No Evidence for a Historical Jesus or Evolution?

I am struck once again by how similar the repeated assertion by Earl Doherty and other mythicists that “there is no evidence for a historical Jesus” resembles the similar-sounding claim of creationists that there is “no evidence for evolution.” The truth clearly is both that there is evidence, and that because we are in both instance dealing with theories (in the scientific sense), it is not a matter of finding one fossil or one text and that “proving” the case. A theory is a way of organizing multiple pieces of data in order to make the best sense of them not just individually but in relation to one another.

If someone tells you “there is no evidence for X” you will do well to get a second opinion. An honest scholar will not say, to give a comparison, that “there is no evidence for a historical David,” but will acknowledge that there is indeed an inscription referring to a “house of David,” and that there is no dispute that at least some of what we have in the Bible is legend/fiction, and will explain why they personally or the majority of scholars draw a particular conclusion.

How do you respond to people who say “There is no evidence for a historical Jesus” or “There is no evidence for evolution”? Although obviously the fields and the data sets in the two instances are not comparable, is it instructive nonetheless to acknowledge that both are attempts to circumvent historical deductive reasoning by pretending evidence is not only susceptible to more than one interpretation but actually not there?

  • Openminded

    I feel like a lot of people say there is no historical Jesus because the arguments sound good to them. It’s like pulling out Occam’s Razor on a theist; it only sounds like a sound argument to the atheist.

    Personally, I think a more verifiable statement is to say that there’s no evidence of a supernatural Jesus.

    • Weston Bortner

      Precisely, my position.

  • http://tomverenna.wordpress.com/ Tom Verenna

    I think, James, what people mean is there is no solid, tangible evidence.  We have plenty of literary attestation, but we also have literary attestation for Centaurs.  Also, the ‘House of David’ inscription is still hotly contested and there is no consensus on it.  In fact one might say scholarship on it is split down the middle.

    • Randall Morrison90

      Tom Verenna, if that is the case then people like Dan Barker should quit preaching that there is “no” evidence…by the way, you analogy to “Centaurs” is “not even wrong”.

      You realize that…don’t you?

      I mean, I hope you were kidding.

      Besides, since you have no academic credentials whatsoever, on what experience are you telling us “what people mean”?

  • EvanG

    “Evidence” is information that makes a particular proposition more or less likely.
     
    If I say in this comment that I have Spam in my hair, that is evidence that I do in fact have Spam in my hair. 
     
    I said so, and that’s evidence. 
     
    That doesn’t mean, however, that my written statement is good evidence, or persuasive evidence, or conclusive evidence.
     
    Some evidence is more reliable and more persuasive than other evidence.  And the more evidence we have in support of a given proposition, the more likely that proposition is.
     
    Instead of claiming I had Spam in my hair, I could have said that my dead cat was God.  Or that he raised the dead.  Or a host of other things.
     
    I said it, and it’s evidence.  It’s just not very good evidence.
     
    So is there “no evidence for a historical Jesus”?  No, there is some evidence.  It’s just not very good evidence, or persuasive evidence, or conclusive evidence. 
     
    Unless you have a bias, or you’re casting about to support a predetermined conclusion. 

  • Anonymous

    On one side you have people who cling to the Bible as a source of some sort of truth and on the other side you have people who do not regard ancient texts as authorities per se. One group feels there must be some literal truth to their ancient narrative, and the other requires primary evidence to support any accepted claims.

    So it looks like Creationists certainly do hold an analogous position to one group in this debate. 

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    The comment from @beallen0417 will presumably only seem plausible to those who have never seen the degree of critical skepticism mainstream historians apply to texts such as early Christian literature, and/or have never witnessed mythicists bending over backwards to explain away primary evidence that doesn’t fit their preconceived theories.

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  • Howard Mazzaferro

    I think some of the problems come from people approaching the subject of Jesus and the Bible from two different standpoints. One group wants overwhelming tangible proof as in a scientific fact. The other group only requires the preponderance of evidence to formulate a conclusion, such as a court case. Which one is the best way to approach Jesus and the Bible?

    I could be wrong, but I don’t recall seeing mythicists deal with the external social evidence. I’m sure there have been many Jews who have attempted to redirect their religion or claimed to be messiahs. What happened to them? They were forgotten. What was different about the myth of Jesus, that it not only persisted for 2,000 years, but outgrew and overpowered its parent religion? Again, what was it about this one myth out of the thousands of other myths, that caused so many people to be duped by the lie, especially the many brilliant minds of history? How did one Pharisee and a handful of illiterate fishermen accomplish this?

    • Geoff Carter

      It’s was called the Roman Empire, and to some extent bits of it still is!

