He didn’t rise, and he probably didn’t exist in the first place


Happy Easter! Skip church and instead go read this essay on why Jesus is a myth.

The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of independent evidence for an historical Jesus, remain sceptical about his existence.

Comments

  1. cartomancer says

    Sigh… it really is quite fascinating for an Ancient Historian like myself to see how obsessed certain people get over this particular question. A question which is so trite and uninformative that it’s not worth asking. Either we have an actual person – about whom we know nothing – who has attracted a corona of myths and cultural baggage, or we have an invented person who has accreted solely from myths and cultural baggage. It doesn’t matter one jot which is true – and we’ll never know for certain.

    If the question were “was Romulus real?” or “was Cecrops real?” or “was Paris from the Iliad real?” (there are some Hittite texts which suggest the last of those three actually could have been) everyone would be rolling their eyes in tedium and demanding that we address actual interesting issues of historical fact. The interesting bit is in how the mythical character was created, what cultural touchstones he addresses and how he derives from contemporary relgious thought. Then in how he was altered, adapted and reinterpreted.

  2. evodevo says

    The problem here, is, Stephen Law is arguing according to rational thinking …. this doesn’t apply to most of the fundies I know, and even some “liberal” Christians… rational thought and arguing from evidence is just not in their repertoire. It’s ALL emotion – an appeal to the limbic system, and it is very infrequently you can make them see logic. They cling to these beliefs like limpets, and they will try to justify them by grasping onto whatever straws they can find, because these beliefs are central to their daily lives and who they are. On the other hand, making sure arguments like this are disseminated widely will ensure that doubters will encounter them and be encouraged to pursue their curiosity further. I was certainly a skeptic when I was a teenager, but there were no publicly acknowledged, easily accessed sources to hand. The local small town public library was NOT going to point you to the one or two mildly critical books they might have had sitting in the stacks, and we lived 70 miles from any university library that might have had resources, had I even known what those were. Nowadays, with the click of a mouse you can access a plethora of unbelievers’ blogs and a host of referential material. It’s WONDERFUL.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    …go read this essay on why Jesus is a myth.

    Maybe you should read the essay. Law;

    I am not promoting, and indeed remain sceptical about, the claim that the Jesus story is entirely mythical.

  4. KG says

    I was about to make the same comment as Rob Grigjanis. Law is arguing there is insufficient evidence to establish Jesus’s existence “beyond reasonable doubt” or “firmly to establish the existence of Jesus”. That is very different from saying he is “a myth”.

    My suspicion is that a significant number of Biblical scholars and historians (though of course by no means all) would accept something like all three empirical premises. If that is so, it then raises an intriguing question: why, then, is there such a powerful consensus that those who take a sceptical attitude towards Jesus’ existence are being unreasonable?

    An answer which Law fails to consider, is that mythicists have completely failed to construct a coherent alternative explanation of the evidence we have – just like creationists and climate change denialists. If there was no Jesus, someone made up the stories about him, knowing that they were about a fictional character, or perhaps a divine being who never lived on earth. Then, somehow, this got forgotten, and both his followers and many other people came to believe the opposite. When, where and how?

  5. KG says

    OK, why Jesus the Wizard is a myth.

    Which is, of course, a completely different claim. WTF is wrong with you (and so many other atheists on this issue), that you can be so ridiculously sloppy in the claims you make and the interpretation you give to what others have said?

  6. Ed Seedhouse says

    Hmm…I don’t see a conflict. It seems possible that there was one man who so impressed the local people that they developed miraculous myths about him which could have formed the basis of some of the gospels.

    It seems just as possible that there was a group of people who said things that impressed the locals and the memory of whom became conflated into a single person after a decade or so.

    It also seems to me perfectly possible that someone invented him out of whole cloth and the story so impressed the locals that some of them wrote similar stories.

    I find all three possibilities about equally plausible, and equally unimportant. We are left, I think, with an oral tradition that inspired people to believe in this person (whether imagined or not) and some of whom later wrote these myths down as the gospels. These gospels and the preachers who espoused them so impressed people of the time that they eventually formed a formal church, and in the end took over the Roman Empire.

    So even if, as I think, the whole thing was just a story, it was a pretty impressive story that influenced the entirety of the subsequent history of the Western world. I don’t believe a word of it myself, but I have to admire the story for it’s effects on the world as a whole.

  7. says

    That there may have been someone named Jesus or Jeshua or whatever in the first century BC is an utterly trivial and uninteresting claim — we can just accept it as a given.

    That someone with that name was a radical preacher at that time is also trivial. I’ll believe that, too — it would be silly to question the possibility. It’s even reasonable to suppose that such a person was the germ of the story, and that they were publicly executed for their beliefs, adding extra drama to the legend. All of that is possible.

    But when Law quotes a bible scholar saying this,

    Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate and continued to have followers after his death.

    That’s something different. That’s shifting from a reasonable and unexceptional possibility to claiming we can “confidently assert” it. No, we can’t. And we don’t have primary documents that demonstrate the existence of this likely but hypothetical individual, nor do we have a way to connect such a specific person to the mythologizing that occurred a century and more after his likely but again, so hypothetical death.

    We also can’t tease out the germ of reality from the confabulated, messy, mostly ahistorical Jesus of the Bible. That Jesus simply and flatly did not exist. It’s not a biography of a person, it’s a composite of a collection of stories and legends and myths, and from a historical perspective, the evidence supporting the reality of a Jesus person is all dubious and secondary. Plausibility is not evidence of existence.

    Yet here on this day Christians are celebrating what they’d like to believe is a historical event that happened to a real person.

    If you’re baffled about how people could make up elaborate stories about a totally fictional character, look up Paul Bunyan. I can believe there was a larger-than-life logger working the north woods a century or two ago (in fact, that it would be absurd to question the existence of loggers, or that some would have exciting adventures), but that does not imply that there had to be an actual, physical Paul Bunyan, or no one would have the imagination to create him.

