How Christianity Started

How Christianity Started April 10, 2014

Despite having received criticism the last time he did so, C. Michael Patton has posted these two images again, which are supposed to compare how Christianity started with how all other religions started:

The first image is simply wrong, unless Patton accepts certain extracanonical texts as historically reliable. The Gospel of Peter depicts a scene with Jesus exiting the tomb. The New Testament Gospels depict people finding the tomb empty, not people witnessing the resurrection. John 14:22 explicitly has one of the disciples mention Jesus showing himself to his followers but not the general public. The last thus is invalidated, and would in any case be something that we could not verify historically.

I don’t know what to make of the implication of the first panel in the first image. Did all other religious figures die privately? If so, what on earth would the significance of that be?

In the second image, there are things which might well reflect the historical realities behind our earliest Christian sources. People had experiences that they described as “seeing Jesus,” but only Paul is not a second-hand source of such information, and even he doesn’t elaborate on the details of the experience. It is only in later sources that those are turned into narratives in which there is a tangible element, for instance. And is Patton really going to try to claim that nothing in the New Testament might be traceable back to a “private angelic encounter”?

As Easter approaches, this topic is going to get attention on lots of blogs, in news outlets, in documentaries (whether new or reruns), and lots of other places. I wrote the book The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith? to tackle precisely this issue. It is not that historians can show that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. But historians cannot, under any circumstances, declare it likely. Even if we have no evidence that someone moved the stone to put more executed criminals in the tomb, failed to replace it properly, and the body was dragged off by wild dogs, that will always be more likely than that a human being was raised bodily into the life of the age to come. And so expecting historians to reassure you that the latter is probably what happened is misguided. History could not do that, even if the evidence were stronger than it actually is.

But when we consider what the evidence actually says, with Mark’s abrupt ending, Paul’s talk of visions, and stories of people seeing someone that didn’t look like Jesus but whom they nevertheless concluded was him, it is no surprise that, according to the ancient sources, some doubted. If you have no doubts, then you have managed to give yourself a feeling of certainty that goes beyond what some of the earliest disciples are purported to have had. That is worth reflecting on long and hard, as is the question of why many Christians feel the need to insist that their faith is fundamentally different (i.e. better) than all the others.

From a progressive Christian perspective, the Christian way – including the question of how it all got started – can be explored, appreciated, embraced, criticized, and lived, without pretending that it is not, like all worldviews and ways of life, something that is fundamentally human in character.

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  • redpill99

    This mirrors Jews/Judaism’ claim that Moses revelation is public, the entire nation of Israel on Sinai. I know now that the entire story of exodus is fiction.

    • R Vogel

      Interesting counter-article about that:

      • redpill99

        i agree with him history matters.

        where are the egyptian records of such an event? where is the archaeological evidence? there is none.

        • R Vogel

          Like many hypothesis we begin with the result, kingdom of Israel and Levitical priesthood, and then work backwards until further evidence either confirms, refines, or contradicts the hypothesis. Darwin and his predecessors proposed evolution to explain certain things long before we had evidence proving it. There is certainly textual evidence that the Levites gained a significant amount of preeminence at some point in Jewish history, and according to the author, who I can only assume is credible, they are conspicuously absent from many of the oldest texts discussing the Jewish people. We know that many of the myths of the ancient world are overlaid over actual events. Now perhaps the Exodus story is a complete fabrication, or perhaps it was an exodus of a smaller group, the Levites. It explains the absence of archaeological evidence to date, and it gives some explanation to the ascendancy of the Levites in the Jewish religion (since they were kind of badasses thumbing their noses at Pharaoh and all). It is a valid hypothesis and claiming ‘knowledge’ to the contrary is fallacious. Obviously, this makes no claim to the validity of stories about seas parting and plagues and what-not.

          • redpill99

            archaeological evidence is that the ancient israelites were indistinguishable from the canaanites. they worshipped yahweh and asherah the wife of yahweh and practiced idolatry.

