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An odd little myth

The “historical Jesus” post is still collecting comments, so I suppose there might still be enough interest to justify bringing up the topic again. I’m still not convinced that Jesus never existed, and I’ve thought of an example which seems to suggest to me that some preacher by that name probably did exist. It’s found in Matthew 22:23-33. The most interesting bits are these:

That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question…

Jesus replied, “…But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

I’d heard this story for years before I realized what an odd little story it really is. Here is Jesus, trying to find some Mosaic reference to resurrection, and the best he can come up with is an argument that God stops being your God when you die? That’s a bizarre thing for a Christian to teach, let alone ascribing such an idea to Jesus himself. As a myth invented decades or centuries later, in an attempt to promote a mythical Messiah in a growing Christian culture, it seems pretty unlikely to me. There’s an alternative, though, that makes a lot more sense.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian, and this suggestion is somewhat speculative on my part, so feel free to point out whatever evidence you might have that would refute it. Hypothetically, though, I’m going to suggest that the above story would make sense in the following context. Suppose the Sadducees are henotheistic—believing in many gods but serving only one, as Moses allegedly commanded. Suppose that one of these gods is Mot, the Canaanite god of the dead (cf. here, search for “god of the dead”), and that belief in Mot and other deities has been present in Israel since pre-Exilic times, much to the chagrin of the staunchly monotheistic Pharisees.

In this context, it would be possible for a Pharisaic preacher to astound the crowds by pointing out a contradiction in Sadducean theology. At the time of Moses, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were dead, and thus Mot, the god of the dead, ought to be their God. Jehovah is only the god of living Jews. Thus, though there’s no direct mention of Pharisaic-style resurrection in Moses, this offhand reference might be interpreted as “I am still the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” and might score big points with people in the debate over what happens to you after you die.

Granted, this scenario has some conflicts with Sadducean teaching as it is understood today by many people. On the other hand, our only record of Sadducean teaching comes from Pharisaic attempts to refute and discredit it. What the Pharisees say about Sadducean beliefs might have no more to do with their real beliefs than what Fox News says about liberal beliefs, so I don’t see that as an insurmountable obstacle.

What this would mean is that this story would have to originate in a time and place where the original and undistorted Sadducean teachings were available and interesting to the general population, and that the emotional significance of the story (“they were amazed!”) survived the gradual loss of its original context, leaving us with an apparently confused and decidedly counter-productive argument for a resurrection. (After all, if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still living, then they cannot be raised from the dead.)

This is going to limit the possible source of the original story to a fairly narrow locale and period, which seem about right for a preacher (possibly named Jesus) in early first century Palestine. Granted, this does not eliminate the possibility that “Jesus Christ” is an amalgam of stories borrowed from a variety of preachers and their most memorable zingers, with a healthy helping of myth on top. But I think it does suggest that certain elements of the Jesus myth probably did have origins in the actual words and teachings of actual, living preachers.

The alternative would be for some Christian believer to make up a wholly fictional myth that makes no sense and does nothing to promote the Christian faith, especially in the absence of a surviving enemy (the Sadducees) whose beliefs would need to be refuted. Despite its more speculative nature, it seems to me that my scenario provides a more reasonable and plausible explanation for the origin of this rather peculiar story.

You are of course welcome to disagree, and in fact I wouldn’t mind seeing evidence that would prove me wrong. Worst that can happen is that I’ll learn something, and that’s all good.

Comments

  1. jeffengel says

    Granted, this does not eliminate the possibility that “Jesus Christ” is an amalgam of stories borrowed from a variety of preachers and their most memorable zingers, with a healthy helping of myth on top. But I think it does suggest that certain elements of the Jesus myth probably did have origins in the actual words and teachings of actual, living preachers.

    Denying this claim would require one to suppose that no elements whatever of the Jesus myth go back to the actual teachings of any actual, living preacher whatever. I do not think that anyone who takes themselves to reject a historical Jesus commits to a claim this strong.

    • Reginald Selkirk says

      But I think it does suggest that certain elements of the Jesus myth probably did have origins in the actual words and teachings of actual, living preachers

      Yes, and…?
      .
      The claim that a historical Jesus H. Christ did not exist is not identical to a claim that Christian scriptures were poofed into existence out of nothingness. How many stones does it take to make stone soup?

  2. jeffengel says

    Also, in the omitted portion of those verses, Matthew 22:30 specifically:
    22:30 For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.

    This reads plausibly, together with God being the God of the living, not the dead, as an identification of the resurrection as the heavenly afterlife – Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, are alive, are in heaven, are as the angels, and are presumably bachelors again. The crowd can be amazed at the doctrine of a heavenly afterlife and/or the reference to it as a resurrection.