  8. Rich Woods says

    @Saad #11:

    No, I think that was the chocolate rabbit, who gets eaten every year and reborn in time for the following Easter.

    It’s a miracle! Praise him!

  9. jrkrideau says

    http://historyforatheists.blogspot.ca/

    Law’s arguments are not exactly strong. He seems in large part to be stressing miracles as a reason to doubt Jesus’ imaginary existence.

    By this standard we can dismiss Buddhism or Taoism and who knows what else. People seem to have a propensity to ascribe miracles to people. That does not mean the founders did not exist, just that the fairytale tellers got there later.

    Jesus may not have existed. As I understand it we have little more evidence for his real existence than we do for Hannibal. However at the moment, I will assume that the majority of Biblical scholars probably know their business.

  10. says

    As I understand it we have little more evidence for his real existence than we do for Hannibal.

    No. We have a body of contemporary accounts of Hannibal. We have Carthaginian coins and monuments. We have all the historical evidence of the Second Punic War. We got nothin’ on Jesus from the time he was alive.

    However at the moment, I will assume that the majority of Biblical scholars probably know their business.

    I’m speechless.

  11. says

    @14:

    However at the moment, I will assume that the majority of Biblical scholars probably know their business.

    If you’re talking about the business of marketing Jesus, yes. Otherwise, not so much. I suggest you click on the link @4. Fitzgerald does take the completely mythical position, and also discusses some of those biblical scholars.

  12. screechymonkey says

    Purely as a matter of gut intuition, I find the “conflation and inflation of myths around a person who existed but isn’t much like the stories” to be more plausible than either “invented out of whole cloth” or “all of at least the non-miraculous claims are true” hypotheses.

    But I’m often struck by the strange implications of many of the popular arguments against mythicism. I imagine a scene like the following:

    4057 A.D., University of New Morris, Institute for Spider-Man Studies

    “Thank you all for coming. In recent years, several books have been written claiming that Spider-Man was a fictional character. These authors go beyond the usual awebbist position of disputing the accuracy of some of the ‘superscience’ aspects of Peter Parker, such as his proportionate strength of a spider, radioactive blood, and certain of his spectacular — dare I say amazing — exploits, such as his battles with the Green Goblin and his death and return to life. Instead, they purport to deny that these stories are even based on a real person at all. I will demonstrate how basic principles of logic show otherwise.

    First of all, we have multiple reports of Spider-Man’s existence. Not only the three core gospels of Amazing, Spectacular, and Web, but also the apocrypha of Sensational, Team-Up, and others. There are also records of him appearing in something known as the Macy’s Parade in the same time period.

    Second, the mundane details of the Spider-Gospels match the historical record. We can easily dismiss the tales of Superman, Batman, and the Flash as being pure myth, because among other things there is no record of a real Metropolis, Gotham City, or Central City. Yes, yes, I’m aware of the claims of Waynist historians that Gotham was an alternate name for a real city in the former United States, but that’s a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that we have ample evidence that New York City, and specifically the subregions of Manhattan and Queens where Spider-Man spent most of his career, were actual cities before they were eventually abandoned and submerged by the rising seas. There are even contemporary depictions of a real building with the same distinctive appearance of the “Daily Bugle” building at which Peter Parker often worked.

    Third, we have the criteria of embarrassment. If early Parkerite leaders had truly invented these stories to support their growing faith, would they have made the leader of their church responsible, through his own selfishness and inaction, for the death of his own Uncle Ben? Would they really have promoted stories in which Spider-Man fails so abysmally, resulting in the deaths of, among others, George and Gwen Stacy?

    Fourth, the principle of discontinuity. Morality in the Spider-Gospels often diverged from what we know of contemporary accepted morality. Prior to the election of Donald Trump, Americans generally had a consensus that honesty and full disclosure was the best policy, particularly with one’s close friends and family, and yet Peter Parker concealed his dual identity from his closest relative Aunt May and from friends like Harry Osborne and Flash Thompson. Today our society accepts that it is normal and right to maintain secrets from loved ones, but at the time that was considered a moral failing, not a trait that would have been invented for propaganda value.

    Therefore, while I acknowledge that the question of whether Spider-Man did, in fact, swing through the city on strands of webbing, is open to debate, the historical existence of a Peter Parker who was a photojournalist in New York City is at least as well established as any Temperate Era historical figure for which there is no doubt.”

  13. CJO says

    … mythicists have completely failed to construct a coherent alternative explanation of the evidence we have – just like creationists and climate change denialists. If there was no Jesus, someone made up the stories about him, knowing that they were about a fictional character, or perhaps a divine being who never lived on earth. Then, somehow, this got forgotten, and both his followers and many other people came to believe the opposite. When, where and how?

    I’m not sure why this objection wouldn’t also apply to Moses, or Hercules, for instance. After all, did not someone make up stories about them knowing they were fiction? You can’t contend that people didn’t come to believe the opposite.

    In any case, I don’t think that a coherent alternative account is all that out of reach in the case of “the evidence we have” for Jesus. That evidence begins with Paul, from whose writings it can be inferred that a sect of Hebrew scripture-inspired mystics were active in the early 1st century who believed they had divined that a cosmic savior had died and been resurrected, ushering in the End of the Age, and who proclaimed the coming of some particular version of what by then was a robust collection of possible apocalyptic scenarios. Paul first, “jealous for the Law,” actively opposed these sectarians, and then became convinced through revelation, primarily via scripture, that the cosmic salvation figure had indeed accomplished the deed of descending from heaven and tricking the cosmic powers opposed to God into doing his bidding and executing said figure only to see him rise to the right hand of God, ushering in the immanent eschaton.