        • MattB

          Why would Egyptians record an event that made them look bad? What archaeological evidence would you expect to find from nomads wondering around in the desert? Nomadic peoples left little to no traces of their items.

          • I realize that is a popular response to offer, but it seems inadequate in view of just how well documented Egyptian history is. The events connected with the Exodus would have devastated the lives of Egyptians, the economy, the military, and their power in the region. To posit that these things happened with no one mentioning it in correspondence and with no hint of an impact on the people living in ancient Egypt or its surroundings is to posit what might be arguably a greater miracle than the plagues and Exodus themselves.

          • MattB

            Do you hold that the Exodus might have been a movement overtime? Some scholars, for example think that the Jews wondered in groups of hundreds or a few thousand rather than all at once

          • It is one possibility. You meant, I presume, to refer to Hebrews or Israelites?

          • MattB

            Hebrews and/or both

  • Sven2547

    Muhammed was a military leader. Confucius was a politician. These were very public figures.

    • redpill99

      i think the point is this – did Muhammed or Confucius rise from the dead and show their resurrected body publicly as Jesus was alleged to have done before 300 according to Paul?

      • Sven2547

        Since neither Muhammed nor Confucius rose from the dead, your question is utterly irrelevant and badly misses the point. You can’t reasonably claim that Christianity started more “publicly” than Islam or Confucianism.

        • redpill99

          you’re missing completely the point of the cartoon

          • I think that, if one takes texts about miracles at face value, then there are others that can compete. And if one asks critical questions about the sources, then Christianity is not immune – only Paul mentions an appearance to 500 at once, and he was not among them, nor do we know that he heard about this from someone who numbered themselves among those 500. And so it is hearsay, and doesn’t fit the supposed stark difference between the two cartoons.

          • WillBell

            I don’t think redpill is defending the cartoon, just explaining it – although I could be wrong.

          • I too am not sure, but was addressing the points, irrespective of whether they are her or his viewpoint or just clarification.

  • Funny, we both mentioned the lack of first person descriptions of whatever “appeared” to people:

  • Contra Michael Patton, the “public” to which Jesus allegedly “appeared” were all “disciples or brethren” according to the NT. And even some of those “doubted.”

    And what about the lack of first person descriptions of whatever allegedly “appeared” to people?

  • R Vogel

    Well if the bible says the bible is true, it must be true.

  • R Vogel

    “But historians cannot, under any circumstances, declare it likely.”

    Funny, I just started reading NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope (I’m not surprised yet, btw), and he seems to make a similarly fallacious argument at the beginning of the book. Since, he declares, none of the alternate historical scenarios are satisfying (to him, presumably) therefore history must ‘humbly’ accept that the gospel stories are true, because it is inconceivable that human beings might come up with something new of their own accord. Not sure what he means by history, but he would have flunked out of my undergrad Historical Methods course with that understanding (props to Dr. Birkner).

    I put the book down and am having a hard time proceeding beyond such a seemingly stupid assertion. I hope to find I have mis-charaterized once I get up the stomach to revisit (It was only $2.99 at Amazon, what can I say…)

  • Scott Paeth

    I suppose a great deal rests on what the cartoonist means by “public” here. The only part of the strip that I would agree was public were Jesus’ ministry and death. But as you point out, to varying degrees, everything else that is ascribed to Jesus post-resurrection is to one degree or another done to small groups of people in contexts that would usually be considered “private.” I suppose the most “public” of the post-resurrection appearances is that mentioned by Paul where Jesus appears to “500 of the brothers and sisters” and insists that some of them are still alive.

    I *suppose* that is a sort of public appearance, but the context makes it clear that he is appearing only to the community of the faithful, and not any sort of larger “public” gathering. This is particularly important given that the early Christians were driven underground. So it’s not like this was their monthly meeting in the library conference room. If his post-resurrection appearances were to be genuinely understood as “public” in the ordinary sense, then he would have done better to show himself at the temple or in a gathering before Pontius Pilate or Herod.