Neil Carter on the Historicity of Jesus

Neil Carter on the Historicity of Jesus September 5, 2014

Neil Carter is concerned about the widespread rejection of a mainstream academic field by fellow atheists. Here is an excerpt from his post on the subject:

It feels like here lately a growing number of fellow freethinkers are jumping on the bandwagon of an intellectual position that hasn’t yet earned credibility. Rather than concluding that the New Testament simply exaggerated the size and scope of the Christian church during its earliest years, people are jumping all the way to the opposite ditch and concluding that every single thing contained therein must have been made up entirely.  But the many contradictions and variations we encounter within the gospels (and noncanonical books) point to the unreliability of the sources, but not necessarily to the complete nonexistence of their central figure.   And while the oldest extant copies of Paul’s letters date back to nearly a century after the time that he wrote them, we posess no variants of those letters which leave out the credal statements referenced above, leaving us with the reality of an early attestation (mid-first-century) of the existence of Jesus.  There’s a method to determining these things, and a pretty thoroughly developed academic discipline underneath it all.  It doesn’t speak well of us to dismiss whole disciplines with the wave of a hand on account of two or three of its members finally suggesting something we wanted to believe all along.

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  • redpill99

    there’s a lot of debate there

    • Jonathan Bernier

      I cannot find a single statement here that is not indubitable.

      • redpill99

        why not volunteer over there and debate.

        unlike revelations, i do think paul says jesus was born of a woman, born under the law, on the night he was betrayed, etc., as evidence paul saw jesus as a historical person.

        • Jonathan Bernier

          Oh. Sorry. I misunderstood your statement. I thought you meant there was a lot that one could debate in the quote given above. My bad. As for going over there: life is short.

        • Austin Hill

          Isn’t this the guy who also said God gave him this knowledge, that he was never a witness or read this somewhere?

          • That is a common misrepresentation of what Paul says which mythicists circulate. Even if it were accurate, I’m not sure why mythicists would take Paul at his word in such an uncritical fashion. Paul knew something about Christianity when he persecuted it. He learned things when he spent time meeting with James the brother of Jesus and with Peter. He emphasizes in Galatians that his Gospel is given him directly by God and thus doesn’t depend on the authority of the Jerusalem leaders who seemed at that point to be disagreeing with him. But to claim that the information about who had had religious experiences, the Lord’s Supper, and other such details came to Paul in a dream, and agreed with what other Christians believed, is to posit a miracle, and secular historical study has no room for those.

    • Neko

      I’ve had a few HJ arguments with people on the atheist blogs (I’m not exactly what you’d call “a person of faith.”) Perfectly rational, well-educated, normally thoughful atheists lose it when it comes to the historical Jesus. Suddenly half-baked bs on the internet becomes revealed Truth as they ratchet up the arrogance and absolutism full-throttle while on their knees in pious devotion of non-Jesus. NT scholars, of course, are all corrupt minions of the One-World Church. It’s crazy!

      • Jonathan Bernier

        I prefer to think of myself as a crony more than a minion, but to each their own.

  • the_Siliconopolitan

    There’s a method to determining these things, and a pretty thoroughly developed academic discipline underneath it all.

    The same could be said for homoeopathy.

    Not that he’s necessarily wrong, but he should be careful about appeals to authority if he doesn’t bother to establish they’re really authoritative. Theology is an academic discipline in most universities, yet I doubt Carter respects their findings.

    • What academic discipline do you imagine is underneath homeopathy?

      Carter is referring to the conclusions of secular historical study as practiced at universities around the globe. There is no sense in which pointing out the overwhelming consensus of specialists, based on countless hours and pages of research, constitutes an “appeal to authority.”

      • Neil Carter

        Echo that. I’ve studied theology and I’ve studied ANE history. I have a good bit more respect for the latter than I do for the former because I see it far less often subject to personal bias. People with opposing ideologies will approach theology and reach wildly different conclusions. People studying ancient history under the same circumstances will arrive at more uniform conclusions, provided they use the tools of that discipline the way they are meant to be used.

        Dismissing the use of those tools as if they are all hokey nonsense doesn’t speak well of anyone’s appreciation for the academic discipline it represents.

        • Thanks for chiming in here! I really appreciated your blog post. Such a contrast from what one is seeing on Jerry Coyne’s blog lately…

          • Neil Carter

            Anytime. I’ve read your blog a lot more than I’ve read his 🙂

            It only seems fair to me that if a biologist doesn’t want theologians acting like they know more than they really know about biology, then students of antiquity should be able to expect biologists to have a little humility when opining about ANE historiography.

    • Ignorantia Nescia

      There’s a method to determining these things, and a pretty thoroughly developed academic discipline underneath it all.

      The same could be said for homoeopathy.

      I’m not aware of the existence of an academic group of homoeopaths with qualifications in chemistry, medicine and pharmaceutics, but nonetheless let’s give it a check:

      Homeopathy believes that solutions that have been diluted with water with factors like a million can retain their healing power (far below the normal effective doses according to modern mainstream science) due to the water molecules surrounding the solved medicine retaining its configuration (“water memory”).