    • Benjamin Lloyd

      Argumentum ad populum = failure.

      “Exeternal social evidence” is not proof that Jesus existed. The fact that billions of people throughout history believe he existed is not proof of his existence. Are Hindus proof of Shiva? If Christians are proof of Jesus, then you MUST accept that all other gods who have been believed in for a period of time also exist.

      EDIT: And, given Christianity’s dominance in western society, the existence of the hinge upon which the whole of it rests has gone unexamined for much of the duration.

      • Howard Mazzaferro

        @ Benjamin,You have obviously missed my point. I was not saying the popularity of Christianity was proof of Jesus’ existence. I was saying this is another piece of evidence that added with other evidence, helps prove Jesus’ existence. But I wasn’t only referring to the popularity, but WHY did it become more popular than all other stories or myths of the period.

        @Geoff, What’s your point, Rome had their own god’s and religion before Christianity came along. The question is WHY did Christianity win the popularity contest.

        • Beau Quilter

          Howard

          Christianity won popularity contests the same way that Islam won them 600 years later. By the sword. In the case of Christianity, it was first by the sword of Rome, then later by the sword of the crusades, the inquisitions, and other church authorities.

          The history of the church, like the history of the mosque, is a bloody history.

          Incidentally, Islam is catching up quickly – sword in hand.

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

      Howard — no, the problem is not that one side wants overwhelming evidence and the other is more realistic given what can be expected, etc. I have never seen a mythicist argument like that. (One will be misled if one relies on McGrath when he claims — without evidence — otherwise.)

      Doherty has actually discussed some very significant aspects of the social evidence, but McG has not even mentioned it and in a comment dismissed it as “wrapping” to deceive readers.

      I don’t speak for others, but in my own arguments I on my blog I have always spoken about degrees of probability and how we know anything at all about the past — it is never a question of “overwhelming evidence”.

       

      • Howard Mazzaferro

        @ Neil, Actually I had historical critics in mind when I talked about overwhelming evidence. Sure historical critics believe Jesus was a historical person, but that’s about as far as they are willing to go. They reject most if not all supernatural aspects about him and think the Hebrew Scriptures were composed just a few hundred years before Jesus was born, then they reject most of what’s in them. So historical critics appear to require a lot of tangible evidence before they will accept the God as described in the Bible. I put mythicists on the side of the court case. Where you reject Jesus the Bible and God based on your view of the evidence. At least I can understand and accept that, but I am completely confused when a Christian says the Bible is not inspired by God, but was written entirely through the viewpoint of men

  • Geoff Hudson

    I happen to believe that Jesus, the apostles and Paul are mythical, not because of anyone’s say so, such as Doherty, but because the New Testament is largely the result of edited prophetic texts. And in many cases, the editorial is not just an occasional word. There are long passages of incorporated material.     

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Do you have any evidence for that claim, or an example of the sort of thing you are talking about?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Do you have any evidence for that claim, or an example of the sort of thing you are talking about?

  • EvanG

    The comment from @beallen0417 will presumably only seem plausible to those who . . . have never witnessed mythicists bending over backwards to explain away primary evidence that doesn’t fit their preconceived theories.  
    Now you’re using a different term, “primary evidence.”
     
    In historical study, primary evidence (or a primary source) is a contemporanous source of information — for example, a writing or artifact from the time at issue.
     
    And I wasn’t aware there was any primary evidence of a historical Jesus. 
     
    So — what is this primary evidence?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    I used the term that Evan used in commenting about his comment.

    Is there any reason why Paul would not qualify as a contemporaneous source of information?

    • Benjamin Lloyd

      Yes. He never seems to have met the man.

  • Geoff Carter

    As an archaeologist, I have felt the circumstantial evidence for a historical Jesus to be strong, mythicised almost certainly, but not mythical; the existence of the Gospels is more difficult to explain if Jesus was not real person.
    This has been strengthened by the Talpiot tomb,- if this was the Jesus family tomb – it is an archaeologically credible Jesus, seen in more rational context. 

  • Phillip Mutchell

    How do you respond? You yawn.

  • EvanG

    >Is there any reason why Paul would not qualify as a
    >contemporaneous source of information?

    Yes.  Even if taken as written, Paul didn’t write his epistles during the life of Jesus.

    If that’s not obvious to you, I’m a little concerned about your understanding of the concept of “primary evidence.”

