Theoretical Cosmoses and Historical Jesuses

Theoretical Cosmoses and Historical Jesuses July 8, 2015

I almost opted for the alternative plural forms of both words in the title of this post – “Theoretical Cosmoi and Historical Jesi.” Just in case anyone was wondering. But I figured it was better to have the words in the title be recognizable.

I am constantly surprised when mythicists regard the number of theories about the historical Jesus as evidence that there wasn’t one. Academics are aware that numerous theories means two things: the field is a popular and highly productive one, which requires creatively exploring new ideas; and the field is one in which the evidence can be configured in more than one way, and in which there are still unanswered questions.

Jesus and CosmosAnyone who reads in the natural sciences will have seen something similar, and the realms of theoretical physics and cosmology provide prime examples. String theories (there isn’t just one, and indeed the biggest issue with string theory is figuring out which if any of the mathematically possible universes corresponds to our own). Big bang, now with added inflation. Steady state, updated in the form of plasma cosmology. A multiverse. Branes. Multiple dimensions. There is a nice article in a 2008 issue of Discover Magazine that presents some of the models that are being explored – and a shorter article with a larger number of competing theories from a 2006 issue of New Scientist.

Some would definitely suggest that the proliferation of theoretical models of the universe shows that something is wrong with the methods being used – for instance, that beauty in equations does not serve as a reliable guide to whether a theory corresponds to reality.

In the same way, there have been scholars who have challenged the methods which allow the data regarding Jesus to be configured in so many different ways.

But if someone suggests to you that this implies his non-existence, you can be confident that they are either poorly-informed about academic work and what it entails, or are being dishonest with you.

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  • The Eh’theist

    Thank you. Those of us non-believers who are of the opinion that there’s some kernel of fact within all the narratives take a lot of guff from the mythicists. Your comparison to the study of physics is a great analogy to refocus the discussion, unless they want to adopt the same skepticism about *our* existence.

  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    “Jesi” should not be the plural of Jesus. Even in Latin, the name is not a word of the 2nd declension. It is irregular, but generally considered 4th declension. That means the plural of Jesus ought to be Jesūs, with with a long vowel instead of a short one.

    • Paul E.

      Beat me to it.

    • ccws

      Yeshu’im?

  • “But if someone suggests to you that this implies his non-existence”
    -Well, it’s not evidence for his existence, either.

    • It depends what you mean. It is highly improbable that all these historians and scholars are formulating these hypotheses about who the historical figure of Jesus was, while having misjudged whether or not he existed. Would you not agree?

      • I was thinking of the counterfactual being unanimity on exactly who Jesus was and what did he do. That would be weak evidence in favor of his existence, just like the present disunity is weak evidence against his existence.

        • You seem to have missed the point of the post. The only way that there would be complete unanimity is if no further research were being done. It isn’t clear to me that scholarly disinterest in Jesus of the sort you envisage would provide stronger evidence of his existence.

          • “The only way that there would be complete unanimity is if no further research were being done.”
            -Or if the facts of Jesus’s life were so indisputable, no one disputed them.
            “It isn’t clear to me that scholarly disinterest in Jesus of the sort you
            envisage would provide stronger evidence of his existence.”
            -That’s why I said it was weak evidence either way.

          • Even if the facts of someone’s life are indisputable – and rarely are they ever completely indisputable – for there to be active scholarship, scholars would still need to be exploring new configurations of those indisputable facts. Or trying to dispute them.

        • arcseconds

          Why is disunity evidence against his existence?

          • Well, unity would be evidence for his existence because unambiguous historical figures usually don’t have their biography debated anywhere near as much as Jesus. Everyone agrees that Pinochet was a military dictator, George Washington was a general, Bayes was a mathematician, and Hezekiah was a king of Judah. Yet, we don’t even have this much agreement for Jesus’s occupation. So, logically, disunity would be evidence against his existence. But, as I’ve said, it’s weak evidence either way.

          • arcseconds

            Doesn’t everyone agree that Jesus was an itinerant preacher and healer? Does anyone seriously contend that he was anything very different from this?

            (Apart from a few cranks, of course: the existence of crankish views about a popular topic obviously isn’t evidence that there’s serious doubt about it)

            Anyway, you still haven’t explained the link between disunity and non-existence. You’ve noted that famous examples of historical figures usually don’t have the same level of debate about the details of their biography, but so what? Most historical figures didn’t discover the Americas, either, is that any kind of evidence (however weak) that Columbus didn’t exist?

            Doesn’t it merely suggest that not a lot is known for sure about him, and people are filling in the gaps with plausible hypotheses?

            A comparison with Jack the Ripper seems apt: lots of speculation, perhaps even less evidence as to his identity as Jesus. Do you think that the large and unusual amount of speculation about Jack the Ripper is evidence for the lack of existence for Jack the Ripper?

          • Doesn’t everyone agree that Jesus was an itinerant preacher and healer?

            -John Shelby Spong disagreed with the “healer” part:
            http://vridar.org/2011/02/05/jesus-was-not-a-healer-2/
            “Preacher” is kinda vague, though I can’t yet find a historicist arguing against that.

            Most historical figures didn’t discover the Americas, either, is that
            any kind of evidence (however weak) that Columbus didn’t exist?

            -No. The Americas must have been discovered by Europeans at some point, so someone must have discovered them.

            Doesn’t it merely suggest that not a lot is known for sure about him, and people are filling in the gaps with plausible hypotheses?

