On the show two weeks ago, Matt and Jen got a call from aaronk1994, a 15 year old YouTube apologist. Aaron called in within the last few minutes, so the argument didn’t have time to get up to speed.
That week, a viewer sent email mentioning that Aaron might call back during the week I (Russell) was hosting, and suggested that we should be ready to take a call with some serious argument about the historicity of Jesus.
Aaron did not call back, but he did make a rather sarcasm-laced video declaring victory over Matt and Jen. I’ll link that video in my next post, after I’ve said a few general words about the historicity debate.
Let me come clean about this: I am not much of a Christian history buff. Matt, being an ex-Christian almost-minister, has always been fascinated with the Bible and with the various details of the Christian religion. As a lifelong atheist Jew, I couldn’t care much less. To the extent that I’m interested in Christianity at all, it’s the social implications that gets me reading. The Bible is not my area of geekitude, as I lean more towards formal logic and philosophy of science. Hence I was somewhat interested in talking to Aaron from that perspective, but since he didn’t call, I’ll just content myself with going over the video response for a bit.
I’ll just say straight off that I think the question of whether a guy named “Jesus” really lived in ancient Rome is missing the point. There may or may not have been such a guy. The Jesus of the Bible may have been based on him. Many atheists like to argue that there’s strong reason to believe that Jesus was an amalgamation of already existing gods.
But this is an argumentative red herring because the question we are really interested in is not “Did someone named Jesus exist?” but “What do we know about this purported real Jesus?” As well as: “To what extent can we trust the Bible as an accurate account of events that happened?”
To see why it’s a red herring, consider a couple of examples from the world of entertainment. Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, from the movie The Big Lebowski, is a real person. Sort of. He’s based on real life slacker Jeff Dowd. But did Jeff Dowd get attacked by nihilists, foil a phony kidnapping, harass a pornographer in his penthouse, and get covered in a dead friend’s ashes? Probably not.
Cosmo Kramer, of “Seinfeld” fame, is a real person. Sort of. He’s based on Kenny Kramer, the real life wacky neighbor of producer Larry David. But did Kenny Kramer coach a Miss America contestant, found Kramerica Industries, invent the mansiere, and spend a year in jail for failure to prevent a mugging? I don’t have inside knowledge of this, but I assume the answer to all these is no.
I hope this illuminates why “Did Jesus exist?” is kind of the wrong question. The real question is, “Was Jesus a real person who also walked on water, fed a large crowd with only a small bit of food, healed the blind, cursed a fig tree, and rose from the dead?”
In logic puzzles, sometimes you are confronted with determining whether you are talking to the sort of person who either always tells the truth, or always lies. Too often, the question of the Bible’s accuracy is treated as this kind of question — are the factual questions 100% true, or 100% false? Notice how apologists often make arguments like — I swear this is a real argument — “Historians did not believe that such-and-such a place in the Bible was real, but then archaeologists found the remains! The Bible is proven true once again!”
Clearly that’s definitive proof that not every single sentence of the Bible is false. But we don’t live on an imaginary island contrived for the purpose of framing logic puzzles. In the real world, different bits of information have to be evaluated individually, and some statements may be true while others are false within the same document, often even within the same sentence. To state otherwise is tantamount to saying that The Big Lebowski is 100% accurate because it takes place in Los Angeles, which is a real city.
Jesus Christ certainly isn’t the first (possibly) real person who had divine powers attributed to him. The life of Julius Caesar is pretty well documented, but historians stop well short of accepting the common claim of his time that Caesar was a god in human form. It’s no problem at all for historians to take some claims as true and others as false.
Likewise, Homer’s Iliad describes an event — the Trojan War — which may well have been real. But it also describes the Greek gods like Zeus and Athena stomping around influencing the outcome. Again, just because some basic historical details are true, doesn’t mean that the work as a whole isn’t mostly false.
In the next post I will go over the video.