Fincke Is Right: Arguing Jesus Didn’t Exist Should Not Be a Strategy


Philosopher (and FtB alum) Dan Fincke has written a good, concise piece on why atheists need to don a little more sense and humility when claiming Jesus didn’t exist. In his article On Atheists Attempting to Disprove the Existence of the Historical Jesus, Fincke makes a sound case for two basic points: (1) amateurs should not be voicing certitude in a matter still being debated by experts (historicity agnosticism is far more defensible and makes far more sense for amateurs on the sidelines) and (2) criticizing Christianity with a lead of “Jesus didn’t even exist” is strategically ill conceived–it’s bad strategy on many levels, it only makes atheists look illogical, and (counter-intuitively) it can actually make Christians more certain of their faith.

I think his piece is a must-read. I’ll only briefly comment on some of its key arguments here.

I quite agree with (1) and (2). I’ve made both points myself over the years. But Fincke lays out the reasoning well. He concludes, for example, that until “secular historians…at least become widely divided over” the matter of historicity (emphasis on widely and the minimal benchmark of divided), atheists who are not themselves experts in the field should not be “advocating for one side or the other routinely and prominently.” (There is a growing division, BTW, but it’s not yet wide…although I know other historians who privately confess they are willing to concede agnosticism about historicity but who won’t admit it in public, so the division is wider than we know–but until more go public, we can’t know how wide.) Meanwhile, Fincke explains, “we should either be agnostic on the issue,” as Fincke is, or “defer to historical consensus,” or, “if we really find [e.g.] Carrier’s arguments compelling” then we should “still be cautious and qualified in our declarations, acknowledging that we are agreeing with a minority view (and one that even Carrier seems far from certain about).”

Amen.

In aid of that last parenthetical, I can announce one spoiler: in my book On the Historicity of Jesus (at the publisher now and expected this February, if their production timeline goes to plan) I conclude that, using probability estimates as far against my conclusion as are at all reasonably possible (probabilities I believe are wildly too generous), there could be as much as a 1 in 3 chance that Jesus existed. When using what I think are more realistic estimates of the requisite probabilities (estimates I believe are closer to the truth), those chances drop to around 1 in 12,000.

Note that the first estimate leaves a respectable probability that Jesus existed–it’s merely more likely that he didn’t, not anywhere near certain. And that may well be correct, if my biases are strong and thus my a fortiori estimates (estimates against myself) more accurate. But even if we embrace the other end of my margin of error, we are still not looking at certainty. 1 in 12,000 sounds like certainty, but it’s actually nowhere near. Just ask yourself: would you get into a car that had a 1 in 12,000 chance of exploding right then? If your answer is yes, then you are bad at math.

Supernatural miracles, and disembodied minds, and blood magic, have odds of millions or billions or even trillions or quadrillions to one against. So why would you hang your case against Christianity on a mere 1 in 12,000? You can make a far better case against that religion by granting historicity and then showing the odds against it are trillions to one. The additional reduction in the probability that Christianity is true that is added by calculating-in the possibility Jesus didn’t exist is relatively so minuscule it’s honestly not worth troubling yourself over (the more so as no Christian will accept estimates that get you to 1 in 12,000 without first having already given up their faith…so the most you can hope for is to get them to that measly 1 in 3, and even that won’t be likely, and it’s weak tea anyway).

As Fincke says, “the notion of a godman who performed miracles and rose from the dead is preposterous.” You don’t need to sandbag your own case for that conclusion by adding onto it the controversial and still largely untested possibility that Jesus didn’t exist. That makes you an easy mark for straw man arguments. But worse, it activates an innate human cognitive bias in any Christian you might be trying to persuade: if a conclusion is defended with a weak argument and a strong argument, anyone biased against that conclusion will assume you only had a weak argument (the science of this is discussed in Long & Tarico’s chapters in The Christian Delusion). The brain assumes, intuitively, that if one argument is dubious, then the other one must be, too, even if in fact it hasn’t actually thought of a single honest reason it should be. That’s how brains work. It’s fucked up. But still. You have to work with the brains you are actually trying to persuade, not the imaginary perfectly rational brains you wish evolution had given us.

So please. Learn from science. Dump the strategy of arguing that Christianity (or the New Testament, or this or that teaching, or anything whatever) is false “because Jesus didn’t exist.”

Fincke elaborates on this point, in ways you seriously need to consider. He’s right: first, “atheists should be properly cautious, disciplined, patient, and deferent to scholarship before committing strongly to beliefs one way or the other about the historical Jesus,” and second, “there are overwhelmingly clear strategic reasons not to get into fights about [this] issue with Christians.” He explains that last point even better than I do, and with more reasons and examples. Go take a look.

Comments

  1. Alex says

    Maybe I should finish reading your book first, but I always have a serious problem with this discussion, namely the statements “Jesus did exist” and “Jesus did not exist”. What does one mean by that anyhow?

    It’s not at all clear to me. The baseline would be “A person by the name of Jesus lived at that time in the region”. Probability for that is near 100% I guess. Then you can add attributes – “a charismatic preacher named Jesus lived roughly at that time in the region”. Even without knowing much about the history of the region, I would assign a pretty high probability. If you add a different aspect of the story – “a guy who was magical and of divine origine by the name of Jesus lived at that time”. You discard that one even though it is by far the most important attribute that makes the literary figure Jesus the Jesus. Much more important than the name, really. If we discard the miracles and divine descent, haven’t we already discarded the most important aspect that would warrant an identification of the literary figure with a historical person?

    How much and which things have to be correct about Jesus’ CV in order to warrant an identification with a certain historical person? If the stories are an amalgam of different charismatic personalities and some made-up stuff, is the question still well-defined?