    Next is Mark, where the overwhelming majority of our narrative “evidence” that Jesus existed originated. I submit that Mark was intended as an esoteric text, composed in highly allusive and symbolic terms, tied to scriptural references for its internal logic, and constructed as a parable writ large illustrating some derived version of the Pauline salvation scenario. As an esoteric text, it was, as apparently so was the Pauline teaching, intended only for those who had already advanced somewhat in their understanding of the gospel (in the sense with which Paul used the term). As such its parabolic character was understood by more advanced initiates but the fact that on a surface level it tells a more or less coherent narrative made it inevitable that at some point it would move beyond the community for whom it was intended and come to be taken as a report of actual events in Galilee, the Decapolis and Jerusalem c. 30 AD.

    It seems to me that the crux of your objection lies here. I posit that this is “when, where, and how” the mythical character of the salvation figure was lost and began to be historicized beyond the bare sketch offered in Mark by the later evangelists who found aspects of the narrative troubling (due, unknown to them, to its esoteric orientation and parabolic nature). From 2nd and 3rd century manuscript evidence we know that Matthew and Luke quickly eclipsed Mark in popularity, at least fragments of many more copies survive. And as the narrative spread and came to be believed as such, it became natural to read the 1st century epistles in the light of a derived, historicized version of his central figure. Then the narrative could be retrojected as “what Paul was talking about”, which continues to this day in mainstream NT scholarship. But the order of precedence and the cosmic “high Christology” of Paul continue to be interrogated as problematic. The solution to the problem is right before them, but it is anathema, so it is not given the hearing it deserves in that essentially confessional discipline.

  14. woozy says

    I thought the argument about evidence of Alexander the Great being no more that of Jesus, and the unspoken claim that the evidence of King Arthur or Robin Hood are equal.

    So the question is why should we accept Alexander the Great but no King Arthur. I think it is obvious that it is the nature of the evidence. One is a romantic transcript of folklore and the other is historic transcription of history from a short distance of time. The evidence of Jesus are Gospels of his followers who felt a need to intersperse it with absurd claims of miracles and divinity.

    OK, why Jesus the Wizard is a myth.

    Which is, of course, a completely different claim. WTF is wrong with you

    Because the *only* evidence we have of Jesus the man, is the *exactly* same evidence of Jesus the Wizard. We must take the evidence that gives us Jesus the Man, with the credulity that it also claiming Jesus the Wizard it deserves.

    By this standard we can dismiss Buddhism or Taoism and who knows what else.

    I had no idea that the existence of Buddha was supposedly universally acccepted. Separating Buddha the man, from Buddha the myth, leaves … very little. About a King Arthur, I’d say. Surely doubting his existence is a reasonable claim To be fair, we tend to give Jesus evidence more weight because we presume the disciples are known and alive during the events, rather than folklore of the populace hundreds of years later.

    Still Buddha the man, Jesus the rebel, and the Duke of Cornwall, are all very trivial and unimportant. I actually imaging there wasn’t one of any of them but several of each.

    Jesus may not have existed. As I understand it we have little more evidence for his real existence than we do for Hannibal.

    Um, Hannibal is believed to have existed. And we have less evidence, a *lot* less, of Jesus than of Hannibal. This line of reasoning makes no sense. “The Easter Bunny may not have existed. As I understand it we have little more evidene for his real existence than we do for Bill Clinton.” … Utterly incomprehensible.

  15. woozy says

    # 7

    Law is arguing there is insufficient evidence to establish Jesus’s existence “beyond reasonable doubt” or “firmly to establish the existence of Jesus”. That is very different from saying he is “a myth”.

    No, it’s not. We have lots of discrepencies between George Washington, Martin Luther King, and John F Kennedy, the myths and George Washington, Martin Luther King, and John F Kennedy, the men. As I see it those are the exact same things.

    If there was no Jesus, someone made up the stories about him, knowing that they were about a fictional character, or perhaps a divine being who never lived on earth. Then, somehow, this got forgotten, and both his followers and many other people came to believe the opposite.

    Why on *earth* is that surprising to you? *All* myths work that way. Do you think someone sat down and said “I’m going to make up a story of super beings living on Mt. Olympus out of whole cloth even though I know it is utterly false”? Do you think people who retold Paul Revere’s midnight ride thought “Well, I’m exaggerating the truth a bit; That’s because I’m a filthy liar and am trying to hoodwink my neighbors deliberately.”?

    This as an *absurd* objection!

  16. raven says

    Good points from CJO.

    From 2nd and 3rd century manuscript evidence we know that Matthew and Luke quickly eclipsed Mark in popularity,

    We have 4 Gospels in the bible.
    But we don’t really.
    Matthew and Luke are simply rewrites of Mark.
    IIRC, 90% of Mark is in Matthew and 70% of Mark is in Luke (going from memory here).
    The later John is way out there and reads more like a theological treatise than anything.

    I’m a historical jesus agnostic myself. The data to establish this is lost to the sands of time. Which is why these debates have been going on for centuries and will never end.

    PS: The 4 Gospels in the bible are a small number of total Gospels. We know even 2,000 years later of ca. 60 Gospels. Gospel writing was a popular fanfic past time back then before TV and the internet.
    They are still being written. The last one that became popular was…The Book of Mormon.

  17. brett says

    @#22 raven

    The Gospel of Mark probably has much of what actually happened, once you strip away the tacked-on ending, the rationalizing around Jesus’ crucifixion to try and make the Romans not to blame in the wake of a crushed Jewish revolt, and so forth.

    Basically, Jesus was probably an apocalyptic preacher in a time period where there were plenty of them. He performed “miracles” in the same way that revival preachers perform phony faith healing today, and there was a tradition of that in Judaism (Elijah and Elisha did miracles, etc). He and his followers clashed with the Temple leadership in Jerusalem, and carried out a high profile disturbance in the Temple on a politically sensitive holiday- and more importantly, on a rare time during the year when Pilate and his troops would have been up in the city to keep things under control. The priests captured Jesus, quickly turned him over to Pilate to avoid a violent crack-down, and Pilate had him crucified – a punishment reserved for slaves, pirates, and rebels.

  18. springa73 says

    cartomancer @#1

    Some people are just fixated on knowing whether there is any objective truth behind historical legends. Look at how much argument there has been about whether there was any actual historical figure behind the legends of King Arthur, or whether there was a genuine civilization behind the story of Atlantis!