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    EvanG, if someone who lived during the same time as Martin Luther King Jr wrote and mentioned him, but only after his assassination, we would hardly dispute that sort of evidence as contemporaneous. Unfortunately when people start discussing Jesus, normal rules of reasoning and evidence somehow cease to be adequate for some reason.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I think “no evidence” is bit more of a rhetorical device than a real statement. People always think they have evidence, but whether it really supports their position is another matter. I feel confident in saying there is no evidence that the U.S. orchestrated 9/11 despite having seen loose change.  My criterion is, would a significant percentage of reasonable people consider this evidence? If so it should be addressed. It is bad scholarship to not address the evidence for a case before moving on to its contra-position. For example, I was reading a book by Thompson on the sources of the Old Testament position, and he simply didn’t say “there is no evidence for the documentary hypothesis.” Instead he directed the reader to the works of others discrediting it. He acknowledges the evidence and then directs you to the correct interpretation.
     
    I think though when a position is widely held among educated people, one should be careful about throwing around “no evidence”.  You run the risk of sounding like the defense lawyer who is obligated to say that regardless of the evidence.  In the earlier discussion about the assertion that there is no hint of a historical Jesus in Paul, I think one should ask if there is any evidence that a reasonable person would interpret as a hint, which isn’t a proof, but a suggestion.  That Doherty has explanations for them is relevant, but I think a reasonable person would say, yeah this might suggest a historical Jesus.  To say there is no hint or evidence is a bluff. Doherty is writing for people who are not familiar with the subject and so he can skirt the fields’ common knowledge. For anyone with a background in the subject, it seems like he is ignorant of the subject.
    On the subject of the “house of David” argument, I think the large support (I’ll go with Tom’s 50/50, I haven’t done a head count, I have the impression though of even greater support for it) that it has for being evidence of a house of David means that a scholar would be a bit irresponsible to just say “there is no evidence for a house of David, without addressing it.
    I disagree with Tom’s assessment that people mean “no tangible evidence” since so many base their arguments against a historical Jesus on textual evidence as well.  And, on the subject, Tom, you seem to proclaiming this notion of the valueless-ness of text a lot lately.  I don’t know if this is aimed at conservative Christians or historians. It gives the impression you think any textual attestation is no better than that for centaurs and there is no way to see realities behind text. Even Thompson thinks that the text of the Old Testament can be used to show that part of their content came from the Maccabean era, and thus tells us something about then (that they were interested in editing Old Testament passages).  It seems lazy to dismiss them because we can’t imagine all the ways they may or may not have been altered.

  • EvanG

    Wow, you really don’t understand the concept.

    If we had a letter from Paul (or anyone else) written during Jesus’s lifetime (say, around 30 C.E.) that said “Honey, you wouldn’t believe the trouble this guy Jesus caused for me at the Temple today,” that would be a primary source.

    The letters written by Paul, to the extent they refer to Jesus and his purported actions, don’t relate Paul’s personal experiences with Jesus (the living Jesus, anyway), and were written after the fact.  They don’t become primary sources simply because they were written by someone who was alive at the time Jesus was alive.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

      So the only primary evidence that some one existed you accept is an eyewitness to that person? Tough crowd. Fortunately, I’m happy though without convincing every nit wit in the internet.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    A primary source is a work that comes from the period being studied. It would be an unnecessarily narrow definition to limit it to eyewitnesses writing only about things that they themselves have experienced.

    Paul was an opponent of the Christian movement before he was a proponent of it. While it would be better if he had given us precise dates for and details of his earliest exposure to the Jesus movement, I don’t think that his failure to do so undmines the importance of the information he provides.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

      This would be why newspapers are primary sources even though the reporter is rarely an eyewitness to the event reported?

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    McGrath, will you point to a mythicist publication — anything from Doherty will do — that bases its argument on a claim that “there is no evidence for the historical Jesus”? I ask because I have never read an argument asserting that. I am asking you to justify your assertion.

    I have a second question. What, in your understanding and definitions of the words, is the difference (if any) between primary evidence and primary sources?

  • EvanG

    Ahem.

    As I said, “. . . and were written after the fact.”

    And as you conceded, “[a] primary source is a work that comes from the period being studied.”

    If it’s written after the fact, it’s not a primary source.

    Paul wrote after the fact, so his letters are not primary sources.

    Are you deliberately trying to dodge this point?

  • EvanG

    As for being an eyewitness, obviously that makes a source more credible.

    If you write “I saw EvanG bench press a Buick,” that’s more credible than if you write “some guy said that EvanG bench pressed a Buick.”

    In law, they call the second situation hearsay.  And, all other things being equal, it’s much less likely to be credible.

    Isn’t that point obvious?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Not everyone considers the fact that one is dealing with an autobiography or an oral history recorded later to mean that it is a secondary rather than a primary source.