    Maybe you can bring some clarity into this, or maybe I should just wait for the book :D

    • says

      What does one mean by that anyhow?

      This question is precisely the topic of Lindsay’s contribution to Sources of the Jesus Tradition, which is one of the few worthwhile chapters in that. The book is kind of a waste, but it has a few chapters like that that are good, and if you are interested in that question, that chapter relates (you can get it on kindle; if you want my review of the good and bad in that book, see here).

      For myself, I devote two chapters to this question in my next book: in one I carefully define what “Jesus existed” means (i.e. the least that could possibly be true, and that still be true–in any meaningful sense), and in the next I carefully define what “Jesus did not exist” means (or more precisely, what the only credible theory of the origins of Christianity is without “Jesus existed” being true, and again defined in minimal terms, i.e. the least that needs to be true for that theory to be true; I briefly also explain why other theories are not at present credible, which in Bayesian terms means, have vanishingly small priors).

    • Koray says

      What is typical in historical studies for less extraordinary characters? I mean, a head of state in a time period is a unique person, and historians can still argue over exactly how blond he was, but for a Captain John Smith during the civil war, at what point do we believe that we have uniquely identified the person first, and then get in the business of refining his attributes?

  2. says

    Quite. I don’t see a reason for this as part of a method for arguing against religion or the behaviors of some followers of religion. It can make for an interesting discussion with someone who makes unsupported fact claims about the existence of Jesus, whether or not they are a believer.

  3. says

    ​OMG! I was planning to use this new atheist superweapon (“The Carrier Blade”) against my christian friend to fend off his “Sword of Spirit” and cut through his “Armor of God”! And now you are saying I have to pack it up and leave it on the shelf until further notice? :(

  4. jamessweet says

    Three cheers for this. Just as you say, as a layperson (with just enough education on the topic to see why the historical consensus lacks even the barest resemblance of certitude) I feel like historical agnosticism is the only remotely defensible position.

    The only thing I’ll add is that, when the conversation calls for it, I’m careful to refer to “the Biblical Jesus” or the “the historical Jesus” as appropriate. The Biblical Jesus obviously did not exist, and even if the historical Jesus did and the former’s exploits are ostensibly based on the latter’s, we know that at most this is only true in a very loose sense: Some of the most famous Adventures Of Jesus were penned centuries later and so clearly cannot be based on anything that happened to a hypothetical historical Jesus.

    But yeah, tactically it is probably better to avoid that conversation if possible, for the reasons you and Fincke describe. If I have to make the distinction, I will, but better to just side-step that entire issue.

    • says

      Good lord no! That would be near 100% certainty of exploding. That would be analogous to a near 100% chance Jesus existed–and then insisting he didn’t, i.e. getting into the car.

  5. atheist says

    Those are good reasons for atheists not to argue against the historical existence of a “Jesus”. The better, deeper reason against arguing it is of course that it’s irrelevant whether Jesus existed or not. It makes little difference whether incorrect beliefs come from a historical source or a mythical one; they’re still incorrect.

  6. says

    It comes down to how you define “existed.”

    Was there a historical man named Yeheshua in Jerusalem during the first half of the first century CE who gathered a following by preaching a religious-political theory indistinguishable from that of the Kana’im (Zealots)? Was it possible that his followers called him the meshiach, the king chosen by God to overthrow both Roman rule and the corrupt policies of the Sedukim who controlled the Temple? Was it likely that the authorities of Jerusalem, fearing his popularity, ratted him out to the Roman overlords who arrested and executed him on charges of sedition? Almost certainly: such men were three for a penny.

    Did his followers believe that he would rise from the dead after his execution, bringing the purification he preached and condemning sinners before ascending into Heaven in glory? Very likely: there is substantial contemporary evidence that these were common beliefs in the pop movements of the day, and that many leaders in many similar movements fostered such beliefs in their divine powers, whether or not they openly claimed them.

    Was he actually the person described in the Gospels and Epistles, documents written by devoted followers decades after the fact by people who probably never met him? Did he actually perform miracles and raise the dead? Did he actually rise from the dead himself and ascend into Heaven in glory? No more so than any of the hundreds of others about whom the same things were claimed.

  7. gshelley says

    If a non believer was discussing religion with a Christian, who used the basis of Jesus’ historical existence for their proof of Christianity, would you therefore suggest that we just point out that the stories are so heavily mythologised, that the earliest copies we have, hundred years later show differences and that all but the most conservative of bible scholars accept that there are many forgeries and deliberate insertions and omissions, so we cannot conclude anything at all, or is it worth pointing out that there is a growing movement of agnosticism regarding Jesus’ existence and that the actual evidence for him as a historical figure is pretty weak?

    I had avoided Bart Ehrman’s book (despite liking his other work and owning four of his books aimed at the general reader), partially on your review, but more on his response, but now I am not sure sure, I feel I ought to familairse myself with the case for the historical Jesus, and even with its flaws, this may be the best case, especially if I am aware of them, and I know it is a case for the historical Jesus that makes little or no attempt to actually engage or analyse mythicist arguments (for example, genuine attempt to look at the issue would discuss the mythicist explanation of the “brother of the Lord” quote, if only to show why it was wrong. Most of the other books I am aware of are from Christian apologists such as Josh McDowell and are truly worthless.

    • says

      would you therefore suggest that…or…

      The former, primarily.

      The latter, only if it comes up for some other reason.

      Unless by “the actual evidence for him as a historical figure is pretty weak” you don’t mean “the actual evidence for him existing as a historical figure is pretty weak” but rather “the actual evidence for what is historically true about him is pretty weak.” Because then you are approaching the same conversation as the former.

