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Jan 01 2012

The historical Jesus

Over at Evangelical Realism, we’re starting to look at William Lane Craig’s arguments for a historical resurrection. You can head on over if you’re interested in the full critique. Meanwhile, I’d like to take a look at a topic where I think a certain number of skeptics are mistaken (to the very great glee of apologists like Craig).

There is no serious question that the Gospel is false in its supernatural details. Believers argue in favor of the miracles because they’re believers, but the real-world evidence is pretty consistently against such stories. Some critics, however, have thrown the baby out with the bath water, by proposing that Jesus himself did not really exist either.

Frankly, I think that’s nonsense. If we go back to the origins of Christianity, there’s nothing special about the name “Jesus.” Obviously, somebody had to invent the religion. God did not create it ex nihilo. It didn’t just drop down out of the sky. We can tell from its flaws and human-centered superstitions that it’s a man-made product. Why, then, would one particular name (“Jesus”) be any less likely to be the name of the man who invented it?

The alternative to a historical Jesus is a conspiracy of apostles. I suppose that’s not impossible, but it strikes me as hugely unrealistic. Charisma of that magnitude is much more likely to show up in a single individual than in twelve individuals at once. And again, if you have two remarkably charismatic and ambitious personalities, they’re much more likely to compete than to cooperate and conspire. Imagine if there were not two, but twelve of them! Yet without a historical Jesus to provide the charisma and ambition, we have to find it in the apostles.

And if the apostles are not all equally endowed with world-shaking charisma and ambition, if only one of them emerges as the true leader and founder of Christianity, can you imagine him achieving such dominance without eventually supplanting his fictitious competition, and becoming the true Messiah himself? Again, it’s not completely inconceivable, but it seems a lot less likely than just supposing that some guy named Jesus was the ambitious and charismatic founder of the religion. The mere existence of a man named “Jesus” does not pose any problems significant enough to require alternative explanations.

Now, as to the legend of the Messiah persona that was layered on top of the original, historical Jesus, I think there’s no question that this is a myth, with elements borrowed from a diverse spectrum of earlier, popular mythologies. If by “Jesus” you mean the Incarnate Divine who walks through the Gospels, then yes, that’s a fiction. But there’s a difference between rejecting the legend and rejecting the original historical mortal around whom the stories accreted. To go to extremes in denying the founder is to play into the hands of the apologists, and to give them plausible grounds for claiming to have overturned skepticism.

93 comments

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  1. 1
    Gary W. Longsine

    Christopher Hitchens pondered the historicity of Jesus, and suggested that the obvious fabrications in the Jesus story indicate that there must have been a person at the core of the story. Had it been invented form whole cloth, there would be fewer inconsistencies.

    Hitchens also compares the historicity of Jesus with that of Socrates, illuminating an interesting difference. Since philosophy and science do not deal in revealed truth, it doesn’t really matter if Socrates existed, what matters is the someone advanced the notion that we can investigate the truths of the world using observation and reasoning.

    1. 1.1
      RW Ahrens

      Had it been invented form whole cloth, there would be fewer inconsistencies.

      Not if the invention was through the agency of several authors, at differing times and differing places, designated for differing audiences. Much like the gospels, for instance. A common thread could well have been a single theocracy, such as the Essenes, but with several different folks taking differing points of view and someone else later tying them all together into some cobbled together format.

      I don’t see how an essentially true story could attract such inconsistencies either, unless, through the agency of differing authors of different educational tracts, such as the gospels probably were. Which, if it could happen to a true single life, it could happen to a false single made up story.

  2. 2
    BrianX

    This is one issue where you divide the mere atheists from the skeptics. Some atheists seem to have this intense need for there not to have been a Jesus. I can’t really understand this — lots of brainpower expended on trying to disprove something entirely trivial and unnecessary to dwell on.

  3. 3
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    As an historian, I agree that it’s much, much more likely that there was an original person (most probably named Jesus/Yeshua) who is at the core of the Jesus myth than that someone (usually mythicists posit Paul as the culprit) created him out of whole cloth. However, there’s no evidence that the “12 apostles” actually existed as a group, so your dichotomy here is a false one. Also, why assume that the Jesus guy (or the alternative) had to have “world-shaking charisma and ambition”?

    Isn’t it much more plausible that he was just one of the many magicians and preachers wandering about the outskirts of the Roman Empire, who managed to attract a modest following in his lifetime (surely not as large as that of John the Baptist whose existence is actually corroborated outside of the gospel documents), but was lionised after death? Remember, it took centuries of evolution and growth for Christianity to catch on in any significant way and for the christology and theology to be firmly established.

    1. 3.1
      Jeffy Joe

      Ibis: Perhaps you can help indulge a curiousity of mine, or point me in the direction of information. You mention historical records for John the Baptist (JtB). Are there Roman records for JtB, for example, recording his execution? (It now occurs to me that I’m not 100% certain that Herod was a Roman official, but you get the point of my question). That would make a good contrast to bring home the lack of evidence for Jesus (also executed in a similar time period). I know that Josephus mentions JtB (giving him more coverage than God incarnate, in fact). I’d be interested in learning about other historical evidences, if any.

      1. RW Ahrens

        Herod wasn’t Roman, but a client king. Hence, if JtB was executed in Herod’s kingdom, the records wouldn’t have been Roman, or so I assume.

    2. 3.2
      Deacon Duncan

      @Ibis3

      However, there’s no evidence that the “12 apostles” actually existed as a group, so your dichotomy here is a false one. Also, why assume that the Jesus guy (or the alternative) had to have “world-shaking charisma and ambition”?

      You know, now that you mention it, it does seem odd that most of “The Twelve” seem to exist more or less as footnotes in the story. As with Jesus, I see no good reason to doubt that the men themselves existed, but you’re right, it’s possible they got added as apostles simply to fill up the mystical number 12.

      As for charisma and ambition, I’ll grant you that’s subjective. I’m thinking that it takes ambition to start a new religion and charisma to pull it off. The results were “world-shaking” in the long run, but if you want to say most of that is because of the followers rather than the leader, I’d have to say that’s not implausible either.

      1. Cosmic Teapot, not the Antichrist.

        With regard to the 12 apostles, Géza Vermes thinks the early christian church may have taken this idea from the essenes, who had 12 priests high in the hierarchy.

  4. 4
    G. Shelley

    If there wasn’t a historical Jesus, why assume there were historical apostles?

  5. 5
    Pierce R. Butler

    What Ibis3 said, plus an example of the raw material from which the Jesus legend was apparently woven:

    … the trial before Pilate, with the Jewish rulers standing by, filled as it is with fatal implausibilities, must be a fiction, and its origin is, again, not far to seek. Mark borrowed it from Josephus’s story of another Jesus, Jesus ben-Ananias.

    An incident more alarming still had occurred four years before the war at a time of exceptional peace and prosperity for the City. One Jeshua, son of Ananias, a very ordinary yokel, came to the feast at which every Jew is supposed to set up a tabernacle for God. As he stood in the temple he suddenly began to shout: “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the Sanctuary, a voice against bridegrooms and brides, a voice against the whole people.” Day and night he uttered this cry as he went through all the streets. Some of the more prominent citizens, very annoyed at these ominous words, laid hold of the fellow and beat him savagely. Without saying a word in his own defence or for the private information of his persecutors, he persisted in shouting the same warning as before. The Jewish authorities, rightly concluding that some supernatural force was responsible for the man’s behaviour, took him before the Roman procurator. There, though scourged till his flesh hung in ribbons, he neither begged for mercy nor shed a tear, but lowering his voice to the most mournful of tones answered every blow with “Woe to Jerusalem!” When Albinus – for that was the procurator’s name – demanded to know who he was, where he came from and why he uttered such cries, he made no reply whatever to the questions but endlessly repeated his lament over the City, till Albinus decided he was a madman and released him (The Jewish War VI 302). Four years later, his prophecy was fulfilled by the Roman siege, during which Jesus ben-Ananias was killed. … Jesus comes to Jerusalem for one of the great festivals and creates a prophetic disturbance in the temple. He preaches soon-coming judgment, the destruction of the temple, and he says it will spell the end of ordinary life, for example, weddings (Matt. 24:38). The elders of the people haul him before the Roman procurator, who interrogates him but gets only silence for an answer. Puzzled, the procurator asks him where he is from (John 19:9) He decides to have him flogged and let him go (Luke 23:22b). Which Jesus are we talking about here? Both. Yet again, Mark has retrojected the events of the subsequent generation into the time of Jesus.

    – Robert M. Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?, pg 314

    You might also want to read the works of G.A. Wells on Jesus questions to widen your comprehension of how fictions can achieve the status of faith without ever passing through a phase of factuality.