    While I suspect that all might agree that Paul is a secondary source when it comes to the precise details about Jesus’ life and teaching, as someone who lived at the same time as Jesus and who opposed the movement from a fairly early period, it seems to me that he was well poised to know whether Jesus existed, and whether members of his family existed. Paul can serve as primary evidence of the existence of a sibling of Jesus, if not directly of Jesus himself, but that seems to provide the sort of evidence that in any other case would clarify that we are more likely than not dealing with a historical individual. Wouldn’t you agree that if this were a discussion of, say, the historicity of John the Baptist or of Rabbi Hillel, a letter from someone who had met the individual’s brother would more than suffice as evidence of historicity? In fact, we do not have those sorts of sources for these individuals and yet their historicity is considered likely by most historians I have read.

    But at any rate, I have no interest in quibbling about whether you wish to consider Paul a primary or secondary source when it comes to being in a position to know whether Jesus existed. When he wrote doesn’t seem to be the issue for most when it comes to the use of the term “primary sources” but direct access to events and evidence. and unfortunately, Paul only tells us about meeting Jesus’ brother, and so his status as witness to the existence of a historical Jesus is left imprecise. But the question remains as to whether, if this were any other figure in Not everyone considers the fact that one is dealing with an autobiography or an oral history recorded later to mean that it is a secondary rather than a primary source.

    While I suspect that all might agree that Paul is a secondary source when it comes to the precise details about Jesus’ life and teaching, as someone who lived at the same time as Jesus and who opposed the movement from a fairly early period, it seems to me that he was well poised to know whether Jesus existed, and whether members of his family existed. Paul can serve as primary evidence of the existence of a sibling of Jesus, if not directly of Jesus himself, but that seems to provide the sort of evidence that in any other case would clarify that we are more likely than not dealing with a historical individual. Wouldn’t you agree that if this were a discussion of, say, the historicity of John the Baptist or of Rabbi Hillel, a letter from someone who had met the individual’s brother would more than suffice as evidence of historicity? In fact, we do not have those sorts of sources for these individuals and yet their historicity is considered likely by most historians I have read.

    But at any rate, I have no interest in quibbling about whether you wish to consider Paul a primary or secondary source when it comes to being in a position to know whether Jesus existed. When he wrote doesn’t seem to be the issue for most when it comes to the use of the term “primary sources” but direct access to events and evidence. and unfortunately, Paul only tells us about meeting Jesus’ brother, and so his status as witness to the existence of a historical Jesus is left imprecise. But the question remains as to whether, if this were any other figure in history, we would be having this sort of discussion., we would be having this sort of discussion.

  • John

    This essay and associated website summarizes the results of the most profound 50 year long research project ever done into all aspects of the Christian system of beliefs, and the origins of the Bible too. The author was completely up to date with all of the modern scholarship re the origins and authenticity of the “New” Testament.

    http://www.beezone.com/up/forgottenesotericismjesus.html

    His principal criticism of all of the modern scholars is that none of them have any kind of appreciation or understanding of the esoteric Spiritual roots of religion as a Process.

    This reference describes the psychic and Spiritual poverty of what is now promoted as religion. Religion which is entirely exoteric and essentially anti-Spiritual

    http://www.adidam.org/teaching/gnosticon/universal-scientism.aspx

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    McGrath, you did not answer either of my questions:

    1. Will you point to a mythicist publication — anything from
    Doherty will do — that bases its argument on a claim that “there is no evidence for the historical Jesus”? I ask because I have never read an argument asserting that. I am asking you to justify your assertion.

    2. What, in your understanding and definitions of the words, is the difference (if any) between primary evidence and primary sources?

    You discussed at length with reference to primary and secondary sources but I do not know what you mean by a source as opposed to evidence, and what you define as primary/secondary.

    I don’t care if your definitions are not the same as used by other (nonbiblical) historians in the field. I just want to understand what the terms mean to you, how you use them, so I can understand what you mean when you use those terms.

    I am also waiting for an answer the first question.

    • Randall Morrison90

      Godfrey, what’s the matter, isn’t Dr. McGrath jumping through your hoops fast enough?
        

      • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

        Randall, McGrath has not answered either of my questions yet. I like someone who can give a direct answer to a direct question, don’t you?

        But the difference between sources and evidence is fundamental. Ask any courtroom judge, and McGrath likes to use courtroom analogies when discussing his historical method.

        There is a difference between a source for claim about an event, and evidence for the event itself.

        I am amazed at the extent to which even some of the most well-known biblical scholars conflate the two. They write as if a source for knowledge about some event is the same as evidence for it.

        We can hear people say many things; we can read many things in newspapers. These are sources. But to establish if their reports have any basis at all we need evidence. Can the witness tell us where to look for evidence for us to have a reason to believe her story? Does the newspaper discuss evidence that we can independently check to know if its story is true?