    Additionally, that can crop up at any time later as an insertion to put such a doctrine in the mouth of “Jesus”.

  3. Elf Eye says

    In that passage, Jesus is not arguing that God stops being a person’s god when that person dies. If Jesus states that God is the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and that he is the god of the living, then Jesus is arguing for the concept of resurrection. God cannot be simultaneously the god of the patriarchs and the god of the living unless the patriarchs are in some sense ‘alive’. The context of the argument is also consistent with the latter reading. Jesus is refuting the Sadducees, who oppose the notion of resurrection. Whether or not the author of Matthew 22:23-33 is misrepresenting the beliefs of the Sadduccees, the passage is written against the backdrop of that author’s understanding of their beliefs, which Jesus is able to refute through a seeming paradox that can only be resolved if God can resurrect souls.

    By the way, I want to make it clear that I do not myself believe in the notion of resurrection. I’m a pharynguloid atheist (the most virulent sort!). I do not believe that there is such a thing as a ‘soul’, which would be necessary for any resurrection of the non-zombie variety. My interest in the passage arises from the fact that I teach medieval English literature and therefore must familiarize my students with Jewish and Christian scriptures in the course of teaching my classes.

  4. Kevin says

    I waffle back and forth between “all myth” and “concatenation of a bunch of first century troublemakers.”

    I’m confident with a strong degree of certainty that the individual Jesus is a fiction. There is just not enough “there” there.

    No records (outside the myths in the bible) of him or his parents existing. Ie, no census data — for the precise reason that the census didn’t happen. It was made up to place the parents in a particular place at this character’s birth.

    No records or mentions of him among the many, many, many contemporaneous chroniclers of that time and place. There was one such chronicler who made it somewhat of a hobby to follow the “Messiahs” of that time. There were many who made the claim. No mention of this guy at all.

    No mention of any Messianic preacher riding into Jerusalem in triumph on a never-ridden horse (not an ass, as is mistranslated in many bibles). That’s fulfilling a prophecy of the appearance of a new king — it would have definitely been noticed by the secular authorities. Instead, crickets chirp when you want to see the extra-biblical records of this happening.

    No records of an arrest, trial, or execution. No mention of anyone named Barabbas, either. No Roman tradition of clemency for a condemned man prior to Passover, either. Again, it’s made up nonsense to fit a prophetic narrative.

    No tomb, empty or otherwise. No ossuary (though that would pretty much eviscerate the primary claim of Christianity, so that’s not a surprise).

    Give me any of these, and we can talk. Absent any of these, I’m going with myth, with some details based on the lives of various and sundry other “Messiahs” of the day.

    But, of course, even if you prove that such a person existed, the proper answer is Hitchensian. “So what?” There’s zero (extra-mythic) evidence that he said any of the things attributed to him, and even less evidence that he performed miracles, had a bad weekend, and then reappeared to his followers. In short, no evidence of divinity.

    So, in the end, it doesn’t matter.

    • Jeffy Joe says

      “There was one such chronicler who made it somewhat of a hobby to follow the “Messiahs” of that time.” I’d love to have more information here. Can you give me the name of the author or the work?

      I think the best evidence of absence (at least for the Jesus described in the Gospels) is that Josephus makes no mention of Herod killing every male child under 2. Is there any way he could have forgotten about that episode, or decided it wasn’t interesting enough to report? Only one explanation makes any sense – the story was just made up.

  5. exrelayman says

    You have quite an interesting take on that particular passage. My take would be a rather simple one: pointing out that ‘I am the God of the living, not the dead, and mentioning being the God of those deceased patriarchs, would be an argument that those deceased patriarchs are alive now – ie, have resurrected, therefore there is a resurrection. I particularly read it this way since this passage is against the Sadducee no resurrection doctrine. As resurrection is a central tenet of Christianity, the date of origin of such a passage is not narrowed down.

    Of course whether those words were in fact ever pronounced by anyone is exactly what is at issue, given what is known about the provenance of Matthew. So taking for granted that anyone ever said them to argue for historicity seems suspect to me. In brief, it looks like you are using scripture to support a scriptural notion (the existence of Jesus). That seems circular. Since I usually admire your reasoning so much, I may well be missing something here. I invite clarification if that is the case.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      My take would be a rather simple one: pointing out that ‘I am the God of the living, not the dead, and mentioning being the God of those deceased patriarchs, would be an argument that those deceased patriarchs are alive now – ie, have resurrected, therefore there is a resurrection.

      I think that’s most people’s take on it, and it was what I originally learned. The problem with that approach is that it contradicts the Christian teaching that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and everyone else except Jesus, have not been resurrected yet. The Christian doctrine refers to a future resurrection, of which Jesus is supposedly the “first fruits.” Obviously, if Abraham & Co have already been raised from the dead, then Jesus isn’t the first, and their resurrection will not take place at the predicted time (since it happened in the past instead).