    1. 5.1
      Deacon Duncan

      @Pierce R. Butler

      Thanks, that is interesting. I would point out, though, that this is an example of a fictitious origin for legendary stories that became attached to Jesus. That’s not the same thing as being evidence that no itinerant preacher named “Jesus” existed for the legends to attach themselves to. If someone proves that I am lying about you, that does not prove that you yourself are also a lie.

  6. 6
    Ace of Sevens

    I wish you bloggers would engage one another directly more often instead of having us readers do it. Al Stefanelli takes it one farther and argues that Paul is likely fictitious as well. I’m in the camp who says the stories about Jesus we currently have have been heavily fabulized by adding mythological bits and probably mixing them with other people, but they have to have started somewhere.

  7. 7
    dsmccoy

    I agree that there must be some historical grist from which the Jesus legend was milled, but barring major new documentary evidence, it’s hard to imagine anyone definitively proving the source.

    One perspective on the story I found very compelling was that of Avar Ellegard in his book “Jesus – One Hundred Years Before Christ”. He points out something others often seem to ignore: that the far-flung communities to which Paul supposedly spoke sound much more like well-established communities than some recent diaspora from Palestine of followers of a recently deceased spiritual leader. He points out many similarities between early christians and essenes, positing that the jewish diaspora around the mediterranean included spiritual communities influenced by the essenes. The essene “Teacher of Righteousness” bears many similarities with the Jesus stories. That Paul would spin his religion from mythologizing and deifying a much revered essene priest dead for over a century makes much more sense than the more literal interpretations of the Jesus chronology. And any NT conflation of events from an earlier century with more recent events would be in the same literary territory as the rampant NT conflation of the Jesus story with OT prophecies.

    I don’t know if it’s true, and we’ll likely never know unless someone uncovers a big cache of early texts, but it seems to me to make the most sense in explaining Paul and the churches he preached to.

    1. 7.1
      Cosmic Teapot, not the Antichrist.

      The essene “Teacher of Righteousness” bears many similarities with the Jesus stories.

      Such as …?

      That Paul would spin his religion from mythologizing and deifying a much revered essene priest dead for over a century makes much more sense than the more literal interpretations of the Jesus chronology.

      Why does it?

  8. 8
    tangovelocity

    I have been enjoying a book by Earl Doherty, “The Jesus Puzzle. Did Christianity begin with a mythical Christ?”, that lays out a very compelling argument for the origins of Christianity and its probable lack of a founder, as well as an examination of the factors involved in its development.

    1. 8.1
      drdave

      Or consult Doherty’s updated version in “Jesus: Neither God nor Man”.

      On the other hand, an examination of the history of Christianity, with no presupposition of Jesus as historical, point to preexisting concepts of spiritual messengers from God, such as Daniel’s Son of Man. Neil Godfrey discusses Jewish scriptures as inspiration for a Slain Messiah. For a century or more before “Jesus”, the Jewish world provided a number of threads that came down to “Paul” who preached a revealed “Christ crucified” with no knowledge of any Earthly existence.

      From there, Christianity accreted increasing layers of Earthly stories. See Neil’s discussions of Paul-Louis Couchoud’s book The Creation of Christ.

  9. 9
    Anat

    I’m in the camp who says the stories about Jesus we currently have have been heavily fabulized by adding mythological bits and probably mixing them with other people, but they have to have started somewhere.

    Yes, but were the stories originate in events involving a single individual? Since plenty of first century Jews were named Yeshua, and several of them are known either as rabbis or as people who got in trouble with the Romans, what is the minimum that needs to be true for any one of them to claim that he was the ‘historical Jesus’? When does the claim for a ‘historical Jesus become meaningless?

  10. 10
    RW Ahrens

    I go with Al. When you put the various parts of the stories of both Jesus and Paul through an analysis comparing them with other mythological figures, you see clearly that Jesus’ life is merely a midrash of many different religious ideas and elements brought together.

    He links to a site that, while a bit over the top, clearly establishes a very plausible process by which a religion such as christianity very well could have been developed out of existing beliefs and movements existing at the time throughout the Mediterranean, and very well known in Hebrew territory.

    I look at people who say things like “To go to extremes in denying the founder is to play into the hands of the apologists, and to give them plausible grounds for claiming to have overturned skepticism.” as giving in to the accomodationists. I really don’t see how showing how the “founder” of christianity never existed could ever “play into” the hands of apologists.

    Come on, we are already denying that god exists, how could we possibly allow for the existence of the “son” if the “father” doesn’t without being inconsistent?

    The alternative to a historical Jesus is a conspiracy of apostles.

    Again, plenty of critics have suggested that the twelve apostles were almost certainly constructs representing the twelve tribes of Israel – otherwise, it is almost too pat, too coincidental. Things like that don’t “just” happen, they are constructed on purpose, for a reason. Every element of the christian story has a reason, a purpose, and a theological history that explains what it meant to the people there at the time it was first constructed. Much of that meaning has been either lost or twisted out of recognition over the centuries since, but when you hear it explained by a historian, such as Richard Carrier, it becomes much clearer.

    No, Jesus is a myth, his life’s elements prove it. I am also of the opinion that Paul was too. Again, just too easy, too pat, too handy for it to be a product of chance.

    The site he links to is:

    http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/

    I think that Carrier’s books, to be released later this year, will be better researched and better sourced, but I think this guy’s got the basic idea right.

    1. 10.1
      Deacon Duncan

      @RW Ahrens

      You make some interesting points, and I’ll be glad to do more research in this area. I don’t see myself as “giving in to the accommodationists” so much as I see myself picking my battles. If it takes years of critical historical research to document Jesus’ non-existence (assuming such a thing can be done), then our success in presenting this argument is going to depend on believers’ willingness to conduct years of critical historical research. Rather than wait for that to happen, I’d prefer to focus on the more immediate evidence, like the contradictions in the Bible and the evidence that parts of the Gospel narrative were borrowed from non-Christian sources. So I’m not saying “Don’t show that stories of Jesus life are legends.” By all means, DO show that. If you succeed, then it really won’t matter whether or not there was a literal mortal named Jesus. But if WE set up goal posts announcing that no Jesus existed at all, Craig doesn’t have to shift the burden of proof onto us, we’ve assumed it ourselves and saved him the trouble.

      Now, if you want to say that we’ve got evidence that all the gospel stories are legends, and that this leaves us without any reliable evidence about who Jesus was, whether he was one man or composite of many similar persons, or whether he even existed at all—that I’d have no problem with (as long as you can back up your claim). That puts the focus where it belongs: on the questionable nature of the evidence, rather than on the largely irrelevant question of whether or not there’s a real man at the core of all the fictions.

      1. RW Ahrens

        Again, the burden of proof isn’t with US. It is with those who claim to have a real man. As you noted, the evince of that man is not only slim, but actually nonexistent.

        Richard Carrier is examining that claim, and is due out with two books about it, one this year outlining his methodology, and one due next year about the theory itself. He is examining that from a scholarly point of view, to be well researched, sourced and documented, with footnotes and in a professional format. To be peer-reviewed.

        So yeah, we’ll see how that turns out, but I don’t really see it as looking good for the theist side.

        I see the attempts at putting a real man behind the legend as a fall back position of those who just can’t quite see themselves as being complete deniers. After all, the idea of Jesus being just a man was one of many theological positions taken by some of the christian cults in the first two centuries CE. Which, to my mind, just adds to the evidence of a mythological Jesus. If the first century christians couldn’t agree which was right at such an early date, the prospect of there having been evidence of his reality really looks slim. If the folks on that side had real evidence of his existence, don’t you think they would have trotted it out to prove their claims? But they didn’t, and they lost to the idiots with the three-in-one nonsense.

  11. 11
    Makoto

    If an author can create Xenu from scratch, I see no reason why they can’t create Jesus from scratch. There are plenty of people that swear to both existing, texts supporting each, and so on.

    Could there have been some good person in the past, who was co-opted into being the son of god for a new religion? Sure. But just because the text says there was isn’t a good reason to assume there was.

    1. 11.1
      Deacon Duncan

      @ Makoto

      If an author can create Xenu from scratch, I see no reason why they can’t create Jesus from scratch. There are plenty of people that swear to both existing, texts supporting each, and so on.

      We’re not talking about creating an invisible, inaccessible superhuman being though. We’re talking about creating a real live religious leader and prophet, with a multi-year ministry throughout the region where the religion got started. Show me how Scientology created L. Ron Hubbard from scratch and you’ll have a better analogy.

      1. RW Ahrens

        But we KNOW Hubbard was real, there are records, recordings, writings, and so forth.

        For Jesus, we have nothing.

