What If Jesus Was Real?

What If Jesus Was Real? June 19, 2013

“What if Jesus was Real?” is the title of Joel Watts’ new article in the Huffington Post. Here’s the conclusion:

The real Jesus was a Jew, one nearly unrecoverable in the present — but this doesn’t mean he didn’t exist. It just means we have to live constantly with the doubt we may never really find him. As a Christian, this doesn’t bother me much because I have the guidance of Tradition. As a scholar, however, there are times I wish I could simply stop looking, but knowing I cannot, trudge along. Is the quest for the so-called Historical Jesus worth it? Indeed, we know the dangers of a Jesus molded to fit the time and place of the user. We saw it with the Aryan Jesus now with the American Political Jesus Football, thrown from Left to Right.

Jesus is a historical person, but we may not like what he looks like — if we ever find him.

Click through to read the whole thing.

In related news, Jim Linville posted about the “Academic Freedom and Biblical Scholarship” session that I am participating in at SBL this year. My paper has the title “Mythicism and the Mainstream: The Rhetoric and Realities of Academic Freedom.” Click through to read the full abstract on Jim’s blog, and to see who else is presenting.

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  • In what sense is such a Jesus real? The best you can hope for when you strip away later theology is not a real Jesus, but a theoretically possible Jesus.

    • In the same sense that other historical figures are real. And depending on what specific claim you are discussing in relation to that historical figure, a historian might judge that detail probable, possible, or improbable, as appropriate.

      • What other “nearly unrecoverable” historical figure do historians devote as much attention to as New Testament scholars devote to Jesus?

        • What is the relevance of how interested people are to the historical question, other than that the number of publications will require a large number of proposals leading to a much larger amount of secondary literature to wade through?

          • Dr. McGrath,

            If, as you claim, a “nearly unrecoverable” Jesus is real in the same sense as other historical figures, then I would expect there to be other examples of “nearly unrecoverable” figures to whom historical methodology is applied in comparable ways.

          • So you are asking for the same sort of list you’ve been given previously, with Hillel and John the Baptist and Simon Peter and other such individuals on it?

          • It would be kind of nice to get someone generally outside the field of biblical studies.

          • Then it might be best to ask someone outside of the field of Biblical studies. Although why Hillel is lumped into that category is not clear to me, nor why being mentioned in the Bible automatically discounts someone’s historicity.

          • Since it was someone inside the field of biblical studies who made an assertion about the kinds of things that other historians might do with respect to historical figures who were real in the same sense as Jesus, I asked him.

            I’m not sure how much overlap there is between biblical studies and the study of Hillel. Given the time and place he lived, the nature of the historical footprint he left, and the fact that you mentioned him in the same sentence as two figures from the gospels, I thought he might not be the best example of what historians generally do outside the field of biblical studies.

          • Well, I consistently provide examples primarily from the early Jewish and Greco-Roman periods because they overlap with my field and so I am more familiar with them, and then also because they are in a related context and so comparable figures. The further you move away from the time and place of the historical Jesus, the less straightforward it will be to claim that you are comparing like with like.

          • Gary

            Seems like Muḥammad or Buddha would apply. No sense in being obsessed with the west.

          • Muhammad seems to have left a decent historical footprint, but the historical Gautama is probably unrecoverable. I don’t think that it would make any sense to ask a question like “What if Gautama Buddha was real?” There is simply no way to filter out the legends and traditions that were attributed to him over the years.

          • Gary

            Exactly. I bet there is a Buddhist blogger right now asking “What other “nearly unrecoverable” historical figure do historians devote as much attention to as Buddhist scholars devote to Buddha?”

        • What figures of any type would you say have received the amount of attention that Jesus has had – recoverable, unrecoverable, legendary or fictional?

          Isn’t the size of any figure’s scholarly footprint related more to their cultural significance than the amount that can definitively be said about them?

  • Ian

    Articles like Joel’s are starting to bug me, I confess.

    Let’s say, as I largely think, that the scholarly consensus is correct.