      [Ehrman’s book] may be the best case…

      Sadly, it isn’t. But you are right that it contains at least typical arguments and thus on the principle that one ought to know what tunes the Devil is playing, you ought to read that book…if you are armed with my review, you know its errors and iffyness already and thus you know not to trust every fact claim in it and to question the logic of every argument in it.

      It is shocking that such a book was written by a mainstream secular scholar, because it reads like second grade amateur Christian apologetics. But then, one still needs to know second grade amateur Christian apologetics, because that’s what one will confront most of the time.

      Maurice Casey is coming out with another anti-myth book (expected around the same time as my book), and he’s another mainstream (I assume secular) scholar, and I’ve heard from those who’ve seen advance copies that it also is not very good. But I won’t be able to judge that until I see the text myself, which I won’t likely be able to do until my own book is already published.

      In the meantime, the “best” pro-historicity text is The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. But I use “best” only in a relative sense: it actually is tedious and weak (even a historicist would concede it isn’t the best defense of their case), but it at least is not the disaster of Ehrman’s book. It’s main flaws are in being extremely long and dense and wishy washy in every conclusion. Somehow (!) it manages to be very long and detailed (it is pretty thorough), yet never covers any debate over the evidence in adequate detail. A weird contradiction. But alas.

    • gshelley says

      Well, it does seem to me that the evidence for him existing is pretty weak – The gospels are unreliable and the extra biblical references for at least the first hundred years after the supposed events are slim. Of course, this is not the same as arguing he didn’t exist. To do that well, it really helps (and perhaps even is essential) to understand biblical Greek and to have a thorough background in the society and culture (in so far as we know) at the time. Much of the evidence for mythicism is from the way Paul talks about Jesus, but this involves such technical language and somewhat esoteric concepts that the amateur really just needs to sit on the sidelines and watch the dueling experts (assuming a Historicist can be found to honestly address the mythicist claims)

      An amateur can probably say that Josephus is highly unlikely to be 100% original and point out that even the attempts at non Christian reconstruction have issues in how positive the language of these potential original readings are, but to go beyond that and be confident it is fully an interpretation really does take expertise – One of the chapters “Is this not the Carpenter” (I forget which one, but IIRC, it was one you dismissed as essentially worthless) has a fairly long section arguing that the Testimonium is based on an original passage. While I can find it interesting, and see some errors, I am in no position to fully demonstrate why it is fatally flawed.

      All of which is one of the reasons I would like to see a good argument for the Hisoricity. The ones online seem to be either circular (ie arguing that the gospels come from an earlier oral tradition, that this dates back to the actual time of Jesus, therefore Jesus existed and similar arguments), or from incredulity (of the sort, “There is no way a cult could have developed without a leader”) or looking at one aspect without even considering the alternate explanation “It just doesn’t happen in history that a mythical being is made into a real person” without asking if the reverse happens, if a real person is turned into a god or demi god shortly after their death).

  8. Randall Johnson says

    Once you reject the stories, whether they were based on a real person or not becomes somewhat irrelevant. I mean, how much does it matter if the writer of Paul Bunyan once knew a terrific woodsman? Or in this case, was just told by his father or grandfather there was once a terrific woodsman. Once you say he had a giant blue ox, it ceases to matter.

    I lean toward mythicism simply because even that far back, if someone was important enough, say Herod, we have a pretty good idea of when he was born and when he died. This is not the case with Jesus despite all the wild accompanying phenomena that announced both dates. Even if they heralded the coming of no one in particular, the celestial pyrotechnics and terrestrial rumblings alone ought to have been noted by someone.

    When we throw in the fact that biblical accounts of Jesus are in wide disagreement even though those who compiled the NT got to pick the most agreeable four of forty gospels and more doubt creeps in.

    Then let’s add that not even most Christians believe the Genesis account of the lady and her snake. There is no need for a savior to take away a non-existent original sin.

    Finally the whole story makes no sense. He did not die for our sins- and certainly not, according to one of the accounts, willingly. God sent his only child down to tell us his truth and for that we tortured and killed him. And for this heinous act, our notoriously intolerant god forgives us and welcomes us to heaven???? No, this would have been the straw that caused god to create the Vogon Constructor Fleet and start over from scratch.

    On the other hand, I do agree with Hitchens’ take that the census lies constructed to get him born in Bethlehem are somewhat compelling evidence there was a real woodsman behind the blue-ox fables.

    Since Atwill got his crack at a crack-pot theory, here’s mine-

    A small band of out-of-work scribes were sitting around a campfire tossing back a few barley beers and shooting the sh!t about nice it would be to never die. One of them says, “Yeah, but that would take a Messiah.” The next guy says, “Maybe he’ll come soon.”

    The third guy says, “Well if he comes right after we die, we could stay dead for 30 years waiting for him to die and wouldn’t we be a sight showing up at the gates in that condition. Wait! I’ve got it! What if he already came and we just missed him?” After running through the local folklore, they found a candidate and a star was born.

    • says

      I do agree with Hitchens’ take that the census lies constructed to get him born in Bethlehem are somewhat compelling evidence there was a real woodsman behind the blue-ox fables.

      That actually isn’t a valid argument. I explain why in Proving History (index, “Nazareth”).

  9. says

    Until I see a coherent definition of what is meant by “a historical Jesus” I’m unable to follow either Fincke’s or Carrier’s remarks. At one extreme, of course there was a Jesus in Palestine around the time claimed for the same reason there was a Smith in the Boston area around 1700. Both are common names, so the odds are overwhelming. At the other extreme, was there the Jesus depicted in the gospels? I’ve seen no evidence whatever.