  19. CJO says

    brett @23:

    This rationalized paraphrase is exactly what the Law essay linked in the OP was written to dispute, so any such argument in this context should address the “principle of contamination” he puts forward.

    Additional problems with accepting the outline of the Markan narrative should also contend with the utter absence of any of these attributes in the Pauline epistles: nowhere is Jesus considered a preacher, apocalyptic or otherwise; no miracles, no clash with Temple authorities, no “high profile” disturbance, and the execution of Jesus is attributed to “archons,” generally in the context regarded as cosmic figures, not earthly authorities.

    Similarly, any account that wants to make any actual event narrated “high profile” has to account for why those events are completely absent from Josephus, who seems at pains to relate “high profile” disturbances surrounding Roman-Judaean relations, especially when explicitly concerned with the Temple. Additionally, when we learn in Josephus of exactly this kind of “high profile” insurrectionary activity in Jerusalem, the outcome is death by heavy infantry –for the instigator and his followers. One of the most puzzling implications of this kind of paraphrase of Mark is that not only were the followers of this rebel Yeshua apparently left to go about their business, we know from other sources that they were apparently active in Jerusalem in the years following, fomenting yet more trouble in the very name of the executed rebel. Suffice it to say that this is not how the Romans conducted business in the provinces.

    Finally, I believe that a close reading of Mark reveals a highly symbolic narrative whose touchstones are scriptural, not reportorial. It’s not inconceivable that a narrative about a real person and real events could be tendentiously constructed to adhere closely to a scriptural framework, of course, but when the entire passion narrative, for instance, seems to be a pastiche of references, mostly from Psalm 22, it’s legitimate to ask which came first, the theology or the bare narrative.

  20. mond says

    For me the biggest problem with this is that Jesus MUST have existed if you are any type of mainstream christian. To say otherwise would undermine the whole point of the religion.

    Look at the ‘controversy’ around evolution which as slam dunk evidence for its validity. Ultimately you can accept it and still be a Christian but many many don’t.

    If the historical academic mainstream were to come to the conclusion that Jesus was most likely a myth then ensuing cultural shitstorm would make ‘teach the controversy’ anti-evolutionism look like a slight gust of wind.

    I have absolutely no expertise on the subject and freely admit I could be talking complete bull but my feeling has always been that there is some heavy duty confirmation bias going on in the subject.

    I am happy to live with idea that we will probably never get to the real ‘truth’ but I am not a christian so if such a human person existed is neither here nor there.
    The bare minimum for christians is that a person existed.
    Then they can claim all the extra supernatural stuff happened as well.

  21. screechymonkey says

    mond @26,

    If the historical academic mainstream were to come to the conclusion that Jesus was most likely a myth then ensuing cultural shitstorm would make ‘teach the controversy’ anti-evolutionism look like a slight gust of wind.

    I doubt it. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of connection between what even religious academics think and how religion is generally practiced.

    For example, my understanding is that most biblical scholars agree, and most divinity schools teach, that what we know of today as the Bible was the product of significant debate and politicking centuries after the fact. Which books made it into the canon and which didn’t, etc. Dan Dennett’s Clergy Project reported that, at least anecdotally, seeing how that biblical sausage got made has made an atheist of many previously devout young divinity students. But that hasn’t diminished the numbers of fundamentalists who believe that the Bible is the perfect Word of God. They either don’t know, or don’t care, what the folks in the ivory towers believe.

    I think the real answer is selection bias. I recall seeing some survey evidence that indicated that 90%+ of philosophers generally are atheists or agnostics, but only a minority of folks who specialize in “philosophy of religion” are. There was a pretty good blog post a few years ago by one of them, explaining that he was getting out of the field because, lacking the personal motivation of his colleagues, there just wasn’t enough there of intellectual interest to sustain him. I expect that something similar is at work in religious history: the people who choose that as a specialty are probably hoping to find historical justification for their religious beliefs. They’re intellectually honest enough to admit that the Biblical accounts of Jesus can’t be entirely true, but if they were really open to the possibility that he was a complete myth, they probably wouldn’t have become religious historians in the first place.

  22. screechymonkey says

    Oh, that blog post I mentioned is quoted here, though it appears the original link no longer works.

    Interestingly, the professor makes a comparison to intelligent design as well:

    I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position—no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don’t think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I’ve turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague.

  23. zetopan says

    For those who claim that Jesus could not be complete fiction (I remain an agnostic about that), recall that the religious Jews still celebrate Passover and the Hebrews escaping from Egyptian rule. These events never happened since the Hebrews were never captives in Egypt. Moses is likewise 100% utter fiction. Zero archeological evidence exists for the Hebrews wandering in the desert for any length of time, and or course the old testament never mentions the pyramids since the Hebrews didn’t know about them. Likewise the Hebrew tribe did not even know about the existence of the cats that the Egyptians so adored. All of those multiple plagues that the Hebrew deity inflicted on Egypt never made it into any Egyptian writings, even though shopping lists and complaints about borrowed tools and thousands of other trivial writings did. There are reasons why the new testament tries to align itself with the old testament, but historical accuracy is totally exempt from being even one of them.

  24. Holms says

    #1 cartomancer
    Sigh… it really is quite fascinating for an Ancient Historian like myself to see how obsessed certain people get over this particular question. A question which is so trite and uninformative that it’s not worth asking. Either we have an actual person – about whom we know nothing – who has attracted a corona of myths and cultural baggage, or we have an invented person who has accreted solely from myths and cultural baggage. It doesn’t matter one jot which is true – and we’ll never know for certain.

    If the question were “was Romulus real?” [etc]

    But questioning the historicity of Jesus is entirely different to questioning the historicity of Romulus et al. A large fraction of the world’s population not only swears that Jesus existed as laid out in the Bible, but they orient their life around this belief, even to the extent of passing legislation in his name. Romulus? Not so much. I would suggest that his historicity is uninteresting because it is not nearly so impactful.