    Mythicism is an anti-scholarly, poorly evidenced, tendentious conclusion from unsafe data.

    But so is the Jesus of most churches. A Jesus with any miracles is by definition more ahistorical than a mythical Jesus. There is no more credible evidence for the resurrection than for Paul’s invention of the celestial Christ. Faithful conclusions are poorly evidenced and tendentiously drawn from unsafe data.

    But, by and large, I see a lot more ire raised among scholars trying to correct the mythicist error than the faithful one. Joel tries to thread the needle, but mythicism is his main target here.

    Yet, the number of mythicists is dwarfed by the number of faithful believers in the historical Christ story. And the former aren’t a sizeable political block bent on curtailing our rights and enacting their ahistorical rubbish into law.

    So it is frustrating that scholars spend more time straining the gnat of mythicism than they do worrying about swallowing a herd of camels in the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, the claims of his deity, and his resurrection?

    If the SBL decided to instigate a special track for mythicists to come and pat each other on the back, would you object on scholarly grounds? Why isn’t the theology peddled there equally scandalous?

    It is easy to be committed to historical scholarship when those opposing you are not in your tribe. It is harder, and rarer, to find those eager to direct history so intransigently at the sacred cows of their own community.

    • Pseudonym

      But, by and large, I see a lot more ire raised among scholars trying to correct the mythicist error than the faithful one.

      I find it unsurprising that this is what you see. By and large, the “debate” about whether or not Jesus existed is relatively recent and taking place in public. All pseudoscholarly discussions tend to take place largely outside academia.

      The “debate” about the Jesus of faith, on the other hand, is an old one, and is mostly taking place inside the church. And to be honest, the question of what a Christian should believe or should do isn’t really one that a historian can answer.

      FWIW, I see a lot more ire raised from climate scientists trying to correct the denialist error than debating the nuances public policy (e.g. carbon tax vs emissions trading), too.

      • Ian

        That you classify the later as ‘nuances’ is my entire point. The Jesus of the church is not a nuance on the historical consensus on Jesus.

        “is mostly taking place inside the church”

        I call BS, I’m afraid. Don’t assume I’m not ‘inside’ the church, nor that I don’t expose myself to a large amount of faithful discussion.

        There are some scholars who will stand up to their traditions on this issue, but not many.

        And even if that were the case, then the fact that the discussion is local, constrained and limited is really my point. Where is the Huffpo article from Joel making clear that Jesus Christ is as historical as Santa Claus?

        And even if that happened, I would bet that it would be done in language that was dramatically more conciliatory than the average put down of mythicism.

        • Pseudonym

          Don’t assume I’m not ‘inside’ the church, nor that I don’t expose myself to a large amount of faithful discussion.

          I’m not assuming anything of the sort. I merely note that for every personal experience there is an equal and opposite personal experience.

          About ten years ago I tutored at a tertiary institution which also had a large theology faculty. I had many discussions with theologians over dinner. My experience is that the debate is very much alive.

          But I’m very willing to concede that my experience differs from yours. For example, this was a prominent tertiary institution within in the top 100 on the ARWU list (i.e. we’re not talking about to Dallas Seminary here). Oh, and it was not in North America.

          • Ian

            I attended a secular theology school in the UK, worked for the American Baptist church in RI, moved back to the UK, attended various liberal churches, and am currently allied to a liberal baptist congregation (I say allied, I am not a member, but my wife is treasurer, I help lead one of their weekly bible studies) I am also the only non-minister member of a local ministers’ lunch and discussion club.

            I’ve never once heard a forceful rejection of the historicism of the traditional story of Jesus Christ in a church context. Mythicism has been raised and roundly demolished (not to say derided) on more than one ocassion.

            I hear talk of progressive Christian congregations who have no problem applying basic standards of evidence to the traditional Christian story, and of course, I’ve read Spong, and Cupitt, et al. and am friendly with various UU and Quakers. But I’ve not actually come across any such group, or even met someone from one in the flesh. So, while I don’t doubt that there are specific exceptions (perhaps even substantial groups), I suspect that the debate is not “going on within the church”, unless by that you mean that the debate is occasionally referenced in a tiny proportion of church congregations.

