Philosopher James Lindsay (not to be confused with CFI Director Ron Lindsay), author of God Doesn’t; We Do has written an interesting piece about my book, On the Historicity of Jesus, but tangentially, i.e. he isn’t reviewing the book but responding to the way some people might use it. See Why I Really Don’t Care If Jesus Existed or Not.
Notably I have long agreed with his overall thesis: objectively, the historicity of Jesus is no more important than the historicity of Socrates, and is really only an interesting question in history. It’s not an earth-shattering thesis in counter-apologetics. It would be only if we had smoking-gun scale evidence against historicity, and we don’t, due to the paucity of evidence survival and its hugely compromised state (OHJ, chs. 7 § 7 and 8 § 3-4 and § 12; also chs. 4, Element 22, and 5, Element 44). For example, if Christianity were based on the belief that a flying saucer was found at Roswell and alien bodies recovered from it and autopsied by the government, the evidence against that even having happened would certainly be exhibit A in any refutation of Christianity. But we have in the Jesus case nothing like the survival of evidence we have in the Roswell case. Hence I’ve made the point before: Fincke Is Right: Arguing Jesus Didn’t Exist Should Not Be a Strategy.
My interest in it is because I’m a historian, whose specializations include ancient religions and the origins of Christianity, I was paid with a research grant to study the issue, and the way Christian dogma and faith beliefs have infected even secular study of the subject is a serious issue long overdue for a correction. Exactly as happened for the Patriarchs: Christian dogma and faith beliefs infected even secular study of that subject until a serious corrective effort was launched in the 1970s which has resulted in what is now a mainstream consensus among non-fundamentalist experts that the Old Testament Patriarchs are mythical persons who almost certainly never really existed. Christianity was not thereby overthrown. But the shift was nevertheless necessary to maintain the respectability of biblical history as an honest profession. The same is now true of the debate over the historicity of Jesus, as even historicity advocate Philip Davies has said.
The end result has been, I believe, a lot of increased clarity and discovery concerning many issues in the origins of Christianity, and not just the target issue of how certain we can be that Jesus was even a person. Readers of my book will notice that every chapter has wide utility for counter-apologetics without even having to mention much less affirm the non-existence of Jesus; you will recognize a lot of cherished Christian apologetical shibboleths being demolished there, and the citations of sources and scholarship extremely useful to anyone taking them on. But even apart from counter-apologetics, our understanding of ancient religion, ancient culture, ancient politics, and earliest Christianity, is significantly advanced and made more coherently clear by the effort. Which is as it should be. That’s a historian’s job.
So some corrections are still warranted to Lindsay’s analysis.
When he says, “Flatly, I don’t know what is being talked about…when someone starts talking about a historical Jesus, so I don’t know (or care) whether or not it makes for evidence of a real historical figure,” he might have benefited from reading chapter 2 of OHJ, since it is entirely about what we have to mean by that, to mean anything substantial. And ch. 3 makes clear what the most important alternative is. Once you see how they differ, you’ll understand why the question is important. Important, that is, to history. Not as much to counter-apologetics. Lindsay is right about that. Arguing Christianity is false by arguing Jesus didn’t exist is a non-starter. There are vastly easier paths from A to B on that, which for that very reason should always take precedence. See all the reasons I lay out in my concurrence with Fincke.
Lindsay is likewise correct say, “Though it sounds like irritating pedantry or even trolling to ask, the question “which (New Testament) Jesus?” is of profound relevance.” It is indeed. Hence ch. 10 of OHJ shows how each Gospel is creating its own mythical version of Jesus. And that’s true even if Jesus existed. This is actually already the mainstream view, and historians do take the task seriously of answering Lindsay’s question (so among actual experts, it is most definitely not seen as irritating pedantry or trolling; there is actually a vast literature on the subject). And all who are interested in understanding the origins and development of Christianity and the books Christians now use in its defense would benefit from knowing more about that. And my book helps with this, even for those who don’t care whether Jesus existed.