  10. tyro says

    I know – “see discussion above” – but I feel compelled to add that when anyone (except historians) talk about Jesus they are talking about “a godman who performed miracles and rose from the dead” and, as Fincke says, this “is preposterous.” Jesus might exist like Santa exists, as a mundane person almost totally disconnected from what we think of today. But like saying that Santa existed while actually meaning a non-magical ancient saint, I think it’s deceptive and bordering on dishonest to say that Jesus existed when actually talking about a non-magical preacher.

    So rather than talking about an historical Jesus (which is preposterous), I prefer to talk about the originator or inspiration of Jesus. I think it’s fascinating that there might not even be an historical person to inspire the Jesus myth but as you say, this is currently a curiosity and a minority view to boot.

  11. Solstice says

    Like I said over on Vridar, I can sorta understand what you’re saying. The first book I read on Christ-mythicsm was Atwill’s CM. The book plays well to a noobie audience, and my immediate reaction was to be like the kid who has just found out that Santa/Easter Bunny isn’t real and go tell all my friends just to get a rise out of them. But instead I decided to STFU. Over the years I expanded my reading to Doherty, Carrier, Price, etc. As I got a fuller picture of the situation, I’m glad I didn’t go around telling everyone about CM and then looking foolish having to retract it later. I’m well down the path of trying to understand what happened with the beginning of Christianity… but the next issue is, how do we communicate something potentially so startling to believers? There needs to be a diplomatic way, otherwise the “shock” factor would be counterproductive.

    Slightly off topic, Lech Walesa has called for a “Secular 10 Commandments”.
    http://www.france24.com/en/20131022-nobel-laureate-lech-walesa-calls-secular-ten-commandments

    Someone should point out Carriers article “The Real 10 Commandments” from 2000 which summarizes Solon’s rules from ~500BC as an alternative to the 10 commandments of Moses:
    http://www.infidels.org/kiosk/article2.html
    http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Lives_of_the_Eminent_Philosophers/Book_I#Solon

  12. jim Green says

    If you say there isn’t really any proof Jesus existed to a Christian he will almost always mention Josephus.

    And of course they will not have read anything about Josephus.

    So when I tell them that Josephus was not even alive when Jesus was supposed to have been they usually don’t want to talk any more.

  13. grumpyoldfart says

    My standard comment on this subject:

    You know how sure you are that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist?
    That’s how sure I am that Jesus didn’t exist.

  14. says

    I see an indication that Jesus did not exist in the way we adopted a calendar whose year zero is based on the purported Jesus birth.

    This year zero was invented around the year 525 A.D., and was computed by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus. The Anno Domini era became dominant in Western Europe only after it was used by the Venerable Bede to date the events in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731. (per Wikipedia
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysius_Exiguus)

    Again, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesiastical_History_of_the_English_People states that “Bede’s use of something similar to the anno Domini era, created by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in 525, throughout Historia Ecclesiastica was very influential in causing that era to be adopted thereafter in Western Europe.[41]

    Had there really been a Jesus, wouldn’t we have adopted his birth as our year zero much earlier? Wasn’t this a case of the myth gradually becoming accepted as reality as Christianity spread, until a tipping point was reached, and everyone used that for their “year zero”?

    Thank you,
    Brian Lemaire

  15. robotczar says

    It seems to me that a point being missed is that Christians make a big point about Jesus being a real person. I recall, for example, seeing a book in Rome comparing the “mythical” Mithras to the “historical” Jesus. The author certainly felt that a historical Jesus lent credibility to Christianity. That Jesus was a man is an important part of Christian doctrine. Believing that there was no historical Jesus is considered radical and unfounded even by people you are fairly knowledgeable and well educated. It seems to matter to them if Jesus was a real person instead of a celestial being known mainly through visions of a few. The fact that there is basically zero historical evidence for a real Jesus is considered a ridiculous by most non-experts in this country (USA). In that context, a more forceful position doubting the existence of a Jesus is justified and also necessary to counter the complacency of many non-fundamentalist Christians. Though they may be a necessary source of information and opinion, experts are not the only ones that have a role to play.

    • says

      To say “a historical Jesus lends credibility to Christianity” is like saying “a historical Joseph Smith lends credibility to Mormonism” or “a historical Mohammed lends credibility to Islam.”

      It’s not a very helpful way to think. Certainly, Mormonism and Islam are false if there was no Joseph Smith or Mohammed. But if we can’t clearly and decisively prove they didn’t exist, that is a useless way to attempt to discredit those religions. It is far, far easier to show that neither Joseph Smith nor Mohammed can be shown to have done anything actually miraculous or credible, therefore the religions they started are mundane and not true.

      Of course, I personally think Jesus corresponds to Moroni and Gabriel, who definitely didn’t exist. But how would you prove Moroni and Gabriel don’t exist? And would it really ever be a sound strategy to try and argue that Mormonism and Islam are false “because angels don’t exist”? Really, admitting angels don’t exist is what one gets to after they realize their religion is false. You generally aren’t going to convince them their religion is false because angels don’t exist.

      Even though that is logically correct, i.e. no angels, no religions, what is logical and what will actually convince someone are totally different things…sadly, but that’s how it is. Moreover, the evidence against the truth of Christianity, Mormonism, and Islam is vast, whereas the evidence against the existence of angels (as a generalization, much less specific angels) is weaker. So you should never lead with a weak argument. You should lead with the strong. Then they will realize their religion is false. Then they will realize that angels don’t exist and that Mohammed and Joseph Smith (just like Peter and Paul) just made it all up.

  16. Charles Denel says

    Thank you Richard for an eye opening piece. I’ve just finished David Fitzgerald’s book ‘Nailed’ which, apart from your blog, has been an introduction to some of the historicity arguments for me. I haven’t yet purchased one of your books (although I am from the UK I live somewhere in the Arabian Gulf so,as you can imagine, your work is hard to come by in these parts).

