did Jesus even live? a brief thought about scholarship, skepticism, and apologetics

did Jesus even live? a brief thought about scholarship, skepticism, and apologetics June 3, 2015

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATime and again the study of Jesus has been swamped by waves of radical scepticism–to the point of denial of this historicity of Jesus. Three names may be mentioned as examples.

Bruno Bauer (1809-1882), who once lectured in theology at Bonn, regarded the earliest Gospel as a literary work of art: history is produced in it, not described. Albert Kalthoff (1850-1906) understood Jesus as a product of the religious needs of a social movement which had come into contact with the Jewish messianic expectation. Arthur Drews, who was professor of philosophy in Karlsruhe, declared Jesus to be the concretization of a myth which already existed before Christianity.

Here we find three motives for scepticism which are also operative where there is no dispute over the historicity of Jesus: Jesus is understood as a product of literary imagination, social needs or mythical traditions.

Here historical skepticism appears within or outside theology, often with a great ethical solemnity, and foists on its critics the ungrateful role of apologists driven by their wishes. This is quite wrong. In discussion of the historical Jesus nothing is free from wishes and interests, not even skepticism. 

Outside theology skepticism wants to rob Christianity of its legitimization. Inside theology Thiessenit is employed for purposes of legitimization. 

For example, people say: since we only have sources about Jesus which are coloured by faith, an approach to Jesus governed by faith is the only legitimate one; the only alternative is unbelief.

Quiet historical work should rule out such pressure imposed by a single alternative–for the sake of the freedom to be able to come to terms critically with Jesus without having to legitimate one’s faith or unbelief by the results of scholarship.

The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Gerd Thiessen and Annette Merz, pp. 90-91; my formatting).

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  • cvictor1

    The fact that someone even has to write a book like ithat s sad. People have too much time on their hands.

    • peteenns

      By sad you mean … mad? disagree? irritated? “Sad” is an awkward emotion when discussing academic matters.

  • Likewise for all sciences.

  • gingoro

    Went to Amazon to buy book but no Kindle format available so my money will remain in my wallet. DaveW

  • Gary

    Personally, I think contemporary discussions of the historicity of Jesus are centered at the wrong level.

    Discussions are focused a very detailed, low level. Did Jesus exist? Writing with a broad brush in an Internet post’s comment box, I can’t help but simplify and suggest in the Liar, Lunatic, and Lord trilemma, there is a fourth component that is this, Legend. I’ve read and watched debates of a fair number of perspectives concerning the historicity of Jesus. While the perspectives vary widely on their points of view, among the more learned, there is less difference of what they see as the facts than how they situate themselves around those facts. One authority emphasizes the sameness, consistency, etc. Another authority emphasizes the differences, inconsistencies, etc. And then they do their “ergo” and springboard off in opposite directions, unable to hold the tensions that brought them into dialogue for the moment. All well and good, there probably was a person who lived in such a way as to inspire the stories we have. Richard Carrier will likely come and go as Bruno Bauer. The majority of Christians and Muslims will continue to find Jesus of Nazareth historical. The majority of those outside those traditions simply will continue to find the question irrelevant.

    And because of that, whether or not a man by a name lived centuries ago isn’t the profound central claim. It’s like saying, did a man named Catequil live in the ancient Incan Empire long before there were written records?

    Who cares?

    The real question concerning historicity of Jesus is this: Did Jesus of Nazareth change the world? Did the Incarnation of God enter into the material world? Did a new way of being come? Have the first fruits flourished into at least the starts of a new Kingdom? Has death commenced its destruction of death by death? Are swords being beaten into ploughshares? Is it indeed an ascended Lamb who sits on the throne of God?

    To step away from the theologically laden language, simply and historically, what changed? Was there a fundamental reshaping of the course of human history, one observable by something akin to Chomsky’s Martian anthropologist?

    Has, indeed, the Messiah really come?

    I find it less impactful to reconstitution a Q and trace through it and ask did Jesus of Nazareth truly utter this or that saying, did he do this or that miracle. Antiquity offers an abundance of miracle-doers. One can find more than a couple who were demigods as well as those who were raised from the dead.

    We have two billion professing Christians today.

    The interesting question is what do their lives say? Are their lived lives among the glorious company of the Apostles, the goodly fellowship of the Prophets, and the noble army of Martyrs?

    Have they, in an anthropologically if not cosmically observable way, brought a fresh revelation of God’s grace into the world? Are they bearers of clearly differentiated mercy?

    Any orthodox Christology or eschatology cannot bifurcate the historical claim from the theological claim.

    If we need to discuss what does or doesn’t legitimize Christianity or even one’s faith or unbelief, this is a much better center.

