“Historical” Bookends to a Historically Vacuous Life

“Historical” Bookends to a Historically Vacuous Life September 17, 2020

This is an early draft section for one of the first chapters in my new book-in-the-writing, The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story:

The birth and death of Jesus are historical bookends to the life of Jesus, obviously, even if the theology continues in Acts and the Epistles of Paul, as problematic as these may or may not be (both historiographically and theologically). As historical bookends, they stand in stark contrast to the stories that take place between them, the life of the adult preacher who roams the land carrying out miracles. They are in contrast because there are at least, with the birth and death of Jesus, verifiable historical events that intersect with the Gospel claims. When it comes to the miracle claims and the interceding events of Jesus’ life as mentioned in the four Gospels, these are historically vacuous.

As part of the conclusion to my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination (UK), I stated, after showing throughout the book that the Nativity claims were a-historical:

The ramifications for pulling the rug out from under the believers’ feet is that we are left with no proper account of Jesus’ life until, really, he starts his ministry. Furthermore, we have no real evidence for the claims that Jesus is the Messiah and is derived from Messianic and Davidic heritage. As a result, we have only the accounts of the miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ ministry and death. However, the same problems afflict these accounts: they are uncorroborated by extra-biblical, non pro-Jesus attestation and rely on unknown authors writing in unknown places. What is particularly damaging, as I have already set out, is that if the birth narratives can be shown to be patently false, and the narratives involve sizeable accounts from two Gospel writers, then how can we know what other purported facts are true? If these infancy miracle claims are false, then what of the myriad of other miracle claims—the walking on the water, the water to wine, the resurrection? It is a serious indictment of these writers (especially since Luke is declared as being a reliable historian by so many apologists[1]).

The undermining of these narratives does not disprove that Jesus was the Son of God, or that he had Davidic lineage, or whatever else these passages were trying to establish, per se. However, one has to recognise that some really damaging chinks are undoubtedly beaten into the apologetic armour of claims of Jesus’ divinity….

So while I have not proved anything entirely (in a Cartesian manner, what can be entirely ‘proved’ other than I exist?), I believe that I have provided a cumulative case which is overwhelmingly decisive in showing that the infancy narratives are almost certainly non-historical. As a result, it then follows that the rational belief in the divinity of Jesus, if based on such historical evidence in any way, then becomes equally damaged. Because these claims involve events which can be investigated in some way using existing sources outside of the Bible, we are in a more historically verifiable position to analyse these narratives. Other passages in the biographical accounts of Jesus’ life are not afforded such verifiability, unfortunately. As such, the assertions of the rest of the Gospels are taken on their own merits rather than allowing historians to be able to see if they match up with extra-biblical evidence.

The great Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, who did so much historical biblical exegesis for his seminal work The Birth of the Messiah spent much time and effort in eventually finding the historical foundations of the nativity narratives to be seriously wanting but that there was still theological “verisimilitude”. But on what foundations is the verisimilitude built if there is no history?

Thus, the accounts are inspired by trying to develop an “intelligibility” for the reader. These accounts would certainly be full of theological meaning and intelligibility, but then so do stories of pure fiction placed in historical settings. For Brown, it seems that, in terms of the nativity, the Gospel of Matthew is all about being both “interesting folklore” and “a salvific message that Matthew could develop harmoniously”.

In other words, it never happened as Matthew claimed it did. Jesus may offer salvation, but we cannot derive that truth from these narratives since these narratives seem to contain little or no historical fact.

When we consider the Easter narratives, where we have a dying Messiah who is sacrificed for some reason (the atonement, which I will shortly discuss), if we find the historical claims of the death and resurrection to be wholly dubious, then what does this say about those reasons, about the atonement? What does it say about current and theological beliefs about Jesus, about dying for sins and sacrifice if there was no dying for sins or sacrifice?

[1] It is worth referring you to another work of Richard Carrier, Not the Impossible Faith, which does an excellent job of dispelling this ubiquitous assertion.

 

 


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