    It has been extremely tempting for me to throw all this new found perspective at Christians but I realise, as atheists, it is easy for us to lose sight of human psychology while blinded by our certitude. Attacking the core tenet of the Christian faith is a guaranteed way to achieve max pushback as you point out.

    A book that I am looking forward to is Peter Boghossian’s ‘Street Manual for Creating Atheists’. His recent interviews which can be found on a number of popular podcasts illustrate his sensible approach which is to question religion at a fundamental level rather than being faith specific; at least in the early stages of the discussion.

    Thank you again and keep up the good work!

  17. says

    Excuse the slightly o/t question, but I ended up on this page via a couple of click throughs from Exploring our Matrix. There McGrath posts a video in which you discuss the Rank-Raglan mythotype. Have you written about this in more detail on your blog or in print (Google didn’t come up with anything)?

  18. says

    Personally, whether Jesus existed or not isn’t all that important to me. It’s not unusual for fiction to be based on true stories. There’s actually three 3 separate, individual claims:

    1) Jesus Existed
    2) Jesus could perform scientific law-breaking miracles
    3) Jesus was the son of God

    Since #1 is’t extraordinary (some charismatic figure guy existed once), it wouldn’t be difficult to demonstrate this claim… but it wouldn’t be all that significant.

    #2 and #3 are what Christianity is actually about, and no amount of people saying they saw it, especially in old books/documents, could establish these claims as true, beyond the fact that they attended an event where they think they saw something magical happen.

    At that point, breaking a specific law of physics, for example, would have to be independently confirmed to even be possible, in controlled laboratory conditions. Until that particular capacity is shown to be normal and easy, no amount of textual evidence can establish it as true.

    I have no idea how one would demonstrate that one is the “son” of this “God” – the single most absurd concept conceivable – by design.

  19. otrame says

    Personally, I just find it a fascinating idea: that the whole thing is based on a bunch of stories, that there never was anyone more like the Jesus of scriptures than the average itinerant rabbi wandering around, of which there were many. I don’t have an opinion on whether that is true or not. To the extent that I have read up on it, I think there is reason to consider it possible, but I am not sure there is enough evidence left to ever be sure.

    And, frankly, it only matters as a quirk of history. I am, however, looking forward to your new book.

  20. moarscienceplz says

    Alex’s thoughts at #1 occurred to me as well. Furthermore, what if there really was a preacher who wandered around Galilee and said the Sermon on the Mount, and there really was a guy in Jerusalem who was crucified for the crime of being called King of the Jews, but they were not the same person? Where’s Historical Jesus in that case?

  21. says

    Unfortunately, all this ‘logical’ discussion regarding a ‘historical Jesus’ just plays into the argument from a Christian regarding theology and the belief in Jesus. Their starting point is within the realm of theological discourse, and historicity is of no consequence for them. Mathematics and probabilities are not adequate enough to deal with the subject, as far as they are concerned.

  22. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    I think it is a rotten strategy because the theology fits together much better with Christ as a mythical being. Remember that under Christ myth theory Paul believed in a non-historical Christ. So why would rewinding Christianity to his position prove atheism?

    There have always been theological problems with a historical Christ. Not least that anyone born before Christ is damned because they don’t believe in a person born after them. That has always been a weak point in Christian theology.

    God is created in the image of man and Jesus isn’t fitting modern needs. So it is time to reinvent him anyway.

    The gospels are not credible whether or not there was a historical Jesus. If Christ is historical then there is no reinventing him or rescuing him. He is that dude with reactionary views on divorce and much else. A mythical Christ fits much better with modern science and cosmology.

  23. says

    Your car exploding example is inapt. The consequence of the 1 in 12,000 chance is death. Of course no one would get in, especially since there is nothing to be gained in this context-free hypothetical. What’s the risk of saying Jesus didn’t exist in the case that there is a 1 in 12,000 chance he did? There is none, and not just because you can’t be proven wrong. All of this is to say, certainty has got nothing to do with historical reasoning. What is probable is the standard. If there is a 33% chance Jesus existed, than you should say he probably didn’t exist.

    • says

      My article and Fincke’s explains the risk is not “none.” It might not be risking your death, but it is risking the accomplishment of any useful goal you may have had. Which negates the value of spending any time on it.

      Nevertheless, I quite agree, provided we have examined the best case made by experts on both sides and agree there is no more than a 33% chance Jesus existed (for example), we should say Jesus probably didn’t exist. But we shouldn’t say we are so certain of this that we can be sure Christianity is false because of that fact alone. And we shouldn’t be trying to argue that Christianity is false because Jesus “probably but not certainly” didn’t exist. Or that Christians are idiots because they believe Jesus existed. That is the weakest of tea and terribly self-defeating, for all the reasons I explained and Fincke details. Which is the whole point of the article you are commenting on.

  24. L.Long says

    Define what is meant by ‘did jesus exist’.
    The jesus that walked on water, rose duds from the dead, was resurrected & floated up to the sky??? 100% NO WAY!!! no how. I don’t care how many people swear their G’Dad knew a guy who says it happened.
    Was there a jew preach/holey man??? Could be and don’t care.
    The stuff in the buyBull others claim he said are still some of the biggest lies told. And 100% proof that jesus was real will not change that.

  25. Bob says

    Thanks for that post Richard. I am really interested how you deal with James the brother of Jesus.
    For his existence, there seems to be good evidence. Or am I completely mistaken here?

    • says

      Better to go to the source.

      Note that the paper does not say they proved anything new. Only that they established certain features of the logic required.

