We get YouTubes (Historicity of Jesus part 2)

As mentioned in the previous post, this is the video posted by Aaronk1994.

A little after the one minute mark, Aaron accused Jen of misrepresenting the argument that she was trying to address. Jen said: “The claim is the Jesus must have been divine because his disciples wouldn’t have died for something that they knew was a lie. So they must have known that he was the son of God, and was resurrected.” Aaron calls this a straw man, claiming that no apologist would say such a thing. Then he goes on to rephrase almost precisely the same argument.

The point, Aaron says, is that “because they died for it, that proves beyond any reasonable doubt that they really believed it. Which, then, you have to explain the origin of the belief in the resurrection.” And of course, Aaron’s explanation is that they were correct. Maybe you can tell the distinction between this and Jen’s “straw man,” but I think it’s beyond splitting hairs and into splitting nanoneedles.

Why does anyone have to explain anyone else’s belief? In the next clip, Jen points out, correctly, that the 9/11 hijackers died for their beliefs. As George from NY mentioned when he called, there’s the Heaven’s Gate cult. There’s Jonestown. If you asked me whether those people died because they sincerely believed whatever nonsense their leaders were peddling, I would say “Absolutely yes!” Does that require me to explain that belief? Certainly not. Should the default position in that case be “They believed it because it’s true”? It’s a judgment call, but in that case I would certainly say no.

Aaron dismisses the reference to the hijackers by using the magic words “straw man” again, and describes it as “another stupid analogy.” He explains that the difference between a disciple of Jesus and a 9/11 hijacker is that the disciples were eye witnesses to the events of their religion, while the hijackers were not.

Which, of course, is the whole problem. We have no way of knowing that, and no amount of eye-rolling, sarcastic inflection, or dismissal of the opposing claims as “ridiculous” is going to fill that knowledge gap. As I was saying in my previous post, whether or not you accept that a guy named Jesus existed doesn’t say anything about whether the rest of the stories in the Bible were true. If the stories about Jesus’ miracles were embellished after the fact, the martyrs who died wouldn’t have been dying for “a lie,” they would be dying for some holy cause that they believed to be true because they had been told that it was without requiring strong evidence for it.

Yes, just like Muslim suicide bombers. Just like Jonestown cultists. Just like Japanese kamikaze pilots who believed that Hirohito was a god. You simply can’t make any claims about what they supposedly knew to be true without providing solid evidence for the specific part of the Bible that says that Dead Jesus showed up before the apostles. And folks, a brief mention in passing by a historian reporting secondhand information eighty years later is simply not going to do that, any more than a story told by a Greek poet will establish that there is an island where men get turned into pigs.

When Aaron actually called into the show, starting at around the nine minute mark of this clip, he took issue with Matt’s point that Tacitus was not a contemporary of Jesus. Aaron challenged: “Contemporary evidence is not a requirement. You don’t have to have a contemporary source. If you’d like to claim that, then could you please cite me a historian who specifically says that you need contemporary evidence?”

Aaron goes on to say, back in his framing video, that Matt had said earlier that contemporary evidence is the ONLY kind that can establish a claim. Then he accuses Matt of being hypocritical.

There’s a problem with Aaron’s understanding of historical standards here, and it goes way beyond what historians say. It really comes down to what people regard as proof of something. Yeah, it’s true. Not everything in history needs to be verified by a contemporary source. There is a lot of secondhand information that is regarded as solid. But not uncritically. Once again, there’s a huge difference between the kind of evidence it requires to insert Julius Caesar into the history books, and the kind it requires to insert “Julius Caesar was a God” into the history books. There’s a difference between saying that Jeff Dowd is “The Dude,” and saying that Jeff Dowd foiled a kidnapping plan orchestrated by a fake millionaire poseur. One is fact, and the other is embellishment.

Aaron tries to gloss over this detail by quickly blurting out that you certainly don’t need a contemporary source to prove that something as commonplace as a crucifixion took place. Haw haw! How silly anyone must be to suggest that! But come on, be serious here. Aaron, like other apologists, wants to use the text of the Bible to prove a thoroughly unprecedented, unique, and unbacked-up claim like the resurrection. He wants to prove that this Jesus chap rose from his grave.

And in this case, I’m sorry, it’s going to take more than a few passing remarks to prove that. If I told you, right now, today, that I saw a guy rise from the dead, I don’t think you would believe me. And that’s not even getting into the fact of whether I’m a primary source or whether I’m contemporary with the event. I suspect that even Aaron would balk at the suggestion that he should accept this claim on my say-so, and would want to hear more information before accepting this as true.

The fact that it didn’t get written down until 70 AD is, in actuality, the least of the problems with this claim. And to say that the written word in the book is in any way proof that it happened, or that historians reporting several decades later about what Christians claimed of their savior provide independent corroboration of an event they never saw… yeah, that’s gonna be good enough for the modern history books.

Just ask Julius Caesar, the god.

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.