        Nada, nix, nothing. No writings, no contemporaneous records or accounts, no archeological evidence of anything showing that there was a real such person.

        Plenty of circumstantial evidence that christians such as Paul, just to name one, who knew nothing about Jesus’ earthly life and never mentioned his parents, his birth, his ministry or even any of the apostles by name in any of his letters, whether you look at the real ones or the forged ones!

        Plenty of evidence that Paul and others of his period saw “Christ” as a mythical figure instead.

        Occam’s razor says the simpler explanation is that he just didn’t exist.

  12. 12
    otrame

    I am in the middle of reading Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald. Although I’ve only read the first two chapters, I find it well-written. I don’t find the idea of someone layering a series of mythical stories on top of a real person difficult to believe, but I also have no trouble believing that those mythical stories were originally told about several of the activists that were prevalent at the time and that there was no single “Jesus”. I have no dog in the fight, so I will enjoy hearing what Fitzgerald has to say.

  13. 13
    John Morales

    That’s like arguing that, since Saint Nicholas was a historical personage, Santa Claus is historical.

    (Bah)

    1. 13.1
      Steven Carr

      The character of Popeye was based on a real person. Obviously that means that Popeye existed.

      After all, what is implausible about a sailor getting into fights over a girl?

  14. 14
    Steven Carr

    Do you have any evidence that there were 12 apostles?

    Is there any document in the first century AD where a Christian puts his name to ever having heard of Thomas, Judas, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Jairus, Barrabbas, Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus etc etc?

    Why are they as absent from Christians writing to each other as tales of Elvis Presley tap-dancing are absent from the letters of members of the Elvis Presley Fan Club?

    ‘Charisma of that magnitude is much more likely to show up in a single individual…’

    In Romans 10, Paul points out that Jews could not be expected to believe in Jesus , because they had never heard of him until Christians were sent (by God) to preach about him.

    I guess it is pretty obvious that somebody with charisma of that magnitude is very unlikely to be somebody that people got to hear about.

  15. 15
    Kapitano

    The stories about Jesus are a patchwork of pre-existing legends and prophecies – including some from earlier in the bible – stitched together into several incoherent and mutually irreconcilable books.

    The Jesus of Matthew and Acts is an incorporeal spirit which persists after the man dies. The Jesus of Paul and the Epistles was either a peripatetic lone preacher or a distant historical figure, depending on which parts you emphasise. The Jesus of Mark and Luke was a miracle-working cult-leader who bodily rose from the dead.

    The choice is not, as you have it, between a real man and a conspiracy of apostles. It’s between a real man who got buried under a ton of reattributed savior stories and revised history which accumulated around him…and the ton of stories with no man at the center.

    1. 15.1
      Deacon Duncan

      @ Kapitano

      The choice is not, as you have it, between a real man and a conspiracy of apostles. It’s between a real man who got buried under a ton of reattributed savior stories and revised history which accumulated around him…and the ton of stories with no man at the center.

      Buried by whom though? I’m not saying that I have proof a real Jesus did exist, I’m just saying I see no compelling reason for supposing he did not. I could probably list several movements off the top of my head that got started by some charismatic leader and a core group of committed followers. Joseph Smith and the Mormons for one example. But religions that are a cult focused on an individual leader, that started spontaneously in roughly that leader’s timeframe, without that leader ever existing? I don’t see that happening. I can’t really see how that would even work. But I look at Kim Jong Il, and how the cult of the leader can attach legendary stories to reinforce his supremacy, and I can easily imagine something similar in the first century, in the religious realm rather than the political one. Maybe it could be true that the worship of Jesus started in the absence of any particular Jesus to worship, roughly contemporaneously with his alleged lifetime. But in my experience that would make it a fairly rare phenomenon, and I see no reason (so far at least) to prefer that explanation over the more common and familiar case.

      1. Kapitano

        Deacon Duncan says:

        “Buried by whom though?”

        By a large number of small (even tiny) cults, cropping up, changing, splitting, spawning and influencing each other, over centuries.

        “But religions that are a cult focused on an individual leader, that started spontaneously in roughly that leader’s timeframe, without that leader ever existing?”

        Most of the stories about Jesus predate the supposed time of Jesus – some (so I read) by two thousand years. The name constantly changes, but the themes are remarkably constant – royal descent, prodigeous childhood, magical manifestation of food, betrayal by a friend, birth and death on solstices etc.

        So it’s not within the leader’s timeframe. Remember too that the earliest gospels date from at least 30 years after the events they describe. There are no eyewitness reports.

        With a slightly different twist of history, the Vatican would be teaching about someone with a different name and era, with pretty much the same mythology.

      2. drdave

        And finished off to a fare-thee-well by Luke, perhaps Clement of Rome, who consulted previous gospels and texts, but offered a more authoritative history of Jesus.

        Couchoud sees Clement, responding to the threat posed to Rome by Marcion, composing epistles, writing Luke-Acts, and adding interpolations to existing texts.

  16. 16
    jd142

    Obviously, somebody had to invent the religion. God did not create it ex nihilo. It didn’t just drop down out of the sky. We can tell from its flaws and human-centered superstitions that it’s a man-made product. Why, then, would one particular name (“Jesus”) be any less likely to be the name of the man who invented it?

    And yet we don’t assume that there must have been a real Mithra, Dionysus, Zeus, or Thor, and they all have religions that built up around them. There’s still some scholarly doubt as to the existence of Homer, who supposedly wrote down the definitive versions of oral tales of the Trojan war and Odysseus.

    These are the biggest objections I have to a historical Jesus:

    – I have yet to see a reference in and Roman census for Jesus, Joseph or Mary. Not to say it doesn’t exist, but you’d think there’d be a lot more references to it if there were such a record. The most recent archeological fines that would have given some credence to the existence of Joseph or Jesus were determined to be fake funeral caskets.

    – As above, we don’t assume that any other religious figure has a “real life” source. We don’t look for the historical Odin or Hades. People haven’t even been able to confirm a historical Arthur without any controversy.

    – People are willing to believe and transmit any number of lies. Xenu is a good example, as are all of the Mormon saints and characters. Some people even believe the Mormon golden plates are real.

    – Sparseness of non-Biblical references to Jesus. See http://www.skeptically.org/newtestament/id22.html for examples. None of the sources are known for being great truth tellers.

    – From examples in other religions, if you want to make up a new religion you want to make an appeal to authority. I wouldn’t claim that I am god, I would claim that I am god’s prophet. The old, “I have access to secret hidden information that I can reveal only to true believers,” works wonders. If I say I am god, then I’m going to be in trouble when I can’t work miracles. But if I’m just the messenger, I’m off the hook. See Xenu and Mormans again.

    1. 16.1
      Deacon Duncan

      @ BRamsey

      And yet we don’t assume that there must have been a real Mithra, Dionysus, Zeus, or Thor, and they all have religions that built up around them.

      That would be a convincing parallel IF Jesus were an invisible nature spirit whose stories originated somewhere back in the forgotten mists of time. But we’re talking about a religion starting within at most a few decades of the time when Jesus’ ministry is reported to have taken place. I don’t think Zeus and Thor have that.

      From examples in other religions, if you want to make up a new religion you want to make an appeal to authority. I wouldn’t claim that I am god, I would claim that I am god’s prophet. The old, “I have access to secret hidden information that I can reveal only to true believers,” works wonders. If I say I am god, then I’m going to be in trouble when I can’t work miracles. But if I’m just the messenger, I’m off the hook.

      And as Harold Camping demonstrates, it’s even easier to let yourself off the hook when you don’t claim to be a prophet, but merely hold yourself up as a teacher of the books written by the prophets. Same claim to divine authority, but less accountability—no wonder Christianity is so successful!

      For the record, though, Jesus would not have to claim to be God in order for his followers to later deify him. Like I told another commenter, I’m not saying there’s proof that Jesus did exist, I’m just saying that I have not yet seen any evidence that would persuade me that Christianity managed to set itself up in just a few decades, with a full episcopal hierarchy and an established liturgy, in the complete absence of a real founder named Jesus. I have no problem with the likelihood that the gospel stories are all legendary, and in fact that sounds pretty plausible to me in general. But again, as I said before, if someone proves that I lied about you, this does not prove that you yourself are also a lie. Someone may show me proof some day that no Jesus ever existed, but in the meantime I have yet to see anything that strikes me as meeting the humongous burden of proof such a claim entails.

      1. Reginald Selkirk

        Someone may show me proof some day that no Jesus ever existed, but in the meantime I have yet to see anything that strikes me as meeting the humongous burden of proof such a claim entails.

        We are in disagreement over who bears the burden of proof.

