Shuck ‘n Price on History and Jesus

I was listening to John Shuck’s recent interview with Robert Price about the Christ Myth theory. I’ve tried to stay out of these debates, since I see them generating more heat than light on most blogs, but there are a couple of very broad issues that are confusing me.

Occam’s Razor

The historical Jesus consensus seems to me to be simple, intuitive and easy to grasp. The idea that there were wandering preachers with an apocalyptic messages in 1st century Palestine seems certain. It’s only the connection to the Jesus tradition that is questionable. That is to say, someone led the victory at Mount Badon, but what their connection is to the King Arthur legends – if any – is debatable.

The idea that one preacher was named Jesus, and that his failed predictions produced cognitive dissonance and alternate explanations is something that we can see through analogy happening throughout history. The idea that the stories would grow and develop is also something we can see happening in many other cases. So the historical Jesus theory seems to me to be a very parsimonious way of explaining the existence of the Jesus tradition.

In comparison, the Jesus myth theory is far more complicated. It involves gnostic conceptions of God, evolving legends of dying and rising saviors, followers quoting their messiah through revelation, the production and growth of a set of stories that combine these elements and eventually a process of forgetting in which this spectral figure becomes a historical one.

All of this is completely plausible. But as Price is fond of stating, a historian must be concerned with what is probable, not what is plausible. Every fact is open to multiple interpretations, and every set of data points can produce an infinite number of theories. There has to be a way of winnowing down the number of theories, and Occam’s razor is one way.

Why should we prefer the Christ myth theory over the historical Jesus theory? It seems to me to be far more complicated, and it requires counter-intuitive readings of the evidence.

Warrants

At one point in the interview, Price suggests that one letter mentioning Jesus would be enough to destroy the Christ myth theory. I like Price, but this seems to betray a lack of self-awareness. He is on record as disagreeing with the consensus dating and authorship of nearly every piece of text within the New Testament. What exactly could an archaeologist find that Price could not argue is misinterpreted, interpolated or an outright forgery?

Of course, these arguments would be quite plausible. It’s like the Birthers who suggested that if Obama would just produce his long form birth certificate they’d all just go away. When such a thing was produced they proclaimed it an obvious forgery. Such forgeries do occur, but did anyone really believe that the Birthers would give any certificate a chance?

IIRC, the philosopher Brian Keeley once suggested that some theories – conspiracy theories mainly – may remain unwarranted even if they are historically accurate. They are unwarranted because they require so much skepticism towards the evidence that they essentially destroy the process of history. Belief in them can never be warranted under the standard rules of history, and we’re not ready to give up on history just yet.

I’m wondering if the Christ Myth theory hasn’t reached that point, with its tendency to say that every story about Jesus is really derived from some other story and that every apparent claim is really a cipher for some other claim. Is there any ancient historical evidence that cannot be explained in this fashion?

  • vasaroti

    I don’t see why we should choose between myth or real person. As you said, there were multiple rebels and prophets named Yeshua. (here’s a reasonably good list: http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/surfeit.htm)
    The gospel Jesus might have elements of several of these historical people, plus an undeniable addition of elements from Mithras and other dying/ressurecting gods.

    Why would anyone argue over the correct percentages of myth v. history? We’ll never know, unless a whole bunch of relevant manuscripts are discovered. As far as a single historical Jesus goes, the idea that people forget stuff and fill in the blanks with stuff they heard about another person is also simple, intuitive and easy to grasp. My point is, there are so many inconsistencies and errors in the gospels, so much obvious myth, that they are merely curious, and of no real use to anyone.

  • Paul D.

    Consider me merely an onlooker in the debate, not an expert or an apologist.

    “So the historical Jesus theory seems to me to be a very parsimonious way of explaining the existence of the Jesus tradition.”

    This is not necessarily the case. Under the historical Jesus paradigm, you would expect the earliest New Testament writings to be about Jesus the man and the sage, and gradually grow into Jesus the Messiah and at last Jesus the transcendent deity-like figure. What you get is the opposite. The earliest Christian writings — Paul’s letters, Hebrews, and so on — start out with Christ as a vague spiritual being, killed by the archons and then raised to glory at God’s right hand, whereupon he is given the name above all names, the name Jesus (Ph. 2:9). Then, many decades later, you get a story (Mark’s gospel) about Jesus who appeared as an adult man, performed a bunch of miracles that nearly all come from the Old Testament, died and ascended straight to Heaven. Then many years after that, you get more gospels that quote Mark word-for-word, but introduce virgin births, wise sayings, and the commissioning of important apostles who were already known as local church founders.

    I have to agree with Price, the normal Historical Jesus paradigm just does a terrible job of explaining this sequence of biographical and theological development. That said, I think a purely Mythical Jesus paradigm also has its flaws. I personally think the best explanation might be the merger of two or more completely independent Jewish traditions, one of a deific Joshua figure à la Enoch or Melchizedek, and one an earthly itinerant sage.