        • Umm, to be fair, New Testament scholars have been writing things about this for the past couple of centuries. I really don’t think that it is fair to ask “Where it the Huffpo article…?” when in just recent weeks there have been pieces by much more famous authors like Bart Ehrman and John Shelby Spong which have challenged the historicity of the Christ of faith.

          • Ian

            Bart’s last piece was in 2012, on mythicism, wasn’t it? And the one before that was on pseudonymity. I’m not sure I’ve seen Bart ever declare that Jesus Christ is an ahistorical invention in the same way he freely contends that the mythical Jesus is. Maybe I’m missing something (very possible!).

            Spong is, of course, the exception. But be careful of non semper ergo numquam – are you disputing the general trend, or merely contesting that it is universal?

          • Well, most scholars and historians would not say that “Jesus Christ is an ahistorical invention” as such. They would more likely say that the Gospel of John contains little that is historical, and that there is also a significant amount that is not historical even within the other Gospels. They would also point out that the creeds depict a divine Jesus at odds with the historical evidence. But obviously that is arguing from evidence which is felt to provide some actual knowledge, however limited.

            I’m trying to work out whether the issue is that you think that scholars nuance things in an unhelpful manner, or that you think scholars ought to be saying something radically different than what the stance of most scholars today actually is.

          • Ian

            I’m noticing the asymmetry.

            The Christian story about Jesus is a set of historical claims that do not meet historical muster. The evidence both within the texts we have and by looking at their culture and wider literary context, allows us to conclude, for example, that the physical resurrection of Jesus is very unlikely to have been a real historical event, far less so the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, and so on.

            Much less likely than the most historically plausible mythicist scenario (though, of course, we can find seriously whacky mythicist claims).

            Yet the former claims are treated in a very different way than the latter.

            I cannot fathom how a mythicist claim is any worse, or any less convincing than the traditional historical claims of the church. And so, while I support scholars meeting mythicist claims forcefully and head-on, I can’t help but notice that they are inconsistent in their historical zeal.

            I am not saying, particularly, that they ‘ought’ to nuance things in a different way. I’m just saying that it is increasingly bugging me that the relatively innocuous historical irrationality is so much the focus, and (what I perceive to be) the politically toxic form is getting more of a pass.

          • Historical scholars, including Christians who embrace historical-critical methods and rationality, have been emphasizing that Jesus was not a divine figure and that historical study simply cannot be used to argue that he performed miracles or anything of that sort. And so I am not sure what the criticism is. Who exactly isn’t challenging popular but historically unsupportable views when they ought to be? I presume it isn’t me!

          • Ian

            But there’s the little linguistic two step. Surely you recognize it: of the three options, you chose to respond to the ‘divine’ claim, there, rather than the historical claims. And even there you’re wording things rather carefully ‘historical study cannot be used to argue that he performed miracles’. You would not choose to say ‘historical study cannot be used to argue that Jesus was originally a celestial figure later given a biography’ (NB: I don’t doubt that you *agree* with the latter sentence, but in my experience of this blog, you wouldn’t choose to express your rejection of it in passive terms like that).

            Perhaps you genuinely think that what you know of the world, science, history and the context of the texts means that it is quite conceivable that the miracles reported of Jesus were genuine miracles and they just happen to look like they aren’t. But I doubt it. I suspect that, if you break it down, you would agree that mythicists are more likely to be right historically than believers in the physical resurrection (almost by definition). So I suspect what is actually happening is that you instinctively leave the door open to ahistorical claims for those who identify with your tradition, where as those (like mythicists) who are not in your tradition, you have no qualms about being forceful about the irrationality of their beliefs.

            And that is all I’m drawing attention to. I do think it is a problem, and I’m happy to be disagreed with on that. But surely it isn’t controversial to identify that it is happening?