      2. Deacon Duncan

        @ Reginald Selkirk

        We are in disagreement over who bears the burden of proof.

        I’m not sure that we really disagree. The burden of proof rests on whoever claims to have the established fact. If I were to say that Jesus did exist, then the burden of proof would be on me to prove that he did exist. (I don’t say that, so I don’t have that burden.) Likewise if I say that Jesus absolutely positively never even existed, then I’m saying more than just that there is no evidence for his existence, I’m claiming that there IS evidence of his non-existence. The burden of proof, in that case, would be on me to provide that evidence.

      3. RW Ahrens

        I agree with Reginald here. The proof resides in those with the outrageous claims, which is that there was a real man behind the curtain.

        The fact that there were, documented by Josephus, no fewer than three other men of the same name within a hundred years making the same claim as messiah, whose exploits were extensively documented by him is indicative that there was no shortage of stories that could very well have layered on each other in the next hundred years.

        If you are trying to assert that the christian religion took off and spread in just a few decades after Jesus’ supposed death, then you are swallowing the church’s kool-aid. The fact is that it took over a hundred years before it truly got started – the first “church” in the “holy land” to be found by real on the ground archeologists was estimated to be dated to the 130′s.

        Plenty of time for the kind of midrash we are talking about to get started.

      4. Cosmic Teapot, not the Antichrist.

        Jesus may have been a real man is an outrageous claim? You must really be astounded when, you know, like, meet people.

      5. RW Ahrens

        Considering that yuou are talking about someone that MAY have existed two thousand years ago, yeah, if you want me to believe he was real, produce real evidence, otherwise, STFU.

      6. Cosmic Teapot, not the Antichrist.

        RW Ahrens

        January 4, 2012 at 6:09 pm

        Considering that yuou are talking about someone that MAY have existed two thousand years ago, yeah, if you want me to believe he was real, produce real evidence, otherwise, STFU.

        Ouch. Hurt your back moving those goal posts? Your original claim was that Jesus may have been a real man was an outrageous claim. Why is it? You just need to look at the list of catholic saints to see how common mere mortal men are commonly mythologised.

        Or were you implying that those of us who think an historical Jesus is the more probable explanation for christianity have some secret need for a Jesus? Because I’ve looked at the various myther scenarios and either found them either very weak (eg, Jesus = Jesus of Galilee) or very vague.

        Incidentally, I don’t want you to believe anything. And by real evidence, no doubt you mean rock solid evidence you know we don’t have. All we have is the biased New Testament, admittedly weak evidence, but evidence none the less; and possibly one reference in Josephus (I don’t regard the TF as evidence).

      7. RW Ahrens

        Yes, I said that a claim that a man was alive two thousand years ago who sparked a religion, just like the church likes to say it happened, IS an extraordinary claim, and one that needs real evidence to show it is true, and I stand by that statement.

        I mean, how many other such claims are there? One? Two? Sounds pretty extraordinary to me. I don’t see how that is moving the goal posts at all.

        And by real evidence, I mean something that christians didn’t write. A single interpolation in Josephus (even if one accepts it as something he might have said, which I don’t for various reasons) is no such evidence, even weak evidence. Because there were NO OTHER authors we know about (and we know about thousands, according to Ehrman) who spoke about Jesus by name or recorded anything about him, his life or the sect he supposedly began. At all, at any time, much less during the period of his supposed life.

        That isn’t weak evidence, it is NO evidence. Like the little old lady said to Burger King in the old McDonald’s commercial: “Where’s the beef?!” Cause I don’t see any.

        As for who needs to prove something, it seems to me that the christians need that reality, because it is the christian apologists who are continuing to beat this drum about how the “mythers” are so deluded. Including the derogatory name.

        I’ll say it again. The default position to me is that there was no reality, because there are numerous and widely successful (at the time) religions which were started with no real man at the center of them. They were all over the place! You couldn’t walk down the street without tripping over a temple devoted to one of them.

        And yet, you want me to believe that in this ONE SPECIAL case, it really happened. Magically, all because of this guy’s charisma or whatever.

        So, prove it. Find some non-christian sources, well documented and sourced historically, that specifically talk about Jesus of Nazareth and mention something about his life that was mentioned in the bible. I won’t even ask for a miracle, just perhaps a mention of the entry into Jerusalem, or an account of his death and the missing body. Or something about his parents, even. Perhaps some new account that would solve the mystery about the timing of the census and his birth.

        Anything. I’ll wait, because that is the only kind of evidence that will even begin to show some signs that the probability that there was a real man there was true. I am aware that it won’t be rock solid, hell, we rarely have anything that good, if i’m to believe Ehrman or Carrier. Just something else besides the kind of nothing we have now.

        …and you are right, I know we don’t have it, which is why I don’t think he really existed. I don’t KNOW it, we never will for sure. But I am satisfied that there has been nothing to prove it, enough to conclude that he is a myth. I’d just like for more reasonable people in the skeptic’s world to acknowledge it.

      8. Deacon Duncan

        @ RW Ahrens

        I agree with Reginald here. The proof resides in those with the outrageous claims, which is that there was a real man behind the curtain.

        The outrageous claims, however, are not that a man existed in ancient Palestine with a not-uncommon name. The outrageous claims are that he performed miracles, rose from the dead, and was God Incarnate. I’m with you 100% on the outrageous claims, but I don’t see mere existence as falling into that category. Benny Hinn also makes outrageous claims about the many “miracles” he performs, but I don’t see that as making it outrageous to claim that Benny Hinn exists.

      9. Reginald Selkirk

        Benny Hinn also makes outrageous claims about the many “miracles” he performs, but I don’t see that as making it outrageous to claim that Benny Hinn exists.
        .
        Neither do I, because we have plentiful evidence for the existence of Benny Hinn. Evidence of a sort which does not exist for Jesus H. Christ.

  17. 17
    CJO

    dsmccoy #7:

    One perspective on the story I found very compelling was that of Avar Ellegard in his book “Jesus – One Hundred Years Before Christ”. He points out something others often seem to ignore: that the far-flung communities to which Paul supposedly spoke sound much more like well-established communities than some recent diaspora from Palestine of followers of a recently deceased spiritual leader.

    Absolutely. The evidence for non-historicity starts with what can be reconstructed from the “apostolic” era presented incidentally in the Pauline letters. The idea that a group of religious enthusiasts in Corinth c. 50 CE were inspired by the exploits of an executed criminal from the barbarian eastern shores is preposterous, and there is nothing in the genuine portions of Paul’s correspondence to indicate that anything of the sort was on anyone’s mind.

    However, though I agree with the premise, the conclusion is utterly wrong in my opinion:

    He points out many similarities between early christians and essenes, positing that the jewish diaspora around the mediterranean included spiritual communities influenced by the essenes.

    If the bulk of the DSS texts regarded as sectarian should be attributed to the Essenes, then no. The diaspora was much more influenced by the Pharisaism that became precisely diaspora synagogue Judaism between and after the two revolts. It’s too much to go into here, but Essenism was very much about the covenant, specifically as it entailed the chosen peoples’ stewardship of the land that was promised them (as tenants of the Lord). It had no future after the total military domination of the region by Rome after 70 CE.

    Deacon Duncan,

    That would be a convincing parallel IF Jesus were an invisible nature spirit whose stories originated somewhere back in the forgotten mists of time. But we’re talking about a religion starting within at most a few decades of the time when Jesus’ ministry is reported to have taken place. I don’t think Zeus and Thor have that.

    It’s so interesting that in the intercultural stew of Greco-Roman era religion Jesus is uniquely prosaic in this way, so unencumbered by the cultural weight of divinity and myth. But what an environment for such an element to sneak into! First century religious practice was becoming increasingly directed toward personal salvation, and theology was driven by universalism toward a variety of monotheistic schemes, native and borrowed. Widespread Jewish communities peddling one or another such exotic existed in large port cities where intercultural contact was routine. If one individual in any one city wrote a narrative historicizing a salvific figure who already had a mythical role in a pre-existing Eastern monotheism (“Pauline” or apostolic Judaism), it could have spread rapidly and provoked a variety of responses over several subsequent decades, without any conspiracy at all.

    1. 17.1
      Cosmic Teapot, not the Antichrist.

      The idea that a group of religious enthusiasts in Corinth c. 50 CE were inspired by the exploits of an executed criminal from the barbarian eastern shores is preposterous

      And yet christians have been inspired by the alleged exploits of this alleged executed criminal from the barbarian eastern shores Galilee for 2000 years. So it doesn’t seem as preposterous as you make out.

      1. CJO

        I’m saying, it is more likely that a historicizing backstory got tacked onto an already developing cosmic myth of salvation eschatology than that such a myth developed from stories about a lowly Galilean.