      Gödel’s ontological argument commits a classic existential fallacy. And this has long been known. The error can be spotted in their paper (though they don’t mention it, so I suspect they don’t notice it). D1 exemplifies an equivocation fallacy: stated as they give it, “A God-like being possesses all positive properties,” can mean (A) “There is a God-like being who possesses all positive properties” or (B) “A God-like being would possess all positive properties if that being existed.” They can only get the conclusion that God exists by assuming D1 = (A), which renders the entire argument circular. If they assume instead that D1 = (B), which obviously they would have to to avoid circularity, then the conclusion becomes “Necessarily, if God exists, then he exists.” Which is fatuous.

  26. says

    I agree that amateurs cannot expect to impose their theories of how the purported Jesus myth originated.

    Any reasonable explanations would indeed require a familiarity with sources they don’t have.

    Historical agnosticism on how any such myth originated, given the paucity of sources, really does seem to be mandated.

    But you seem to imply that non-professionals cannot argue that the Gospels are worthless as historical sources, and that the non-Christian testimonies alleged do not suffice. And although you explicitly state more severe criticisms (yet, no one is perfectly consistent, are they?) the general tenor implies pretty strongly that the scholars who do credit the Gospels as historical sources, are reasonable, truly scholarly in the laudatory sense. The sense seems to be that those of us who do not accept the historical value of the Gospels without confronting the reasonable arguments of the academy are, well, I guess more or less malicious, incompetent rabble? That implication does seem awfully extreme.

    But, I suppose the implication that one can master the full apparatus of scholarship yet still produce nonsense seems equally extreme? That asserting millions of people for centuries have essentially believed nonsense is not only extreme but in a way outrageously dismissive, even betraying a sinister notion of ideology?

    The thing is, if there really were such a shocking infestation of the culture, shouldn’t we be rather more interested in ending that, not just in winning some trivial assent to regard Christianity as a cultural metaphor, suitable to personal taste?

  27. Chuck Messenger says

    To me, the important question isn’t whether or not “Jesus existed”. What’s so interesting to me is that Carrier’s thesis (that Jesus was in fact a Hellenistically-hermenized Hebrew deity) makes so much more sense out of the information we have. In other words, yeah, sure, maybe there was a nice guy named Jesus who inspired an intensely loyal following, was crucified, and then legendized. But Carrier’s schema explains the peculiarities of Christianity far better than bland “legendizing”.

    Let’s see – how to put that in Carrier’s terms…? “Legendizing” could explain almost anything – think King Arthur, Paul Bunyan, etc. It has a high prior. But Jesus, the 1st century Jewish celestial being, syncretized with Greek pagan religion, then hermenized into a person – that’s really specifc. It has a low prior. And yet, it explains Christianity’s peculiar doctrines, and the hard historical evidence, so well! Once you get this, it becomes infectious – you want to investigate the whole thing over again! It’s a truly fascinating line of thought – why would you want to deny somebody the benefit of that? (Unless, of course, you expect them to take it personally – in which case, why go there…?)

  28. Lothar Lorraine says

    Dear Dr. Carrier, all your reasoning is based on OBJECTIVE Bayesianism, the idea that we can objectively determine the probability of everything in the universe (or multiverse).

    I have very recently formulated a challenge to Bayesianism http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/on-the-ontology-of-the-objective-bayesian-probability-interpretation/

    which I ended with the following questions:

    “Frequentism provides us with well-defined probabilities in many situations. The likelihood of getting a coin coming down as heads is identical with the frequency of this event if I were to repeat it an infinite number of times and the central limit theorem guarantees that one gets an increasingly better approximation of this quantity with a growing number of trials.
    But what does the likelihood of the theory of universal gravitation being 2%, 5% or 15% mean?
    And once one has come up with a definition one thinks to be valid, what is the objective value for the probability prior to any observation being taken into account?
    I could not find any answer in the Bayesian papers I have read until now, these questions are apparently best ignored. But to my mind they are very important if you pretend to be building up a theory of knowledge based on probabilities.”

    I think that if you really want to hold fast to objectivity, you should regard your historical probabilities as (theoretical) infinite frequencies of events, which can be legitimately computed with Bayes theorem.
    And new scientific theories about an infinite multiverse give us grounds for believing that these frequencies might ACTUALLY exist.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCRTuwCdmP0&list=PL80617F2D676B2863

    Of course, subjective Bayesianism might be another option.

    But I don’t want to misrepresent your ideas and that’s why I am asking.

    Thanks in advance for your answer!

    • says

      Dear Dr. Carrier, all your reasoning is based on OBJECTIVE Bayesianism, the idea that we can objectively determine the probability of everything in the universe (or multiverse).

      No, it isn’t. I explicitly articulate my method as subjective Bayesianism, and deconstruct its relation to objective probabilities, in my book Proving History. See, especially, pp. 265-80, in light of the entries in “subjective vs. objective” in the index.

      I also, incidentally, answer there, in detail, what subjective probabilities mean in relation to objective facts. The very question you seem to think doesn’t have an answer.

  29. ilateo2 says

    It seems to me that if one gathered up all the evidence for the existence of a Jesus Christ as presented in the gospel texts, it would be thrown out of a court of law pretty darn fast. To me, that is enough to qualify the Jesus story as not historical in any way. I still think the burden of proof is on the one making the claim, and since holes have been shot in all of the apologetics, I remain unconvinced and not hesitant to say that this character is fictional.

  30. infovore says

    From my perspective (interested layperson) it is striking to note that theologians seem to have a hard time explaining why Jesus had to die on the cross. It looks a lot like the crucifixion is a brute fact that they somehow have to rationalize. Which is a (weak) argument in favor of a historical Jesus, in the sense of there having been a real corpse on a real cross.

