Sunday, March 29, 2009

Did Jesus Exist? A Response to Blair Scott

On AlabamaAtheist.Org, Blair Scott has up an editorial entitled "Did Jesus Exist?" I'm going to quote some of it (in italics) and give my thoughts:

It is important to note that there is zero evidence for Jesus. All the "Gospels" and other references about Jesus were written after Jesus' death, so none of the authors were first-hand witnesses to the life of Jesus.

The gospels show some pretty clear evidence of having been based on oral tradition which preceded them. Although there is no guarantee that an oral tradition will be accurate, it is important to ask: Is it more plausible to suppose that a real person inspired the legend or not? After all, we see lots of cults who ascribe miraculous powers to their leaders and believe that they are more than human. That could be the case here. As I mentioned to Blair at my local meetup, we also have Josephus, which most scholars accept. I do not accept it for many reasons, one of them being the fact that Josephus probably would not have had nice things to say about Jesus if he had written about him. After all, Josephus was not a Christian and viewed messianic contenders with suspicion.

When you are selling a religion and passing down oral tradition, the stories change. What good is a messiah that cannot resurrect? So the early apologists (which is essentially what the Gospel authors were) added a resurrection to make it fit prophecy. What good is a messiah born in Nazareth that was supposed to be born in Bethlehem according to prophecy? So the authors changed the story to read Bethlehem (note the Gospels disagree on Jesus' birthplace: writers changed it to match the prophecy). This goes on and on...

I agree with all of this completely. However, I think we should keep in mind that since a crucified messiah would not fit the Jewish expectation, this naturally fits the idea that Jesus was just a guy who's story got embellished: After all, if it was complete bull, why have him crucified in the first place?

On the other hand, what if the gospels are "midrash" -- Reinterpretations of Old Testament Scripture? This is what I have argued before, I think it remains plausible (read the link to understand how this pertains to the crucifixion).

I've also learned that the cross was used a symbol to represent the messiah in some ancient Hebrew manuscripts, so having the Savior hung on a crosee might not have been so embarrassing: Indeed, it may have been a dramatic and ironic confirmation of what Jesus was (in the story). [For this info, see Page 62, Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, HarperOne, 1997.]

As a final note, I want to say that I do not think "no evidence outside the gospels" is a good argument for Jesus' nonexistence. Most of the time we do not doubt the word of historical documents, unless they are outlandish or conflict with other knowledge that we have. While that may destroy the Christian's case for the resurrection, it is still completely plausible that there is a man behind the myth.

Now, some may say that you cannot prove a negative. I think this is clearly false. There could definitely be positive arguments against the existence of Jesus (Watch this video and skip to about 1:25).

In conclusion, I am remaining agnostic about the historical Jesus until I find more evidence either for or against him, and I think that Christians and secularists alike should also keep an open mind.

12 comments:

James F. McGrath said...

I've been reading Bart Ehrman's latest book, Jesus, Interrupted and he makes more of less the same argument as you (or should I say "we"?) do.

Scott Ferguson said...

"On the other hand, what if the gospels are "midrash" -- Reinterpretations of Old Testament Scripture?"

I don't think you can reach any other conclusion with respect to Matthew's Gospel.

Tim O'Neill said...

Regarding Josephus, you're right to believe that the nice things he has to say are interpolations, since this is what the overwhelming majority of scholars believes as well. But a majority of those scholars also believe that things like "He was the Christ" were added to an origial mention of Jesus by Josephus to "sex it up". Very few scholars believe it was a wholesale interpolation.

That aside, you also seem to forget that Josephus mentions Jesus twice - he also mentions the execution of Jesus' brother James. Given that Paul also mentions meeting this same James and it's a bit hard for non-existent mythic figures to have flesh and blood brothers, it's simply not true to say that there is "no evidence for Jesus outside the Bible?. There's about as much as there is for any other such preacher: ie not much.

But there's enough for all but a handful of scholars to accept that he did have a historical basis and for Jesus Mythicism to remain on the kooky fringe of ideas.

AIGBusted said...

Hi Tim,

There's actually lots of scholars who would say that the Testimonium Flavanium is a complete interpolation. Just watch this video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6cQgqbXYN0

In it, A christian apologist talks about this and cites a study which shows that 13/48 scholars think the entire passage is an interpolation. That's well over 25% so the notion that this is an interpolation is not a fringe view at all.

Furthermore, there was an excellent informative paper published about ten years ago in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly called "Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavanium". The author, Ken Olson, makes a very compelling case that the TF (and the passage about James) were not originally there.