  25. Holms says

    #6 RobMaybe you should read the essay. Law;

    I am not promoting, and indeed remain sceptical about, the claim that the Jesus story is entirely mythical.

    I don’t that the distinction is important in this context. Largely for the reasons mentioned in my #30: people act as if he were real, in ways that affect only their own lives and also in ways that affect the lives of others. For that reason, I consider “Jesus is a myth” and “we cannot establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus existed” to be one and the same, in that acting on the basis of something simply asserted to be true is insufficient; it should be shown to be true before doing so. Doubly so if acting in a manner that carries ramifications for other people, i.e. governance.

    Speaking of governance, the judicial branch exemplifies this principle well. If the positive claim ‘Joe Bloggs committed X criminal act’ is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, then we act as if the accusation is false. In this context, an assertion not being proven beyons a reasonable doubt and the assertion being false are effectively one and the same.

  26. Holms says

    Bleh. errata for #31:

    “I don’t that the distinction…” should be “I don’t think that the distinction…”

    “…in ways that affect only their own lives…” should be “…in ways that affect their own lives…”

  27. Holms says

    OK, why Jesus the Wizard is a myth.

    Which is, of course, a completely different claim. WTF is wrong with you (and so many other atheists on this issue), that you can be so ridiculously sloppy in the claims you make and the interpretation you give to what others have said?

    It’s actually not a very different claim. Most of the time, Jesus simpliciter is functionally equivalent to Jesus the Wizard; questioning the existence of ‘Jesus’ is almost always taken to mean ‘Jesus (as described in the Bible)’. For many christians, suggesting that perhaps Jesus was just some guy who was not divine is equivalent to questioning the existence of Jesus in every meaningful way, as without all of the wizard powers, he is not Jesus as they know him.

  28. says

    I’m wondering now if the source of the disagreement is about the definition of the word “myth”. Some seem to regard assigning that word as implying complete rejection of every aspect of “existence”: that there was no man behind it at all, that the entire body of stories is rejected as totally false.

    I have a lesser perception of “myth”: it just means that there is at best a thin connection between any real human being and the stories that have been built up around him. That I think King Arthur is a myth does not mean that there could not have been some British king or hero whose story was amplified in the retelling.

  29. brett says

    @#25 CJO

    Additionally, when we learn in Josephus of exactly this kind of “high profile” insurrectionary activity in Jerusalem, the outcome is death by heavy infantry –for the instigator and his followers.

    “High profile” in the sense that it would be something that Sanhedrin believed would potentially draw the heavy crackdown you describe. Which is presumably why they immediately handed him over to Pilate after arresting him, to avoid said bloody crackdown.

    In any case, the parts of Josephus’ account that (probably) aren’t later additions describe him as being put to death by Pilate via crucifixion.

  30. CJO says

    This illustrates the goldilocks problem: a Jesus whose profile is just right: low enough to have had no impact on history, but high enough to have been the founder of a religious tradition.

    The mentions in Josephus are interpolated entirely. The apologists’ supposedly reconstructed paraphrase asks us to believe that although later scribes totally scrubbed whatever he actually wrote, we can have confidence that what is left when the minimum requirement of historicity remains is what he would have written. Try that in front of the very same audience with a problematic Pauline passage that appears to support historicity: you’ll get laughed out of court. You can’t just replace an interpolation with what you want to have been there.

  31. alkisvonidas says

    I’m wondering now if the source of the disagreement is about the definition of the word “myth”.

    Perhaps it’s worth mentioning the Christ myth theory, which has a rather specific meaning: that the Gospels were initially, honestly intended as fiction (or allegory), and that a historical Jesus, however different from the Gospels’ Jesus, did not originate Christianity.

    That *is* a very different version compared to a Jesus that initiated Christianity, and was later shrouded in myth. In the latter case, there is no Christianity without Jesus, period. In the former case, Christianity would have been set on its tracks whether or not a teacher like Jesus ever existed. And, regardless of whether or not we can ever know which version is true, I do find the question extremely interesting.

    What’s more, there are hints that the Gospels were originally intended as fiction: the narration contains details that, according to the very same story, were never witnessed by anyone who could pass them on; Jesus is an almost perfect Mary Sue character; events happen that make no sense according to any real world rationale, just because the plot demands them (why does Judas betray Jesus, when Jesus has just blown his cover? What is his motive?) ; and finally, the Pauline Epistles seem to indicate he was entirely unaware of a flesh-and-blood Jesus.

  32. KG says

    I’m not sure why this objection wouldn’t also apply to Moses, or Hercules, for instance. – CJO@18

    I would have though it was bleedin’ obvious: because all the written sources we have – which assume the reality of these figures – date from multiple centuries after their supposed existence. The same is quite clearly not true of Jesus.

    That evidence begins with Paul

    Who stated that Jesus was born of a woman, and identifed an ordinary human being as his brother.

    Next is Mark, where the overwhelming majority of our narrative “evidence” that Jesus existed originated. I submit that Mark was intended as an esoteric text, composed in highly allusive and symbolic terms, tied to scriptural references for its internal logic, and constructed as a parable writ large illustrating some derived version of the Pauline salvation scenario.

    I submit that that’s a load of crap. Why place this “cosmic saviour” in a very specific backwoods location, Galilee? Why have him baptised by an obviously human figure? Why doesn’t Mark, as originally written, actually include a resurrection? Your hand-waving about “an esoteric text, composed in highly allusive and symbolic terms” doesn’t impress.

    so it is not given the hearing it deserves in that essentially confessional discipline.

    That’s just well-poisoning. The great majority of relevant atheist, agnostic and Jewish experts agree with the consensus view.

    woozy@20

    We must take the evidence that gives us Jesus the Man, with the credulity that it also claiming Jesus the Wizard it deserves.

    That’s just stupid. Numerous figures from ancient history have miraculous events associated with them in the only sources we have. Are they all to be dismissed similarly?