    I don’t think Occam’s Razor can be applied here. Jewish and Hellenistic religions during that period were extremely complicated, and no one has it all sorted out yet. A simple explanation that ignores the social intricacies and trends of the day is more likely to be wrong than right.

    “What exactly could an archaeologist find that Price could not argue is misinterpreted, interpolated or an outright forgery?”

    I think what Price means is anything that is not scripture or religious material, and written during Jesus’ life rather than decades or centuries later.

    • Revyloution

      “I don’t think Occam’s Razor can be applied here”

      Occam’s Razor doesn’t suggest that solutions should be simple. It just states that when looking at two competing hypothesis’, the simpler of the two is most likely correct.

      • Paul D.

        Yes, but I think the term is misapplied when uses as an excuse to ignore inconvenient facts and the full range of paradigms that might provide an explanation. Occam’s razor applies to the excision of elements that are superfluous, not the oversimplification of a complex topic as in this instance.

      • vasaroti

        I think it was Bart Ehrman who said that in comparing ancient religious documents, the passage that seems the most weird is likely to be the original.

      • Mark Erickson

        Occam’s Razor requires that the explanations are roughly equally valid. Since the argument is about what theory is more valid or probable, OR is not applicable.

        • Custador

          “Occam’s Razor requires that the explanations are roughly equally valid.”

          Why? Surely the purpose of Occam’s Razor is to help deduce which explanation is the most valid. Besides which, Occam’s Razor is not infallible. Just because an explanation is the simplest one, does not mean it is the correct one.

          • UrsaMinor

            At its core, all that Occam’s Razor is saying is that you should look at the more parsimonious hypothesis first before you start examining the ones with lots of bells and whistles and hoop-jumping. The usual statement is something like “The simpler hypothesis is more likely to be the correct one”.

            I would dearly love to see a study on a broad selection of competing historical hypotheses in various fields to see the numbers on how many times the simpler hypothesis did indeed turn out to be correct.

          • blotonthelandscape

            In statistical modelling we use a formal version of parsimony, in instances where we have competing models. The principle of parsimony states that, given two or more models with equivalent statistical validity (i.e. both have acceptable p and r-squared values, confidence intervals make sense, models match observations, assumptions not violated), the model with the fewest variables is preferred.

            So Parsimony, or OR, is a tool of last resort, once we have exhausted other methods for selecting a superior model. Hence a model can be more complex and still be preferred; it just has to be better on all other accounts.

            That’s how I understood Mark Erickson’s statement. OR isn’t a tool for assessing validity, as much as it is a tool for preventing the addition of extraneous ideas to explanations.

            As an example, God-of-the-gaps fails OR not because “God” is a complex being, but because we can construct models of existence which have equal explanatory value in terms of what we see, such that adding “God” (however simple or complex you make it), is an unnecessary step.

  • mikespeir

    I finally got around to reading Earl Doherty’s book recently. Years ago I had read his preliminary paper on the same subject and remember being intrigued, but hardly convinced. The Jesus Puzzle was even more intriguing, more enlightening, but, for me, no more convincing, ultimately. Yes, I understand that the various silences echoing in the chamber of first-century history are nearly deafening. And Doherty’s thesis can’t be dismissed as just an argument from silence. As Victor Stenger would say, that doesn’t work when we have every reason to expect to hear something.

    But I don’t think you have to go as far as Doherty does to explain that silence. I firmly believe that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The issue under consideration, for me, is, What was that fire? I see the Jesus of the Gospels as altogether unbelievable. That fiction wasn’t the fire.

    Doherty is right in pointing out that first century Palestine was a virtual macédoine of ideological, philosophical, and religious opinion. The area wasn’t just a crossroads for commerce, but of thought, too. There were all kinds of little religious eddies swirling about that you’d hardly suspect from reading the New Testament. I think it’s possible a historical Jesus was at the center of one of these minor flows, a flow that after his death swelled into a whirlpool, sucking in other, competing currents and extinguishing many of the rest. He hadn’t been enough of a figure during his lifetime to attract much attention, but became vastly exaggerated afterward as Church Fathers more and more began to see the advantages of having a real, historical basis for their Faith.

    Anyway, that’s my guess.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Sure, the historical Jesus view is plausible – but proponents like Bart Ehrman go beyond plausibility to insist that their view is well-evicdenced. Take a look at what they produce as evidence, and it is pathetic.
    So then, who bears the burden of proof?

    • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

      Agreed. There just doesn’t seem to be anything there for the historicity of Jesus, and I don’t think applying a maxim like Occam’s Razor is really appropriate when dealing with such a complicated and unknowable subject. It essentially is being taken for granted that there was a historical figure somewhere behind the stories, when a plethora of possibilities exist, and I’d argue that several are not much more complicated than one another. Is mythicism really so out there when we’re talking about a figure for whom the best sources are decades later and can’t agree on pretty much any detail but the name? I’d argue the positive claim as ever bears the burden of proof, and if you’re not going to default to Jesus being some kind of potential amalgamation of various stories and/or real teachers, surely you require some evidence that a particular historical Jesus existed? Otherwise it just seems like going with the status quo.