      2. Cosmic Teapot, not the Antichrist.

        So we have this grandiose cosmic myth, that somehow developed a leading character from Galilee of all places; and who died a horrible death abhorent to the Jews.

        And you think this is more likely than some lowly Galilean who was then crucified, and later had some myth foisted on him?

      3. CJO

        Well, via the 1st c. epistles, we do have a grandiose myth, in which nothing about Galilee, or any other specific information about the life on Earth of the central salvific figure, is ever mentioned.

        If a myth later got foisted on him, then the myth existed independently of him. And if the myth existed independently of him, what do we need him for in our reconstruction of the origins of Christianity?

        Like Reginald, I do not dispute the plausibility of a reconstruction that proceeds from a lowly Galilean to legendary stories, to full-blown cosmic myth. That certainly could have happened, and we would not expect to have any primary evidence about such a figure. But plausibility alone cannot be the basis for a historical reconstruction, and the lack of contemporary evidence, however expected, is just the state of affairs, not a reason for charity. There’s nothing implausible about grandiose myths of cosmic salvation being developed without reference to any recently deceased person either. I argue for the mythical explanation without being fully convinced myself; there are too many unknowns. But when I engage in discussions like this, my primary aim is to try to convince others who are focussed on the inherent plausibility of some demythologized version of the gospel stories that they are allowing plausibility to stand in for evidence. The question is more balanced than most seem to think.

      4. Reginald Selkirk

        So we have this grandiose cosmic myth, that somehow developed a leading character from Galilee of all places…

        I don’t see your point here. Is there something special about Galilee that would make this proposal more or less probable than any other location?

      5. Cosmic Teapot, not the Antichrist.

        Reginald Selkirk says:
        January 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm

        I don’t see your point here. Is there something special about Galilee that would make this proposal more or less probable than any other location?

        We have 2 basic definitions of the Messiah in the OT. The first, and presumably older is of someone important, from the tribe or city of Bethlehem, who will lead the jewish people to salvation.

        We then have the later tradition of the dying Messiah as in Daniel 9, leading to a general ressurection (not just of the Messiah himself).

        Nowhere is the Messiah meant to come from Galilee, which was something of a backwater at the time. Indeed, the Romans didn’t incorporate it into the empire until about 43 AD. And the Jewish high authoroties would have looked down on the people there because they would have been more hellenised, due to being near Decapolis.

        So in your opinion, what do you think is the most likely scenario, that some cosmic myth developed some country bumpkin from some backwater as lead character, and of all the possible noble deaths had him crucified; or that some bumpkin got crucified and then mythologised?

      6. RW Ahrens

        Actually, the first is most likely true.

        There are lots of examples of religions in the Roman/Greek world that were developed out of just such mythology, in just such a way! So the reality is just the opposite of what you are trying to say.

        List more then two examples of religions that are claimed to begin with a real man or woman as the deity, if you can even mention one.

        Islam doesn’t mention Mohammed as divine, and Buddhism (mostly) doesn’t claim Buddha as divine, merely an enlightened one.

  18. 18
    Reginald Selkirk

    If we go back to the origins of Christianity, there’s nothing special about the name “Jesus.” Obviously, somebody had to invent the religion.

    There’s nothing special about the name “Paul.” Obviously, someone had to invent those tales of a giant lumberjack. So there is nothing extraordinary about the claim that an actual lumberjack named Paul Bunyan might have existed. Fine. But – that is not the same as having actual evidence.

    And this is what many theists claim in the case of a historical Jesus. It is perfectly fair and reasonable to point out that historically speaking, there is no evidence. No birth certificate, not even a short form. No census documents. No documents of a court hearing or crucifixion. No writings by Jesus. No writings about Jesus during his lifetime. No, the sole evidence is religious documents penned by true believers starting several decades after Jesus’ alleged demise. There is nothing wrong with pointing out this lack of evidence, and it is not stretching too far to do so.

    1. 18.1
      Deacon Duncan

      @ Reginald Selkirk

      It is perfectly fair and reasonable to point out that historically speaking, there is no evidence. No birth certificate, not even a short form. No census documents. No documents of a court hearing or crucifixion. No writings by Jesus. No writings about Jesus during his lifetime. No, the sole evidence is religious documents penned by true believers starting several decades after Jesus’ alleged demise. There is nothing wrong with pointing out this lack of evidence, and it is not stretching too far to do so.

      I am with you 100% on this. Well, 90% at least. The stories themselves are what you might call evidence, in the sense that bad/misleading evidence is not quite the same thing as non-existent evidence. We can say that the documents we have are unreliable and are disqualified for various reasons, but we don’t want to come across as denying the existence of the early documents, or people like Craig will cheerfully brand us as being ignorant and/or closed-minded. They’ll deceive believers either way, but we don’t need to make things any easier for them.

      But again, I’m not saying that Jesus necessarily did exist, or that it’s wrong to point out all the problems with the historical evidence that touches on his existence. I’m saying that I don’t think there’s enough evidence to conclusively rule out the possibility that he might have existed. Given the number of itinerant preachers and faith-healers in the area at the time, I think it’s at least plausible that one such “prophet” might have been named Jesus and might have served as the nucleus around which the later myths accumulated. If not, then that’s fine too. I just don’t think it has been conclusively shown to be impossible.

      1. RW Ahrens

        As Carrier likes to say, historians deal in probabilities. The more reasonable evidence one has for an event or person having existed or having happened, the better the probability that it did.

        None of us are saying he flat out did not exist.

        We are saying that given the lack of evidence that he did makes the probability pretty doggon slim. It isn’t that we have positive evidence he didn’t but that the claimers of his existence have no positive evidence that he did.

        Since there are lots of religions that arose in the ancient world which we are pretty sure arose from folks stories that were about fictional gods, and the elements of those stories are identical if not pretty damn close to Jesus’ stories and life, what would you say are the probabilities that Jesus was also fictional?

        From a historian’s point of view, not very good, and that is what Carrier is going to assert in his books.

        To make the assertion that these folk stories, similar in nature and origin to the previous religions’ stories, resulted from a real man, when we are pretty sure the others did not, makes no sense at all.

      2. RW Ahrens

        Dang, senior moment here:

        if not pretty damn close to Jesus’ stories and life, what would you say are the probabilities that Jesus was also fictional?

        Should have been:

        …”if not pretty damn close to Jesus’ stories and life, what would you say are the probabilities that Jesus was NOT fictional?”

        Fast fingers, slower brain…

      3. Deacon Duncan

        None of us are saying he flat out did not exist.

        And that’s good, but my original post was about e.g. jesusneverexisted.com. There are people who do flat out assert that Jesus did not exist, and I think that’s more than can be reasonably said.

        Since there are lots of religions that arose in the ancient world which we are pretty sure arose from folks stories that were about fictional gods, and the elements of those stories are identical if not pretty damn close to Jesus’ stories and life, what would you say are the probabilities that Jesus was NOT also fictional?

        I don’t think there’s any disagreement about the stories being borrowed fictions, but there are other aspects that need to be accounted for as well, like the emergence of purportedly eyewitness accounts in the same generation as the events recounted, and the relationships between principal characters in the story and other people whose historical existence is less easy to dismiss. I also think the pattern of embellishments in the gospels themselves is more consistent with a scenario in which there was an actual execution of an actual faith healer/”prophet”. Early accounts have him being “risen” in some kind of non-specific and possibly spiritual way; Paul describes the contrast between the “earthly” body that is buried and the “spiritual” body that is raised. Later accounts begin to make this a literal, physical resurrection. If there was a literal death, and an actual missing body, this progression is understandable and even predictable, but if the whole thing was fiction from start to end, why not begin with a literal, physical resurrection instead of with the empty tomb?

        Like I say, this doesn’t rule out the possibility of an entirely fictional Jesus, but it does seem to me as though the circumstances, the timing, the connections between significant personages, and the rapid development and expansion of a formal liturgy and church hierarchy, are more consistent with a (borrowed) mythology growing up around a real Jesus than they are with the corresponding aspects we see in the purely folk religions.

      4. RW Ahrens

        There are people who do flat out assert that Jesus did not exist, and I think that’s more than can be reasonably said.

        Which is why I noted that I disagreed with that assertion, and noted Carrier’s point about probabilities. (which you ignored)

        What first generation eyewitness accounts? There aren’t any. Any “eyewitness” accounts that purport to be direct witnesses are described in the Gospels, which were all written either very late first century or mid second, both way too late to be able to interview anyone who may have been alive when Jesus supposedly was. Paul never says anything about direct witnesses, except for vague mentions of the disciples, which really don’t count as eyewitness testimony.