    • Dear Gary, (great name, BTW)

      Can you really look at the last 2,000 years of Christianity and say that Christianity has brought about a pattern of “differentiated mercy”??
      The Christian period has been one of the most bloody in human history, much of the violence and persecution perpetrated in the name of the Christian God.

      • Gary

        Yeah, there’s that. But more significantly I’m one of 6 of the last 11 generations of my paternal line who has born a derivation of such a wonderful name.

        • You are so blessed. 🙂

      • newenglandsun

        While we’re bringing up the bloodshed of Christians, why not count also the bloodshed by atheists such as Joseph Stalin (who killed more than Hitler) and Mao and even Pol Pot? That’s only within a span of about 100 years according to my estimation. Sure these guys had their political ideologies going on but that’s not the point. These men were also atheists. It doesn’t matter whether you are Christian or not, all religions and all people have committed mass violence. Being Christian is not the same as not sinning. Being Christian is a matter of an ongoing process of being perfected. Key word is process. I go to confession, my confessor goes to confession, etc. Other religions that have struggled with violence are Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. I’m not going to be apologetic here. Violence is simply a natural part of a broken humanity. Lack of religion in the instance of the atheistic dictators apparently doesn’t prevent them from being violent either.

      • psstein1

        Paganism was also one of the bloodiest periods in history. Now, before you cite the “millions” killed in the Inquisition, perhaps you should know that most scholars put the number at 2,000 at most.

      • Without Malice

        You are absolutely right, Gary, and don’t let any of the “good” Christians try to throw you off the mark with their talk of how few were killed by the inquisition. The inquisition was peanuts. For nearly two thousand years millions of Christians have gladly slaughtered millions of other Christians in the name of defending some idiotic point of dogma. The religious wars in France took the lives of millions and the 30 years war alone took the lives of many times that number. And it does no good for them to say that some of the Christian wars were not about religions, as if that lessons the point that millions of Christians were killing millions of other Christians for even less cause than religious differences.

  • Did Jesus of Nazareth exist? The best we can say is “probably”. The real question is: did he perform the amazing feats attributed to him, in particular, did he rise from the dead?

    We have no contemporaneous mention of him by anyone. It is hard to imagine that a messiah pretender named Jesus performed such amazing miracles including raising the dead, stirred Jerusalem to a frenzy, caused dead Jewish saints to roam the streets of Jerusalem, and, is alleged to have risen from the dead to levitate into outer space in front of his followers…but no contemporary writer, including Philo of Egypt, said a single word about him.

    • peteenns

      Thiessen goes into that very issue of Philo in the following pages and dismantles the simplstistic thinking behind it, Gary.

      • Could you give me a brief description of his explanation for Philo’s silence, or must I read the book?

        I am curious to know if he asserts that Philo was part of the Great Conspiracy: the attempt by every contemporaneous Roman and Jewish official in the Roman Empire to sweep the miraculous acts attributed to Jesus in the Gospels under the proverbial rug as a result of their sinfulness and rebellion against an ancient Hebrew/Canaanite god.

      • Is there a quick tl;dr of that dismantling?

      • Gary

        Personally, I think the issue needs to be bigger than the metabolic.

        The real question is whether or not he’s changed world.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Do you think Jesus and Christianity have NOT changed the world?

          Modern history would look very very very different sans the rise of Christianity. The philosophy of the Enlightenment (ironically since conservative Christians love to make the ‘enlightenment’ a whipping boy for all that’s gone wrong with secular society), with its conception of the sanctity of the individual and equality of all under God, sprung forth from the Christian philosophy from which the movement’s leaders were steeped in from youth (no matter how much they despised the church or alluding to the supernatural). The Sermon on the Mount/Plain is basically the wellspring for modern secular humanism. “The last will be first and the first last” . . that egalitarian claim from an allegedly divine source is philosophically some “heavy sh^&”
          There would be no David Hume or Jean-Jacques Rousseau without Jesus of Nazareth.

          • Gary

            GREAT question. I’m kinda mixed. Much good has been done but after 2K years?, what should be the watermark? Honestly, I know only a few (and even -ish) who have internalized the Sermon on the Mountain? What’s good enough to consider person X to be the “Son of God?”

          • I have to challenge your claim that the Enlightenment was an outgrowth of Christianity. The Enlightenment was an outgrowth of the Renaissance, which was a “re-” “naissance”—rebirth—of Greco-Roman culture, art, and philosophy! We would not have needed a Renaissance of the Greco-Roman culture if the Church (assisted by the Vandals and Visigoths) had not snuffed it out.