      Does that make sense?

      We know that molecules/atoms/ions/whatever in liquids and gasses move rapidly at room temperature, that this produces pressure and that their average kinetic energy correlates to temperature. If it were motionless, the temperature would locally correspond to 0 K. That means that it is impossible that all of the water is in a fixed configuration. But even if there would be some tiny water memory firmaments, so to speak, in a ‘solution’ of mostly water (and the normal ions dissolved in it) and you’d add water to it, the solution would simply be more and more diluted. There’d be no expansion of its healing powers. So there is abra kadabra involved anyway.

      All right, so homeopathy is “pretty thoroughly developed” and “academic”? Yeah, any time. But don’t call us, we’ll call you.

      How is anything this convoluted comparable to scholarship on the historical Jesus?

    • Jonathan Bernier

      Biologists know about biology, such that what they know on the matter should command respect among non-biologists. Biologists know that evolution is the best explanation for biodiversity. Non-biologists should thus respect this knowledge. Creationism fails to do so, and therefore are suspect.

      Substitute “New Testament scholars” for “biologists,” “persons who aren’t New Testament scholars” for “non-biologists,” “evolution” for the “existence of Jesus of Nazareth” for “evolution,” “gospel traditions” for “biodiversity,” and “mythicism” for “creationism” and you get a good sense of why mythicism is suspect.

      So I ask: do you doubt evolution because it’s inappropriate to appeal to (biologists’) authority?

  • Jeremiah J. Preisser

    I concur, as an atheist.

  • Kris Rhodes

    Neil rightly criticizes some bad arguments for mythicism, then goes on to endorse some bad arguments for historicity. 😉

    • Jonathan Bernier

      I don’t think that word means what you think it means. I refer to “historicism.” Perhaps one ought to look it up on the interwebs.

      • Kris Rhodes

        Corrected. Thank you for the graciously phrased correction, Dr. Bernier.

    • MattB

      There are no bad scholarly arguments for the existence of Jesus

      • Oh sure there are. They may not appear in that blog post, but that isn’t what you said. If someone says “I know Jesus was a historical figure because he met Pilate, who was a historical figure,” that would be an example of a bad argument, because it assumes what it needs to prove, namely that there is reliable historical information in the Gospels.

        • MattB

          I met the arguments put forth by scholars.

  • Benjamin Martin

    Historicity is a pretense of rational scholarship that acts as a tiny, barely flickering pilot light to keep a whole industry of unscholarly quackery alive.

    • Kris Rhodes

      How is this helping? :/

    • Jonathan Bernier

      A comment remarkably full of greater heat than light.

      • Benjamin Martin

        When somebody publishes a paper in Nature—scholarship addressing the heart of your belief system—on godmen rising from the dead, let me know.

        • Ignorantia Nescia

          When somebody publishes a paper in Nature—scholarship addressing the heart of your mythy belief system—on the relevance of godmen rising from the dead for secular scholarship on early Christianity and Jesus of Nazareth, let me know.

          And let me know as well when you have an argument why Nature would be the place to argue about history… or even about miracles (as even Fundamentalists who believe in every miracle in the Bible don’t believe these are part of the natural order).

        • Jonathan Bernier

          The question “Did Jesus of Nazareth exist?” is quite distinct from the questions “Was he God of Israel incarnate?”
          and “Did he rise from the dead?” Whilst an affirmative answer to the first question is a necessary condition for an affirmative answer to the second two it is not a sufficient condition. The problem here is that you are operating with exactly the same logic as the fundamentalist: all must be true or none is true. The fundamentalist opts for “All,” you opt for “None.” But you’re still playing by the fundamentalists’ rules. Personally, I reject those rules in favour of intelligence and reason.

  • Neil Carter

    In all fairness, I could have built a stronger case if I hadn’t have tried to type out my thoughts during an already truncated planning period at one of my numerous day jobs. I was very short on time, and didn’t really get any time to keep up with the debate which ensued. But really there were only a couple of points I wanted to make:

    1) When people talk as if nobody had heard of Jesus before the end of the 1st Century C.E., they have to ignore the writings of Paul completely. They also don’t demonstrate much of a grasp of how oral tradition factors into the matter, and I doubt most of them could correctly define form criticism vs source criticism without first googling them. Yet they talk like they’re experts. There’s far too much overstatement going on among people who don’t know as much as they think they know about these subjects.

    2) The amount of passion this subject evokes among skeptics bothers me. If this week taught me nothing else, it taught me that it is VERY IMPORTANT to some atheists that Jesus never existed in any form. Some of the ones who get the most upset about this will preface their tirade with “Not that it matters one way or the other.” Then they unload. It’s a really big deal to them.

    • Bethany

      I know on his blog Bart Ehrman mentions the hate emails he got from atheists in the wake of “Did Jesus Exist?” were just as vociferous and nasty as the ones he got from fundamentalists in the wake of his other books… suggesting that Jesus’ non-existence is just as important to some of the former as (say) internal consistency of Gospels is to the latter.