        …and the relationships between principal characters in the story and other people whose historical existence is less easy to dismiss.

        Why? Fiction writers make their characters interact with real, existing public figures all the time, and nobody thinks any of that means the fictional characters are real. They regularly place their stories into real existing geographical locations, and nobody has any problem with conflating that fictional story with a real one just because of the reality of the supposed location.

        Carrier does a really good job of explaining the theology behind these things. A lot of the stuff you mention has apparently been placed into the Jesus story which are not today recognized as being particularly important from a theological standpoint – we take them to be indications of, like you apparently do, reality. But much of this stuff was obvious theology, with theological meaning that was readily apparent in that era and that place. You have to remember that when Paul was writing his letters, he was trying to appeal to a whole new audience – Romans! Superstitious Romans, at that! Low class, superstitious Romans to whom the idea of the next life elevating them to kingly status was appealing because they got shit on so much in the here and now. So a story of a Jewish guy crucified by a Roman official who was not at fault cause he was snookered by those evil Jews didn’t raise eyebrows, but was quite in line with the kinds of stories that other religions used, and the Roman officials were just familiar figures. Other gods had been put through similar trials, like the Herod killing the baby boys to get at Jesus and his having to flee to Egypt. Hercules had a similar story, so it would have been instantly familiar to any Roman.

        Many of these things were added later, and embellished in the second century, and had nothing to do with any itinerant preacher walking around Galilee irritating the Romans. The part of the story regarding the census is a famously incongruent inconsistency that nobody in the theological world has successfully explained either, and shows clearly that the folks writing that story didn’t know crap about either the history of Galilee in the early first century or the Roman administrative system and how censuses were conducted. Again, something that was inserted later as a reason to justify a theological point.

        If there was a literal death, and an actual missing body, this progression is understandable and even predictable, but if the whole thing was fiction from start to end, why not begin with a literal, physical resurrection instead of with the empty tomb?

        Maybe to make it sound real? Remember, all that was not meant to be an historic account, but as a religious tract to educate and enlighten the faithful and to provide theological cover for their claims. That’s why the different gospels were all different and contradictory – they never described a reality, but were covering theology!

        When looked at from that light, the likelihood of a real, historical Jesus just fades a bit, because it isn’t necessary! By the time of the mid second century, the clerics contending with one another to bring their own individual sects into prominence couldn’t have cared less for historical accuracy, and probably wouldn’t have blinked an eye if told it was all based on fiction. What mattered was proving their own doctrine was correct over all the others.

        Again, like I mentioned elsewhere in this comment section, if the folks in the second century had had solid proof – like Josephus’ writings – to prove his reality, don’t you think they would have written about it? Trotted it out at every opportunity? But they didn’t, and the only conclusion one can make from that absence is that it just wasn’t there for them to use! So, if it didn’t exist then – within a hundred years or so of his death, most likely it never did.

        Lastly:

        and the rapid development and expansion of a formal liturgy and church hierarchy, are more consistent with a (borrowed) mythology growing up around a real Jesus than they are with the corresponding aspects we see in the purely folk religions.

        Oh, now, that is just ridiculous. What happened four hundred years later has nothing to do with the origin – all of that was the result of Constantine’s elevation of christianity to official status. After all, the old Roman religions all had formal liturgy, and virtually everybody today thinks they were false religions based on mythology! The hierarchy was also a reaction to that elevation – once christianity became the official religion spanning the entire empire, it needed that hierarchy to simply control its own priests, since Constantine used christianity as basic crowd control. Before that, bishops were just the guys that controlled the various sects – there WAS no hierarchy until the catholic church became real – well after Constantine!

  19. 19
    Reginald Selkirk

    BTW, good luck finding any evidence of a historical Paul Bunyan, either.

    1. 19.1
      mikespeir

      Okay, now you’ve gone too far!

    2. 19.2
      Reginald Selkirk

      Another example: John Frum.

      1. Deacon Duncan

        John Frum is actually a very good counter example. I still think, though, that there are a lot of factors (e.g. the technological gap between the two cultures) that are required to make a John Frum messiah work, and that are not present in first century Palestine.

    3. 19.3
      Reginald Selkirk

      Another example: King Arthur. We all agree that the canon of stories about gallant, grail-chasing knights are all fiction, but was there an actual historical Arthur? It sounds plausible, but the answer is still in dispute.

  20. 20
    Reginald Selkirk

    Gary W. Longsine: Christopher Hitchens pondered the historicity of Jesus, and suggested that the obvious fabrications in the Jesus story indicate that there must have been a person at the core of the story. Had it been invented form whole cloth, there would be fewer inconsistencies.

    Since most of the inconsistencies arise from attempting to tie Jesus to various alleged OT prophecies, I don’t see how actual existence has any bearing on it. For example: he was born in Bethlehem, because of prophecy. His family fled to Egypt because of prophecy. His patriarchal lineage – both of them! – traces to David because of prophecy. He was called Emmanuel – not – because of prophecy. And so on.

    Deacon Duncan: And if the apostles are not all equally endowed with world-shaking charisma and ambition, if only one of them emerges as the true leader and founder of Christianity, can you imagine him achieving such dominance without eventually supplanting his fictitious competition, and becoming the true Messiah himself?

    Substitute Mormonism for Christianity, and ask the same question about Joseph Smith.

    1. 20.1
      Reginald Selkirk

      Another example: why did Muhammed claim to be a prophet, rather than a messiah/deity?

      It is much easier to play the prophet role. People don’t expect too much if you can’t multiply their loaves or heal their illnesses.

      1. Deacon Duncan

        Yeah, I’ll buy that. Note, however, that both Joseph Smith and Mohammed ended up elevating themselves to a position of supremacy in their respective religions. If Jesus were a fictional character, then we’d have to suppose that Christianity was started by someone who had the balls to start a new religion, yet preferred to remain anonymous, or at least subordinate to some other (roughly contemporary) human figure.

        By the way, do people who deny the existence of Jesus also deny the existence of Mohammed? And if not, why not?

      2. Reginald Selkirk

        By the way, do people who deny the existence of Jesus also deny the existence of Mohammed? And if not, why not?
        .
        1) I do not deny the existence of Jesus, I just point out that it is unevidenced. You seem rather slow to take my point.
        .
        2) No, I do not. Perhaps this is because of the large amount of historic evidence outside the Koran for Mohammed’s existence. Writings by Mohammed. Writings about Mohammed. Writings during his lifetime, and by people who were not “true believer” followers. In other words, all the types of evidence which does not exist for Jesus H. Christ.

      3. Deacon Duncan

        I do not deny the existence of Jesus, I just point out that it is unevidenced. You seem rather slow to take my point.

        And out of curiosity, how many times do you find me, on this page, pointing out that I am not asserting the existence of Jesus? It’s not like I’m hiding anything. I’m asserting (a) that an ordinary, non-divine, non-supernatural Jesus might have existed, (b) that such an occurrence would not have been exceptionally significant or extraordinary in the region, culture and period, (c) that a reasonable case can be made against the assertion that he necessarily did exist, and (d) that the evidence (as far as I am aware) is not sufficient to justify the conclusion that he necessarily could not have existed. I have also expressed the opinion that I find it somewhat more plausible to suppose that Christianity is a personal ministry gone overboard than it is to suppose that it spontaneously arose, in a relatively brief period, without any actual founder, or with one or more purely anonymous founders, or whatever.

        I’m certainly open to the possibility that he might not have existed, and I’ll grant you that there’s at least a lot of stuff that has accreted around him that’s thoroughly bogus. From what I’ve seen so far, though, I do not feel justified in saying that he categorically never existed. That’s all I’m saying.

      4. RW Ahrens

        I’ve been reading about this lately, and you’d be surprised by what some recent scholars have noted about Mohammed, namely that there isn’t really much more evidence for him than Jesus. Much of those writings were done by others, some of them not really that close to his “family”, but were done much later than thought traditionally. (Mohammed was illiterate, and was supposed to have dictated the revelations to to others.)

        This kind of scholarship is hard, because to go against accepted scripture in the Koran is to invite charges of blasphemy and thus death threats. But it’ll be fun to watch that fiction get blasted like christianity is now.

  21. 21
    Reginald Selkirk

    Some critics, however, have thrown the baby out with the bath water, by proposing that Jesus himself did not really exist either.

    So show me the ****ing baby! All I see from you, and like-minded commenters such as Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto, is an argument from plausibility. Please review the evidence that gets trotted out, and admit that it is not the least bit convincing, and we can all move on. That is my argument: that the claim of a historical Jesus is unevidenced.
    .
    When pressed, theists may mention various Greco-Roman writers, starting with Josephus. Well, Josephus was born in 37 A.D., which is after the alleged demise of the alleged historical Jesus H. Christ. Josephus could not possibly have met Jesus. The most we could get from Josephus is that an early Christian church existed, which is not the issue.