            Until the Renaissance and Enlightenment, western art, culture, and philosophy had been strangled by popes and bishops, giving us almost a thousand years we now call, the Dark Ages.

          • Andrew Dowling

            That’s a common narrative, but look at who the earliest writers allude to via ethics. I would say Jesus (and anyone growing up in 17 or 18th century Europe/America would’ve had a life THOROUGHLY infused by the Church and church teaching) has more of an influence than Aristotle. Most Enlightenment thinkers studied the Bible thoroughly and wrote whole books on what they considered to be true Christian theology; Jefferson even took the time to cut and paste his own New Testament. While Greco-Roman philosophy covers a pretty wide spectrum (I rather like the Pythagoreans myself), I do think some idealize what were major philosophical assumptions of many ancient Romans and Greeks, many of which would be considered abominable today.

          • I don’t want to minimize how the brutality of the Middle Ages (the persecution of the Waldensians and the Cathars, etc., etc.) did stand in the way of a progress. However, that whole Gibbon-esque line of thinking regarding the decline of Rome is not embraced in historical circles today. The church actually preserved much of the remaining vestiges of Roman civilization/infrastructure that the “barbarians” destroyed. Not that Rome was the unvarnished peak of civilization, or that the “barbarians” did not have sophisticated civilizations of their own. The church was both a patron and a hindrance of the arts and sciences, depending on the time, place, and the politics involved.

            One of my favorite philosophers is Michel de Montaigne, who was Catholic and heavily influenced by ancient Stoic writers. He is one example of how the marriage of these and other Western traditions came together in interesting ways to produce much good fruit. I’d say anyone who minimizes the contribution of the Greco-Roman tradition is not paying attention, but the same can be said for anyone who sees the Judeo-Christian tradition as primarily an inhibitor of progress. I think this instinct, and the instinct to attribute all manner of backward ignorance and fanaticism to the so-called “Dark Ages,” makes for a neat and tidy picture. But not one most historians would recognize. I think that view of history is a production of the culture wars of today, not careful scholarship.

          • newenglandsun

            The Renaissance was primarily an anti-clerical movement existing within Christianity–Catholicism specifically. Anti-clericalism was not considered a heresy but rather an argument that clergy should hold less power. Even many Orthodox Christians are anti-clerical. I’m anti-clerical. St. Thomas More was actually a Renaissance humanist and Catholic martyr. So your statement: “I have to challenge your claim that the Enlightenment was an outgrowth of Christianity. The Enlightenment was an outgrowth of the Renaissance…” is entirely contradictory as the Renaissance was already an outgrowth of Christianity.

            The Renaissance movement in Catholic thought was actually a response to the Scholastic method of philosophy carried out by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Anselm. Incidentally, most historians question the existence of an actual “Renaissance” nowadays as a period of time and prefer to state it was more a school of philosophical thought that countered the scholastic method. And further, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and numerous other western church fathers were quite heavily influenced by Plato and Aristotle. St. Thomas Aquinas always refers to Aristotle as “The Philosopher”.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Gary don’t fall into the mythicist trap of taking any judgment on the historical Jesus through a literal reading of the Gospel miracles.

      That there aren’t “contemporary” accounts of Jesus, who in his lifetime was not a particularly notable historical figure, means absolutely zilch in ancient history . .we have practically no contemporary accounts of most ancient historical people, including those who were royalty and military leaders.

      Edit: Ok I see you meant the miracles and not the historical figure. As Gilda Radner noted . .”nevermind”

      • I lean toward believing that Jesus truly existed and was crucified by the Romans. It’s all the miracle claims, especially the Resurrection claim, that I don’t buy. I believe that these claims can ONLY be believed by faith. There is zero good evidence for their historicity.

        • Gary

          For me more than a biological Resurrection, it’s a physical Ascension. I can grok both theologically and symbolically to a good degree, but from a physical and historical perspective I have no idea what one is supposed to make of the Ascension. When people profess belief in the Resurrection, I think I kinda know what they mean. When they profess belief in the Ascension, I can’t ever get to too much more than a meaning-laden ascending to the Throne and doing that within a mythical NT era cosmology. Resurrection, like Virgin Birth, is merely counter to human biology as I know. Ascension is counter to the whole universe as I know it.

    • Dean

      Actually, stuff like that happened all the time in the ancient world, some of it got noticed recorded and some didn’t, some of those records survived and some didn’t. What was unique about Jesus is that his movement had a lasting legacy that transformed the entire world. That’s not “proof” that he existed, but it is good evidence.