      What you end up with is the idea that “resurrection” just means spiritual existence in some kind of afterlife, like so many other religions and New Age-y superstitions teach. Plus it creates the impression, by association, that Jesus’ own alleged resurrection would be less than what Christians would like us to think. It just doesn’t sound to me like something that Christians would invent in the absence of an actual person making a (possibly muddled) argument in real life.

      • jeffengel says

        What you end up with is the idea that “resurrection” just means spiritual existence in some kind of afterlife, like so many other religions and New Age-y superstitions teach. Plus it creates the impression, by association, that Jesus’ own alleged resurrection would be less than what Christians would like us to think. It just doesn’t sound to me like something that Christians would invent in the absence of an actual person making a (possibly muddled) argument in real life.

        That Jesus even did come back from the dead isn’t clear in the earliest versions of some (reconstructed) gospels. This would just require a stray bit of theology there that isn’t quite a perfect fit with the Christian theology that developed over the next three centuries.

        No one supposing that Jesus was a myth supposes that some coherent group settled down to work out the myth with a single, consistent theology in mind. It’s supposed to be drawing from a lot of strands due to various teachers and pre-, proto-, and already Christian communities. We don’t expect the bits to fit together perfectly under those conditions. Now, the more the myth owes to a single historical Jesus, the more we’d expect a coherent story and a coherent theology across the gospels. If we don’t get that, there’s less reason to suppose there’s a single person at the bottom of it.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        I can’t say that sounds entirely crazy :) I still have reservations, but the more discussion I see the more open I am to, shall we say, an improved understanding.

  6. King of New Hampshire says

    I don’t think any claim made by Christians can validate the idea that there was an historical Jesus. I would gladly accept any second party evidence to consider, but not anything in the Bible. The reason is thus:

    Many people have extravagant details of what heaven will be like. Will you be with your spouse, will your kids be there, how will you feel about leaving pets behind, will you get bored with eternity, and so on. Now imagine the Southern Baptist Convention makes a ruling on this. There will be three major components to the ruling, none of which will be based on the truth of the claim. 1) Who is making the claim? If a big name preacher has decided we don’t have our spouse with us, then it is likely to make it into official doctrine. 2) How does the claim make people feel? A heaven without our children may be less likely to attract followers, so out with that idea. 3) How logically consistent is it with established theology? It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs limit the batshittery enough to keep people from feeling smarter than their preachers.

    Now, this has nothing to do with conspiracy. I doubt modern professional deluders are any more or less crooked than their ancient counterparts. But I do think that they easily convince themselves with the arguments they will use on their flocks. In this way, nearly believable memes persist until well established religions have weeded out the blatantly insane ideas or managed to cloud them over beneath the “ancient mysteries” cloak. Christianity was most vulnerable in the first hundred years, when people could have asked contemporaries.

    So your use of an oddly strange sermon by a supposed historical Jesus is fairly meaningless by itself. Of course it’s almost believable. If it weren’t, it’d be discarded by the first “honest” theologian. But it’s still very likely that the sermon was just made up by some slick haired pseudo-intellectual and passed along as one of those pearls of wisdom the religious like to try to impress us with.

  7. RW Ahrens says

    Nice bit of reasoning, but your statement:

    But I think it does suggest that certain elements of the Jesus myth probably did have origins in the actual words and teachings of actual, living preachers.

    Kicks the rest of your reasoning in the tush. A concatenation (or midrash) of words and teachings of numerous other real preachers is actually much more likely in my opinion, simply because there were a lot of such around both at the time and previous to the first century, saying the same things attributed to Jesus.

    Lacking evidence that these teachings really were collected together and then spread around by one guy, the likelihood that these stories and teachings came from numerous sources is the better probability, and does not invalidate your theory of where this particular one may have originated.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      A concatenation (or midrash) of words and teachings of numerous other real preachers is actually much more likely in my opinion, simply because there were a lot of such around both at the time and previous to the first century, saying the same things attributed to Jesus.

      The more I think about it, the more plausible that sounds. I’m not averse to kicking my own arguments in the tush if it helps shed additional light on the subject. :)

    • josh says

      Um, false, I think. Or did you mean ‘later’ rather than older? My understanding of the current scholarship is that Paul’s (authentic) letters are probably the first written documents that we have any modern version of and the Gospels come somewhat later. Usually Mark first followed by Mark and Luke, with John last, although any of this stuff can be debated.