  • Bruce Wright

    Stone soup.

    Hey, let’s argue about whether or not there ever was a stone.

    • vasaroti

      Great reference! Except that even if there are no living villagers willing to swear that the beggar put a stone in the pot, the whole story is still way more plausible than the miracles of Jesus.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

    I am periodically asked by some internet apologist “What evidence would it take to get you to believe in the resurrection?” I usually reply that in my knowledge and experience, miracle stories are invariably the product of human foibles like superstition, gullibility, ignorance and prevarication so I would need to personally experience a miracle in order to change the background knowledge against which I evaluate miracle claims.
    The most common response I get to this is “I don’t think you would believe even then” which usually brings the discussion to a halt. In essence, the apologist seems to be saying “I don’t have good evidence for the resurrection, but since a skeptic might not accept good evidence, I am justified in believing in the resurrection on lousy evidence.” The apologist is right that I might just interpret my miracle experience as a sign that I was losing my mind, but I think the real problem is that the apologist doesn’t want to talk about the possibility that his reasons for believing in the resurrection aren’t the best ones possible.
    Your reaction to Price seems to me to be a variation of this apologetic dodge. Rather than addressing the possibility that there might be better evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus than we have, you sidestep it by asserting that Price wouldn’t believe the better evidence if we had it. While it is entirely possible that Price might try to explain away better evidence, it is still worth discussing what that evidence might be in order to identify the shortcomings in the evidence we have.
    I think that the problem for the historicists is a simple one. The historical Jesus was likely as not an obscure itinerant preacher who went unnoticed for most of his life beyond a small group of illiterate peasants. To the extent that he drew more attention than that, he was just another troublemaker put to death by the Roman Empire. There is no reason to expect such a man to have left a discernible trace in the historical record and there is no reason to expect that we should be able to establish such a man’s existence. As a result, there is no way for the historian to argue by analogy to any known cases.
    I am doubtful that mythicism is ever going to be much more than an intriguing possibility, but I don’t see how we can hope to have anything more than provisional confidence in the existence of a man whose life we wouldn’t have expected to leave a mark in the historical record. We are never going to find the kind of evidence that usually makes us confident about the existence of someone in the ancient world because Jesus’ life wasn’t likely to have produced such evidence.

  • Aaron

    I should probably listen to the podcast before responding just in case he’s done a 180 on this, but I’m going to throw caution to the wind and do it anyway…

    I think you might misunderstand RMP’s position. He isn’t a mythicist who makes a positive claim that the historical Jesus never existed, or that the characters (not quite the same, even in the NT) of Jesus of Nazareth or Christ Jesus were deliberately created by practitioners of priestcraft.

    What I’ve heard RMP say over and over in his podcasts and books:
    – The historical Jesus is effectively lost to us, any real information about him other than the existence of a preacher of some sort named Yeshua in the area is forever out of reach, behind the stained-glass curtain.
    - The characters of Jesus of Nazareth and Christ Jesus may have developed from a kernel of truth, getting grander and going in different directions as other mythologies were conflated, transformed, and co-opted. This is reasonable as we see this sort of mythical development in the characters of Jesus, Paul, Peter (probably others, can’t think who) within the NT and in the mythologies of other characters who may their origin in a real person. We’ve seen this with characters in the modern age- he’s used George Washington as an example, talking about the deeds of other founders have been folded into the acts of the mythological George Washington in the mind of the public and even in print.
    - All of the non-biblical references to Jesus we have appear to be spurious or non-contemporary. Most of them make no claims to being contemporary, and at best can be seen as repeating the actions or claims of Christians that lived in the writer’s time. That attests to the fact that there were people around believing and claiming certain things; it does not provide support to the actual claims.
    - Even if you accept the underlying claims made in the earliest non-biblical sources, you’re left with a preacher named Yeshua, and not much more. What does that really get us? Not much. There may have been a real man named Hercules who was the basis for the Hercules of legend- but accepting that as fact doesn’t give you license to pick and choose from later mythology and create a composite you find appealing.

    It’s a subtle position, and over the heads of most people, but I think it’s the most sensible and skeptical one. RMP has opinions or made judgements I’m not a fan of, but his underlying position makes a lot of sense, IMHO.

    • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

      Aaron,

      My impression is that Price would say that even his existence is likely out of reach, although I agree that his position is much more subtle than most people realize.

      • Aaron

        He might, but I don’t know how much of a difference that makes. When so much of a person’s story is lost, the existence or non-existence of the base personality becomes moot. When subjected to so much mythical development, only the name, century, and geographical region might be all one could really pin down.

        • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

          I don’t know why it should make any difference, but it seems to for many people. I can voice the opinion that the historical Jesus has been so thoroughly mythologized as to be unrecoverable for all practical purposes without upsetting much of anyone besides conservative Christians. It seems to me that it is a very small step to the hypothesis that maybe he didn’t exist at all, but if I express that opinion I will find myself accused of drinking the Kool Aid by many people who wouldn’t bat an eye at the first opinion. It seems to be permissible to question everything about Jesus except his existence.

  • Thin-ice

    We’ve got 14+million people believing Joseph Smith’s made-up shit, only a few generations after he lived. His existence is proven beyond doubt with photos and newspaper stories published at time of the events. Even if we had cast-iron evidence that a particular Jesus lived and breathed, and contemporaneous accounts from followers, we’d still have to believe that all the supernatural events surrounding him were made up. For some silly reason Christians seem to think that if they can prove that Jesus was a real historical figure, then the gospels must be historical accounts, and so Jesus is exempt (as are his followers) from the same charlatonism that Joseph Smith was so good at.

    • http://recoveringagnostic.wordpress.com Recovering Agnostic

      A well-made point. Similarly, Scientology seems to be growing fast, despite its entire doctrine being like the plot of some dodgy B-Movie, and its founder openly and explicitly talking about starting a religion because that’s where the money is.

      What bothers me about the Jesus Myth as a concept is that while the argument can be made, it’s a very bold and unprovable claim which tends to draw attention from the more relevant question of whether events happened as the Bible claims. In that situation, it becomes much easier for apologists to fallaciously argue “Jesus of Nazareth existed, therefore God”.

      Thanks vorjack for writing this, which sums up much of what I think on the subject.

  • Tehanu

    The Gospels are not historical and/or biographical documents as we understand such things today. They’re not about “here’s what happened, and here’s the evidence.” So saying that they’re “inconsistent” or “unbelievable” in terms of what we understand as the correct way to approach historical facts isn’t relevant. I don’t quite see what the value of loudly announcing, “Jesus never existed!” is anyway. Something or someone affected enough other people to start the Jesus movement — the “Brothers,” as Garry Wills has it — so why not a guy named Jesus? Irrespective of whether or not you believe the supernatural claims?

    • Elemenope

      I agree that speculating on the historicity of Jesus or other Biblical figures has little actual value, not least because there is too little information available to come to any reasonable supportable conclusions. The problem is there is this very large group of people, called Christians, who believe in the historicity not just of the existence of these figures, but even what they purportedly said and did, and believe these things fervently enough that it changes their behavior (often not to the benefit of those around them). So long as there are people fervently insisting on the truth of this thing, it is important for other people to point out how tenuous it all is.

      • Ben

        I don’t see how that follows, really. The vast majority of people, whether they’re Christians or not, or whether they believe in the Resurrection or not, still generally accept that there was a man named Jesus who was crucified, around whom subsequently began a movement that still exists to this day. With or without extra-biblical evidence of Jesus’ existence, it simply makes basic sense to assume that the ripples in a pond were caused by *something*.

        Ergo, when you then then attempt to argue crackpot theories such as the Jesus Myth, parsimonious interpretations of the Gospels, or no ‘actual’ Jesus whatsoever, you tend to lose anyone with a modicum of healthy skepticism and win over very credulous, uncritical people who for whatever reason (and there are many good ones) burned on the conservative interpretation of Christianity.

        • Custador

          Bullshit. The vast majority of people in Western countries (i.e. countries saturated with Christian propaganda) think that the historical Jesus existed because they’ve never thought about questioning it.

          And you know what? Calling the idea of the Jesus Myth a “crackpot theory” is fucking ridiculous when the majority of people arguing the other side are arguing for something which has no supporting evidence whatsoever and which includes absolutely absurd claims of supernatural events.

          Yes, it makes sense to assume that the “ripples in the pond” were caused by “something”, but there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think that that “something” was an historical Jesus. Seriously, explain to me, if Jesus was an historical figure, then why did nobody who actually met him ever write a word about him? Why did the stories about him not emerge until generations after he was supposed to have existed? Why did none of the historical chroniclers who were in the area at the time write anything about him? You want to talk about Occam’s Razor? Fine: The simplest explanation for these things is that Jesus did not exist.

          • Ben

            It isn’t just Western countries. The Islamic world holds that Jesus existed. Christian and Muslim Africa believe Jesus existed. Hell, unless scholarly consensus has changed drastically in the last couple years, most historians believe that Jesus existed regardless of their religious belief.

            What is absurd about the Christian claims of supernatural events? They are not normal occurrences, and thus cannot be dealt with by any science we have. You can’t examine them; you simply either accept or dismiss them. The Jesus Myth theories, on the other hand, require large numbers of people over large spans of time to behave in ways that generally, people don’t. That isn’t credible, and it isn’t any more supported by established facts than turning water into wine.

