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Sep 03 2009

We get YouTubes (Historicity of Jesus part 1)

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.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Mersey Skeptics

    I can understand what you're getting at when you claim that asking whether there was a historical Jesus is missing the point. I largely agree, but I don't think it is a total red herring.I agree that a solid case made for the existence of a historical Jesus says nothing about whether any of the supernatural claims about him are true. A separate case must be made for them.Surely, however, if a solid case were made to show there was no historical Jesus, that will invalidate any supernatural claims made about him? Such claims cannot be true if the man never existed. There is then no case which can be made to support any supernatural claims, except perhaps "Jesus lived and died in a purely spiritual sense".

  2. 2
    Ing

    I think it's still a red hering. Even if A supernatural jesus existed that still proves NONE of the claims about him. The fact that many of the claims rose decades to centuries after his death, contradicting the story itself would seem to refute that. Even if he were seemingly supernatural there is no evidence to rule out other explanations than the one he gave (Son of God). a) Warlockb) AlienC) Mr. Mxypltkd) Lovecraftian cult figure

  3. 3
    Kazim

    If Jesus is Mr. Mxyzptlk, does that mean we can get rid of him by tricking him into saying "Tsirhc Susej"?Oh, and you forgot another option, which is that "Jesus"="Q". (I guess that's technically covered under "alien," but Q is better than a boring regular alien.)

  4. 4
    Ing

    I would also love to point out that in the comic "Wormwood Gentlemen Corpse" the titular character ( a demonic maggot that animates dead bodies he lives in) has "Jesus" as one of his old bodies in storage. Apparently he promised not to use it for a while especially not after "what happened last time"

  5. 5
    Mersey Skeptics

    Yes, again, totally agree on that. Even if a good case were made for the supernatural claims in the Bible, that still doesn't prove Jesus was the son of God. But I worry you've missed my point.If historians are able to demonstrate that a historial Jesus really existed, it does nothing to support any claim made about him. In this sense, it is a red herring in terms of proving Christianity is true.However, if we were able to reliably demonstrate that no such man existed – and the Jesus story was cut from whole cloth – that completely undermines all other claim made about him. If there were no Jesus, he can't have been the son of God. And the whole thing falls to pieces.

  6. 6
    tracieh

    Mersey:>However, if we were able to reliably demonstrate that no such man existed – and the Jesus story was cut from whole cloth – that completely undermines all other claim made about him. If there were no Jesus, he can't have been the son of God. And the whole thing falls to pieces.Short of someone inventing a time machine, I'm not sure how you would intend to demonstrate someone didn't exist 2,000+ years ago…?If I lack the means to demonstrate he didn't exist, and if his existence is irrelevant to the claim he was god, then the issue is a red herring.Until/unless you find some method of achieving what nobody currently can achieve, it's utterly moot.

  7. 7
    Mersey Skeptics

    Hi Tracie,Nice to meet you, I always enjoy your talks on AE.> If I lack the means to demonstrate he didn't exist, and if his existence is irrelevant to the claim he was god, then the issue is a red herring.I had written up a few paragraphs attempting to justify my position, but the more I wrote, the more I realised that you are actually right.Thanks very much. Always appreciate being corrected!

  8. 8
    Anders Branderud

    "Historical Jesus"?!?Just using this contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes your Christian-blinkered agenda–dependent upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: http://www.netzarim.co.il (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period… in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?

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