    It is a weak argument because in the myhthicist version of events they may have started out with an explanation that was rendered inapplicable once the underlying theology changed. As an example, consider the references to Jesus as the second Adam. Adam’s sin is disobedience to god. Jesus, in this reading, exemplified/demonstrated absolute obedience to god. The oldest gospel, Mark, can be read as telling this story, from adoption by god granting divine powers, to having those powers taken away again and dying on the cross. (Only alluded to is how resurrection and exaltation are the final rewards for this level of obedience.)

    This is the kind of story that could easily be attached to a real life that ended on a cross. But it is also sufficiently self-consistent that it could easily have been made up out of whole cloth. In either case it is not the trinitarian theology Christianity ended up with. If Christianity started with a single consistent story, then that strengthens the hand of those arguing it was all made up. If it was a mess of contradictions from the very outset, it helps the side arguing that people were trying hard to make sense of real historical events and could not agree on how to interpret them. A complicating factor is that the earliest author, Paul, attached himself to an already-existing movement, and that his status in that movement, especially his claim to be an apostle, was in question. Paul’s letters are not a reliable guide to the beliefs of that movement, but do we have anything better?

    For what it’s worth, I’m currently inclined towards the historicist position that there was a crucified preacher at the root of Christianity. But also following the debate.

  31. cbarf says

    Considering that most everyday religious believers that you will engage with (including the ones just knowledgable enough to stand on a busy street and proclaim their faith) have a very strong belief system surely it is the worst of all strategies to say that Jesus “might” not have existed? If anything that sounds like an admission that he may have existed, which will confirmation bias the theist in exactly the way you understand a weak argument will. Agnosticism on any level already gets a bad rap as being wishy-washy (even from self identified athiests) even though in many cases it is the only correct position to take with regard to certainty.

    After all in many scientific experiments we only prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, which although is comfortably more than 1 in a million is still not certainty. And just because it always happened that way before is no proof of it happening that way again, as Hume succinctly wrote about proofs by induction. Certainty is a rare commodity indeed, and waiting around for it to strike is surely the most hopeless of all strategies?

    Surely the better strategy is to be unyielding in your convictions in order to wrest attention of the audience? The most common tale I hear of theists losing their religion (and apologies for the anecdotal evidence here) is that they encountered a piece of evidence that created a cognitive dissonance which after some time caused them to conclude that their religion must not be true as that was the only way the disconnect could be rebound. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful tool, and rightly so. Many religious people do not know the nature of the gospels (their selection, that they were written in greek not hebrew, that they were written long after they were based meaning that they are not primary / eyewitness accounts, that the commonly told Jesus narrative is actually cherry picked across the books as they do not match up well, that the Jesus character follows mythological hero structure, et al.)

    When so much of Christianity is specifically based around someone’s personal identity with Jesus, I can;t really think of a better strategy than attacking the foundation of their belief. All you need is for one cognitive dissonance to stick well. I don’t see how letting them off with an admission that you cannot be 100% sure is an optimal game plan.

    • says

      That would make sense if the non-existence of Jesus was now the widest consensus of biblical scholars (as it is for Moses and Abraham). Or if the evidence against the existence of Jesus was so clear cut it was beyond reasonable doubt. Or really, both.

      But neither is the case, and that’s the problem. If you want to create cognitive dissonance, don’t use a challenge that is so easy to dismiss. Cognitive dissonance is easy to escape when one of the contradicting facts is easily disregarded. Weak case against historicity vs. strong faith: faith wins every time.

      Not a sound strategy.

      There are far stronger arguments to use to that effect.

      One of those is to show how the Gospels are mythical baloney top to bottom *even if* Jesus existed. That is far more disturbing, because it is far harder to deny (since the widest consensus of biblical scholars supports it and the evidence for it is so clear cut it’s beyond reasonable doubt; and you don’t have to create the more difficult prospect of convincing them to entertain the unimaginable-to-them conclusion that there wasn’t even an ordinary Jesus).

  32. cbarf says

    Ah got it – that makes sense. I mistakenly bound Jesus-didn’t-exist with gospels-are-myth as being the same thing, so missed the point. I agree that the religious belief comes from the acts attributed in the gospels rather than the existence of the person to whom they are attributed.

    Thanks for taking the time to clear that for me!

  33. Bob says

    I find it tragic that mythicists find not so much respect these days. This seems the case because there are lots of mythicists out there who are pseudo scholars, people who do not use reason and evidence but often use a kind of political agenda. I do applaud Richard for taking on the thing as a real scholar who follows the evidence, tries to evaluate evidence as good as possible, and uses evidence to construct a case. The only slight critique of Richard I have is the way he dealt with Prof. Ehrman. Ehrman seems to be a good guy who will absolutely change his view on historicity if Richard lays out a good case.

  34. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Dr. Carrier, I have the same question as several others in this page. I read your answers, but I am still left with questions.

    I was recently watching a debate between an atheist and a Christian. The Christian took the common tactic of arguing that the historical evidence (including the Christian bible and other extra-biblical sources) can only be made sense of under the fact that Jesus was a man who did magic. Stuff like “the apostles wouldn’t have died for a lie”. It’s very much the standard William Lane Craig argument. How do you want us non-experts to respond to this?

    The Christian claims that the only plausible explanations of the known evidence is that Jesus is a magic man. This does have the form of an argument from ignorance, but valid and sound arguments also take this form. It is insufficient to merely assert that it’s an argument from ignorance.

    Offhand, the route I currently take is: The only way I know to show that the Christian’s argument is not supported is by showing how the evidence is compatible with other hypotheses. If I understand Bayesian reasoning correctly, I need to at least identify other plausible hypotheses, and determine how likely those are on the known evidence. (Of course, I rarely couch it in such technical terms.)