        Primary evidence normally means evidence that is physically located in the time and place of the event. We have no primary evidence (given this definition) for Jesus. All the sources (not evidence) are from manuscripts that can be traced no further back to at least a hundred years after Jesus.

        Primary sources normally mean our earliest available sources for an event. Paul’s letters and the gospels are among our primary sources for Jesus.

        But a story itself is not evidence. It is a source. Sources need to be tested. McGrath agrees with that. But before we begin to test a source we need to find out what kind of source it is — is it capable of answering what we want to know? Is it a fable or a history, etc? We cannot just assume either way. We need to have a justifiable reason for our view.

        The distinctions are important if one wants to have a useful discussion.

        McGrath sometimes speaks as if he is talking about evidence and sometimes about sources — and it is very difficult to follow his arguments. Only the uninformed may not be troubled by this and just soak up whatever is said.

        But useful discussions are only possible among those who have respect for each other.

    • Gakuseidon

      @Neil: Will you point to a mythicist publication — anything from Doherty
      will do — that bases its argument on a claim that “there is no
      evidence for the historical Jesus”? I ask because I have never read an
      argument asserting that.

      Neil, check this comment from Ken Humpries, owner of the website “Jesus Never Existed”. He states around 2 min 50 secs in:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Flvr4ITKGI

      “And it’s not just myself. For 200 years, scholars have gone down that path [no historical Jesus] and thought, “My Gosh! There is no evidence here for the historical Jesus!” And at that point, the wagons get circled.”

      Can you provide any evidence for historicity that mythicism can’t explain — anything from Doherty will do — so that we can know what the evidence for historicity is, please? Do YOU think that there is evidence for historicity that mythicisim can’t explain?

      • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

        Correct, GDon. There is no evidence as opposed to sources for the historical Jesus, and I have since posted the same, that it must be concluded from looking at the sources that we can see there is no evidence for the HJ — only claims that he existed.

        Perhaps it will help if you answer something McGrath has not answered for as far as I know: what do you mean by “evidence” as opposed to say, “sources”?

        When I posted that comment it was in response to James McGrath’s failure to accurately quote Doherty on page 94 of his book and falsely leading his readers to think that Doherty was saying that there was “no hint” of a historical Jesus in the epistles. Of course Doherty says no such thing — not even on page 19 that McGrath has since said affirms his assertion. At the time I was thinking of the “hints” in the epistles as “evidence”. I was also thinking at the time that no mythicist publication I have read “bases his argument on the claim that there is no evidence”. What they all do is discuss the evidence and conclude it does not support the historicity of Jesus.

        But I realized soon after on reflection that I was making the same mistake as others by confusing the terms evidence and sources and letting myself get as muddled by the terms as others are. (I even asked McGrath for his own definitions of terms so I could understand what he was actually arguing better and was holding off any further response till I knew what he meant by the terms when he uses them.)

        That’s what led to my post on Debunking Christianity and again on my blog.

        As for your own question I do not understand what you mean exactly. You tell me what evidence there is for the historical Jesus so I have something to work with.

  • Moewicus The Xty Xth

    An analogy:

    Ten thousand years from now, human civilization has crumbled. Arriving on planet Earth, scientifically minded aliens search through our ruins for cultural artifacts. To their surprise, they find an astoundingly well-preserved reel of film depicting a giant hominid climbing the buildings of an ancient city and fighting off primitive flying craft. The film strip is dubbed “K”. Astounded, the aliens begin searching frantically for more information on this strange event. Eventually they find microfilms of old newspapers from what looks like the same period as the origin of K. Despite an abundance of records from the period, there is no record of one or even any such giant creatures causing havoc in the city, or any further information about the characters most central to the events in K. Eventually the specialists in physics and biology come forward, scorning the credulity of their colleagues in the soft sciences: a creature of that size probably couldn’t live, given the physical parameters of the planet and what is known about life on Earth. As more films are discovered, form-critical scholars begin to note similarities in visual convention and subject matter between K and other films which depict similarly impossible events, even other films featuring giant creatures. Eventually the aliens throw up their hands– figuratively speaking, since they have tentacles– and say (in a series of guttural hums) “there’s just no evidence of this giant creature ever having existed–this King Kong is a fiction.”

    Of course you’ll note plenty of differences between this scenario and the question of a historical Jesus: that’s not the point, not entirely anyway. The point is that “evidence” and “evidence of X” are not quite the same thing. Anything is evidence of something, but what that something is is a matter of interpretation. As a skeptic I feel fine saying that there is no evidence there’s an invisible intangible leprechaun on my shoulder, even if someone fervently tells me there is. Maybe it is wrong to say there’s no evidence of said leprechaun; fine, so let’s say the evidence presented is insufficient to establish the existence of an imp on my shoulder. The former is shorthand for the latter.