I would also recommend listening to this radio show. Historian Richard Carrier talks about the James/Josephus passage and about how it probably was never intended to refer to the Christian James. After all, this James was killed over a violation of some minor Jewish law, which the Sanhedrin was none too pleased with. This would be very odd if this James was a leader of heretical Jewish cult.

You are correct that Paul does mention meeting James "the Lord's brother" (Galatians 1:19). And I agree that this is definitely good evidence against the Jesus myth theory. However, we have to keep in mind that cults often create an order/ranking based on the family model, so perhaps this was just a rank in the church, or perhaps James was meant to be a "spiritual brother".

Again, let me say that I agree with you that the James passage is evidence against mythicism, but it is not completely inexplicable on the Jesus myth theory, and so I think we have to look at all the evidence and determine which theory (Mythicism or historicism) is more ad-hoc.

Tim O'Neill said...

"That's well over 25% so the notion that this is an interpolation is not a fringe view at all."

I didn't say that it was a "fringe view", I said it was a minority view. Which it is, as the figures and studies you mention show.

"Furthermore, there was an excellent informative paper published about ten years ago in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly called "Eusebius and the Testimonium Flavanium". The author, Ken Olson, makes a very compelling case that the TF (and the passage about James) were not originally there."

It's been a while since I read Olsen's article, but I don't recall him discussing the James passage, just the TF. I tend to leave the TF to one side because the fact that it has at least been added to simply makes it too tainted.

"Historian Richard Carrier talks about the James/Josephus passage and about how it probably was never intended to refer to the Christian James. After all, this James was killed over a violation of some minor Jewish law, which the Sanhedrin was none too pleased with. This would be very odd if this James was a leader of heretical Jewish cult."

Carrier is a guy who needs to make up his mind whether he wants to be a historian or an activist. At the moment he has too many blunt anti-Christian axes to grind for me to take him seriously as an objective researcher. Historians with an agenda are usually poor historians. And I say that as someone who is an atheist myself.

There is nothing unlikely about the story Josephus tells about James. He doesn't say that "the Sanhedrin" objected to his execution, he says that an objection was made by "those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens". We're given no clear indication as to who these concerned citizens were, though it's clear that (i) they were important enough to be able to write to the Roman prefect, (ii) they were important enough for him to pay attention to them and (iii) they were no friends of the High Priest and seemed to want to bring him down.

What they object to is not the death of heretic, but the usurpation of power by Ananus. And their objective seems to have been Ananus' removal. Who or what James was is likely to have been pretty incidental in this political play.

"You are correct that Paul does mention meeting James "the Lord's brother" (Galatians 1:19). And I agree that this is definitely good evidence against the Jesus myth theory. However, we have to keep in mind that cults often create an order/ranking based on the family model, so perhaps this was just a rank in the church, or perhaps James was meant to be a "spiritual brother""

That's the "perhaps" that Mythers use to try to get their theory off this particular hook. Unfortunately for them there are simply no parallel uses of this phrase to simply mean a follower of Jesus or as some kind of title. So this is not actually an argument, just a piece of rather weak wishful thinking on their part.

AIGBusted said...

"Carrier is a guy who needs to make up his mind whether he wants to be a historian or an activist. At the moment he has too many blunt anti-Christian axes to grind for me to take him seriously as an objective researcher. Historians with an agenda are usually poor historians. And I say that as someone who is an atheist myself."

Of course Carrier has a philosophical/theological bias. But I'm not sure whether this will affect what he thinks about whether Jesus was historical or not. I mean, the arguments Christians use to show that Jesus rose from the dead are pathetic even if we grant them that Jesus existed. I think Carrier would agree with this. Besides, he wasn't always a mythicist, even as an atheist.

"There is nothing unlikely about the story Josephus tells about James. He doesn't say that "the Sanhedrin" objected to his execution, he says that an objection was made by "those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens". We're given no clear indication as to who these concerned citizens were, though it's clear that (i) they were important enough to be able to write to the Roman prefect, (ii) they were important enough for him to pay attention to them and (iii) they were no friends of the High Priest and seemed to want to bring him down."

I reread the passage in Josephus, and it appears you have the story right. But I have to wonder why the equitable citizens would have been upset at a simple breach of power. I mean, if Christians were despised as badly as they were alleged to have been, why would they have cared if James was illegally put to death? It would seem that Jews were upset by WHO was put to death, and this doesn't seem likely to me if this was the Christian James. Then again, I'm not a historian so my opinion counts for very little. By the way, I reread Olson's article and it does have something on the James passage. I have the article, and will send you a copy if you email me: Ryansarcade#yahoo.com (Remove # and replace with @)

"That's the 'perhaps' that Mythers use to try to get their theory off this particular hook. Unfortunately for them there are simply no parallel uses of this phrase to simply mean a follower of Jesus or as some kind of title. So this is not actually an argument, just a piece of rather weak wishful thinking on their part."