Likewise my book dispels myths begun by Christian apologists that even atheists have been duped into repeating, such as “Christopher Hitchens’s astute observation that the outright fraud in the Gospel birth narratives (which is obvious) is possibly best accounted for by assuming a real figure that needed to be squared with an unreal story somehow.” That is an argument that actually originated in Christian apologetics, in which, unknown to Hitchens, nearly every relevant fact had been twisted or glossed over to suit the Christian agenda, and when we see the correct facts instead, Hitchens’ argument crumbles. Hitchens was not a biblical historian. Nor could he read ancient Greek. Hence the importance of reading books by actual biblical historians–who aren’t aiming to defend some sort of religion (liberal or otherwise)–and who actually can check translations against the original Greek, and thus detect modern Christian shenanigans in the presentation of the evidence. In OHJ I explain why Hitchens’ argument does not work, and that in fact the evidence he tried to muster argues in quite the opposite direction (OHJ, index, “Nazareth”; with Proving History, index, “Nazareth”).
So I think there is more that is interesting to this question than Lindsay allows. He might “simply [not] think the historicity of Jesus constitutes an interesting question,” but he certainly cares about effective counter-apologetics, and I suspect he also cares about educating the public as to the actual circumstances of the origins of Christianity and its development, likewise of its literature. And studying the one question provides a wealth of useful information on those others. Thus OHJ is an extremely useful book even if you “have no clear idea what is meant by [the] question” whether Jesus existed and even if you think that question is “pretty irrelevant” to the question of whether Christianity is true.
Lindsay does say, that though he doesn’t care whether Jesus existed or not, nevertheless:
I also don’t care if people like Richard Carrier or other historians want to try to sort this out–more power to them. And so far as a matter of history is concerned, though I referred to it as a footnote, it is of some importance, I suppose. But it is only of any importance at all as a point of historical fact and thus is profoundly unimportant in the ongoing discussion about Christian beliefs in our contemporary world (which I guess is the main motivation, particularly for outspoken and ardent atheist writers and speakers like Richard Carrier). So, I’m not saying people shouldn’t care about the question as a matter of history, but they should do so realizing that without absolute proof one way or the other, they aren’t doing anything terribly important in the cultural debate about religion.
Which is precisely what I’ve been arguing for years. Although, as I just noted, the collateral benefits remain enormous.
Like the Apollo project. Many didn’t care whether we landed a man on the moon, yet nevertheless benefit tremendously from all the technological advantages developed to achieve that feat, which then became integrated into our economy, industry, and culture–from portable computers to satellites (upon which everything depends from cellphones to weather tracking to the internet)–as well as products developed earlier but then popularized by the program and thus fully integrated as well (from velcro to cordless power tools). On the Historicity of Jesus does the same thing. A lot of it gathers, organizes, summarizes, and makes available to the public a lot of what had actually already been discovered and published before, but never in one place and often beyond the access of most people (being in other languages, or obscure journals and monographs), facts and findings of use to counter-apologetics wholly apart from the question of historicity. And a lot of it also produces new discoveries and observations from original source material and integrating diverse scholarship that serves the same useful end.
So the fact that the historicity of Jesus is not useful for counter-apologetics does not mean the study of the historicity of Jesus is not useful for it. Lindsay seems to have overlooked that.
Likewise, that historicity questions are certainly problematized is true, for all historicity questions not just in Christianity. Which is an interesting philosophical question (in the philosophy of history), which is part of the purpose behind OHJs companion volume, Proving History, which is as much a work in the philosophy of history as in the specific question of the historicity of Jesus. Ironically, almost the same argument about this was written by Ron Lindsay in Sources of the Jesus Tradition. See my review. Although I find James Lindsay’s piece to be more extensive, Ron Lindsay’s does have some few points to add, all toward the same general point of the problematization of the question of historicity for any figure. But that questions are problematic does not mean they should not be asked, or not be answered.
To the contrary, as all questions about history are ultimately questions about the historicity of something, they have to be.