No Evidence for Jesus

I have heard once again the ridiculous claim that there is “no evidence for a historical Jesus.” Once again, I must point out that young-earth creationists say the same thing, “there is no evidence for evolution.” In both cases, either the individuals really mean “there is evidence, but I do not accept the conclusions experts draw about it,” or otherwise they are simply ignorant and showing this off.

How do you respond when someone makes a dogmatic assertion which clearly conveys that they don’t know what they are talking about?

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  • Neil Rickert

    How do you respond when someone makes a dogmatic assertion which clearly conveys that they don’t know what they are talking about?

    I usually don’t respond. Responding would only start a pointless argument.

    • Michael Wilson

      Yeah the internet is teaching me to be less promiscuous in picking my battles.

  • Arlene Adamo

    Such sound-bite comments are usually made by people who are desperately looking for some sort of emotional gratification by baiting Christians into silly pointless arguments. It’s best not to gratify them.

  • charlesburchfield

    Lately I’ve been trying to work on checking my reactivity.

  • Marcia Culligan

    While I prefer the high road of not responding, I think the context often suggests whether or not a response might actually be beneficial (to the person asking) or required. It just occurred to me to throw the question back in the form of, “What is your evidence that there is no evidence?” Asked seriously, and assuming that someone is actually prepared to engage in a meaningful dialogue, I think this method could be interesting.

    • Pofarmer

      “”What is your evidence that there is no evidence?””

      I dunno, I thought this was pretty good.

      “One of the chief problems confronting scholars interested in the historicity of Jesus, like that of the historicity of King Arthur, is that there are no contemporary records of his life or existence”

      It’s also interesting that there are many competing reconstructions of the supposed historical Jesus.

      • James F. McGrath

        I am always astonished that anyone finds that last point interesting. How could it possibly be otherwise in the case of a historical figure that so many are interested in and seek to do academic work on?

        Turning to Wikipedia for guidance on a topic of any substance is rarely a good idea, and this instance provides a good example of why. Would you have reacted the same way if the person had said that “like the historicity of John the Baptist, Hillel, and many other Jewish teachers and public figures in the first century, we lack records from their contemporaries in the strict sense, and only have sources written by people who, although they lived at the same time as them, wrote about them only after they had died”?

        • Pofarmer

          The example of John the Baptist is interesting, because there certainly are a lot of questions about him, and the references to him. The Gospels basically have him as a retreading of Elijah. As far as Hillel, is the way we know about him mainly through stories made up about him to match OT “Prophecies” with lot’s of parallels to Homeric stories?

          • James F. McGrath

            Since you seem to have a bias when it comes to Jewish individuals from the past, might I suggest that you see whether you cannot just as easily find parallels and reasons for dismissing historicity in the same way in the case of a figure from some other part of the world who has comparable attestation? I suspect that you’ll be perfectly able to, assuming you put your mind to it and set about approaching them the way you approach Jews from the ancient world.

  • cheerbeer

    I am not familiar with the historical evidence for a historical Jesus. Anyone have any suggestions for good reading material? I’m very much not a historian, and I have trouble telling well-supported sources from not-so-well-supported ones.

    • James F. McGrath

      I would recommend reading something by a mainstream historian or scholar in the field. Bart Ehrman, E. P. Sanders, Geza Vermes, and many others have written on this topic in a manner that is accessible to a non-specialist.

      You will also find a lot of posts on the subject here on this blog.

      • cheerbeer

        Thanks! I’m genuinely curious as a cultural catholic but not particularly religious person… lately I have been feeling the urge to get back into my faith.

        • James F. McGrath

          If your background is Catholic, you might like to explore some Catholic scholars who have written about the historical Jesus and early Christianity, such as John P. Meier and Raymond E. Brown. Interestingly, because church teachings do not need to depend on what the Bible says in Catholicism, Catholic Biblical scholarship using mainstream secular methods of study has flourished.