The phrase "brothers in the Lord" and "brothers" are used throughout the Pauline letters, and they clearly don't always mean blood relatives.

But let me say that I agree with you that the argument is ad-hoc. I just don't think we ought to base our decision of whether Jesus was historical on one passage. We need to look at all the evidence and decide which theory is more ad-hoc. And it may turn out that the historical jesus theory is more ad-hoc. After all, there some very curious silences in the Pauline letters and also some strange views about Jesus in the book of Hebrews which I think are more easily explained by the Jesus Myth Hypothesis.

Tim O'Neill said...

"Of course Carrier has a philosophical/theological bias. But I'm not sure whether this will affect what he thinks about whether Jesus was historical or not."

I think it clearly has affected his judgement on precisely that issue. He seems to have been persuaded by Doherty's thesis for example, despite the fact that that theory has some serious holes. Doherty would have us believe that there was a proto-Christianity that believed Jesus was a mystical being in the sub-lunar sphere and that this form of proto-Christianity existed long enough to give rise to the earliest form of the faith we have today and then vanished without a trace. This is pretty hard to swallow. We have several long and detailed works where Christians tackle the arguments of many early and rival forms of Christianity, including some fairly small or even totally extinct "heresies". Yet they didn't bother to counter this proto-Christian precursor? Why would they bother to tackle feeble and dying sects like the Ebionites and ignore a pregenitor faith that had a (valid) claim to being the original Christianity?

Doherty's thesis is built on a fantasy of his own creation, yet Carrier swallows it whole. And that seems to be purely because Doherty's thesis provides him with a bigger stick with which to beat Christianity. As I said, a historian with an agenda is usually a bad historian.

"I reread the passage in Josephus, and it appears you have the story right. But I have to wonder why the equitable citizens would have been upset at a simple breach of power."

Because it gave them an pretext for the removal of Ananus. There's nothing in the text that they cared who or what James was. The focus in the text is on Ananus being high-handed and these "concerned citizens" pointing this out to Herod Aggripa and Albinus and having Ananus removed. This story is not implausible at all - it makes perfect sense.

"The phrase "brothers in the Lord" and "brothers" are used throughout the Pauline letters, and they clearly don't always mean blood relatives."

Yes they are used and no they clearly don't mean that. But this is another phrase altogether. If we had examples of it being used in some figurative way then the Mythers would have a solid argument. But we don't. The Mythers simply use wishful thinking that it might have a figurative meaning here and then pretend that this "maybe" is enough to make the counter-argument go away. It isn't. The Mythers often resort to this kind of wishful thinking - it's - a pretty standard Denialist modus operandi also used by Holocaust Deniers and Creationists.

"But let me say that I agree with you that the argument is ad-hoc. I just don't think we ought to base our decision of whether Jesus was historical on one passage. "

I certainly don't base it on one passage - I base it on the balance of the evidence and what seems the most likely explanation for how the stories about Jesus arose. So far I have yet to find a Myther argument that didn't depend far too much on vast amounts of supposition (eg Doherty's invented proto-Christianity) and wishful thinking/Denialist arguments.

I highlight this passage because it's a clear case of a confluence of evidence: Josephus says Jesus had a brother and does seem to be talking about our Jesus. The gospels and other NT and post-NT texts also talk about this brother. Paul says he met this brother. The most reasonable explanation is that both the brother and, therefore, Jesus existed.

The counter arguments and attempts to explain the pieces of this confluence away are weak and contrived, which is why they don't have any traction with the scholars in the relevant field and only seem to be accepted by polemicists like Carrier and other anti-Christian activists.

AIGBusted said...

"Yet they didn't bother to counter this proto-Christian precursor?"

Since Carrier and Doherty are arguing that historicity didn't start up until about the second century, how many Christian texts do we have from the first century? As I understand it, very few.

Besides, There is something in 2 John verse 7 which may very well refer to Jesus mythicists:

"Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world."

"I highlight this passage because it's a clear case of a confluence of evidence: Josephus says Jesus had a brother and does seem to be talking about our Jesus. The gospels and other NT and post-NT texts also talk about this brother. Paul says he met this brother. The most reasonable explanation is that both the brother and, therefore, Jesus existed."

James was a common name back then. How do we know that the gospel brother James and Paul's acquaintance James were the same person?

