Did Jesus Exist? A Place to Discuss without a 500 Character Limit

Did Jesus Exist? A Place to Discuss without a 500 Character Limit December 26, 2011

I made a video some time ago, and it continues to get visits from the occasional mythicist who rejects the argument and wants to be persuaded that Jesus existed in 500 characters or less.

I’m sharing the video again here in the hope that perhaps the commenter currently wasting time over there might come here for less constrained discussion – but barring that, to encourage those who are interested to try their hand at making a persuasive case in up to 500 characters, if they are so inclined.

For those who may be interested, I hope to find at least a little time to spend on resuming blogging through Earl Doherty’s book over this holiday break.

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  • Stevencarrwork

    It would be more useful to do a test case first to see how powerful the techniques used by mainstream Biblical scholars are.

    Did Q exist? This cannot be decided by mainstream Biblical scholars.

    Did Judas exist? Of course he did, but his existence cannot be defended by mainstream Biblical scholars who simply declare that their impotence to defend their beliefs is irrelevant to their reputation as experts.

    • Michael Wilson


  • Given the fact that the idea of a crucified Messiah seems to have caught on with a substantial number of 1st century Jews, wouldn’t this suggest that historians have misjudged either the extent to which this violated expectations or the significance this violation of expectations would have held?  While it is certainly plausible that early Christians just stumbled upon the ideas as a result of a Messianic claimant named Jesus being crucified, why is it more plausible than someone recognizing the appeal that the idea of a Messiah who suffered for his people would would have?  

    • The ability of people to contort their beliefs into new configurations to avoid or reduce cognitive dissonance is well documented, and given the nature of the concept of an anointed one descended from David, that seems a far more likely scenario for that reason.

      • I would think that the ability of people to imagine new permutations of their old beliefs even in the absence of cognitive dissonance is reasonably well documented, too.

        • Well, as long as you are willing to posit people as being infinitely creative and infinitely gullible, and human cultural ideas as infinitely flexible, then I fail to see how one can engage in any sort of deductive reasoning about anything in history, since anything could in theory have been invented, apart from a that small handful of people and events from antiquity for which we have good tangible evidence – not that on a scenario with infinite creativity and gullibility, even much of that would not be open to similar suspicion.

          • Dr.  McGrath,

            If I may be so bold:

            My guess is that most early converts to Christianity had no first hand knowledge of the events behind the message, but instead relied upon the word of the people who told them about the crucified Messiah.  I don’t know this for sure, but I think it sufficiently plausible that I would expect any credible historical theory to be robust enough to withstand the possibility. 

            For such converts, it would not matter whether the origin of the idea of a crucified Messiah was cognitive dissonance or pure invention. Because of this, I do not think that my view requires me to posit either infinite gullibility or infinite cultural flexibility.  Whatever degree of flexibility and gullibility was necessary for these stories to become widely accepted does not need to be posited.  It can be inferred from the fact that the stories were widely accepted.

            This still leaves open the question of the degree of creativity that would be required for the idea of a crucified Messiah to be invented.   Perhaps it would be infinite.  However, my intuition suggests that the degree of creativity required to invent the idea would not be disproportionate to the degrees of gullibility and cultural flexibility that would be required for the idea to spread in the way that it did.  Once again, I don’t claim to know for sure, but that’s my guess.

            Regarding the possibility that anything in ancient history might have been invented, I think that there is some truth to that, but not so much as to lead to nihilism.  I think that the kinds of things about which historians of the ancient world express certainty are generally supported by sufficient data to warrant the conclusions.

            For example, historians seem to be pretty confident about things like battles and wars.  I think this is warranted because I think we have enough data to reach conclusions.  We have battles and wars for which we have accounts from both sides. We have archeological evidence that can help us corroborate the participants, the armaments and the outcome of some battles and wars.   This gives us some empirical basis for assessing the plausibility of the accounts of battles and wars for which less evidence is available. 

            On the other hand, I don’t think that we have anywhere near as much data concerning the formation of cults and supernatural beliefs.   I am more than a little skeptical that we have any principled basis for assigning a higher probability to cognitive dissonance rather than pure invention as the source of any particular belief in any particular supernatural event.

          • Geoff Hudson

            “For example, historians seem to be pretty confident about things like battles and wars.  I think this is warranted because I think we have enough data to reach conclusions.”
            They are very confident about Vespasian’s war in Galilee, yet they have no archaeological evidence.  This raises the question: how reliable are the  accounts to do with Vespasian’s war in Judea?

          • I assume that historians reason by analogy to events for which more evidence is available.

          • Geoff Hudson

            I thought historians were not supposed to assume too much.  How can they draw a conclusion about something as major as a war that Vespasian is supposed to have fought in Galilee, by ‘analogy’?  