          • Jeremiah J. Preisser

            I read John P. Meier’s “A Marginal Jew: Vol. 1” awhile back and it is accessible while being technical. You may be able to pick it up from the library, as I did.

  • Pseudonym

    How do you respond when someone makes a dogmatic assertion which clearly conveys that they don’t know what they are talking about?

    It depends who’s watching the discussion. It can be very helpful for third parties who are following along to see a concise explanation of what historians actually do and what precisely this field is trying to accomplish.

    I’ve been that third party (with respect to other academic topics) before, and I know it’s helped me enormously.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    My occasional response when someone is being dogmatic is to ask, what evidence would change their mind? If they answer “nothing”, then further discussion is pointless. But if they answer another way, it might open other avenues for discussion.

    Regardless, you won’t change their mind that day. All you can hope to do is lay a seed that, in a quiet moment away from the debate, might eventually sprout into reassessing their position.

  • Joe Wallack

    “How do you respond when someone makes a dogmatic assertion which clearly
    conveys that they don’t know what they are talking about?”

    I tell them that they have the right to choose their religious beliefs.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    I’m not up to date on your other posts on this subject, but can you tell me what all the excitement is for? Whether Jesus was a real but ordinary man (but Christianity is false), or Jesus didn’t exist at all (but Christianity is false), what’s the difference?

    This distinction doesn’t sound like that big a deal from the atheist standpoint, but perhaps I’m missing something.

    • Pseudonym

      From the mainstream academic perspective, what’s interesting is the question of how Christianity came to be. We can identify a time in the past when Christianity almost certainly did not exist, and we can identify a time after that when it almost certainly did. The interesting question is how we got from A to B.

      We have a lot of evidence about this, including (but not limited to) early Christian texts. The job of the historian is to come up with the best theory. What a historian means by “best theory” is pretty much the same as what a scientist means: It needs to explain all the evidence, it needs to fit in the broader picture of the history of the time and place, and it should be parsimonious.

      Having said that, I honestly don’t know why these fringe theories have traction right now.

      We could guess. Playing armchair psychologist, I’ve noticed that there is a large subset of Internet-style “new atheism” which has a strong anti-humantities (and hence, ironically, anti-humanist) flavour, which could be fertile ground for fringe theories which are perceived to stick it to The Man.

      While we’re still playing armchair psychologist, you could guess that kids who grew up in the post-fundamentalist-takeover American evangelical church (like neo-creationism, this may be a uniquely American phenomenon) still exhibit from the “all or nothing” siege mentality that that form of religion engenders, and just picked another topic to be fundamentalist about.

      It’s fun to speculate, but without evidence, we really can’t say. It’s probably not one thing.

      • psstein1

        I don’t think that “neo-creationism” is a uniquely American thing at all. It certainly has more traction in the United States than many countries, but Turkey and Germany both have very large (and loud) creationist movements.

        • Pseudonym

          Perhaps “uniquely” is the wrong word here, but the idea that science must be rebuilt to accommodate ones’ particular mode of eisegesis is something that doesn’t have traction in almost all of the rest of the world. It has no traction in the Catholic world, the Orthodox world, and the Anglican world.

          If you look at countries where neo-creationism has taken hold, they tend to be post-Cold War Eastern Europe and post-oil-shock Middle East. The United States is the one that’s harder to explain.

          • Pofarmer

            “It has no traction in the Catholic world,”

            Unfortunately, at least in the U.S., this is incorrect.

          • Pseudonym

            Fair enough. When it comes to Christianity, the United States is almost always the exception to the rule.

          • psstein1

            Yes, I agree. I think the creationist movement in the United States can largely be linked to reactions to WW1. I have no idea if this is true or not (I haven’t really looked into it), but Ronald Numbers has claimed that Imperial Germany often used Darwinian rhetoric and language in order to gain legitimacy. People like William Jennings Bryan turned against evolutionary theory as a consequence.

