’t mean I will be getting that from reading the article to which you linked. Why should I think the article will provide valuable information? (link)

And on 8-15-18, Bob reiterated that he has no intention of interacting with my critiques:

I have no interest in visiting his blog anymore, and if it becomes a cesspool of thoughtless yes-men, then that’s Dave’s loss. Every now and then one of his dittoheads might come over here, and we can show them how their logic stands up in the real world.

***

Photo credit: Head of Jesus (1891), by Enrique Simonet (1866-1927) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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