    Law is arguing there is insufficient evidence to establish Jesus’s existence “beyond reasonable doubt” or “firmly to establish the existence of Jesus”. That is very different from saying he is “a myth”.

    No, it’s not.

    Yes it is, in the relevant sense of “a myth”. It appeared clear what PZ meant by saying Jesus was a myth, because he put it in the thread title: “probably didn’t exist in the first place”. Is that true of George Washington? I see PZ has been rowing back from that claim in #34, but in any case the mythicist position is that there was, or very probably was, no such person as Jesus, not that Jesus was heavily mythologised, which is part of the expert consensus.

    Why on *earth* is that surprising to you? *All* myths work that way.

    There is absolutely no evidence that *All* myths begin with a fiction, known to be a fiction, which appears to be about a person living at a specified time and place, and which then come to be believed to be about a historical individual within a few decades.

    zetopan@29,

    For those who claim that Jesus could not be complete fiction (I remain an agnostic about that), recall that the religious Jews still celebrate Passover and the Hebrews escaping from Egyptian rule. These events never happened since the Hebrews were never captives in Egypt. Moses is likewise 100% utter fiction.

    See my first response to CJO in this comment.

  33. jack16 says

    The guy who would have been crucified would have been the man that woke Pontius Pilate in the night!

  34. CJO says

    I submit that that’s a load of crap.

    That Mark was composed as an esoteric text? On what grounds?

  35. cartomancer says

    woozy, #20

    The relationship between historicity and myth in our picture of Alexander the Great is something I’ve been interested in for years. He really is in a completely different category from Jesus as far as the actual existence of a historical figure is concerned… but perhaps not so different in terms of the corona of myth and embellishment that he attracted in later culture.

    If we only had historical accounts to go on – Arrian, Plutarch, Curtius, Diodorus, Justin – then it would be a slightly (but only slightly!) more reasonable question to ask whether there was any such historical Alexander, and might he instead be just a conflation of great hero myths and several feted but half-remembered generals from the mid 4th century BC? The historians who wrote about Alexander that we still have today were writing centuries later than his death. The earliest is Diodorus, writing in the mid 1st century BC, a good three hundred years later, and the most informative – Arrian and Plutarch – are over a century later than that. However, we do know from their authorial asides that they were using earlier and now-lost histories dating back to Alexander’s contemporaries. Most prominently the works of Callisthenes – Alexander’s expedition’s official historian – and Ptolemy, one of his generals and close companions (and founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Pharaohs in Egypt). Furthermore, we have the tomb of Alexander’s father, Philip II, which has been excavated at Vergina. We have Demosthenes’ haranguing Phillipics that mention Alexander in connection with his father, an enemy of Athens at the time. We have coins minted by Alexander, depicting important events like his trip to Siwa and the defeat of Porus and his elephants. We have mass graves and monuments at places like Chaeronea where he fought his battles. We have fragments of Babylonian books of days that mention the effect his approaching armies had on the loyalty of certain Satraps. We have Egyptian temple inscriptions recording his rule as Pharaoh from the right time. We have Athenian public inscriptions discussing relations with Macedonian diplomats. We have the burned-out remains of Old Persepolis that he put to the torch in the winter of 330 BC, and destruction layers on the site of Greek Thebes. We have traces of the repairs he ordered carried out to the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae. We have Indian records of his visit to what is today Pakistan, including the recollections of Chandragupta, who claimed to have seen Alexander as a boy and went on to found the Mauryan Empire. We may even find Alexander’s mummified body if archaeologists in Egypt get greater access to the catacombs beneath Alexandria – and since we have his father’s bones already we will be able to prove pretty definitively that it’s him. There is no reasonable case to be made that Alexander was never a real person.

    But what sort of person was he? That is a much more vexed question, because he was a legend in his own lifetime and every generation since re-made him to better fit their ideals. He became a literary character, and became blurred with other literary characters, and it is now all but impossible (indeed, in my braver moments I would say actually impossible) to pick apart what is fact and what is fiction. To take one example, Plutarch says that he was obsessed with the heroic example of Achilles in the Iliad, an annotated copy of which he was given as a present by Aristotle and which he kept under his pillow on campaign. Many of his bouts of temper, infatuation and obsessive drive (pothos in Greek) are attributed to a similar warrior spirit to Achilles. Now, is this Plutarch, a scholarly, bookish type of biographer, working with well established Greek literary models to explain an actual historical figure’s behaviour? Or is it that Alexander really did find a lot to admire in Achilles and consciously modelled his behaviour on the hero of the Iliad? Or was he, as the king of a much older type of Greek society, a society much closer to the archaic world of the Iliad than the sophisticated Greeks of Athens and Thebes were, simply behaving like Achilles because that’s what kings in that sort of society did? Where does history end and myth begin? We might also note that most Greeks and Romans of Plutarch’s day had no doubt that Achilles was a real, historical person too.

    The historical narratives of Alexander’s life are full of these puzzles. His historian, Callisthenes, was supposedly put to death or died in prison for challenging Alexander’s hubristic attempts to impose Persian prostration rituals on his court. But the story has strong echoes of Socrates and his death at the hands of the people he was trying to educate – a well-worn moral philosopher’s tale on the importance and thankless nature of moral philosophy. It also has shades of the classic tyrant-corrupted-by-great-power narrative of so many Greek tragedies. Did it happen this way in reality? Was it spun to fit the narrative afterwards? Or did Callisthenes cast himself as a brave Socrates figure because of his own immersion in such ideals and act accordingly? I doubt we are ever going to know.

    If the true historical Alexander is so difficult to uncover, beyond the basic details of his campaigns, then how much more impossible would any historical Jesus be to pin to real events?

  36. Friendly says

    Before Richard Carrier revealed himself to be a yet another in a long line of atheist skeezeballs, I bought a copy of his book “On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt.” Whatever one’s opinion of Carrier the person, I think that his work and arguments in that book are strong.

    mythicists have completely failed to construct a coherent alternative explanation of the evidence we have – just like creationists and climate change denialists. If there was no Jesus, someone made up the stories about him, knowing that they were about a fictional character, or perhaps a divine being who never lived on earth. Then, somehow, this got forgotten, and both his followers and many other people came to believe the opposite.