          • I think the two cases are inherently different, and that is why I spoke about them differently. Miracles are inherently improbable, and so no amount of evidence is ever going to make it likely that a miracle occurred. And so from a historian’s perspective, one can simply ignore such stories and set them aside, except perhaps for asking whether Jesus or other figures had the reputation of being able to perform exorcisms and heal people. This doesn’t leave a loophole for people to believe in ancient miracles, it leaves them with no hope of ever showing them to be likely, much less certain or demonstrable.

            Claiming that the earliest Christians thought that Jesus was a celestial rather than a human historical figure, on the other hand, is a verifiable and falsifiable claim about evidence we have regarding early Christian beliefs. It is at odds with that evidence.

            The one is a case of something not even being a historical claim in any meaningful sense, the other is a case of something being a false historical claim.

          • Ian

            But do you really think that, were miracles to have genuinely occurred, that the historical and scientific evidence we have available is consistent with them?

            It it really just a ‘could have happened, we can never hope to know’, for you? It strikes me that we’d be very unlikely to have the pattern of texts we have now, if the things reported in them were historically accurate. At least as unlikely as a mythical Jesus giving rise to the texts we have.

            To that extent, the two claims are equally ahistorical, surely?

            Perhaps I’ve misjudged what you think. I read you (and your books) not as suggesting that the historical evidence leads us to conclude that the miracles could have happened, and it is only their definition as supernatural that means they are excluded from the discussion. But rather that you think there are specific discernable lines of evidence that lead us to be able to rationally infer certain historical events.

            Like your vocal attitude towards creationism: surely a miraculous history that engineers itself to appear as something quite prosaic, is a level of deceit that is quite easy to discount.

            If all you are saying is that ‘sure that is the rational conclusion, but you know an irrational conclusion could work’, then why do you get so indignant about young earth irrationality? They too claim that, while it looks like one particular historical situation could have occured, that’s only because you don’t allow for the inherently irrational miraculous power of God.

            Anyway, we’re wandering from my point, and walking a line perilously close to me badgering you, so apologies if I’m being impolite. I’m sure its all a function of my own baggage.

          • I think that there is a historical case to be made against some of the miracles, certainly. When something appears for the first time in a late source which scarcely could have failed to be mentioned in earlier ones, for instance. So it is indeed possible to make such a case in some instances. My point was that, even if something is mentioned in an early source, a historian cannot deem the improbable to be probable – N. T. Wright’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

            Feel free to come perilously close to badgering me when necessary. That’s what blogs are for! 🙂

        • arcseconds

          I dunno, Ian, it seems to me that Joel’s article basically is that article, too. Sure, he takes a couple of swipes at mythicists.

          But he’s also (a Christian, no less) saying that the historical Jesus was probably nothing (or very little) like the Jesus presented in church.

          Maybe he doesn’t quite go after traditionalists in the same way that he goes after mythicists, but most of the article is not dedicated to attacking mythicists, but rather giving a picture of a decidedly non-traditional Jesus and history of the gospels. His non-traditional Jesus even departs from the much beloved ‘liberal but non-supernatural’ Jesus.

          • Ian

            I suspect my reaction was more about tone than substance, to be honest. I’m not sure it is an entirely substantive criticism. Hey ho,

      • Ian

        “the question of what a Christian should believe isn’t really one that a historian can answer.”

        so why do you think a historian should have an opinion on what an atheist believes?

        • Pseudonym

          I see that I worded it a bit clumsily. Also, I’m probably coming from a different perspective than you are.

          I was brought up in the liberal wing of Christianity. For me, that’s what Christianity is, and everything else is alien (though I do try).

          So to me, Christianity is primarily about practice and culture. When I’m talking about “what a Christian should believe” (or what an atheist should believe for that matter), I don’t necessarily have in mind the idea that orthodoxy is what distinguishes Christianity from non-Christianity. That’s an assumption which was never a given in my Christian upbringing.

          I hope that helps.

          • Ian

            It does, thanks.