    • arcseconds

      It also seems to me that one thing that’s going on here is the traditional disparagement and down-nose-looking attitudes that scientists and science-fans frequently have towards the humanities. I don’t think it’d even occur to many professional historians to try to fight professional scientists on their own turf.

      The view isn’t universal, of course, and generally speaking actual scientists are a lot better about this than the more… how shall I put this… enthusiastic science fans who are especially pleased with their own rationality. I even hear scientists say things like ‘Oh, well, I wouldn’t know anything about that, I’m just a scientist’, apparently quite seriously! It’s almost as if they think their own practice is not in actual fact the unrivaled queen of intellectual enquiry, and other endeavours might require abilities that they don’t possess…

  • Austin Hill

    What I would really like to see is an article that takes an unbiased approach at actually discussing the claims of the professors who are demonstrating theory against the existence of a historical Jesus that the scriptures are based on. I am not an expert in antiquity but their arguments seem to hold merit and the general consensus against their theories appears to be, “the popular opinion disagrees.”

    • The notion of being “unbiased” is naive. We all have biases, and what is great about the way scholarship works is that it provides methods and a community of experts who can limit the impact that individual biases can have.

      I’ve never seen anyone use popular opinion as an argument in my field. Do you have a reference? What we have is an enormous body of scholarship, skeptically investigating the details asserted about Jesus in our earliest sources, in scholarly articles and monographs. The historicity of every single one has been challenged. The fact that the consensus remains that some details are probably historical is what you need to be looking at. The historicity of Jesus cannot be dealt with in the abstract, any more than evolution can be. It is a theoretical framework for making sense of a range of pieces of evidence in relation to one another. That is why mythicists and creationists tend to say both that “there is no evidence” and to think that showing that one particular piece of evidence is problematic means that the entire theoretical framework must be invalid. But that isn’t how scholarly investigation of the past works. The question must always be, what theoretical framework makes the best sense of all the evidence, or as much of it as possible. And of course, those who have not dedicated their lives to the study of that evidence are unlikely to make sound judgments about such matters.

      • Austin Hill

        I didn’t say they would be unbiased but an unbiased approach. Meaning, I would like to read an actual article that discusses and perhaps provide professional comments on the theories that are being brought up. Instead I have been looking for information as a reply to the information I’ve read from these professors as to the nonexistence of Jesus and we have things similar to what we’re commenting on. ”
        There’s a method to determining these things, and a pretty thoroughly developed academic discipline underneath it all.” Which is true, but I don’t see anyone blowing holes in these other theories.

        • Which “theories” are you referring to, and where have you looked to find scholarly analysis of their claims?

          • Austin Hill

            I only know of a couple of people, Richard Carrier and David Fitzgerald. I’ve been trying to do some research of their claims. So far I haven’t been able to check very far, just the interwebs. I find it very interesting and have only recently discovered and started researching the claims.

          • arcseconds

            Why, there’s plenty of material about Carrier, and some about Fitzgerald on this very blog!

            Try googling. You can use ‘site:patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix’ to restrict just to this blog.

          • Austin Hill

            Thank you. I am a student at MS State University, and have recently found interest in this topic of discussion. I have quite a lot of reading to do.
            So far though, it seems that most of these articles that try to refute any of his claims never seem to discuss why they are bad other than “it’s not the popular interpretation.”

          • As a student, you really ought to know the difference between “the scholarly consensus” and “popular opinion.”

            But I have serious doubts that you have read any detailed post of mine on this topic, and would encourage you to do so, because the way you currently talk about this topic does not make clear that the reason you have not found books, articles, or blog posts of a certain sort is because you haven’t actually looked, at least not in any systematic and in-depth sort of way.

          • Austin Hill

            This particular topic is new to me. I have not done a lot of research on it yet. I find it intriguing. So no, I haven’t been able to put that much time into yet. As far as your posts, I only recently found this site and I can’t recall if any of the posts were written by you. I haven’t taken note of the writers because the articles so far haven’t been very helpful.

            I do understand the difference but the two aren’t always mutually exclusive.

          • Austin, do you know much about the scholarly field of New Testament studies, or are you approaching it for the first time via the question of Jesus’ existence?

          • Austin Hill

            If you mean have I taken formal classes, then no. Do I enjoy studying antiquity including biblical studies, yes. I never really paid much attention to the question of the historicity of Jesus.

          • So have you, for example, obtained a reading list from an introductory course on the NT (in a decent secular university) and gone through a good number of the books on it to give yourself a decent grounding in the key issues and approaches?

          • Austin Hill

            I haven’t used any reading lists from a university to define my selection criteria. I’ll have to try that. Thanks.

    • Mark Erickson

      “the popular opinion disagrees.” Were you referring to scholars or the general public?

      • Austin Hill

        I generally don’t see any specific note as to who, but they’re generally saying scholars.