  8. Tige Gibson says

    I always look at the historicity of Jesus like the relationship between the legendary Robin Hood and whoever the original person that myth is based on, or more precisely the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Joseph Bell, since we know much more about Bell than the real Robin Hood. There isn’t any distinction between these stories of living persons embellished far beyond reason.

    Christians tend not to understand much about Judaism and tend to be in denial about how Judaism developed in favor of their own literal interpretation, as though the only purpose of Judaism was to prepare the way for Christ then to be discarded. It isn’t only Jesus who must be historical to them, but the whole Bible. At best we can only deduce how the Bible changed with the culture, while those who believe it are committed to the patently ridiculous notion that the text has never been altered, but has even gotten more accurate with revision.

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    Jesus replied, “…But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

    If Jesus did exist, and did say that, he was an effing moron. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all dead. Therefore the quote from Daddy does not support what Jesus is saying.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      If Jesus did exist, and did say that, he was an effing moron.

      That’s kinda my point. Why would anyone invent a myth that made their messiah look like an effing moron? This is the kind of stupid stuff that’s more likely to come from somebody blurting something out without thinking things through. Thus an authentic quote is more probable than a complete fiction. Though I’ll grant you that this does not resolve the question of whether the blurter was named Jesus.

  10. gshelley says

    I think the general view of the Jesus myth is that he was superimposed on an existing cult, with their own beliefs and sayings, that were then put into his mouth.
    As such, whatever the Jesus character says merely reflects what the cult had come to believe, whether through one charismatic leader, or many individuals over several decades.
    I suppose we could ask, if there was just one person responsible for the sayings of Jesus, would it make that person the “Historical Jesus” even if non of the actual historical details match?

  11. Reginald Selkirk says

    Another passage I have always wondered about: the “parable of the unjust steward” (Luke 16:1-13). WTF does it mean?
    .
    The only meaningful message I have ever been able to get out of it: if you are going to fire a subordinate, dismiss him immediately rather than give him several weeks notice.

  12. scenario says

    Where do you draw the line between real person, enhanced person and myth? George Washington never chopped down the cherry tree, is he a myth?

    If there was a man called Jesus who started a cult and over the years almost all of what he said was replaced by myth and other peoples words who appealed to the masses better, was there really a Jesus?

    I still own my great grandfathers ax. The head has been replaced twice and the handle four times but its still his ax.

  13. Tony Hoffman says

    I just read Luke 16: 1-13. I don’t remember ever coming across that one before.

    It reads like something one of the not-ready-for-prime-time prophets would say in the Life of Brian. I wonder how many people have come across that one in Seminary Training, read it, tried to make sense of it, then decided, “F’ this; I’m out.”

  14. says

    Call me clueless, but I don’t see the difficulty with that passage. It’s a simple assertion that the people they speak of are alive in some sense, and that therefore the Sadducee viewpoint is false. I don’t see anything particularly wrong with that, in context; Jesus was apparently taking the Pharisaic side on that particular issue. If that’s a thing he actually said (given that there’s some debate over whether the Resurrection was part of early Christianity), then it’s in line with Christian beliefs. Assuming, of course, that it wasn’t a later retcon by Pharisee influences on the early church…

    • Deacon Duncan says

      There are a few problems: (1) resurrection means turning dead people into living people, so if they’re not dead then they can’t be resurrected, and (2) if the resurrection has already happened, then the rest of us are too late (including Jesus). But the big problem is that Jesus is flat-out declaring that God is NOT “the God of the living and the dead,” but rather is only the God of the living, and explicitly not the God of the dead. If that’s the case, then He has no authority over the dead, either to raise them or to judge them, which screws up the whole Gospel.

  15. Alex SL says

    Similar to what Scenario wrote, I find it a bit difficult to see this as black (Jesus was wholly invented) and white (a guy named Jesus existed and did and said all the stuff that you find in the gospels).

    There are some who argue for the non-existence, like the ebonmusings blogger – if you haven’t read that already, this will interest you: http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/camel.html. I do not find that convincing, however, mostly because the gospels are just so messy and in many places make Jesus look like a frothing nutjob or simply an unpleasant character. If you can invent him from whole cloth, would you not do a better job?

    On the other hand, nobody except a literalist Christian argues for white anyway, and I guess we can all agree that it is highly unlikely to be true, not least because of all the contradictions between gospels, with our understanding of human nature and biology, and with known historical fact. So the truth is most likely somewhere in the grey zone. Perhaps one wacky real-life doomsday cultist whose sect remained too small to be noticed by historians until after his death and then grew and grew, with the teachings radically reinterpreted by the most influential convert Paul? Or perhaps an amalgamation of the teachings of several real-life preachers adopted by a sect only started by Paul? I personally tend towards the former, but I don’t believe we will ever be able to know with any degree of confidence.