            -If “not a lot is known for sure about him”, then the strongest evidence for his existence are vague-sounding references without good context. If a lot was known for sure about him, the strongest evidence for his existence would have to consist of more than that.

            Do you think that the large and unusual amount of speculation about Jack the Ripper is evidence for the lack of existence for Jack the Ripper?

            -Yes.

          • arcseconds

            If “not a lot is known for sure about him”, then the strongest evidence for his existence are vague-sounding references without good context. ”

            That’s not true in general, of course. We can be as certain as anything about the existence of a person without knowing a lot about them. One need only pick someone who is known only in connection with a famous person, but is nevertheless adequately documented. People who are only known about because of their connection with famous people are frequently like this. Is there any real doubt about the existence of Mary Swift, the mother of Joseph Priestly, for example?

            (This might not be a good example, I’ve no idea (perhaps there’s extensive correspondence of hers that exists) but hopefully you can see that someone who knows more about the fringe figures of history than I could come up with someone who’s existence isn’t really open to sensible doubt, but practically nothing more is known about them.)

            Now, “vague-sounding references without good context” might characterise the situation for documentary evidence for Jesus, and therefore we might not be so confidence in his existence. But this is a completely different point to the fact there’s controversy about the details about his life.

            My trouble with your notion that controversy is evidence against someone’s existence is that the controversy can (and usually is) independent of the evidence for their existence. Controversy (at least among non-cranks) is always over what is not known, not over what is known. If what is known is adequate to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they existed, then there can still be plenty of room for massive controversy about everything else.

            For example, if people became obsessed with Mary Swift for some reason, we could imagine them filling the gaps in what is known about her with all sorts of stories and speculations. At what point would such controversy start to speak against her existence? My answer would be ‘never: the evidence is what it is, and it doesn’t matter how much you layer on controversy on the aspects of her life that aren’t documented: she had a well-documented son in a well-documented period, and that is enough’,

            But from what you say, you think that there is some level of controversy that would call her existence into doubt?

            Contrariwise, if no-one was really interested in Jesus, we might be in the position of saying “yep, there’s these old uninteresting documents from a minor Jewish cult that thrived in the 2nd century for a while that show the existence of someone called ‘Jesus’, who was an itinerant apocalyptic preacher with a brother called James and a mother called Mary who was crucified, but nothing else is clear and no-one’s interested enough to say anything more about him” — in which case there would be no controversy, only agreement, and the evidence for his existence would be exactly the same. Would the lack of controversy make you more certain of his existence?

            I just can’t see what the controversy adds here: to me it seems completely irrelevant.

          • Ah, now I see what you’re saying; I’m confusing correlation with causation and prior probability with posterior probability. My bad.

      • David Evans

        There still seems to be argument over whether King Arthur existed.

        • Erp

          True but the evidence for Arthur is far less reliable. Earliest known reference circa 820 in the Historia Brittonum which refers to him as being a war commander (not king) and seems to date him to to the early/mid 500s (some 300 years before). No organization can be traced back to Arthur.

          Contrast Paul’s letters which are shortly after Jesus’s death (or supposed death if you are a mythicist) and the gospels which are all within 70 or so years of the death. In addition we have an organization (Christianity) which seems to have been fairly continuous from Jesus’s death (though changing over time); any explanation has to explain the existence of Christianity (and also of the various apparently early offshoots such as Ebionites).

          • David Evans

            True. My point was simply that, contra James McGrath, some scholars have spent time formulating hypotheses about who Arthur was, while not knowing for sure whether he was real or a myth.

  • David Hillman

    Actually there is consensus and over whelming evidence for the big bang, the way stars and galaxies form, and in fact the history of the universe including most of the first few minutes. The disagreement is over a tiny fraction of the first few minutes. Even here the majority agree with some kind of inflation model preceded by a time which could only be described by a quantum gravity theory.
    So the analogy would be if everyone agreed with one well documented version of Jesus life but disagreed with what happened in the first few microseconds of his conception. Here if you really want to go along with the landscape idea of string theory you would have to suppose that every possible version of Jesus was conceived and that every one lived out his life in parallel universes !

    • I think you are pressing the analogy beyond its original intent. I have always emphasized that analogies between history and the natural sciences, however useful, are inexact because of differences between the two realms. The point was precisely that there is exploration of other ideas, but also a consensus. The same is true of Jesus, and the fact that a significant handful of American scholars have explored a non-apocalyptic Jesus – motivated largely by theological reasons – does not change the fact that most historians think Jesus was a figure who erroneously predicted the imminent dawn of the kingdom of God.

      In history there is typically much more room to explore alternative interpretations of the evidence. One can think of a relatively well-documenter figure like Constantine, and note that historians have debated such basic matters as whether he was really a Christian, and if so, whether he was one sincerely or as a shrewd maneuver. But there too, the reason for the new proposals is not that the evidence does not point in a particular direction, but that scholarship requires exploration of new ideas. That is what we must do, if we want to publish rather than perish.

  • ccws

    As Judas sings in Jesus Christ Superstar: “If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation; Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.” Who in their right mind today would expect a ton of surviving documentary evidence from a 2000-year-old society that was 90+% illiterate? Jesus was a peasant among peasants in a predominantly oral culture, and it wasn’t until decades after his death that anyone thought it important to write down the oral traditions of his life and teaching.

    As with anything else, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It seems to me that the few scattered extrascriptural mentions of that Galilean troublemaker, his brother James, and the odd and as yet small movement he inspired are just about what one would expect for the times.

  • arcseconds

    Clearly the only conclusion to make here is that the cosmos also doesn’t exist.