            ‘An historical Jesus’ is, fundamentally, the thing that sparked the Jesus movement. Whether you think the Jesus described in the Gospels has any relation to this spark is somewhat besides the point. I’m also uncertain why you expect there to be many contemporary historical sources when the things Jesus would have been to his non-followers–an ininerant preacher, a trouble maker, a man named Yeshua–where a dime a dozen in ancient Palestine. The Christian gospels place Jesus’ ministry from one to three years.

            On the other hand, we have a fully developed Christian theology in Paul’s letters around twenty years from Jesus’ alleged date of death, as well as the basic mythology of a man who lived, was crucified, and got better. The fact that written biographies didn’t first appear until twenty years later than that hardly seems odd when most of the original church fathers would have still been alive until after the middle of the first century.

            • Custador

              Dingdingdingding! You just won me a bet, namely that your next argument would be a feeble attempt at Special Pleading. Anyway, moving right along:

              “The Xenu myth theory requires large amounts of people to behave in ways that people generally don’t.”

              Or the Vishnu myth theory. Or the Odin myth theory. Or the King Arthur myth theory. Or the Confucius myth theory. Behaving in ways that people normally don’t? Which people are you talking about? Because I can cite you examples of people making up fantasy stories and acting like they’re real all day long. Conversely, if you claim that Jesus actually existed without any evidence, then by your own standards you have to accept all of those other myths I mentioned, plus thousands more.

              Oh, and: 75 to 85 years later, not twenty. And seriously dude, if Jesus existed and wasn’t just another insane apocalyptic rabbi, there’s no way in hell he wouldn’t get a mention from at least one historian. Hell, just the stories about him would have meritted comment, even if the chronicler didn’t believe them.

            • Elemenope

              The shorter version of Custy’s argument is very simple. Around the time this figure we have come to call Jesus is supposed to have lived, the region was absolutely lousy with ecstatic apocalyptic Jewish preachers, and one was pretty much like the next. If you could get into a time machine and go back to that time and place, the connection between what is presented in the Bible and what inspired the story is so tenuous that it is extremely unlikely that you’d be able to correctly pick out, from that handful of dozens of apocalyptic preachers, which one would go on to serve as the seed for the gospel narratives, if any.

            • trj

              Actually Ben is correct when he says the Pauline letters were written about twenty years after the alleged death of Jesus. But it’s definitely incorrect to call these biographical (Paul hardly mentions any details at all about the life of Jesus) or to call it “a fully developed Christian theology” (it wasn’t decided until centuries later – by decree – whether Jesus was god or man, and the whole trinity thing wasn’t even invented yet).

              If Jesus was historical it’s very strange that we have no sources of his many miracles, outside of the Bible. Undead walking the streets of Jerusalem, darkness enveloping the land – these miracles would’ve been so portentous and comprehensive that practically everybody in the region would’ve mentioned them. It’s extremely unlikely that no written accounts survive, simply because there’d be so many of them.

              John 21:25: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.”

              The world itself could not contain all the books describing the things Jesus did. Yet not a word of any of these things has survived outside the Bible. Fancy that.

            • http://fugodeus.com Nox

              (Going over some of the same territory Vorjack and others have already covered. “The idea that there were wandering preachers with an apocalyptic messages in 1st century Palestine seems certain. It’s only the connection to the Jesus tradition that is questionable.” would be a good TlDr for this post)

              While I’m personally inclined to think a heavily mythologized historical Jesus is more likely than a completely mythical Jesus (by more likely I mean 51-49 and just barely that), the mythicists are providing an important balance. Some are a little overconfident in their premise. Some multiply entities beyond necessity, but “crackpot theories” is an unfair and inaccurate description. It is entirely possible that christianity could form without Jesus. The better mythicists have put forward sound arguments and a legitimately viable explanation for christianity forming without Jesus. The reason so many people think Jesus being mythical is just a crazy idea, is because so many people just assume Jesus existed (and because the idea is so often described as crazy).

              In an environment where preachers and apologists often treat Jesus’ existence as already proven well beyond any doubt, it can be worth pointing out that it isn’t proven, but merely assumed (particularly considering how many detrimental assumptions rely completely on this one). There is no real evidence that Jesus ever existed. Any reason to believe a historical Jesus can be at most based on inference. The best reason to think a historical Jesus existed is that the simplest and most straightforward explanation for the origin of the christ cult is some actual person. There isn’t evidence of this person. It just makes slightly more sense that way.

              The question is not just between “the Jesus of the gospels existed” and “the Jesus of the gospels did not exist”. Anyone who has read the gospels should know the Jesus of the gospels did not exist. Like his alleged father he is an inherently unlikely character with many impossible traits (and occam doesn’t reflect positively on magical Jesus the way it does on generic placeholder Jesus). The question before us here is between “the Jesus of the gospels is partially based on some real person(s)” and “the Jesus of the gospels is not at all based on any real person”. Each of these positions has points in its favor, neither has anything that rises above “evidence this could happen” to “evidence this did happen”, and the two positions might not even be as mutually exclusive as they sound.