Tim O'Neill said...

"Since Carrier and Doherty are arguing that historicity didn't start up until about the second century, how many Christian texts do we have from the first century? As I understand it, very few."

We do have very few, but the point is that several of them are precisely the kind of contra-heretical apologetics works I'm talking about. Irenaeus wrote a whole book, Against Heresies, countering all kinds of variant forms of Christianity, including many small, obscure or even extinct ones. Yet he forgot to counter the claims of this proto-Christianity? That makes no sense. Justin Martyr and Minucius Felix were both Second Century writers who tackled the claims of those who argued against their form of "historicist" Chrisitianity. Yet there's not so much as a whisper or hint of Doherty's proto-Christianity in either work. Nor is there a hint of it anywhere else. This makes no sense.

"Besides, There is something in 2 John verse 7 which may very well refer to Jesus mythicists:

"Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world.""

That's pretty clearly a reference to Docetism. Docetists still believed in an earthly Jesus, just one who only appeared human but was actually a spirit on Earth.

"James was a common name back then. How do we know that the gospel brother James and Paul's acquaintance James were the same person?"

Because both are referred to as being brothers of Jesus and leaders of the Jerusalem community after his death. That's evidence they are the same guy. What evidence do we have to think they are separate people?

AIGBusted said...

You make some good points Tim. I've been attempting to study some of this stuff in my spare time, and I'm definitely going to look into the works of the early church fathers when I can.

As for the passage in 2 John, it is usually assumed to be a reference to Docetism, but it seems to me that it could have just as easily been a reference to a sect that believed there was no historical Jesus.

Tim O'Neill said...

"You make some good points Tim. I've been attempting to study some of this stuff in my spare time, and I'm definitely going to look into the works of the early church fathers when I can."

Good to hear it. As someone with a degree in history (and a couple of degrees in other related disciplines), Jesus Mythcism something like to me what Creationism is for you - a fringe idea driven large by ideology which can seem plausible to non-specialists but which has no traction in the scholarly sphere. It's wise to be sceptical of such ideas.

"As for the passage in 2 John, it is usually assumed to be a reference to Docetism, but it seems to me that it could have just as easily been a reference to a sect that believed there was no historical Jesus."

No, actually, it can't. It can't because we have clear evidence that there were Docetists but we have no evidence at all that there were "Mythicists". So it can't be interpreted "just as easily" as referring to the latter as for the former because the former clearly existed whereas the idea of latter is based on nothing much at all. A Myther would have to produce some substantive evidence that First/Second Century "Mythicists" existed for the chances that this refers to them to be equal to the idea that it refers to Docetists. In the absence of any such evidence, the fact that we have evidence for the existence of Docetists means that reading of this passage automatically trumps any hopeful "Mythicist" reading.

Nazorean said...

While most Christians are taught that Jesus created the Christian
religion, this is not so. The people who created Christianity are the people who wrote the scriptures. It is commonly accepted that the gospels were written sometime after 70 CE. The question is, Why did it take so long? A lot happened during this period in this corner of the world.

First we have the Pisonian Conspiracy in which members of the the powerful Roman Piso family conspire to assassinate the Emperor Nero and to create a new Jewish religion to compete with the Jewish religion of the Messianic Jewish Movement. They are discovered and executed.

Next we have Apollonius of Tyana making 2 trips to India. On his first trip he receives manuscripts in Taxila which form the basis for the 9 Pauline Epistles. On his second trip to farther India he receives 4 documents about the seasons of life of the Indian Christ of the Tamil people which form the basis for the 4 gospels. It is interesting that the Pauline Epistles are the earliest Chistian writings and make no reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Neither do other early writngs such as 'The Shepherd of Hermes' or 'The Epistle of Barnabas.' The reason for this is that these texts were written prior to the time when the gospels were written. Now, we know that the epistle of Paul supposedly date back to the 50s. Therefore, as of that decade no one had ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth.

It is only during the last decade of the first century and the
beginning of the second that Jesus Christ is mentioned in quotes
from St. Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome. They mention
his name, but know little about him. It was also at this time
that the famous apologetics quotes from Suetonius and Tacitus were actually written. This is also the time that Josephus wrote
the infamous 'Testimonium Flavianum.' All of these quotes were written after the gospels had already been composed.

So, there you have it. Prior the gospels being written there is
not one single mention of Jesus Christ. Only after the gospels
were written do we hear the name Jesus Christ mentioned. To learn
more about how the Romans subverted the teachings of Yeshu and the Nazoreans and proclaimed them the revelations of their godman Jesus Christ visit: http://nazoreans.com