  16. Anat says

    The problem with arguments from embarrassment (why have a story with embarrassing implications unless it was true?) is that what would embarrass us wouldn’t necessarily embarrass the authors at their respective times.

    The Pharisees believed in an immediate transition to some form of afterlife. The great dead sit with God, study Torah, argue with him, win arguments with him, intercede on behalf of the living, feast on leviathan and wild bulls. Abraham et al are alive, as far as the Pharisees were concerned, they are just not alive *here with us*. The Saducees didn’t believe in the continuity of the soul. They believed it died with the body. Jesus’ response is an affirmation of the Pharisee belief regarding the Patriarchs.

  17. scenario says

    When I look at Jesus from a historical perspective, since there is absolutely no evidence outside the bible for his existence and the bible itself is notoriously inaccurate from a historical perspective, you have to assume that he did not exist until some evidence comes in.

    But, when there is some evidence of a persons existence, how do historians draw the line between real person and myth? Is the line when the stories at 90% true, 50% true, 10% true, 1% true or at some other point? Is there a rule of thumb of where you draw the line between a real person, an exaggerated real person and a totally made up person.

    Two minor chiefs with about 25 men on each fight a battle. Chief A kills four enemies himself. 200 years later, the story is 25,000 people on a side and King A killed 400 enemies himself. 1000 years later, 250,000 on a side and King A invented a magic sword that killed 4,000 enemies every time he swung it. 2000 years later, Demigod A came down from the heavens and personally killed 2,500,000 enemy soldiers.

    Let’s assume that we had 20 different versions of the tale, one written about every hundred years. The first is pretty accurate and the details steadily change over the years. At what point does the tale turn from history to myth? How much detail has to change before Chief A is no longer considered a real person and is now considered a myth? Are there any guidelines or rules of thumb?

    I ask this because I wouldn’t be surprised that a real person started the Jesus cult but over the first half century or so, so much was added and changed that very little is left of the real Jesus. If only 1% of what is in the bible is what he really said and they even changed his name, can you say he existed at all?

  18. Alex SL says

    I ask this because I wouldn’t be surprised that a real person started the Jesus cult but over the first half century or so, so much was added and changed that very little is left of the real Jesus. If only 1% of what is in the bible is what he really said and they even changed his name, can you say he existed at all?

    I’d say that there are at least some who argue that there isn’t even 1%, there was no real person, ever. At the link I gave above, the author argues that Jesus was originally a mythical, heavenly figure, and that all of the gospels were just parables for teaching. I consider that extreme position unlikely.

    But of course 100% of what is told about Jesus in the gospels cannot be true; you cannot, after all, heal illnesses by casting out demons, no matter how much magic you have, because illnesses are not caused by talkative demons in the first place. So if that is your measure, then *this* specific Jesus described in the contradictory and exaggerating gospels never existed. But among atheists, I do not think that that was ever the question.

    I still find it plausible to assume that there must have been some real-life third rate doomsday cult founder behind the Jesus character. Another example for the strangeness of the gospels that can most easily explained with them having to accommodate the existence of a real person would be this, right at the very beginning of Matthew:

    1:21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
    1:22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
    1:23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

    I mean, seriously. If you can make up your messiah character from whole cloth, because he is just an invention for an instructive parable anyway, then why not call him Emmanuel and spare yourself this ridiculously inane passage?

  19. Harold says

    The biblical scholar Dr. Ehrman in a radio interview stated that there was a historical Jesus. He of course would know all the relevant evidence concerning the historicity of Jesus.

    Also Dr. Ehrman is an agnostic which means that he would be more critical of any evidence concerning a historical Jesus then a Christian would be.

    This leads me to believe that there must be persuasive evidence for a historical Jesus or else Dr. Ehrman would have not made the statement that he did. I think that believing in a historical Jesus is a valid belief.

    -Harold

  20. RW Ahrens says

    Historians use the yardstick of probability. See Richard Carrier’s blog for a good explanation of this, he also details how it works in his books.

    Because history is messy (wars, fires, burglaries, murders, the sheer passage and ravages of time) it is rare to obtain all of the needed evidence one needs to prove with 100% accuracy the events of the past – even the recent past; just see how hard it is to prosecute a murder after 20 years!

    All we have to go on are the physical leftovers – the junk that civilizations often leave behind, which is also made harder when one civilization destroys another. The winner, after all, gets to rewrite history! (What the defeated had often gets destroyed and what is left gets taken by the winner)

    Fortunately, people have been writing things down for thousands of years, which helps – to a degree. That particular type of evidence is problematic the longer ago it was, simply because writing materials decay and fall apart with time, so books, scrolls and other documents had to be rewritten, or copied, in order to be preserved. That process is so inherently fraught with error, often deliberate interpolations and at times outright forgery that the longer ago the documents were written the less and less one can trust what may have been in the original.