    • James F. McGrath

      It apparently is a big deal to mythicist atheists, since they are happy to waste enormous amounts of time promoting views that historians and other scholars in relevant fields do not find at all persuasive. I have posted some of my recent blog posts on this in the atheism subreddit, so you can take a look there and see what kinds of reactions this topic gets, including from people who clearly don’t know what secular scholarship has to say on the topic, or how historical study works for that matter.

      As for why it matters, it matters in the sense that getting history right matters, and understanding the past as well as we can matters. Getting the facts right about Plato is not something that should matter only to Platonists.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        My own view is that I’m happy to see the discussion bubbling away over to the side, but I ignore it. I haven’t read enough to have an opinion. Richard Carrier wrote a post a year or so ago that echoed what I thought, which was that as a counter-apologetic argument (my main focus of interest), it’s useless. Whether the mythicist position is correct or not doesn’t change how you’d engage with a pro-Christian argument.

        Of course, it’s your prerogative to get excited about whatever arguments you want to get excited about. It just seems so peripheral that I’m surprised many people care.

        • James F. McGrath

          The issue is that a small subset of the atheist community is engaged in this denialism with regard to the conclusions of mainstream secular historical scholarship. And so the reason to get concerned is that denialism is dangerous. While denying an ancient historical fact may matter relatively little in terms of its daily implications, the same tactics that are used in this area are also used by those who deny the Holocaust, and climate change, and evolution, and other things which I am sure I do not need to persuade you are important.

          • Bob Seidensticker

            I certainly agree that atheists need to follow the rules of analysis, debate, and all that, both to set an example and so that we come to the most reasonable conclusions.

            However, I disagree that your examples (Holocaust, climate change, and evolution) argue that pursuing the mythicist hypothesis is foolish. I’m sure we agree that following the experts’ conclusion is the way for we non-experts to go. And that’s what I argue for the mythicist example as well—I’m a layman and understand a tiny fragment of the argument; therefore, I go with the consensus view. Nevertheless, if an unbiased expert (not me, obviously) wants to argue in the relevant domain that evolution is flawed, go for it. There are experts in the field of biology who will give any plausible argument due consideration. Ditto Holocaust and climate change. And, IMO, ditto Jesus mythicism. If experts like Carrier or Price want to show the evidence for why Jesus actually didn’t exist, cool. I’ll sit at the sidelines and will switch my allegiance if the consensus changes.

            And, completely off topic, you can ask Patheos to default the comments to Disqus instead of WT if you want. That way, the links that go to a comment will work. I made that change on my own blog, and the substantial amount of commenter whining (justified, admittedly) went away.

          • Pofarmer

            It’s kinda funny, noting who is looking all dogmatic in this conversation.

          • psstein1

            I don’t think you’d call an evolutionary biologist arguing against a YEC “dogmatic” for telling him that YEC is an idiotic view.

          • Pofarmer

            Yeah, that’s not even the argument I’m commenting on. Just keep in mind, the one trying to define what a reasonable position is also thinks that it’s reasonable that 2000 years ago a,Jewish peasant or preacher or whatever, who may or may not have been his own son, rose from the Dead.

          • James F. McGrath

            Who are you referring to here? I know it isn’t me or Bart Ehrman. Is your point that Christians who believe there was a historical Jesus also believe he rose from the dead? Who cares? The discussion here is about what historians in their capacity as historians conclude, not what Christians believe. Christians also believe that Jehu and Hezekiah were historical figures in whose times God acted in particular ways, but that doesn’t make them wrong about the historical figures. What matters is what historians using the tools of secular historiography conclude.

          • Pofarmer

            I think a couple of Feynman Quotes are apropos, and this is something that I see generally missing in the “secular historiography surrounding Jesus studies.

            “For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report
            everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you
            think is right about it; other causes that could possibly explain your
            results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other
            experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell
            they have been eliminated.”

            The other is this.