    Jesus, Stage 1: He was a celestial being (of whom we know by revelation) who died and was resurrected in the heavens. There is a long tradition of such resurrected celestial heroes in the mystery religions, and the Pauline Epistles that are probably genuine — as opposed to the forgeries — seem to show that this is what Paul believed. But a purely heavenly, angelic, or abstract being can seem distant and relatively unrelatable to people you want to recruit, so…

    Jesus, Stage 2: The initiated know that he was a celestial being (of whom we know by revelation and tradition) who died and was resurrected in the heavens, but in the presence of the uninitiated who haven’t attained the mysteries, he is taught as if he had been a human being who died and was resurrected on earth. In this form, Christianity is able to become more accessible, attracting persecution but also a much wider following. Where on earth and when do we speak of the human Jesus as having existed? Well, a certain place might have best explained the movement’s connections to Jews, Judaism, and the Old Testament, while a period sixty to a hundred years before what was then the present day might have seemed fresh enough to be relevant but far enough in the past to be conveniently beyond the lifespans of any inconvenient potential eyewitnesses. After a while, the “secret” knowledge is lost, and only the “public” tales set to parchment remain (as might have happened with “Pythagoras”), giving rise to…

    Jesus, Stage 3: He was a human being (whom we know of from scripture) with a celestial nature who died and was resurrected on earth. At this point it’s just a matter for the gatekeepers of the faith to winnow down which of these scriptures are “canonical,” and one has the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament.

    Basically, Jesus was probably an apocalyptic preacher in a time period where there were plenty of them. He performed “miracles” in the same way that revival preachers perform phony faith healing today, and there was a tradition of that in Judaism (Elijah and Elisha did miracles, etc). He and his followers clashed with the Temple leadership in Jerusalem, and carried out a high profile disturbance in the Temple on a politically sensitive holiday- and more importantly, on a rare time during the year when Pilate and his troops would have been up in the city to keep things under control. The priests captured Jesus, quickly turned him over to Pilate to avoid a violent crack-down, and Pilate had him crucified – a punishment reserved for slaves, pirates, and rebels.

    Except that there is absolutely no evidence for any of this in the records, writings, or artifacts of the period where one would expect to see it. None.

    In any case, the parts of Josephus’ account that (probably) aren’t later additions describe him as being put to death by Pilate via crucifixion.

    Carrier extensively covers the two fragments of the Annals that are purported to mention Jesus Christ and IMHO establishes quite convincingly that the first is a forgery and the second is a scribal interpolation.

    all the written sources we have – which assume the reality of these figures – date from multiple centuries after their supposed existence. The same is quite clearly not true of Jesus.

    The written sources we have for Jesus date from sixty years and more after the end of Jesus’ supposed lifespan. The contemporary sources who would have written of at least some of the people and events in the Gospels if they had actually occurred, including Justus of Tiberias, Philo of Alexandria, and Nicolaus of Damascus, are completely silent about them.

    Who stated that Jesus was born of a woman, and identifed an ordinary human being as his brother.

    And in both of which instances he is speaking in spiritual, not earthly, terms. Paul never describes an earthly Jesus. Paul never mentions any deeds of an earthly Jesus. Paul never quotes a single saying of an earthly Jesus.

    Numerous figures from ancient history have miraculous events associated with them in the only sources we have. Are they all to be dismissed similarly?

    We can certainly read many extraordinary claims that humans have performed miracles. In the absence of extraordinary evidence that these claims are true, yes, they should all be dismissed.

  37. Friendly says

    Carrier extensively covers the two fragments of the Annals

    Sorry, “Annals” should have been “Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews”.

  38. cartomancer says

    Holms, #30

    Yes, it is not surprising that many Christians think it a very important question. The “certain people” I was talking about are the surprising number of non-Christians who want to play that game too. As if the fact the Christians think it’s a good question makes it actually a good question, rather than a trite and pointless question. The Christians who ask it are already committed to a specific answer, and won’t be swayed by evidence or argument. Nobody else could give two hoots whether he existed or not, since we know nothing else about what an actual “he” might have been like.

    In doing history – particularly for periods where the evidence is relatively sparse – one has to ask good questions. Questions that open up interesting areas of understanding, or reveal useful things about the past and the people who lived there. Often the nature of the evidence you have to work with determines what is a good question, and what might seem a good question in the abstract becomes a pointless question in reality when you discover that there is no way to get close to an answer. I am reminded of a review of a book on the life of Cleopatra VII (the famous one who slept with Caesar and Antony), which took the author to task for dwelling far too often on such unrewarding questions (“what sort of birth control might Cleopatra have used?” – what difference would it have made anyway even if we did know the answer?) when there were good and interesting questions to ask instead (such as how did Roman fears about a potential half-Egyptian heir to Caesar’s legacy influence diplomatic relations with Egypt).

  39. cartomancer says

    KG, #7

    ” If there was no Jesus, someone made up the stories about him, knowing that they were about a fictional character, or perhaps a divine being who never lived on earth. Then, somehow, this got forgotten, and both his followers and many other people came to believe the opposite. When, where and how?”

    This ignores the way that stories and myths percolated through ancient cultures (and, to some extent, still do through modern ones). For most people in the ancient world the categories of truth and fictionality that we place in such high regard were not a huge concern when it came to stories and myths. There was a well developed understanding that the poetic truths of existence could be communicated best through allegory, allusion and figurative language. Religion in the ancient world was not an intellectual exercise. It wasn’t about assenting to particular beliefs, it was about participating in specific community practices – sacrifices, rituals, processions, communal meals. There were no confessions of faith or books of theology or catechisms – there were just the myths and stories of your ancestors and your community. Those myths circulated and were changed and adapted constantly – by oral poets, by storytellers and word of mouth transmission and by literary creativity. The point of mythmaking was poetic, not scientific.