    So one is left with looking at what documents you have from different times, places and authors to see what may have been there. Just like with other archeological evidence, one comes right down to sometimes having to make an educated guess.

    “How likely is it that this particular author would have used this turn of phrase?” “How many times does this author use this word in this context?” “Is this phrase or sentence used in another document by another author?” “Was this document available for the author of another document to have read its content, so how likely is it that this story was just copied rather than independently invented?”

    Probabilities. Not percentages, but deciding, on the available real evidence, that a particular person may have been real, or had the stories about him already been in existence, used by other religions prior to the onset of this religion? (Which would argue against reality)

    The point with Jesus is that the story we have about him is contained in a compendium of documents, the authors of which we rarely know, or know much about, written over literally hundreds of years for different audiences at different times.

    But the most telling point to me is that the ENTIRE theology of christianity is secondhand stuff. There isn’t a single element of that theology that wasn’t used at some time by another religion that was known at that time or prior to the time the documents were written.

    …and that includes the whole story of his birth, life, ministry and death. There is NOTHING that is original, besides the sheer arrangement of those elements and the geographic locations used. Every element can be explained by some theological purpose or message, and one can look at ancient literature and see how each and every element was used in past religions in similar ways to illustrate similar theological messages.

    There just isn’t anything NEW. Anything that would indicate that a real man was actually there. No records. No written stories of his ministry or the interactions the gospels said he had with real historical and famous people, no records of such things as the visits of the wise men or the census or the strange darkness upon his death, or the supposed earthquakes.

    Nothing, nada, nix, nein, not even and no siree! If there were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

  21. RW Ahrens says

    Ehrman is not an agnostic. He has stated unequivocally that he does not believe in christianity.

    Additionally, he is also the head of a department of theology at a major christian university. Just how long would he keep his job, do you think, if he came out in support of there being no evidence for Jesus’ historicity?

  22. RW Ahrens says

    Hmm, I just reread the OP, and this stood out this time:

    But I think it does suggest that certain elements of the Jesus myth probably did have origins in the actual words and teachings of actual, living preachers.

    As to the sayings of Jesus, I believe that many of them are said to have been contained in the “Q” document, and there are a lot of them that have been confirmed to have been used previously by other religious figures in other religions. If I remember, “Q” pre-dated not only Mark the first Gospel to get written, but wasn’t it also supposed to have pre-dated Paul? I’ve not read as much about Q as I could have, regrettably.

    One of the most famous, “Do unto others…” was also attributed to Confucius, who lived, what, 300-500 years prior?

    Again, as I have noted, just because the Jesus figure was probably mythical, doesn’t mean that other real people may not have said or done things that contributed bits and pieces to that story. A midrash is a midrash, and elements of it come from all over.

  23. scenario says

    I’m think the idea of using probability makes a lot of sense. I can see at least 4 possibilities with Jesus.

    1) Everything is true.
    2) Jesus existed but his story has been greatly changed.
    3) The stories are a combination of several people.
    4) Jesus was a myth made up from scratch.

    I think most of the people on this blog do not think option 1 is viable. I think the most likely scenarios are option 2 or 3.

    In my little scenario I’m using g1 to mean generation 1 after Jesus, the disciples, g2 the disciples of the disciples … This is my attempt at a hypothesis.

    Jesus preached for 4 or 5 years. He went from village to village, was generally well received and got enough donations so he didn’t starve to death. None of the miracles or big events ever happened. He got into trouble and was executed. One more criminal among many. His group consisted of his 12 disciples, a few hanger on’s and maybe a few hundred casual supporters who threw him money because he was entertaining.

    G1 continued to preach in the same basic area that Jesus preached with about the same level of success. In the first few years they begat g2.

    G2 moved to new areas, changed the message to fit the new people and added some miracles and stories from other preachers to spice it up. Some g2 got fairly successful but we’re talking 20 or 30 converts each.

    Good preachers can form a new generation in a few months. So 20 years after Jesus’s death, we could be on generation 20 or 30 and hundreds of followers, hundreds of miles from where it started. But in any particular city there would be 4 or 5 groups of 20 or 30 people each. It’s still a fairly small group.

    We know that Paul didn’t learn directly from g1 and he was a good distance away from where Jesus taught when he converted, so he was probably a g3, g4… His version of Christs story was already significantly different that the original story.

    By the time Mark and Q wrote down the first written Gospels, they were learning the message from g4’s to g40’s. What they put into their gospels was the version of the Gospels that made the most sense to them.