    So, I need to identify alternative hypotheses, and preferably plausible and even relatively likely ones. I can talk about the hypothesis that Jesus was just a historical figure and the miracle accounts were later exaggerated. However, I think that hypothesis is a weaker hypothesis than the mythicism hypothesis. If I only talk about the hypotheses that include a historical Jesus but not miracle claims, then I am leading with a weak argument and holding my strong argument in reserve. The strong argument is to note that all of the evidence is compatible with the hypothesis that Jesus didn’t exist because that hypothesis is IMHO much more plausible and likely. (Of course, I always bring up that this is a fringe position right now amongst historians, and then I note that it’s also a relatively fringe position to be unconvinced that the Christian god exists amongst historians. (Right?))

    I believe in another thread just now, you argued that the Christian god would have done things to make himself better known. I admit that I have not yet had a chance yet to read your arguments to which you linked, but offhand I find this to be a very weak argument. If you allow for an uncaring or malicious Christian god, then I don’t immediately see why it should have made itself better known that the evidence we currently have. Thus, I don’t consider this to be a strong argument. The strong argument is the insufficiency of the evidence for the Christian god, which you do by showing and arguing for the plausibility of alternative hypothesis. The strong argument is not attempting to argue that the Christian god does not exist because if it did we should expect more evidence.

    So, do you believe I am doing anything wrong? What tactics do you think are better?

    Perhaps it’s better persuasion to try and argue that the Christian god is immoral instead of arguing that there is no basis for the belief that the Christian god exists. However, if the conversation is already deep into the existence question and hasn’t addressed the moral question, I feel this is a somewhat intellectually dishonest debate tactic to switch to morality. If we’re talking about mere existence, then the morality question is a non-sequitur.

    PS: Note that if the argument was over whether god is good, or whether there specifically was a good god, then I can skip all of this. The mere existence of a historical man Jesus with or without magic powers has absolutely nothing to do with the question of what is moral vs not.

    • says

      The easiest-to-defend alternative hypothesis is that Jesus was a huckster. Like all the other “godmen” and “wonderworkers” in India and Africa and Brazil today. Arguing he didn’t even exist requires a far greater (and thus wholly unnecessary) burden of evidence. If refuting the “he must have been doing real magic” hypothesis is your aim.

    • EnlightenmentLiberal says

      I don’t see how you can do that without also arguing that the gospels are basically completely unreliable. You suggest we do that, and then ignore the next step which would be to note the lack of any account of a historical Jesus outside the gospels? I suppose.

    • Chuck Messenger says

      It seems to me a very easy argument to make, that a worshipped personage (such as Jesus) would inevitably have layer upon layer of mythology built up around him over time. We see that directly in the case of Jesus: the earliest writings (Paul’s authentic letters) are the most free of mythology. Mark, the first gospel (decades after Paul’s first writings), is most free of mythology among the gospels. John, the latest (decades later than Mark), is the most elaborate. Later, non-canonical writings (e.g. the gospel of the infant Jesus) are progressively more fanciful. So we know directly that this myth-making process was at work in Christianity. And Christians should, I imagine, find it easy to believe that non-Christian religions are mere mythology, built up over time.

    • says

      That a historical man was mythologized is not what this article is talking about. That’s a mainstream view and is certainly the view to argue when tackling faith in general.

  35. Chuck Messenger says

    The Christian claims that the only plausible explanations of the known evidence is that Jesus is a magic man.
    … The only way I know to show that the Christian’s argument is not supported is by showing how the evidence is compatible with other hypotheses. … I can talk about the hypothesis that Jesus was just a historical figure and the miracle accounts were later exaggerated. However, I think that hypothesis is a weaker hypothesis than the mythicism hypothesis.

    I’m trying to say that the “exaggeration hypothesis” is a strong one. The “myth hypothesis” is very compelling, and truly eye-opening, and novel. It’s downright fascinating! But there is abundant strong evidence for exaggeration within the Christian writings themselves. Christians with strongly-held beliefs, in my experience, put a great deal of stock in the early Christian writings (which they usually believe – initially – are all contained within the Bible). Arguments from within the context of early Christian writings are powerful. Much stronger than arguments outside of the Christian context (e.g. references to a celestial being named Jesus which predate Christianity). That is, when you’re conversing with a Christian.

  36. david murphy says

    Just read Fincke’s piece and yours above and agree that it’s a mistake to push claims that Jesus did not exist, as though non-Christians need those claims as planks in their floor. Strangely, though, when I was a believer, I never had trouble with this from your post:

    “Supernatural miracles, and disembodied minds, and blood magic, have odds of millions or billions or even trillions or quadrillions to one against. So why would you hang your case against Christianity on a mere 1 in 12,000? You can make a far better case against that religion by granting historicity and then showing the odds against it are trillions to one. ”

    From the Catholic Church in its official documents to the Protestant on the street, I think Christians usually write off your trillions-to-one odds as reflecting “naturalistic presuppositions.” To them, there’s no problem with admitting miracles of all kinds in the abstract. I think the immoralities sanctioned as God’s commands, the contradictions, the layers of propaganda and the like that close examination of the text reveals, start to work on the mind before the abstract probabilities of miracles do – esp. when one comes to realize experiential, real-life problems that Christian belief brings with it.

    Maybe as far as the miraculous goes, it is important for the inquirer to face the trillions-to-one odds, not on the abstract, but in the concrete. When our prayers, and the prayers of little children, for a friend dying of cancer were proved ineffectual, then it started to hit me that maybe my beliefs were mistaken. But as a matter of apologetics, I was always happy to dismiss the conclusions of “liberals” as the fruit of their naturalistic assumptions.

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