      • There were quite a few “prophets” in the Ancient World who claimed to perform amazing supernatural deeds and to have been “sent” by God. One prophet was the Buddha, who today has millions if not billions of followers, whose movement is older than that of Jesus, and has “transformed” much of the Indian subcontinent.

        Another prophet was Mohammad, whose religious beliefs were formed six centuries after those of Jesus, and today has over a billion adherents, and within possibly one generation, is estimated to overtake Christianity as the largest religion on the planet. This religion transformed the Arabian peninsula and beyond.

        Then there is a modern prophet, Joseph Smith. In 1830, his movement had six followers, today there are over 15 million Mormons, in almost every country on the face of the planet! Christianity had no where near that kind of early growth in its first two hundred years.

        So what does all this mean? Answer: A movement revolving around the historical or legendary prophet named Jesus, began in the first century AD, was adopted by the most powerful nation on earth, Rome, 300 years later, and therefore achieved amazing power. But nothing in this growth suggests that the central teaching of this religion—that a dead man walked out of his grave and later levitated into the sky—is true…only that people came to BELIEVE it true…just as people came to believe Buddha’s story was true; Mohammad’s story was true; and, Joseph Smith’s story is true.

        • Erp

          Strictly speaking the Mormon church claims 15 million members; they have no where near that number of actual followers. For instance in 2010 the Mormons claimed 1,138,740 members in Brazil; the Brazilian census that year found 225,695 (see http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/blogsfaithblog/54497395-180/church-census-lds-reported.html.csp).

        • Maddog

          The Buddha was not sent by the supreme god (whom he dismissed as ignorant and insane). The closest to this would be Indra, chief of the 33 gods, begging him to share his knowledge of the dhamma.

  • Eric Oppenhuizen

    Bruno Bauer is correct in saying that the first Gospel is a literary work of art, but incorrect in suggesting history was created out of it. Sharon Dowd has a brilliant commentary on the literary nature of the Gospel According to Mark, and her premise is that the author (informed by-but likely not written by-Mark) saw this true story of Jesus as the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in a fresh new way, and saw Jesus’ journey to the cross as essential, and his death as His triumph. There elements of journey motif, satire, sarcasm, episodic narration, and a discourse and dramatic dialogue. It was written for a Greek audience with Jewish cultural understandings, and is not a ‘history book’, but rather meant as an oratory performance meant to be given in a single event, based on this person’s understanding of the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

    • So then how do you know which parts of the story are true and which are literary invention? How do you know that ANY of the events described in the Gospel of Mark are real, including the claim of a bodily resurrection, if you admit it was likely not written by an eyewitness? It is simply a story, written by someone, who may have received his information from “John Mark” whom we have zero evidence that he himself was an eyewitness, but allegedly received his information from Peter? And an entire religion was built on this, at best, third hand information!

      The majority of scholars now agree that both Matthew and Luke (and probably even John) borrowed heavily from “Mark’s” work. Isn’t it odd that John and Matthew, allegedly two of the apostles and alleged eyewitnesses, would borrow heavily from the writings of a NON-EYEWITNESS??

      Based on your statements I see how it is perfectly reasonable and logical to view the alleged teachings of the alleged historical Jesus as a philosophy, a way to live, similar to the teachings of the Buddha, but to create a religion upon it, a religion based on the belief in the bodily resurrection of a three-day-dead first century Jewish prophet, for whom we have zero eyewitness testimony, but only, at best, third-hand word of mouth, in my opinion, defies logic and common sense.

      • Andrew Dowling

        “So then how do you know which parts of the story are true and which are literary invention?”

        No-one can state with certainty concerning an ancient religious text, but biblical scholars have plenty of tools at their disposal, notably identifying various strata of the oral tradition (some which are clearly earlier than others), certain literary patterns which are unique to each evangelist, as well of course as the noting which passages use the OT as the framework for certain narratives or motifs.

        “How do you know that ANY of the events described in the Gospel of Mark are real, including the claim of a bodily resurrection”

        I would say its a stretch to say Mark’s rather esoteric ending (which contains no appearances of a resurrected Jesus) is making a “claim of a bodily resurrection”

        “And an entire religion was built on this, at best, third hand information!”

        It’s commonly accepted that by the time Mark wrote his Gospel there were already many Christian churches and strands of Christianity present, so to say it’s all based off of Mark is not accurate.

        “The majority of scholars now agree that both Matthew and Luke (and probably even John) borrowed heavily from “Mark’s” work. Isn’t it odd that John and Matthew, allegedly two of the apostles and alleged eyewitnesses, would borrow heavily from the writings of a NON-EYEWITNESS??”