    There is nothing new because what ended up getting written down was what was the most popular with the audience. Old familiar stories told in a slightly new way are usually the most easily salable. If Jesus had any real new ideas, they were edited out over the years.

    The Gospels are a total mishmash because they were written by people who were 20 or more story telling generations after the events occurred, and most of what was written was added by later story tellers. There is no independent record of Jesus because his group was too small, insignificant and divided until after the first written Gospels were produced. Having written words to read gave later generation preachers more apparent authority. Somewhere after this point, the group started expanding rapidly and it starts showing up in the historical record.

    I believe that this is a viable hypothesis but the total lack of any verifiable evidence makes any hypothesis of the first few decades of Christianity a just so story.

  24. RW Ahrens says

    #27;

    Not a bad try. a lot of that is probably how things very well could have gotten started except for the real guy thing, at least in my opinion. Just not any evidence for it.

    I’d also throw in that it is likely that the 12 disciples were more than likely constructs too. 12 disciples – 12 tribes of Israel. The number twelve is used extensively in Revelations, too.

    Funny that most of them drop off the ends of the earth at some point after Jesus’ ascent into heaven. We do hear about how some of them died, but very little if any about what they did in between.

    This also serves to bolster the thought that Jesus wasn’t real. If he wasn’t real, then why would there have been 12 real disciples? The reasons for there being twelve are theological. For one, it matches the twelve tribes. Not exactly a coincidence, in my opinion.

  25. scenario says

    Your probably right about the 12 disciples. One of the facts changed later. Two or three disciples would make more sense and fall through the cracks a lot easier. Still essentially the same story. The real person or people who really got it started fell somewhere between Jesus and Paul. He (probably) or they took the original story and spiced it up by adding miracles, and changed it to fit the bible better. I just think its easier to take over an existing group and change it to what you want then start from scratch.

    In the early days of the cult it’s easier to work off a real person because when it starts getting popular, you can find people who remember the real Jesus. “I remember him. Little guy, good speaker. He really made a name for himself.” Of course, 20 years later, what they remember may have little in common with what happened but it does add some weight to the story at first.

    We’ll probably never know because in my scenario, the real Jesus’s group was so small and insignificant that there is no real practical difference from he didn’t exist.

  26. RW Ahrens says

    We’ll probably never know…

    Nope. Since there surely isn’t sufficient proof he didn’t, and there isn’t enough to show he did, unless somebody finds something we’ve never seen before, we just won’t ever know for sure.

    I just want people to stop automatically assuming that he did, just out of some misguided respect for religion.

  27. Alex SL says

    Misguided respect for religion was never the issue. The thing is that some look at the gospels and conclude that the most parsimonious explanation is that they are wholly invented, while some (including myself) look at the same text and conclude that there must have been some real person behind it, otherwise they could have invented a text that made more sense, had a more likable protagonist, and read less like the teachings of all too familiar real-life doomsday cultists.

    Is “give away all your stuff because the world ends in your lifetime anyway”, “if you want to follow me you need to hate your own family”, or “everybody who disagrees will burn” really more easily explained as theological necessity and amalgamation of pre-existing religions, or as the delusions and psychological tricks of an actual cultist?

    Especially if, as claimed by the he-never-existed-side, invented many decades after the purported time of Jesus – which is in-story narrowed down by the reigns of Herod and Pilate -, why embarrass your own religion with putting the claim of the end being much nearer than it turned out to be into his mouth?

  28. RW Ahrens says

    otherwise they could have invented a text that made more sense, had a more likable protagonist, and read less like the teachings of all too familiar real-life doomsday cultists.

    The problem with that neat little scenario is that life rarely works out that way.

    The very early years of christianity was full of lots (dozens and dozens, according to Ehrman) of little separate cults, each of which had its own idea of how the whole thing worked. Some thought he was wholly divine, some thought he only became divine upon his baptism, others that he never was, and even more with some mix of one or the other. One, believed that he was three in one, and that is the one that won over Constantine, so they won the “battle of the bands” and got to make the rules.

    Until then, it wasn’t ONE man or group, even, that was making stuff up about the Christ figure, but dozens and dozens of such groups. Ancient writings clearly show more than one struggle between cults trying each to gain some foothold on the public’s imagination, adding or altering one idea or another, based on various elements of Roman religions known to be attractive to that public, all the better to seem familiar, yet also new and interesting. This struggle went on for over a hundred and fifty years, encompassing more than one generation of clerics leading that struggle and making shit up.

    No wonder things got so mixed up!