              Obviously one person couldn’t be both a real person and an entirely fictional character. But real people are mythologized all the f*cking time. Fictional details being added to a true story is nothing that strange. Nor are fictional details overwhelming and replacing a story with a former kernel of truth. Nor is it that strange to imagine earlier god stories being appropriated by a group wishing to make their prophet seem more godlike.

              This would be even less shocking if as the story claims, Jesus died a little earlier than his followers expected, leaving them to reinterpret his teachings or abandon them in light of his messianic failure.

              Of course we don’t actually know if that part of the story is true. Which is the real problem. We don’t know which if any parts of the story are true. We know some parts are not true. We know some parts are historically inaccurate. We know some parts conflict with others. We know some parts are lifted whole from earlier mythology. We know some parts make miracle claims which are not consistent with observed reality. We can reasonably say that every available source comes from people who were not present at the events they report. And we can reasonably say that if Jesus did half the things attributed to him in the gospels, contemporary sources would not be silent about him, which they are.

              And we know the ripples in the pond were caused by something.

              But what do we really know?

              That some number of people believe a historical Jesus existed tells us basically nothing about whether one did or did not, as none of those people are in a position to really know that a historical Jesus existed. That a proposition is believed by people who have no way to know whether it’s true, is not evidence of its truth. This proposition is one about which many have claimed special insight. But unless they were in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, no one has any special insight. They believe because they have been told, and those who told them were told by someone else. And those people were told by someone else, who also never saw Jesus themselves. If every person who believes the existence of Jesus, believes because someone (besides Jesus) has told them that Jesus existed, then no matter how widely held this belief is, it is still hearsay built on hearsay.

              There are some who have attempted to go beyond hearsay and investigate the issue. There are scholars who have, if not special insight, better access to information and usually a better grasp on the information. That a majority of these (consensus might be overstating a bit) agree some historical Jesus probably existed is also not evidence of his existence. That is not to deride scholarship. Some brilliant people have done some fascinating work on the subject of Jesus’ existence, but you could say the same thing about string theory. Anyone who has inferred that Jesus probably existed can ultimately only infer that Jesus probably existed from the fact that various other people believed he did.

              Even if there was a historical Jesus, there is still virtually nothing we could ever actually know about him. If he did exist, he was a very different character from the Jesus character(s) in the gospels. And he might have founded christianity. And that’s about it. He is completely lost to us. Nonexistant for all intents and purposes. Anyone who attempts to reconstruct who this historical Jesus actually was and what he actually did (or what role he played in the founding of christianity) will end up with an incredibly vague generic historical Jesus whose mere existence has no f*cking bearing on anything, or one for whom there is no better evidence than the one in the gospels.

              The problem is not just that every document that tells us Jesus existed comes from someone who was not in a position to know if Jesus existed, but that every document that tells us who Jesus was comes from someone who was not in a position to know who Jesus was. Even if Jesus existed, most early christians wouldn’t have seen or heard him themselves. They would have simply been told by someone that Jesus said and did these things. Within the biblical narrative, christianity didn’t really take off until a guy who had never met Jesus started telling a bunch of people who had never heard of Jesus about all this stuff Jesus had said and done. And within history, the letters attributed to that guy contain what appears to be the first mention of Jesus.

              I think most christians would readily admit that various christian denominations have added mythology to Jesus (the mormon story of Jesus visiting “nephites” in America comes to mind as an example which a majority of christians would probably agree was added much later). Fewer would admit that some of these added details might have been added very early and found their way into the bible. But it is hardly controversial that followers of Jesus reinterpreting Jesus and adding details, is something that has happened many, many, times.

              Most of what we do know about early church history consists of christians fighting with each other over who Jesus was. By the end of the 1st Century there were several sects of christianity in (sometimes violent) conflict with each other. Many “heresies” arose, and nearly all were put down by one means or another. Church hierarchies were established and christianity settled into somewhat agreed upon orthodoxy. But the questions of what was orthodox and what was heretical were ultimately settled not by special insight, but by political power. If there was a real Jesus, and his version of christianity wasn’t what the leaders of his followers wanted, he would have been burned right the f*ck out with the other heresies and we’d have no way of ever knowing about him.

              If you start with the basic Jesus biography as presented in the synaptic gospels, then remove everything which is definitely not true (ie known to be historically inaccurate or impossible), then remove everything which is probably not true (ie the miracles and the stuff which just doesn’t make any damn sense whatsoever), then set aside the things that are clearly just being put in Jesus’ mouth by a later author to endorse one sectarian position or another (the entire book of John, most of the red text in Matthew and Luke) what you have left is a story (a skeleton of a story anyway, or at least a series of anecdotes) which is not that improbable.