        Mainstream scholarship concluded neither John or Matthew were eyewitnesses long ago. But there’s a consensus that the other 3 gospels (at least the other Synoptics Matthew and Luke, but I’d argue some of John goes back fairly early as well) use material from either now lost writings or oral tradition that are older than Mark. Doesn’t mean its straight off the lips of the historical Jesus or that the narratives are straight history, but Mark is not the end all/be all of the Jesus narrative tradition (although I’d be the first to say Mark is indeed crucial to what is now accepted as the Gospel narrative, without a doubt)

        “Based on your statements I see how it is perfectly reasonable and logical to view the alleged teachings of the alleged historical Jesus as a philosophy”

        Not all early Christians shared Paul’s “Christ the Savior” theology which is heavily focused on the cosmic acts done through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, the Jewish Christianity featured in the Didache, the James epistle, and Q show a Christianity which places Jesus as the embodiment of Sophia/revelation of God, but focuses more on the ethical teachings which embody a new Judaism and doesn’t make much mention of the resurrection at all.

        • I like your thinking.

          I must ask you, however, based on the limited information/evidence we have about Jesus do you believe that Jesus was the Creator God, a god, some type of divine being, or just a man who imagined himself to be a prophet?

          I don’t see how anyone can arrive at any conclusion other than the last, based on the very limited evidence we have, without resorting to faith. I’d be curious as to your position on that.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Thanks Gary.

            I think the question (was Jesus “divine”/God) presupposes a dualism that I don’t adhere to; that there is a human/earth sphere and divine/heavenly sphere, and that they operate separately sans occasional interventions from the latter into the former. This is the Hellenistic thinking that the Gentile church thoroughly adopted in the 2nd century, although Paul, who was a Jew highly educated in Hellenistic dualism himself, kind of got that ball rolling (thus he was comfortable preaching to Gentiles using their terms and language)

            From a monistic framework; there is consistent divine/material interaction. Much of ancient Jewish thought supported this way of thinking-that Yahweh was “perfectly simple, sustaining anything and everything.” I think a lot of Jesus’s ministry does as well, particularly through the parables “The reign of God is like . . .” as well as proclaiming the reign of God occurring through actions here on Earth, particularly through healing and meal-sharing.

            So the big question from the monistic standpoint is what embodies the divine on earth? What encapsulates the transcendent for you? For the Romans, it was the nationalism and military power epitomized by Caesar, who was declared “Son of God,” “Lord of Lords,” and “Saviour of the World” . . by making those statements, the Romans were saying “this is what God is like.” The early Christians, using those titles for Jesus, were saying “no, THIS is what God is like.” Hope that makes sense.

        • Father Thyme

          Biblical scholars do have plenty of tools at their disposal.

          Hector Avalos, professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, “criticizes his colleagues for applying a variety of flawed and specious techniques aimed at maintaining the illusion that the Bible is still relevant in today’s world” and for “being more concerned about its self-preservation than about giving an honest account,” in his text The End of Bible Studies. prometheusbooks.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=52

          • newenglandsun

            I still find it ironic that a guy who studies the Bible for a living still thinks the Bible is irrelevant to study. He should just stop studying it if he thinks it’s completely irrelevant.

        • newenglandsun

          “so to say it’s all based off of Mark is not accurate”

          Hate to be a grammar Nazi here but you never base anything off of something–the base is your bottom. You base things ON something.

          • Andrew Dowling

            NE sun man, you need to stop doing this. It’s annoying. People are typing quickly on smart phones. Get over it.

          • newenglandsun

            First off, I’m not typing on a smart phone, secondly, that is not a typo/spelling error but a law-breaker of basic grammatical principles. Third, can’t help myself–it’s my job to grade other people’s grammar–soon to be job.

      • newenglandsun

        Do we really know whether or not whether the Gospels are non-eyewitness accounts or not? We do not. And a couple of very heavily qualified scholars still maintain that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts–N.T. Wright and Richard Bauckham.

        I’m not saying necessarily I agree with these scholars but to simply dismiss the notion on the basis that the Gospels are non-eyewitness accounts is still an assumption that we just don’t know.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Bauckham and Wright don’t even directly argue they come from eyewitnesses, they basically try to pretzel twist arguments that a probable option is that some sources behind sources come from eyewitnesses. Bauckham’s colorful theories all based off of Eusebius quoting Papias are particularly ridiculous, and I know of no scholars outside conservative evangelicalism who even entertain his assertions because they are so fanciful.