            That there was a war in Judea is evidenced by Roman camps.  None of the camps in Judea can be related archaeologically directly with Vespasian.   But there is no similar evidence of Roman camps for a war in Galilee.  The so-called war in Galilee was fabricated to make believe that Vespasian was in charge of the army all along.     

  • Robert Perry

    James, I hadn’t seen the video and appreciated it. You were admirably restrained. I think the analogy to young-earth Creationism is very apt.

    I didn’t know about your book on the burial of Jesus. Will check it out. I’m not Evangelical (or Christian, for that matter), but I do believe that historical evidence argues strongly for the resurrection. I take issue, therefore, with the idea that historians in principle can’t go there. To me, that divorces being a historian from being a person. As people, we have to make informed judgments about what happened, in any past time that concerns us. And historians are supposed to be those of us who are making the most informed judgments, as a service to the rest of us. Saying they can’t touch the resurrection, then, is like your sherpa saying, “I know you need to reach that part of the mountain, and I know you’re no expert on this mountain, which is why you need me. But I am sorry to say that the codes of my profession preclude me from going there with you. It’s too bad, but you’re on your own.”

    • Robert,

      I don’t think that evidence can ever argue for the occurrence of a supernatural event because our ability to draw inferences from evidence depends on the consistent functioning of natural law.  For example, the reason we think that fingerprints on a gun may be evidence of who handled it is because we understand the natural processes that cause the patterns on the human finger to appear on other objects and we believe that those processes act consistently.  If we thought that those patterns appeared on objects randomly or by divine fiat, we couldn’t consider the fingerprints on the gun evidence of who handled it.

      The problem isn’t with the historian’s code.  The problem is the lack of any intellectual tools with which to distinguish a supernatural tale that is the product of an actual supernatural event from a supernatural tale that is the product of the usual human foibles like superstition, ignorance, gullibility, wishful thinking, and prevarication.  Asking a historian to tell you whether or not a miracle really occurred is like asking a man with a ruler to tell you what the temperature is.  It is not a quantity that he can measure with the tool that he possesses.

      • Robert Perry

        Vinny, I understand what you’re saying and I’m familiar with that point of view. In response, though, I would say two things. First, thinking that the resurrection was a violation of natural law, whatever that term means, is an assumption. I myself assume that everything happens according to laws, so that if the resurrection happened, it was the workings of laws we don’t yet know about.

        Second, I think a historian can come to a conclusion that something happened, even if we don’t know understand how it happened. Imagine, for instance, that future scientists (for the sake of argument) can travel back in time to Jesus’ tomb, right after the body is laid there, and they set up all kinds of sophisticated instruments to physically measure a possible resurrection-type event. And let’s say that all the instruments record the body literally vanishing in an instant. Surely at that point, future historians can say “the body vanished from the tomb in an instant by means unknown to us.” At that point, saying “It couldn’t have vanished because our current understanding of natural law excludes that possibility” is not an option.

        • I agree that if the resurrection happened, it happened according to laws that  we don’t know about.  My point is that in order to infer a cause of some evidence that we observe, we have to rely upon laws that we do know about.  The problem is inferring a cause that is contrary to observed processes of cause and effect (regardless of whether we label them natural or supernatural) because those processes are what we depend upon to draw our inferences.

          As to your second point, you are equipping your future historian with an entirely different tool with different capabilities than the ones he presently possesses.  It is precisely because the historian can’t go back in time to observe the past that he is forced to reason by analogy to things that can be observed.

  • Geoff Hudson

    This years Faraday lectures are on the human brain.  The first lecture raised some interesting questions about perception, and how a person can be deceived because the brain has been taught to think along certain lines.       

  • Geoff,

    I have never studied Vespasian’s war in Galilee so I cannot specifically tell you why historians draw the conclusions about it that they do.   Is there is some point to this digression?

    • Geoff Hudson

      It isn’t a digression.  It’s very relevant.  The point is that much of the history of the period is wrong.

    • Geoff Hudson


      One obvious clue is that the historians are mostly drawn from the ranks of believers, Christian and Jewish.   

  • Assuming for the sake of argument that the point is relevant, how does asking me questions about Vespasian demonstrate that much of the history of the period is wrong?

    • Geoff Hudson

      The questions about Vespasian are extensive and approximately cover the period during which the extant NT was produced.  Questions such as: 
      What was the timing of the invasion?    Did Vespasian really command the invasion army?  Was he just a high ranking officer?  Was Nero the real commander of the army?  Was Vespasian fawning in his attitude to Nero on the battlefield?  Were the battles supposedly fought in Galilee taken from the accounts of battles in Judea for which there is real archaeological evidence?

      • The questions may well be extensive, but the fact that I cannot answer them correctly is in no way probative of whether or not historians can. 

        • Geoff Hudson

          The historians have buried their heads in the sand, and chosen to go with the crowd.