    When creationists deny that there is any evidence of evolution, they are similarly denying that one cannot infer the Theory of Evolution from the various pieces of evidence. Although they often also deny the existence even of pieces of evidence like transitional fossils, I don’t think that’s the same thing. Kirk Cameron thinks there’s no evidence for evolution because we don’t see any crocoducks. He’s wrong to say that would be evidence of evolution, and that the ToE is lacking without it, but if you accept all his premises then “there’s no evidence for evolution” is a valid conclusion. As a tentative mythicist, I feel comfortable saying there’s no evidence of a historical Jesus, but that is based on having looked at the evidence presented and finding it lacking– and is contingent on re-evaluation of the already presented evidence or the emergence of new evidence. Maybe I’m making some conceptual mistake when I say “there’s no evidence of X,” but I don’t think I have the same attitude of motivated denial that creationists have.

    Also, regarding the question of what a primary source is, Dr. McGrath is correct. Recently I took an introductory class on historical methodology and as an exercise had to deal with two different primary sources concerning the meeting between Bohemund and Alexius I Comnenus at the time of the First Crusade in 1097. Though both the Alexiad and the Gesta Francorum, which contain differing accounts of the event and were written well after the fact, they are both considered primary sources by historians. Of course, what they are primary sources of are another question. Though neither was written literally while Bohemund was in Constantinople, both sources record what their authors learned from eyewitnesses, along with the author’s interpretation of events. This means they are primary sources about a) the author’s interpretation of events and b) what eyewitnesses said about the event.

    Last of all I’ll ask a question:

    “Wouldn’t you agree that if this were a discussion of, say, the historicity of John the Baptist or of Rabbi Hillel, a letter from someone who had met the individual’s brother would more than suffice as evidence of historicity? In fact, we do not have those sorts of sources for these individuals and yet their historicity is considered likely by most historians I have read.”

    Dr. McGrath, has it occurred to you that they might in fact not have existed? It’s difficult to deny that Joe Schmoe did not exist, but when a characters get so subsumed by mythology one begins to wonder if they aren’t a character to begin with. Surely you can’t disagree that someone looking only at the mish-mash of folk ideas about Hitler–as a disciple of Charles Darwin who used hypnosis to turn a Christian country atheistic and   convinced it to commit genocide and try to conquer the world–in the absence of other evidence wouldn’t be justified in questioning the existence of such a character. A nose count and the inertia of the past shouldn’t stop scholarly inquiry.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1428470021 Jonathan Hendry

      “”Eventually the aliens throw up their hands– figuratively speaking, since they have tentacles– and say (in a series of guttural hums) “there’s just no evidence of this giant creature ever having existed–this King Kong is a fiction.”

      Except it actually did exist. Only instead of being the giant beast depicted, it was a tiny articulated model.

      Kong:model::Deity-Jesus:Jewish preacher-Jesus

  • Geoff Hudson

    “Paul is a secondary source when it comes to the precise details about Jesus’ life and teaching, as someone who lived at the same time as Jesus and who opposed the movement from a fairly early period”

    I believe that the idea of Paul ‘opposing the movement’ came from  real events.  This was the opposition of Ananus to James.  James was executed by Ananus. At the time of James’s execution, Paul disappears.   

  • Benjamin Lloyd

    “Unfortunately when people start discussing Jesus, normal rules of reasoning and evidence somehow cease to be adequate for some reason.”

    Precisely, which is why it is so easy for Christians to accept him as both a) a historical figure despite the lack of concrete evidence, and b) the son of god despite the lack of *any* reliable evidence.

    As far as your MLK Jr. comparison goes, you know that’s a shoddy comparison. We have birth records, death certificates, videographic, photographic, audio records, writings of Dr. King himself, his wife, his children, his friends, and relatives.

    What do we have of Jesus? A few gospels written far after he was supposedly born that disagree constantly, some anecdotal epistles, and *faith*. The census that was supposedly taking place during Luke is highly questionable, and Matthew says Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. There are conflicting accounts, each with a particular political spin, that, again, were not written contemporaneously. There’s a debunked shroud, and a convenient lack of remains.

    While personally I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that a historical Jesus existed, it is far from a theory on the same level as evolution (which is actually a fact), and to connect the two is just an intellectual sleight of hand. If someone says “there is no evidence for evolution,” you can show them fossils, you can show them living bacteria, explain the history of medicine and genetics. If someone says “there is no evidence for a historical Jesus,” all you can do is show them the bible.