          • newenglandsun

            I honestly wouldn’t know whether Baukham’s arguments are “particularly ridiculous” or not as I have not read Bauckham, however, I am not one to simply dismiss the traditional interpretation of the authorship of the Gospels on the grounds of NT scholars telling me “this is how it came”. It’d be a little bit like studying various different albums from long ago and saying, “We have no idea if Iron Maiden did the songs on the album ‘Powerslave’ as the style seems like it could very well be like a later Judas Priest as well.” Like I said, I have no position on this but I find the eyewitness argument to be just as persuasive as the Synoptics being based on the Quelle source which we have no evidence even existed (which, I emphasize–does NOT mean it didn’t exist and that was how the Gospels were written either).

            Things like whether the Gospels are eyewitness accounts/based on eyewitness accounts or based on the German-hypothesized Quelle source are not things I’m going to argue about or affirm. While certainly, many scholars WOULD LIKE to assert their positions on these topics as “absolute truth”, no one really knows. I’m not going to debate whether there was a real Jesus or not because no one really knows that either. Has any one really been converted from learning NT scholarship and what “current NT scholarship says”?

          • Andrew Dowling

            You might as well dismiss most of ancient history because “we’ll never really know.” This isnt quantum physics. One can read the scholarly arguments, look at the available evidence, and make their own conclusions through their own analysis. I surely have, and my conclusion affirms that of mainstream scholarship that it’s highly improbable the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses.

          • newenglandsun

            I do not dismiss “most of ancient history”. I think you are too quick in making assumptions about my own beliefs on different matters concerning ancient history. I simply point out that when working with ancient history, at MOST, we can only make guesses OFTEN times provided by our own biases.

          • psstein1

            I’ve never seen Wright argue for the gospels as having eyewitness sources. As for Bauckham’s argument, it’s certainly an interesting one. There is almost assuredly some form of oral tradition based (at least in part) on eyewitness testimony. Moreover, I would strongly disagree that Bauckham “pretzel twists” anything. He basically says that Bultmann’s form critical approach is lacking, and that it would make sense if the eyewitnesses had some role in the development of the gospels.

      • Paul D.

        “So then how do you know which parts of the story are true and which are literary invention?”

        Your question illustrates the challenge of understanding Mark. The interpretational key, I think, is in Mark 4.

        In this chapter, Jesus tells a parable about a sower sowing seeds on various types of soil. His audience doesn’t understand the deeper meaning of the parable. When asked by his disciples to explain it, Jesus says: “for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'” (Mark 4:11-12, NRSV)

        This is a synecdoche for the entire book of Mark and is really addressed to the reader. If you read Mark and just interpret it as a literal historical tale of a guy who went around Galilee doing miracles, then *you* are like the outsiders in Mark 4, who hear the parable of the sower and think the story is about agriculture. As John Dominic Crossan says, the entire Gospel is parabolic.

        Once you realize that, you’re on your way to understanding what the Gospel message of early Christianity was all about.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Yep. A recurring theme in Mark is the people one would expect to “get it” completely don’t get it, and this hasn’t changed much in almost 2000 years.

  • Father Thyme

    When Jesus earns a spot in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, which is presently in its 4th edition without any mention of Jesus so far, let me know.

    For the Fourth Time Jesus Fails to Qualify as a Historical Entry In The Oxford Classical Dictionary

    • newenglandsun

      Incidentally, I just looked up the Oxford Classical Dictionary on Amazon and found on several pages mention of Jesus. pp. 10-11 (under Acts of the Apostles–a part of the New Testament which apparently the author of “Debunking Christianity” doesn’t know is part of the New Testament), 124, 179 (under asceticism), 308 (under chastity), 312 (under Christianity), 315 (under Christus Patiens–Passion of the Christ–so a whole entry dedicated to his crucifixion!), 404, 443, 579 (under fish, sacred), 602, 673 (under Herod Antipas), 776 (under Josephus–discusses the Testimonium and it is either partly or wholly interpolation–has John Loftus even read this book?), 892 (discusses theories which argue Jesus visited India), 994 (under Naassenes), 1096, 1121 (under Pharisees and how in the Gospels they frequently attacked Jesus), 1148 (discusses sacred sites of Christians), 1184 (under Pontius Pilate), 1254, 1265 (under religion, Jewish), 1336, 1557 (under Virgil).

      That’s the fourth edition of The Oxford Classical Dictionary–is that enough references of Jesus in there for you?

      • wolfeevolution

        [drops mic]

        • newenglandsun

          According to this particular mythicist’s logic, I literally have to assert that the Ilundain variation of the Scandinavian defense (one of the OLDEST variants–if not THE oldest variant–of the Scandinavian defense) as having absolutely NO importance to chess theory whatsoever despite the fact that even GM Robert Fischer has played against it as well as GM Jacques Mieses simply because my Oxford Companion to Chess does not have a separate article related to it.