    1. 21.1
      RW Ahrens

      What we get from Josephus is interpolation from later christian monks determined to use him as a contemporaneous source, which failed due to ineptness and sheer idiocy on the part of the forgers.

      Josephus documented three major branches of Judaic practice at the time, none of which were christianity – he never mentioned that cult in the original, un-interpolated versions of his writings, which are dated in the last decade of the first century. Well after eye-witnesses could have been interviewed.

    2. 21.2
      Cosmic Teapot, not the Antichrist.

      And that he had a brother.

      Oh, wait. That is a christian interpolation.

      Or could be, so can’t be used as evidence, apparently. Even though the gospels and Pauls letters independently mention he had brothers. But they’re christian interpolations too (apparently), so they don’t count.

      And so on.

      1. RW Ahrens

        There are lots of differing interpretations of what that term “brother” means or was meant to mean. Just because people use the term and make claims doesn’t make it true.

        Besides, yes, the mention of a brother of a man named Jesus contains an interpolation, that of the identification of him as “christ”. Most of that passage is just about some joe named Jesus.

        Face it, Josephus was, out of over a dozen different similar Jewish historians of the day, almost the only one whose writings were saved by the church. Isn’t it a coincidence that his was the very one that “just happened” to contain passages about Jesus!?

        That his writings, as passed on to us by Eusibius, contains interpolations by later christian scribes is becoming less and less controversial in the world of critical biblical scholars.

      2. Cosmic Teapot, not the Antichrist.

        Sorry for the late reply, but work and weekends take priority.

        Besides, yes, the mention of a brother of a man named Jesus contains an interpolation, that of the identification of him as “christ”. Most of that passage is just about some joe named Jesus.

        How do you know it is an interpolation? And as you are so certain, is it a clerical error, or a deliberate insertion? And how do you know?

        Josephus never writes about some Joe as far as I am aware, he always introduces his characters, unless they were famous. So what is the missing part here “the brother of Jesus ??? whose name was James”. If it’s Jesus of Damneus, who is introduced later in the same paragraph, why is he mentioned before he is introduced? If it isn’t Jesus of Damneus, then which Jesus is it?

        Face it, Josephus was, out of over a dozen different similar Jewish historians of the day, almost the only one whose writings were saved by the church. Isn’t it a coincidence that his was the very one that “just happened” to contain passages about Jesus!?

        Who are these others? And how do you know they didn’t write about Jesus? And the fact they preserved some of the works of Philo goes against your argument.

      3. RW Ahrens

        There were other historians, Carrier mentions this fact, and that most of their writings were not preserved, but destroyed.

        Carrier is the one to read, he gives very good accounts of these issues, and the fact that more and more scholars are beginning to come around to the conclusion that Josephus never wrote about Jesus of the bible.

        Which is how we are pretty certain it was a deliberate interpolation. If there HAD been such a person, who really DID perform the miracles claimed, don’t yoiu think Josephus would have devoted much more than a paragraph to him? And somewhere else than in the middle of a section on recent woes of the Jews inflicted on them by Herod? Certainly, he would have said more than a simple mention of his being the “christ” as an aside in a paragraph about a supposed brother!

        This is what real historians look at. Probabilities. “Is this likely” “Does this author talk about this kind of subject elsewhere?” “Does this fit the subject of the surrounding document?” when the answer to these questions seems to be either no, or of low probability, it just isn’t very likely.

        Actually, there were a lot of “Joes” named Jesus, it was a common name, and J wrote about at least three of them who were killed by the Romans after claiming to be the messiah. He actually wrote more about them than the interpolations do, which is another reason, according to Carrier, to dismiss them as interpolations.

        How do I know they didn’t write about Jesus? Look, as we’ve mentioned before, there was so much contention between the various sects in the late first to second centuries, if there had been ANY proof of their dogma, the folks contending that he was real would have trotted out any of it they could. And yet, they don’t. They don’t even allude to any of these guys. We know about them through them being mentioned by other secular writers.

        Ergo, they most likely didn’t write about the Jesus of the bible.

        Again, look at the real evidence, it just isn’t there.

      4. RW Ahrens

        Oh, and you ARE right, interpolations don’t count – they are essentially forgeries inserted into a document copy so as to make it seem that the original document contained that interpolation. Done to attempt to use the author of the original document as a source of “proof” of something the interpolator wants to prove.

        Josephus was interpolated by Eusibius (the original liar for Jesus) as a way to show proof that there was contemporary evidence for his existence.

        Because Eusibius lived and did his work in the 4th century shows clearly that even then, they knew there was no contemporary evidence of his existence, so Eusibius felt the need to fabricate it!

      5. Cosmic Teapot, not the Antichrist.

        I agree, interpolations don’t count. My point is that it is an argument, or rather an assertion often used to dismiss what slim (and biased) evidence we do have. So in the case of gMark, Pauls letters, and Josephus (Antiquities XX), presumably all independent of each other stating Jesus had a brother, gMark and Josephus are dismissed as interpolations, and Paul is dismissed by several competing scenarios, interpolation included.

        But the people who cry assertion very often don’t explain why it is an assertion, nor do they explain why it was inserted in the first place. We can see why the TF is an insertion (partial or whole, take your pick), to make Jesus into Jesus Christ; but what does an incidental insertion into Antiquities XX achieve? Or gMark?

        It seems to me that many of the mythers (and I’m not saying you are a myther) seem to have this need for Jesus not to exist, and go out of there way to deny the possibility of his existence at all cost.

      6. RW Ahrens

        But they most likely were not independent of each other. Josephus was interpolated in the 4th century, when all the gospels were available. If one were to accept the interpolations as real, then THAT was available to the gospel writers, including Luke – and more than likely Paul as well as the forgers of many of the letters attributed to him, traditionally. It wasn’t as if many of these people didn’t know about one anther by the second century, if not sooner.

        But come on, WHY? Any interpolation, if that is what you mean by assertion, is made to prove a point. One uses the document you add the statement to as proof of something you want to have backing for. It was used extensively by clerics in almost all of the sects extant in the second century, according to both Carrier and Ehrman, both experts in the ancient world. Not because they were trying to prove anything to us at this far remove in time, but to each other, in attempts to win the battle of who would win supremacy. To the Roman public, a religion with ancient sacred writings was to be respected. If the writings were ancient enough to need the books copied, so much the better, they had to be older! So such a procedure was tailor made to add statements to whatever writings they had attributed to the apostles just to prove their version of doctrine.

        Very common. Which means that today, we just don’t know what may or may not have been original, and in fact, even the oldest fragments really aren’t old enough to help prove Jesus’ existence.

        Like I noted, and you seem to understand, I don’t NEED to disprove his existence, I see the lack of evidence and just am not convinced he was real.

        I see the entire bible, and the textual issues, and the fact that the entire cornucopia of christian writings have been so engorged with interpolations, errors, corrections, fabrications and additions (often for theological reasons) that I see no reason to understand any of it as being historical in any way.

        Face it, the bible is NOT meant to be historical. It is a religious tract, meant as a sacred writing to educate and inform the faithful. Originally, it was also meant as a “proof” (as far as such things went at the time) to the Roman public that Judaism and Christianity had ancient antecedents so it would be accepted as a valid religion. Nobody took it as actual fact, but knew full well that many of those elements were meant as theological statements that many Romans at the time knew about and accepted as divine in nature, because they’d been used in other religions before and they fully understood.

        That knowledge is know lost, amid two thousand years of RCC teachings and oppression asserting all of it as actual, real, historical fact, such that if one really looks at the document as what it is, none of it makes sense in that light at all.

  22. 22
    Shplane, Spess Alium

    Obviously, somebody had to invent the religion.

    Obviously someone had to write the books, therefore Harry Potter is real.

    1. 22.1
      Deacon Duncan

      Close. The correct analogy would be “Obviously someone had to write Harry Potter, so there’s no point in denying the existence of J. K. Rowling (even if you really hate Harry Potter).”

      1. Reginald Selkirk

        Your attempt to reframe the analogy fails. J.K. Rowling wrote some books. Which books did Jesus H. Christ (allegedly) write?

      2. Shplane, Spess Alium

        J.K. Rowling is not a character from Harry Potter. Your argument is that, because someone must have produced this work of fiction, one of the characters it contains must have been a real person. This is ludicrous. Obviously someone (Likely many someones) must have produced the stories about Jesus. There is no evidence whatsoever that it was any actual individual named Jesus, or that the people doing the writing were drawing their ideas from a real person named Jesus.