              Performing miracles, being born of a virgin, resurrecting himself and others, these are extraordinary claims. That a jewish apocalyptic preacher gathered a small following in 1st century Palestine, possibly teaching a greek influenced form of judaism, told his followers he was the messiah (which among other things would entail establishing a kingdom inside roman occupied territory), pissed off some combination of local religious leaders and local government, and was subsequently hung or crucified, is not an extraordinary claim. Apocalyptic rabbis with unorthodox interpretations of judaism were a somewhat common thing at the time. Crucifixions sort of were as well.

              That some of this preacher’s followers might not want to accept that their friend was dead or that they had been following a false prophet, and might start rationalizing. That a story released into the wild might be wildly embellished in successive retellings. These are also not extraordinary claims.

              Leave out the supernatural elements and doctrinal implications, and Jesus’ existence is not especially unlikely. He is even a potentially good candidate for the origin of those ripples. But then if you leave out the supernatural elements and doctrinal implications, what does it even mean to say Jesus “existed” beyond “christianity was founded by some actual person”.

              And christianity was founded by some actual person(s), if not Jesus then probably Paul. Either Paul fabricated/plagiarized/hallucinated this character himself and founded a new religion around him, or Paul inserted himself as the new leader of an already existing cult.

              The letters of Paul read much more like a hostile takeover than the founding of a new religion. These are the earliest known documents mentioning christianity, and they treat christianity as an already existing thing. Appeals to ‘this is what Jesus would want’ are the basis of pretty much everything Paul says. I realize that’s not exactly evidence of anything. Paul lied about a lot of sh*t (and there are serious questions about which epistles were even written by Paul), and these are supposed to be letters to churches Paul founded himself, so we still wouldn’t be talking about people who saw Jesus. But it does fit better with christianity existing before Paul, which fits better with christianity being founded by Jesus.

              Why doesn’t Paul claim to be the messiah? Why does Paul tell the galatians he met Peter and James? What credibility would he gain from associating himself with Peter, unless Peter was already associated with Jesus?

              And why the Acts of the Apostles? Taken at face value it tells a story very similar to the hostile takeover scenario I’m suggesting (Jesus goes away, leaves his apostles with a mission, Paul comes in, appoints himself an apostle, starts changing sh*t, plants churches, gains dominance, radically redefines christian belief and practice). But I’m not suggesting we take it at face value. What I’m suggesting is why the f*ck does this document even exist unless someone was trying to draw a connection between Paul and some earlier form of christianity.

              It’s still a few steps removed from the question of a historical Jesus (who is still only directly attested by implied anonymous ghost witnesses) (and again people believing something does not make it true. It is only because some of these hypothetical pre-pauline christians might have been in a position to actually know if Jesus existed that they are even worth bringing up at all), but if Peter or someone was already preaching the way before Paul showed up, that would mean some form of christianity existed prior to christianity being invented by Paul.

              The sloppy prophecy fulfillment scheme in the gospels supports this as well. Writing after the fact without any established limitations based on what your audience already commonly believed, it would be a simple matter to mine some messianic prophecies and slap together a fictional biography of a person who perfectly fulfilled those prophecies. Why not have him perfectly fulfill the prophecies you’re bringing up if you’re writing the story and can write it however you want. Why throw in retarded contrivances to make it look like this guy from Nazareth is really from Bethlehem if they could have just said he was from Bethlehem.

              If people believed Jesus was from Nazareth, that wouldn’t mean he existed or came from Nazareth. But if people believed Jesus came from Nazareth before Mark told them, it does bring up the question of where that belief came from.

              As various mythicists or skeptics have pointed out, there are still some problems with this conclusion.

              It is not impossible nor entirely unheard of for mythical constructs to arise entirely within the collective imagination. There are many classical and modern parallels. There is no reason this couldn’t have happened here. It is also not impossible nor entirely unheard of for conmen to sell completely mythical constructs to a believing audience. This happens pretty frequently too.

              There are also some pretty obvious parallels to earlier mythological figures. Even if Jesus was not entirely based on those figures, it is incredibly likely that elements from their stories were added into Jesus’ story. It is not incredibly unlikely that the original historical Jesus was someone’s badly translated half remembered retelling of Hercules.

              And there are lots of little things that suggest this. In the way that none of the stuff I just mentioned is evidence Jesus did exist, none of this is evidence that Jesus did not exist. But there are things which fit much better with Jesus being cobbled together entirely from previous mythology solely to serve as a figurehead for a belief system that would need a figurehead to function (the mere fact that you could cobble together every major element of the Jesus story from previous mythology is already rather suspicious).

              There is the small matter of why the story is set in Israel, but appears to have originated in Greece. Then there is the early presence of gnosticism in christianity, with it’s emphasis on symbolism and hidden knowledge (completely allegorical stories were also pretty common thing at the time, particularly in the mystery schools). And Jesus’ constant use of parables in the gospels (some of which don’t require much stretching to be read as literary clues that this whole story is a parable). Many non-canonical gospels from the 1st and 2nd centuries portray Jesus more as a mystery to be pondered than as a person (The Gospel of Thomas, Pistis Sophia, and The Apocalypse of Peter being the best examples that come to mind).