  • Daniel Pape

    Does the book touch on the argument used by Johannes Leipoldt and Luke Timothy Johnson that “something” must have happened in order to motivate the earliest followers to persist in propagating a narrative that resulted in their deaths?

    While the historical record is not sufficient to identify Jesus as an actual person, is the testimony (often in the face of capital punishment or social estrangement) of early disciples enough to support the existence of “something?”

    • A couple thoughts in reply, Daniel: I do think it is a very reasonable inference from how Jesus was spoken about and recorded in admittedly religious writings that he actually existed. His following was similar to that of numerous leaders named by Josephus, including John the Baptist, except that most of the other sects fairly quickly fell apart upon the death of the leader.

      However, I don’t think that or other factors require a BODILY resurrection to explain the persistence of Jesus’ following. Evidence of some kind of appearances is quite strong… Paul having had one that he didn’t claim to be a bodily encounter, nor did Luke in describing it in Acts. I think its quite possible Jesus “appeared” to certain followers (not as hallucinations) after his death. This combined with other factors including the power of his nonviolent and “live the Kingdom, now” teachings can readily explain the courage of his disciples when one puts them in Jerusalem context for that Jewish-Christian branch. Paul’s churches involve a bit different dynamic.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I’ve found that mythicists are often cut from the same cloth as fundamentalists . .”if any of it is not true/myth, than its all not true” is the rational that carries much of their load.

    Some like Barth or more recently Johnson just throw up their hands and say one needs the Christ of faith since any historical reconstruction is impossible. Others like Crossan think making probable historical constructions are possible but that we ultimately know more about the impact Jesus had on those who claimed to follow him than the man himself.

    I concur with the latter point. Christianity would’ve never existed without the influence and impact the historical Jesus had on his disciples. Much has been constructed on top of that, but that is the cornerstone of the whole thing, and if one ignores it I think they are also ignoring the essence and root of Christian pronouncement.

    • AlanCK

      This is an oversimplification of Barth. What Barth brought to attention is that historical reconstruction makes all sorts of epistemic assumptions that often require God sit quietly in a corner while scholars do their work. Barth would never have a person stick his or her head in the sand by denying criticism.

    • Gary

      Multiple Christianities indeed. I think, more than anything, I long ago was introduce to a Christianity of the modernity, the Bible, and in-groups ranging from family to country+race. Not till really too late was I exposed to the faith of apostle, prophets, and martyrs. Wrt Crossan, I simply like listening to him. He is a delight to listen to.

      Anyhow there’s one root of Christian pronouncement as I have come to understand in a very bookish kind of way.

      And another that I see in real life of friends, family, church, and media.

      Sadly, I can’t really reconcile the implications of orthodox Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology with what I observe in the real world.

    • wolfeevolution

      This: “I’ve found that mythicists are often cut from the same cloth as fundamentalists . .”if any of it is not true/myth, than its all not true” is the rational that carries much of their load.”

  • James

    Yes, what some “people say” (last part of quote) is a little simplistic. Every source about Jesus is “colored by faith” of some kind even the little Tacitus or Josephus or Gibbon said about him. So, “quiet historical work” should continue on all fronts including critical study of the Gospel records themselves. I think it has been shown they contain lots of internal evidence that is not simply obliterated by faith.

  • Jacob Kerry

    Piecing together ancient history is a difficult thing. Historians have to look at lots of different sources. Just because something isn’t called ‘The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ an oral history by the Studs Terkel of the first century doesn’t mean there aren’t other places to find documentary evidence of Jesus. I have heard it said there are no references to Jesus outside of the New Testament. Why don’t people mention Tactius?

    “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind”. (From ‘Annals”, concerning the Great Fire in Rome in 64 AD)

    • Josephus also talks about him in “Antiquities.” And then there’s the writers of the gospels and the epistles.

  • There is a conflict, I think, being raised in Peter’s blog that is not fully flushed out.

    First, in questioning whether a resurrection did in fact happen, the assertion is made that an alleged resurrection of someone named “Jesus” did happen but science cannot address that as the Jesus-event is not reproducible and thus outside the realm of the scientific method.

    On the other hand, the assertion is made that this “Jesus” is in fact historical, meaning was an actual person and did live and to whom can be ascribed not only a resurrection but other miracles (also outside of science.)

    This leads me to believe what is being asserted here is that we can write valid history about (1) someone supposedly who existed, but whose existence cannot be tested, (2) events that occurred, but whose occurrence cannot be tested.

    Perhaps you can clarify?

    • Isn’t that the status of any ancient historical claim? The existence of Socrates and his drinking hemlock can’t be tested.