      3. Deacon Duncan

        Your argument is that, because someone must have produced this work of fiction, one of the characters it contains must have been a real person.

        No, not at all. In the first place, I’m not claiming that Jesus must have been a real person. I’m saying that I have not seen any reason to conclude that it was necessarily impossible for there to have been a real person named Jesus. My argument is that we know some real person must have started the Christian religion. What reason is there, then, to assume that the name of this real person could not possibly have been Jesus?

  23. 23
    Reginald Selkirk

    To summarise your argument from plausibility in the most unfavourable light:

    We, as rational atheists, agree that the stories of Jesus’ mother being a virgin are fabricated. We agree the story of his father being divine are fabricated. We agree that the genealogy put forward for his step-father are fabricated. We agree the alleged childhood in Egypt (depending on which gospel you are reading) are fabricated. We believe the story of Herod having thousands of babies killed was fabricated. We believe all the stories of multiplying loaves, changing water to wine, walking on water are all fabricated. We believe that the stories of healing the sick and resurrecting a dead friend are fabricated. Even a rational Christian should believe that the story about the woman who was to be stoned for adultery was fabricated, long after Jesus’ alleged life. We believe the story of Jesus meeting with Moses and Elias was fabricated. We believe that the story of Jesus rising from the dead is fabricated. And so on, and so on, and so on.
    .
    But you see it as a bridge too far to suggest that the mere human existence of Jesus was fabricated; on the grounds that people just don’t have that much imagination.

    1. 23.1
      Deacon Duncan

      I don’t see it as a bridge too far to suggest that he might not have existed, nor do I have any problem with saying that most or all of the evidence relating to his early history is likely to have been fabricated. I do believe, however, that Occam’s Razor is more easily satisfied by a living preacher who started a ministry that later deified its founder than by some more complicated series of coincidences that ended up generating a self-sufficient sect, complete with an apostolic hierarchy and a nascent canon, around a fictional character whose fame depends on the success of the sect thus created.

      I also see a troublesome slippery slope in emphatically denying Jesus’ very existence, in that (as some have pointed out) it’s hard to know when to stop denying. Did Paul exist? How many apostles are listed by name in any surviving census? How many Apostolic Fathers? Ante-Nicene Fathers? Where does the fiction stop and the history begin? If there are problems with a historical Jesus, it seems to me that the alternatives have worse ones.

  24. 24
    Reginald Selkirk

    How do your “plausibility” criteria work on other subjects, such as bigfoot, UFOs and alien abductions?

  25. 25
    Azuma Hazuki

    I’m nowhere near as educated on this as most commenters, but I think Hitchens has a point. At the same time, so do the mythicists. What does this mean?

    To me it means We Need More Data. If we really want to settle this question for good, we need data from the period contemporary with Jesus’ existence and early ministry, let’s say 10BC to 65AD. I have a shrewd hunch we’re going to find the entire Passion story, for example, in a manuscript dating to 10 or 20AD, and then Christianity as it’s known now will be in deep, perhaps fatal trouble.

    I don’t think this is entirely unplausible: in one of his last posts before moving to FtB, Richard Carrier made a very good argument that Daniel 9 is a forgery, even showing the mathematics of it, and pointed out essentially the entire Christian mystery cycle in DSS documents including a “fragmentary pesher.”

    What do those better educated than I (e.g., everyone else) think of all this?

    1. 25.1
      Reginald Selkirk

      I have a shrewd hunch we’re going to find the entire Passion story, for example, in a manuscript dating to 10 or 20AD,

      I would find that hilarious. If such a document ever existed, the odds against it being preserved would be pretty steep though.

      and then Christianity as it’s known now will be in deep, perhaps fatal trouble.

      Evidence has been presented that Joseph Smith plagiarized parts of the Book of Mormon from various existing manuscripts. see Wikipedia. Mormonism shrugs it off.

  26. 26
    Reginald Selkirk

    Deacon Duncan: We’re not talking about creating an invisible, inaccessible superhuman being though. We’re talking about creating a real live religious leader and prophet, with a multi-year ministry throughout the region where the religion got started.

    Are we? It appears you are assuming the conclusion. That is a very basic error. We are talking about a story of a person who is both a religious leader and prophet with a multi-year ministry and a superhuman who is a miracle worker and deity/son of deity. Whether the human religious leader actually existed and interacted with people for a year or more is the question, not an assumption.

    1. 26.1
      Deacon Duncan

      Whether the human religious leader actually existed and interacted with people for a year or more is the question, not an assumption.

      Well, yes, that is what I’m saying, after all. The question we’re talking about is whether there was an itinerant preacher and faith-healer in ancient Palestine, not whether there was some invisible and inaccessible spiritual being on some mountain top or spiritual plane somewhere. The former corresponds to a fairly common real life situation. The latter does not. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, but the former is not an extraordinary claim. If it turns out that there was an itinerant preacher and faith healer whose name happened to be Jesus, that will not have violated any natural laws nor will it have been entirely unprecedented. We have no reason to assume a priori, therefore, that such a thing cannot be true unless extraordinary evidence is presented in its favor.

      I do not assume that it was true, I’m just saying I don’t think we have grounds for assuming that it must be false. Such things just weren’t all that uncommon back then.

      1. Reginald Selkirk

        I do not assume that it was true…
        .
        In your response to Makoto, you assumed it was true. Repent and get on with your life. Denying your sins is not honest nor productive.

      2. Deacon Duncan

        Wait, because I said we were talking about whether Jesus was real, you’re assuming that I must believe that Jesus was real? That’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it? Makoto was talking about Xenu, but when I mention the subject of the discussion, I’m certainly not claiming that I personally believe Xenu to be real!

      3. RW Ahrens

        I do not assume that it was true, I’m just saying I don’t think we have grounds for assuming that it must be false.

        Nobody is assuming it is false, we are claiming that there is insufficient evidence to assume it is true, as the OP seems to be doing and the rest of the world takes for granted.

        Again, I point to Richard Carrier’;s upcoming books where he will be submitting a scholarly theory (with a new methodology) that there was never a historical Jesus. That will, I think, be devastating to the status quo.

      4. Deacon Duncan

        Sorry, I did use the wrong word there. I should have said I don’t believe there is sufficient grounds for concluding that Jesus necessarily did not exist. I’m perfectly fine with saying that there’s reason to conclude that the evidence we have is tainted and unreliable, and that this leaves us with good reasons to question his existence.

        Sites like “jesusneverexisted.com,” however, emphatically state that Jesus never existed. They’re not saying that we lack evidence to show that he did exist (thus leaving the burden of proof on the believer), they’re declaring in direct, affirmative terms that we know he did not (thus placing the burden of proof on the skeptic/denier). I’m open to the possibility that they could be correct, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t feel justified in drawing the conclusion they want me to draw.

      5. RW Ahrens

        What I’d like you to do is to see and possibly admit that the evidence does not come down on the side of a greater probability of there having been a real man behind the stories.

        I know that sites like that make definitive statements, and I do not agree with their certainty, on the grounds of Carrier’s statements about historical investigations at a two thousand year remove. Probabilities and all that.

        What I do see is that they show a pretty fair case for showing how the entire story, as a whole, consists of so much fabrication, obfuscation and outright lies by adherents of that religion over the last two thousand years, coupled with what the real history shows (once all of the crap is removed), that one can clearly see that there is very little probability that there is any real fact behind the whole thing. They don’t say it that way, but if you read the site with a bit of skepticism and awareness of historical probabilities, one can put aside the histrionics.

        The point is that, even if there WAS a real man that may have begun preaching in that region, with the name Yeshua, who got in trouble with the Romans, that it doesn’t matter. That man would be a non-entity, with no special talent, no special significance of any kind, because of the rest of the story that got grafted on, which was fabricated out of past religions and commonly held superstitions of the era and society in that area. The fact that there were at least three of them, documented by Josephus, who were NOT connected with christian origins, simply strengthens my point.

        So why is there such an insistence that there was? Because somehow, it makes the god-believers feel better, that somehow, somewhere, there may be a kernel of truth to the bullshit. The reality is that there is very little evidence to think that there is any reality behind the fabrications, and that hurts a lot of egos!

        I do not see how showing the slim probabilities and the real history would play into the hands of the apologists. They are going to lie, obfuscate and fabricate their way out of anything we say anyway, so why not hit them with all we’ve got? They aren’t the target, the folks on the edge, with the doubts and the sense of uncertainty, are! As the liars for Jesus like Craig dig themselves into deeper and deeper holes with more and more outrageous claims and explanations to wave away the truth, more of these folks will see that truth and walk away from the charlatans.

        …and that is what they are truly afraid of!

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