              And even if there were some actual person Jesus was initially based on. I don’t know if it would be accurate to say the gospels are at all based on him. The biography of Jesus in the gospels is based on an archetype needing a biography. Some parts may bear some coincidental similarity to the actual founder of christianity. Maybe he was jewish. Maybe he was a pacifist. Maybe he was crucified. Who the f*ck knows. But if any parts are true, that is not why they are in the story. Even the potentially true details, are there because they were made up later (possibly by people who were somewhat bound to previously accepted details such as in the Nazareth/Bethlehem example above).

              On paper, Jesus appears as an archetype first, with biographical details appearing quite a while later. Paul doesn’t say much of anything about Jesus the person. Mark which is very likely the earliest of the four canonical gospels, is the most vague of the four. It gives us an incredibly rough sketch of the Jesus biography. Matthew and Luke writing later, and probably basing their writing partially on Mark, give us a significantly more detailed biography of Jesus. In John you can see this biography has been heavily redesigned with several new details not present in earlier versions (and the earliest known copy of John has some passages which differ significantly from the version currently in the bible).

              So at the estimated time of Jesus’ death no one seems to notice him at all. Around twenty years after that we get a Jesus with no biography but dying and rising. Around twenty years after that we get a sketchy incomplete gospel and a Jesus about whom very little is known. Twenty-five to thirty years after that we get the gospel story. Not being widely noticed in his lifetime isn’t a complete disqualifier. Having his entire life story fabricated well after his death kind of is. We can actually observe several of these details being added over time. The details being added have to come from somewhere, and the further you get from the source, the less chance that the somewhere in question is someone who knew Jesus.

              If every part of the life story of Jesus is a late addition to the concept of Jesus, it doesn’t matter how mundane or not unlikely a rabbi on a cross is. If every part of the biography is embellishment, we are talking about a story that was completely made up.

            • dmantis

              Nox,
              You are my hero. I wanted to write a similar summary to the debate but would have failed miserably. Thanks for this.

              One question. Could you elaborate on this:
              “And Jesus’ constant use of parables in the gospels (some of which don’t require much stretching to be read as literary clues that this whole story is a parable).”

              I was not aware of any literary clues like these.

  • John C

    Gonna be a sad day to learn one spent all their life attempting to disprove…their Life. And there is the ‘blasphemy’, the dis-’grace’. That we will not give back to Him what He gave to us which was…us. Refusing to ascribe to Him our ‘whole’ existence, the One who gave us the breath of Life (Ruach/Spirit, Numb 27:16, Jer 32:27, Job 33:4) that He might live His kind & quality of Life through us, that we might know His Life as our own, that He might be plainly ‘seen’ for ‘behold, the dwelling place of God is within man’ (Rev 21:3). To find out that He was utterly true and trustworthy all along, was/is Love…too. ‘If you seek to save your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life for My sake, you will find it (your true Life, Luke 17:33, Matt 16:25)

    ‘Tell me, whose image is on this coin’? ‘Caesars, they replied’. ‘Then render to Caesar what is Caesar’s…and to God what is God’s’ (namely…you, Mark 12:16&17… for ‘ye are god’s’, John 10:34, Gen 1:26).

    Love does not change…thankfully. (Mal 3:6).

    All My Love

    • dgtmantis

      Wow…just wow

      JohnC, I’m incredibly dissapointed that you would resort to the fear factor. After all the great arguments and structured criticism of your positions you have finally hit the bottom of the apologist barrel.

      Shorter JohnC: “What if your wrong!”
      Me: “Dosen’t mean your ‘right’. What if you go to heaven and Muhammed is there waiting for you?”

  • John C

    No, that wasn’t my intent at all, fear is a terrible motivator, can’t base a relationship on it, love is far better. We fall in love, not fear, friend.

    • dmantis

      Way to dodge the argument in my reply. What about those people who ‘fall in love’ with Islam?…Buddhism?…etc.

      “‘If you seek to save your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life for My sake, you will find it (your true Life, Luke 17:33, Matt 16:25)”

      What about those Buddhist monks losing their lives in Tibet? They are giving up their lives for the sake of thier ‘love’. Is your God condemning them to hell?

      • Kodie

        He’s not talking about actually dying, he’s talking about subverting your rational mature self, “losing YOUR life” and being only a vessel for the spirit, and only then will it find you and you will find it, and live happily ever after boring the hell out of other people.

        • Bill

          “…after boring the hell out of other people.”

          Kodie gets today’s UF alotment of awesome points.

        • dgtmantis

          Kodie,
          That is my point. Christianity loves to venerate the martyr. They love to claim such persecution during the Roman Empire and how it continues today. This is the prime passage they use as the call to arms. Yet my point was that there are people who are actually dying for their religion in protest to brutal regimes. Its just the wrong religion.

          But yeah, I fully expect another dodge. Way to beat him to the punch…lol


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