  • תאדאס

    “It just means we have to live constantly with the doubt we may never really find him.” Those who don’t have the Son doesn’t have eternal life either.

    “…I have the guidance of Tradition.”

    Amos 5:21: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.”

  • Watt’s article was annoying to me because he added nothing of scholarly value to the conversation, and yet makes a few sideswipes against Ehman and an unnamed quasi-mythicist (Carrier?) without offering an iota of evidence that Ehrman’s writings have “problems”.

    It’s a vague opinion piece with an unearned air of condescension.

    • Why yes, it is an opinion piece… where we are given between 800 and 1000 words. It does not add scholarly insight because writing an editorial really isn’t supposed to.

      As far as offering evidence, I did what I could with links, in the absence of footnotes, I mean.

      As far as unearned… well, that is a rather subjective opinion, which you are , of course, entitled to have. I tried to strip any sense of publicly humiliating mythicists for their tripe, but I see some got by me…

      • Ehrman’s not a mythicist. Does he write opinion pieces tossing out the vague notion that Joel Watt’s writing has problems, without even mentioning what they might be?

        Sorry for my negative opinion; I just didn’t see any particularly useful or interesting point to the piece. That we may never find out much about the historical Jesus? That we may not like what we find if we do? My guess is that your readers (a) already know this, or (b) won’t believe you if they don’t.

        • mmm… me thinks you didn’t actually read the article I wrote. At no point did I say Erhman was a mythicist but linked to his book and said it was meant to highlight some of the problems with the mythicist argument.

          Again, we are limited to 1000 words. I linked to others who had covered the topic. Figured that was enough to start a conversation. Clearly, for some, they had no clue what links do on the internet. Further, some do not understand what an editorial on the Huff Po is meant to do, but I guess they do not teach critical thinking too much these days.

          Tell you what… you write an editorial in 1000 words or less and let’s see what you do. Remember, it is an editorial, an opinion piece, not an academic journal.

          • Mmm… Me thinks you didn’t actually read the comment I wrote. I was simply pointing out that your reply to me only addressed your treatment of mythicists; you didn’t address your sideswipe against Ehrman, whose book, your piece states, is “riddled with problems”.

            Yes, it’s an editorial, an opinion piece … one with very little to say.

          • Well, everyone is allowed to have their own opinions, wrong or not, informed or not.

          • You are so cute when you get defensive …

            Now hang on a minute. In the following paragraph:

            “Bart Erhman’s recent book, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, a book roundly decried for it’s lackluster treatment of the mythicist argument attempted to highlight the problems with the mythicist’s argument. One cannot really blame the detractors, as the book is riddled with problems. In the end, I am left only to wonder why we engage the engageless. There are no answers, facts, or otherwise a mythicist will take as valid, just as the young-earther will continue to deny evolutionary science.”

            In the phrase “a book roundly decried for its lackluster treatment of the mythicist argument” you link to Tom Verenna’s review of a mythicist book about Bart Ehrman’s book. Did you mean to link to a review of Ehrman’s book? If not, it’s weird that you say his book is roundly decried, without mentioning that you are linking to a review of roundly decrying mythicists. Or maybe you meant that the book ” riddled with problems” is the mythicist book about Ehrman (certainly Verenna’s opinion)?

          • are you hitting on me?

            I thought what I meant was pretty clear. I guess not. What I meant to do was to link to Tom’s review of it, which usually includes links to others. However, I got a review about the book from Tom’s review which now includes other links too, so it worked out.

            But, again, why are you hitting on me? Because of the cute comment, I’m going to upvote this one.

            Thanks! You’ve made my day! 😉

          • Back at you, Joel!


  • Steven Carr

    ‘… but one of a real person embroiled in a dangerous tango of revolution’

    Just one person embroiled in this revolution, eh?

    That probably explains why the Romans did not crucify the lot of them. There was only Jesus in this revolution.