  • http://twitter.com/divin6020233455 Dave Mabus

    and the winner of the ORWELL PRIZE is…

    http://sue-du-jour.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/AhOh-Studio-Scent-Stories-Orwell-500×483.jpg

    for randi and his army of robot zombie atheists at TAM9

    @theorwellprize

    TAM 9 – atheist revolution? stupid sh&theads

    http://www.unfacts.org/factsforum/viewtopic.php?t=4700
     

  • Geoff Hudson

    Does Neil Godfrey believe that the New Testament is a total mythical document?

    • Geoff Hudson

      “I like someone who can give a direct answer to a direct question, don’t you?”

  • Anonymous

    Not having read the comments can we put to rest the ignorant claim that “There is no evidence for a historical Jesus.” There most definitely is. It’s called “confirming evidence” or evidence of things we would expect to find if there was a historical Jesus, and it is Legion:

    http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2011/07/disconfirming-evidence-is-decisive.html

    Let’s have done with such an ignorant claim.

    The debate is whether there is sufficient evidence.

    My claim is that the Jesus movement that stemmed from John the Baptist and later reflected in Paul’s genuine letters was an apocalyptic doomsday cult, and that this apocalyptic message of theirs can be found in every Jewish religious group or movement from the time of the Maccabees to the Bar Kokhba revolt.

    James, you can quote me on this. I find that the mythicists are not taking this evidence seriously. This is what is called disconfirming evidence, which is the strongest type of evidence, and it disconfirms the mythicist position.

    • Geoff Hudson

      This is going in the right time direction.  But I would suggest that the Maccabees (Hamoneans) were on the opposite side of the fence to those in the Bar Kokhba revolt (a real revolt as distinct from the so-called first revolt).  The former were prophets, and the latter were priestly. 

  • http://twitter.com/divin6020233455 Dave Mabus

    look who showed up – chronic lying sh&thead loftus….  Talk about NOTHING lately?

    and the winner of the ORWELL PRIZE is…

    http://sue-du-jour.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/AhOh-Studio-Scent-Stories-Orwell-500×483.jpg

    for randi and his army of robot zombie atheists at TAM9

    @theorwellprize

    TAM 9 – atheist revolution? stupid sh&theads

    http://www.unfacts.org/factsforum/viewtopic.php?t=4700

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Benjamin Lloyd, thank you for your comments. I’ll say a bit more about the pints you mentioned, since they are things I have addressed before.

    First, might John the Baptist, Hillel, and Jesus not have existed? Of course. Historical study doesn’t give us certainty. The question I am asking and have always been asking is whether the existence of Jesus or some other particular figure is probable, more likely than not, based on the available evidence.

    In keeping with that, I obviously do not intend to suggest that the biological sciences and ancient history give us comparable degrees of certainty with regard to their conclusions. My point is that detractors from both mainstream science and mainstream history use similar tactics and “arguments”, usually being content that their own view is not impossible, while demanding absolute certainty with no room for doubt from their opponents. Such an approach is incompatible with the deductive reasoning that characterizes the tools of academic inquiry in both history and the natural sciences, even given the significant differences between these disciplines.

    As for the MLK analogy, it was a modern one just to illustrate a point about the temporal relationship between testimony and events. I am aware that we have no photos of Jesus. :-). The kind of evidence we have is not what a historian would ideally like to, but it still seems to me to be enough to make an assessment as to likelihood, and above all else the notion of a crucified Davidic Anointed One strikes most historians as best explained in terms of believers in a historical individual coping with the cognitive dissonance of his crucifixion, than something invented from scratch and then proclaimed to their Jewish contemporaries to believe in.

    Most of these points are things I have discussed before, mainly on my blog’s previous home.

  • Drives1incircles

    One of the troubles I have with organized religion is captured nicely in the spirit of the comments to this blog.  It’s so frustrating that a history can be buried in the semantics of petty details.

    There IS evidence to support both theories, and evidence that supports both theories coexisting as the same event told from two different perspectives.

    Our problem always lies in the fact that we need to relate a long ago history to our current human condition, and that is why we cannot comprehend what we are looking at.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GZSH6USG5OLGLZHDXFVT3PSTVE Tor Hershman

    Firstly, the concept of “We Win” is so basely childlike as to not even, nor oddly, be deeply considered.   I personally would be simply and complexly delighted if superheroes existed.  The facts of the matter are –
    Earth: Final Conflict Report
    All enemy forces – 100% failure/deathAll neutral forces – 100% failure/deathAll friendly forces – 100% failure/death
     
    Now, here is my, most surprisingly shocking (To moi, for sure!), (re)discovery concerning Jesus Christ.
     
    Spoiler Alert:  Ovid did it.
     