  40. CJO says

    cartomancer:
    I’ll tell you why I, speaking for myself, think it might be an interesting question.

    I grant, first of all, that the bare topic, “was there such a person as Jesus of Nazareth” might well be unanswerable, and I understand also why that alone would lead a professional, as opposed to a dilettante, such as myself, to reject it outright as a fruitful use of one’s time.

    However, I consider that topic to be a sub-topic to a larger set of questions, about what religion is, what purpose it serves in societies, how religious traditions diverge and thrive or die out. And I find myself fascinated by the Greco-Roman Near East, how the dynastic and imperial political regimes interacted with subject peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, and so on. So it’s within that context that I became interested in New Testament studies, the formation of the Hebrew scriptures, the Dead Sea Scrolls and related topics. These texts seem to me to be voices from an interesting and, as you say, not very “knowable” time.

    So, regarding specifically NT studies, I came to perceive a remarkable incuriosity in that particular guild about the origins of Christianity that belied their supposed singular expertise in just that area. The standard more or less secular version of that follows a demythologized paraphrase of the canonical NT texts: this remarkable proto rabbi arises in Galilee, inspires messianic belief among a devoted set of followers, they become convinced that here, truly, is our Davidic messiah who will overthrow the alien overlord once and for all, but then he goes to Jerusalem intentionally to suffer and die, and the followers’ response (this is “the Easter event”) is to come to believe that he indeed conquered after all by being raised to the right hand of God thus ushering in His kingdom, variously conceived. I call it the “cognitive dissonance model” of Christian origins, and it seems terribly impoverished to me.

    So an interest in the glut of writings about the historical Jesus eventually led me to some Christ myth stuff, and a lot of it was pretty crackpot, but in some of it I could at least detect a questioning spirit that shared my dissatisfaction with the standard model.

    I’ll leave off with this sketch, and far be it from me to lecture to an actual historian about what might or might not be a fruitful question, but considered in the light of some much bigger and seemingly consequential questions about how such an influential tradition began, how are we to characterize the gospels within ancient literature, how it was to be human in that time and place, I feel like the pursuit has been non-trivial and I learned more than I would have if I had just listened to my betters and swallowed the rote explanation whole.

  41. consciousness razor says

    Yes, it is not surprising that many Christians think it a very important question. The “certain people” I was talking about are the surprising number of non-Christians who want to play that game too. As if the fact the Christians think it’s a good question makes it actually a good question, rather than a trite and pointless question. The Christians who ask it are already committed to a specific answer, and won’t be swayed by evidence or argument. Nobody else could give two hoots whether he existed or not, since we know nothing else about what an actual “he” might have been like.

    Well, I don’t think it’s “very” important, although that’s still a good distance from “pointless.” You might want to consider that it’s not just about a specific person and what qualities he may have had, but also about all of the Biblical stories surrounding that person, which purport to give you a considerable amount of information about things that might have actually occurred. Leaving aside the alleged miracles, of course, there are all of the mundane bits about all of the people/places/events described in the Gospels. There’s a whole picture that we should try to paint for ourselves about that time and place; and for the average person (Christian or not), almost all of that derives from the Gospels. I’m very sure that’s an extremely naive and unjustified perspective to have as a historian, given all of the other records and archeological evidence that can be meticulously analyzed and integrated to paint the right sort of picture. But you shouldn’t find it too surprising that atheists (or non-Christians) aren’t all historians like you and they are not involved in a project like that. Which parts of the Gospels are probably true, if any of it is? I doubt you have a great answer ready to go for that, but anyway, it seems nearly impossible for a normal (non-historian) person to answer that, with a fair degree of confidence, whatever their religious identity may be, given the evidence (i.e., the Gospels) they have at their disposal.

    Anyway, the point is, that seems like a much more significant gap in my knowledge and understanding, compared to something like the type of birth control that may have been available to Cleopatra VII. At least I can know lots of other stuff about her and her milieu, which can be fit into the larger cultural and historical setting, before/after as well as inside/outside of Egypt. Having no clue about the birth control question (which I don’t, and indeed it seems pointless) doesn’t seem to immediately threaten any of that. The infection doesn’t spread in an analogous way to all sorts of other things I’d like to know, if I happen to have the wrong idea, because I’ve taken some fake stories about it to be veridical.

    With the Jesus stories, it’s at least not clear how far it spreads or how we could go about determining that. And on the face of it, it looks like the infection could easily be much more pervasive. Because it’s not as simple as taking out one obscure person (or some obscure fact about birth control) and leaving everything else more or less intact, because the person in question is the central figure of a large collection of stories that are supposed to be connected somehow to many real-life people/places/events. If you took out Cleopatra altogether, now then we’d be talking…. I’d be more than a little worried about all of the views I have about Egyptian and Roman societies in that period, how I’m supposed to reconstruct an actual history which still involves people like Caesar and Antony (assuming they’re real even though Cleopatra isn’t, although they may not be), and so forth.

  42. KG says

    This ignores the way that stories and myths percolated through ancient cultures (and, to some extent, still do through modern ones). – cartomancer@47

    No, it doesn’t: what your saying amounts to a claim that no-one would have cared whether Jesus had actually existed – which is absurd, considering how soon Christians were furiously disputing his exact status among themselves. The point is that there is no evidence of an early tradition that Jesus did not exist, or existed only as a heavenly being (the nearest is Maricanism, but that is mid-second-century, and still accepted Jesus’s appearance on earth) – despite the fact that we know a considerable amount about the early disputes among Christians, and between them and non-Christians, concerning Jesus. We know about the “heretical” and anti-Christian positions mostly through the hostile writings of Christians later deemed “orthodox”, of course, but if any significant “heretics” or opponents of Christianity had said he never existed on earth – as they did say he was illegitimate, a sorcerer, that the disciples stole his body, etc. – we would expect to know about it.

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