            “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

            To which I would ask, once again, how did you determine that the Gospels aren’t simple fiction? How did you determine that a simple passage “James the Brother of Jesus” wasn’t an interpolation or later apologetic addition? Especially since we know there are various interpolations in the letters attributed to Paul?

            “Is your point that Christians who believe there was a historical Jesus also believe he rose from the dead? Who cares?”

            I care, anybody with a hint of integrity should care about motivated reasoning in any field. Why shouldn’t we expect it here? Especially when the vast, vast majority of scholars either are religious, or were religious. I would guess the number of Biblical scholars who were never religious at less than 1%. And keep in mind, the Feynman quote was about Physics, which is murky, but no where near as murky as theology and apologetics and religious studies. Keep in mind that there are people cock sure that the Angel Moroni was real, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, or that Sayeth Sai Baba really did perform miracles.

            “What matters is what historians using the tools of secular historiography conclude. ”

            And there are trained secular historians, with the proper credentials, who conclude differently than you do. To label them all as YEC’s or evolution deniers, is disingenuous.

            So, it seems like you’re left with a couple of choices. The miracle worker that nobody noticed, or the nobody that nobody noticed that started a major religion. Either way you’re left either being a believer in the miraculous Jesus, or a believer in a historical Jesus who is so lost in Legend and mystery that there is no way to recover him anyway.

          • James F. McGrath

            You have been reading my blog long enough to know the answer to your question, even if you have never read a book that explains what historians do. The Gospels do not appear in a vacuum. They are works produced in the context of a Jewish messianic group that believed that an individual named Jesus was the Davidic Messiah, despite his having been crucified.

            Which trained secular historians who work as academics in the field conclude differently than I do, out of curiosity? I have no objection to people doing research on the possibility that there was no historical Jesus, and more than I object to people researching alternatives to evolution, provided both are using the appropriate secular methods of inquiry. I do object to people doing work in a field and, even though their peers find their work worthless, they fallaciously appeal to their credentials or the mere fact of publication as though it made it likely that they are correct.

            Positing an interpolation when there is no evidence of tampering, when it would not have helped the ancient copyist in any way, but because it is supposed to be suspect because it is inconvenient to some fringe crackpots in our time, just illustrates precisely what motivated reasoning looks like.

            We are not talking about a miracle worker. Positing a historical Hanina ben Dosa or Honi the Circle Drawer doesn’t mean you think they did miracles.

            But you know all this. Why are you asking me to repeat it?

          • Pofarmer

            “Which trained secular historians who work as academics in the field conclude differently than I do, out of curiosity?”

            Thomas L. Thompson, for starters.

            “The Gospels do not appear in a vacuum. They are works produced in the
            context of a Jewish messianic group that believed that an individual
            named Jesus was the Davidic Messiah, despite his having been crucified”

            You do realize that this is a circular argument?

            So, once again I would ask, How do you determine that the Gospels aren’t simply fiction? What facts on the ground preclude it?

          • James F. McGrath

            How is relating texts to other texts from the same time period “circular”?

            Thomas Thompson has explicitly eschewed connection with mythicism. But regardless, if he were not at least sympathetic towards some aspects of mythicism, you would be pointing out that he is outside of the relevant field (his area is Hebrew Bible) and by training he is a theologian.

            This is exactly the kind of thing that makes mythicism seem so hard to take seriously: the obvious motivated reasoning, the selective appeals to authority, and the dismissals of theological credentials except when someone favors the viewpoint you’ve decided you want to be true.

          • James F. McGrath

            Thanks for the suggestion about Disqus – I had wondered about that!

            I agree with your point, and hope it is clear that I have no objection to academics exploring mythicism. If I did, I would not have engaged Carrier’s academic book in articles myself. I happen to find mythicism unpersuasive, but that is true of a lot of viewpoints held by people I respect and consider friends. What troubles me about mythicism is precisely what troubles me about Intelligent Design – the use of the fact that some academics have explored it as though that proves it, or provides a justification for members of the general public to dismiss the overwhelming consensus of experts.