    Origin of Jesus Christ – Parts I & II
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzY2bVsZK5s
     
    part 2
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sckuqPulRGk
     
    I suppose it all boils down to,
    Q. There are two movies showing at the cinema, which one are you compelled to view?
    A. “All The President’s Men” We humans did it
    B. “Harry Potter” – The magical beings did it
     
    Best Regards,
    Rev. Dr. Tor Hershman

  • EvanG

    From Neil’s comments, it looks like I conflated primary sources and primary evidence.  My mistake.

  • Robert

    I wonder what mythicists or creationists would accept as evidence for their respective bugbears. Maybe a house in Bethlehem with a blue plaque saying ‘Jesus was born here’? As the proverb says, there’s none so deaf as those who don’t wish to hear.

  • Gakuseidon

    @Neil: My question is: Is there anything that provides evidence for a historical Jesus that can’t be explained by the mythicist model?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

      Don, James, on the term “evidence”, I always took it to mean “everything that is used to determine or demonstrate the truth of an assertion”, Neil’s assertion that the textual material is not evidence seems to rest on his opinion that it is not relevant to the question in a tangible way, but I know of no historian who treats text that way.  Do you? Since only a statically insignificant percentage of relevant scholars feels that there is no evidence for a historical Jesus, Neil’s comments are a dishonest presentation of the state of affairs or wildly arrogant. The same goes for the “evidence ‘of a historical David. With half or more of the scholarly community concluding that there is such evidence, to claim otherwise seems to simply show ignorance at best or outright deception at worst of the actual state of the debate.   While most people who have come to a conclusion on an issue believe they can explain opposing evidence, if it were not in fact evidence, it seems there wouldn’t be a need to address it.  I don’t read article in astronomy that address the appearance of the sun moving around the earth, because from the professional point of view, this is not evidence of any substance, but if someone wanted to write an article arguing birds descended from a non-dinosaur archosaur line , even if they felt they had good explanations from what the other side calls evidence, to simply say there is no evidence birds descended from dinosaurs would gross ignorance of the subject.  What do you guys think?

    • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

       GDon — “anything” is a very broad word. If you want a discussion about something tangible then put forward something specific to discuss. I have already said I don’t think our sources are evidence for a historical Jesus.

  • Gakuseidon

    “Evidence” is defined as something that offers support for a position. That’s the question that needs to be resolved.

    For example, is “seed of David” evidence for historicity? I think it is; Doherty thinks otherwise, as per below.

    On p 88-89, Doherty writes:

    “In this picture [of Paul's gospel], no life of Jesus has intervened between the writing of scriptures and the revelation of the gospel to Paul. Wherever or whenever the activities of the Son had taken place, they were not located in history between the two events.

    This is perfectly consistent with the manner of presentation we see throughout the epistles..”

    Doherty then goes on to discuss Rom 1:1-4 (“seed of David”), and writes (my bold):

    “Is this a piece of historical information? If so, it is the only one Paul ever gives us, for no other feature of Jesus’ human incarnation appears in his letters. But the fact that it is linked with the “according to the spirit” element… suggests that the reference to David’s seed is not an earthly, biographical feature Paul is offering.”

    Based on that, would it be fair to say that Doherty believes there is “no evidence” to support a historical Jesus? From a mythicist perspective, I think “yes”. I don’t doubt he would agree such passages can be used by HJ proponents. But would the mythicist agree it is evidence to **support** a HJ over an MJ? Does any mythicist believe that, **after** evaluation, there is ANY evidence that supports a HJ over a MJ?
     

  • Gakuseidon

    And, by the way, I think my last post shows that James is wrong to say that Doherty suggests that the evidence is “not there” for a HJ. Certainly within Paul’s epistles, there is one: the “seed of David” passage (though according to Doherty the context supports a non-earthly reading).

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Mike, I think that sources and evidence are terms with room for confusion. “Sources” can mean hypothetical sources of a literary work we have, or it can be used almost as a synonym for “texts,” or it can mean “sources of information” about a particular subject or person. But only that very last category would overlap with “evidence” if the text in question had been subjected to historical critical scrutiny and found to contain reliable information that deserved to be treated as “evidence” regarding that particular figure. But of course, if you are asking about the author of the work, then the whole text may be evidence for that author’s literary production even if the work in question is completely fictional. I’m not saying that it is a good or bad thing that these terms are used in these various ways, but I expect that no one will dispute that they are in fact employed with these meanings. And so the key is presumably to clarify what we mean, being aware of the ambiguity inherent in these terms and the potential for misunderstanding.

  • Cb Shepherd

    there is no evidence for either

    • http://mythicpizza.blogspot.co.uk/ Paul Regnier

      A creationist mythicist? 10 out of 10 for originality!

      • Cb Shepherd

        one thing is for sure we humanity have never been able to create anything that would remotely compare to male and female humans..


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