    Besides, once there WAS one man in charge – after Constantine put Eusibius to the task of building his church, that one guy had all kinds of choices to make about what to dump and what to keep, he could have made it as nice and neat as he wanted, yet, he didn’t. My bet is that he didn’t because after three hundred years of that struggle, nobody had any idea of what was original and what was added later. This fact is clear, as various clerics in different parts of the church for the next two hundred years contended amongst each other to come up with an agreed upon canon, and still failed. (I say failed, because there were still multiple canons, depending on the specific church you ask.) Plus, Eusibius is pretty well agreed to have been the guy that interpolated at least one passage in Josephus’ history, about Jesus, which, if he had had other proof or evidence of that historicity, would have been unneccessary! If anybody had possessed such evidence, it would have been one or more of the groups in Rome.

    As I noted, the best probability for the lack of evidence is that there wasn’t a real man behind the curtain. At best, there may have been more than one that contributed to the myths, but I still think that Occum’s Razor is best served by the simple explanation that there just wasn’t anybody there.

    That way, you don’t have to make up stuff about how the lack of evidence doesn’t mean there wasn’t a real man, you don’t have to pick through all the mythical elements poking for little picky parts that might, if you are lucky, explain why that evidence isn’t there.

    Look, we won’t ever know for sure. I know that. But it is important to show that on the other hand, there isn’t any evidence to prove it was true.

    Why? Ask yourself why christian scholars refuse to even look at the facts honestly. Why do apologists strive so hard to prove he was real? Why is it that so many people blithely state that there is plenty of proof when there really isn’t any?

    Because they’ve made that a central tenet of their religion! Jesus HAD to exist. Christians have been saying he did for two thousand years. Hell, they’e been manufacturing written evidence to prove it for at least that long.

    Because if he didn’t exist, the whole house of cards is built on sand. Hell, even if we just can’t prove it one way or the other puts that house on uncertain ground.

    And that just isn’t something that they can take in the current political climate – they see it as an attack, and an effective one at that.

    (As for your question about the “claim of the end”, remember that all that was written for the then current generation, and not for succeeding generations, when, yes, it DID get embarrassing. But inexplicably, they left it in! Or maybe it wasn’t so inexplicable – for hundreds of years, in spite of there being plenty of embarrassing contradictions, errors and fabrications in the gospels, even to this day, WE leave such things in! If it is so embarrassing, why don’t current leaders just change it? )

  29. Alex SL says

    I still don’t get your explanation for that failed prediction. There is idea A: the guy never existed, and somebody 90 CE, or maybe 140 CE, completely invented a story with a character called Jesus and had him predict the end of the world for ca. 60 CE. All the while not calling his character Emmanuel, although that would have been much more convenient theologically. That just seems a bit strategically unsound.

    How does this make any more sense than idea B: some doomsday cultist really existed who just happened to be called Jesus or Joshua, and who said the world would end within his generation’s lifetime? That would mean that his cult member gone gospel author would have some inconvenient constraints, that would allow us to explain the nonsense in the gospels more elegantly than with a simple “well, they disagreed with each other”. (Why would they, after the world did not end before the text was supposedly written?)

    All of that does not mean that hypothetical real life Jesus had any more powers or was a nicer person than Harold Camping. It seems strange to imply that I should not argue for the Jesus myth being based on some actual deranged preacher because that would somehow help the Christians. If I consider that option to be more plausible then that is just that.

    I sometimes wonder how much information on the personal lives of, say, Joseph Smith and Ron Hubbard will survive to 4000 CE, especially if humankind should suffer some dark ages equivalent of societal collapse in between, perhaps due to overpopulation. Reading how completely idiotic their theologies are, will our descendants then believe that somebody would actually preach them, or will they consider it more plausible that they were derived from a chaotic discourse of vying subsects within the first two hundred years of foundation?

  30. RW Ahrens says

    …and somebody 90 CE, or maybe 140 CE, completely invented a story with a character called Jesus…

    But that isn’t what I said. What happened, I think, is that yes, he was somehow “invented”, but it wasn’t by some guy, whether in 90 CE, 140 CE or even 324 CE. I think it happened in the first century, and may have even been in more than one place, by more than one group.

    The stories were already there. Multiple messiah stories, stirred by multiple fake messiahs and this growing wish by the hebrews for someone – ANYone – to come throw off the yoke of the foreign invaders. Somehow, it all began to come together, and the story was just there, part of the mix.

    Tell me, aren’t there lots of christians today who think that the Second Coming is STILL coming, in spite of that failed prediction? Hasn’t there been generation after generation that has predicted that THIS time, THIS year, it’ll happen. “Just wait, my numbers are right THIS TIME!!”

    So that’s the same thinking process that let that prediction stay in, in spite of the initial failure. Because well, somehow, Jesus will come through, we just don’t understand HIS PLAN, that’s all.

    Not a mystery at all, in my opinion.

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