          • Bob Seidensticker

            What troubles me about mythicism is precisely what troubles me about Intelligent Design

            So you’re talking about laypeople then? I agree. This applies in particular to me since I’ve read no books on either side of the issue.

            You seem to be dismissing the issue as one worthy of attention. You’ve got a relevant doctorate, so you’re entitled to do so. But it does have a lot of parallels to the idea that Moses was legendary as well. What had been inconceivable is now widely accepted.

          • James F. McGrath

            I imagine it might seem similar to the case of Moses to someone outside the field. But in the case of Moses, we don’t have a letter from someone who had met his brother, and the time between any historical Moses and the first texts about him is much larger by many orders of magnitude than the time between Jesus and mentions of him. And even so, we can only say that Moses might be completely legendary, not that we know this for certain, since his name is a truncated Egyptian name, and that and other features might point to the Biblical texts being purely legendary tales that grew up around the impact of a historical figure who may nonetheless be undiscernable to us from our perspective. But even that stance is not akin to what mythicists are saying about Jesus.

            But as I said, I don’t think any idea should be taboo for academics, although in both biology and Biblical studies, I don’t think that we need to constantly revisit matters that the mainstream academy considers settled just because a few ideologues, whether religious or anti-religious, insist that some old ideas never should have been rejected. But that is what defenders of Moses as author of the Pentateuch, and Jesus mythicists, both do.

  • Sean Wilson

    Jesus most surely did exist historically. But he needn’t have performed any miracles for Christianity to exist. The question is what picture of Jesus one wants to indulge. What I want to say is this: nothing is at stake. The matter is actually about the ideologies of the respective disputants.

  • wtfwjtd

    “How do you respond when someone makes a dogmatic assertion…”

    Context is important, and clarification can be helpful. In this case, is the one making the assertion trying to state that (s)he sees no evidence for the Jesus character that is depicted in the gospels, or stating that there is no evidence for an actual person named Jesus?
    As a non-believer, I am perfectly content to accept the scholarly consensus on this subject–namely, that there likely was a real person on whom the Jesus character depicted in the gospels was based. Where the evidence gets mighty shaky, and what makes for more interesting discussion for me, is when it comes to supporting the claims the gospel stories make about Jesus.
    As you correctly point out, there is a difference.

    • James F. McGrath

      Yes, and what I am addressing here is the mythicist claim that there was no historical Jesus at all. The scholarly view is that the historical Jesus is the figure who ultimately lies behind the stories that are told in the Gospels, and not a figure who in reality was exactly as described. No historian will ever, in any circumstance, make that sort of claim – that an ancient figure is exactly as contradictory texts claim he or she was. And so when one encounters such claims, one can easily tell that one is dealing with an apologist who does not accept mainstream scholarship.

      • wtfwjtd

        I try and inform my approach to the subject of ancient history by looking at how scholars handle actions and deeds that are attributed to a variety of ancient figures. For example, could the priests of Dionysus really turn water into wine? Was Julius Caesar really born of a virgin? Could Alexander the Great really fly and move his men to outflank the Persians? Mainstream historians overwhelmingly say “no” to all these claims. But, that doesn’t mean that none of these characters ever existed. It just means that likely they were legends that grew over time and in this case,got attributed to specific, historical people.
        The way I see it, and a view that has solid scholarly consensus, is that Jesus was an obscure figure around which legends grew, and not the rock-star famous, widely-traveled, well-versed miracle worker that the gospels claim. In the case of the former, we would expect to find very little, if any, hard evidence of his existence, whereas if he were the former, we could reasonably expect to see more evidence than we currently have.

        • Pofarmer

          I just want to know why Jesus can’t be the equivalent of dionysis.

  • Olivia Jackson

    I usually respond by pointing out the facts and their sources as best as possible.