      • But if someone told you that your non-belief in Socrates’s act of drinking hemlock would destine you to an eternity of negative, potentially painful, consequences, wouldn’t you be inclined to demand just a wee bit more evidence for this alleged historical event than you would for a similar historical claim?

        • Well, I don’t believe in an eternity of negative and painful consequences, but that aside, it would do me no good to demand more evidence because there isn’t any. I hear/read the account of the Resurrection and believe it happened. Others don’t. There is no more available data on which we might decide this issue, so I’m unable to argue someone into believing in the Resurrection, nor do I try to do so.

          I can tell people about the Resurrection, and do so. And sometimes I can clear up misconceptions or what have you. But if someone doesn’t find the story compelling, that’s pretty much it. The biblical accounts are pretty much all I’ve got.

          • Griffin Gaddie

            But science, says resurrection of long dead people do my happen

          • What?

      • I’m raising a different question.

        It’s *not* whether data does or does not exist in our current body of discoveries. The latter (i.e., lack of data) can always be later overcome with some new archaeological discovery.

        It is my understanding that Peter’s position is that a resurrection of Jesus is outside the domain of science, sort of like the “non-overlapping magisteria” approach to the wider issues.

        If so, then there will never be any data (in the scientific method sense) because there can’t be.

        So now I want to bridge that over to historiography, which is not a hard science, but might, in some circles, be considered a social science.

        Can one write “history” about something about which is asserted that data cannot exist and knowledge of which can only come about through divine revelation?

        • In broad brush strokes, I agree with you. I don’t remember which post it was, but in the comments, I made a similar point – that even though the Resurrection isn’t really available to biological analysis, it is available to historical criticism.

          However, this is true of virtually any ancient historical claim. For instance, in Socrates’ case, all we know about him is what Plato wrote. No other contemporaries mention him. That’s all the data we have, and the only science that can speak to it is historical criticism. We could say similar things about other ancient figures and their supposed deeds. Even a few wars.

          Your last question would probably be more descriptive of, say, Genesis. Even the traditional view of Genesis as authored by Moses has to own up to the fact that he is not recording history, but rather “divine revelation.” However, at least some of the claims in Genesis are open to current scientific investigation.

          Abraham, though – his existence isn’t really up for empirical analysis, nor was his existence recorded by any contemporaries. Is the story of Abraham history? Definitely not in the modern, scientific sense of the word.

  • Brad

    Let’s say a convincing case is made for this early celestial Christology (I think Richard Carrier has the best so far). Is there anything in your hermeneutic that would prohibit you from running with something like that or coming up with a completely new perspective on Jesus and call it “the next step in your spiritual journey.” It would make even more sense from a protestant perspective, given the many centuries of Christianity dominated by the RCC until the reformers came along. As a young, struggling, fundamentalist-bred believer, I found TBTMS very appealing, but I wished for more discussion on the boundaries and implications. Maybe that’s a different book?

  • Kim Fabricius

    Did Jesus ever live? What a silly question! I mean, as Pete himself tells us in his previous post “10 reasons why roughly 300,000,000 Americans are wrong”, i.e., not to have bought his The Bible Tells Me So : “Jesus himself endorsed the book (but we had to cut his blurb because there wasn’t enough room on the back cover).”


    • newenglandsun

      Well if his blurb hadn’t been hacked out, then we would have had all the evidence needed to prove his existence right there!

  • Peter Kirby

    “Here historical skepticism appears within or outside theology, often with a great ethical solemnity, and foists on its critics the ungrateful role of apologists driven by their wishes. This is quite wrong. In discussion of the historical Jesus nothing is free from wishes and interests, not even skepticism. Outside theology skepticism wants to rob Christianity of its legitimization. Inside theology it is employed for purposes of legitimization.”

    This is, truly, a much-needed reminder. But the emphasis that should be read into this passage, the reminder that is much-needed, depends on the state of the reader. If the reader is more glad to ‘rob Christianity of its legitimization’, then the reader needs to be reminded of this tendency and possible source of bias. On the other hand, if the reader is more glad to ’employ’ the nature of the historical Jesus ‘for purposes of legitimization’, then that reader needs to be reminded of *that* tendency and *that* possible source of bias.

    By sheer numbers, most readers here need to be reminded of the latter.

    • Gary

      Who benefits from informing anyone of their biases in this? (btw, I’m a long-time Peter Kirby fan.)

    • Andrew Dowling

      Not on your website’s forum! 🙂

    • Griffin Gaddie

      For Enns, as in many sermons, faith is privileged, and should never be questioned. Even when it makes historical claims.