  • Steven Carr

    Bart Erhman’s recent book, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, a book roundly decried for it’s lackluster treatment of the mythicist argument attempted to highlight the problems with the mythicist’s argument. One cannot really blame the detractors, as the book is riddled with problems.

    But refuting mythicists is like shooting fish in a barrel!

    How could such a top-notch scholar not succeed when he has the entire weight of mainstream Biblical scholarship on his side?

    • jjramsey

      Refuting creationists should be like shooting fish in a barrel, too, but that doesn’t mean that evolutionary scientists haven’t often come off badly when debating creationists.

      Although, for an example of shooting fish in a barrel, see here: http://religionatthemargins.com/2012/06/it-is-finished-for-richard-carriers-dying-messiah-part-2/ 😉

      • Steven Carr

        I don’t think Ehrman had to deal with Gish-gallop type debate tactics when writing his book.

        Of course, McGrath has set up no less than 2 Wikis which set out the case for historicity and refute mythicism,

        But he just can’t find the time to actually write a well-researched article which meets the scholarly standards of Wikipedia.

        • For those who may be interested, I did set up a Wiki (not on Wikipedia) because some blog readers wanted a collaborative place where they could contribute. I obviously have my blog for expressing my own thoughts, and have written a great deal about mythicism here. But Steven Carr has kindly once again shown how mythicists try to twist things maliciously in the same manner as creationists, and so I express my gratitude to him for this once again.

          • Steven Carr

            Amazing. James McGrath sets up a Wiki, fills it with nothing, and complains when people point out the living proof that he can’t even refute mythicists.

            I apologise for insinuating that the Wiki McGrath set up had to meet Wikipedia standards. James has reminded us all that it does not, and that it would be twisting things maliciously to claim that the Wiki he set up had to meet some scholarly standards.

          • And Steven Carr offers a troll-like comment once again, ignoring my previous comment altogether, just as he ignores all the arguments against mythicism that historians have offered.

            [SLOW CLAP]

          • Chris

            // … just as he ignores all the arguments against mythicism that historians have offered. //

            James, do you have an article that you have written on this, summarizing the arguments against mythicism?

          • Here is a round-up of most of what I wrote from the beginning of the blog until the middle of 2011 on the topic. If it does not completely address what you were wondering about, please do let me know! http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2011/07/round-up-of-mythicist-blogging.html

        • jjramsey

          The Gish gallop is hardly the only debate strategy to contend with. Carrier, for example, largely “won” by presenting a bold and confident front, even when his actual points were dodgy.

          For example, he declared Ehrman to have made a “mistake” when he claimed that “we do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the
          dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum [sic] in their propagandized versions)” on account of this supposedly being a straw man version of what mythicists argue. Never mind that what Ehrman described is something that may be found, for example, in “The Book Your Church Doesn’t Want You To Read.” Mithras is claimed to have been born of a virgin, and the Christian Mass (which is about Jesus’ supposed sacrifice) is explicitly said to be “basically the old sacrament of the Mithraic taurobolia (a symbol of a divine sacrifice and of the saving effect of blood).” Similar claims can be found in an argument of Free Inquiry (Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005, p. 27-30), which Dawkins saw fit to cite in The God Delusion, with the only item of Ehrman’s left out in that article being the idea of the death being an atonement for sin. This, though, was not left out by Freke & Gandy’s Jesus Mysteries, who wrote “Osiris-Dionysus was a sacred pharmakos, who, like Jesus, died to atone for the sins of the world.” Contrary to Carrier’s insinuations, Ehrman is in fact describing a common claim. However, Carrier’s confidence can be convincing to those who trust him and are not familiar with the facts that undercut him.

          Carrier also claimed that Ehrman may have made a “mistake” in saying that “prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah,” since Carrier presented arguments to refute this claim. Of course, those arguments turned out to be poor, as seen in the link to one of Thom Stark’s arguments.

          So describing Carrier as having won by the quality of his arguments is inaccurate.

  • Guest

    Jesus is Lord, God raised him from the dead. 1 Corinthians 12:3 Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.