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The weak historical evidence for Jesus

In this talk given at Skepticon 3 in 2010, David Fitzgerald, author of the book Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All, puts the evidence for Jesus’s existence under close scrutiny.

Comments

  1. Makoto says

    That was good to watch. I wish I could share it with some of my Xian family/friends, but they’d reject it before they even watched it, despite the logic it presents. Very well laid out evidence, though.

  2. M.Nieuweboer says

    Perhaps I’m not fair, having only seen the first five minutes. But I’d like to see Fitzgerald apply his arguments brought up so far to say Alexander the Great and Socrates. If consequent he is forced to conclude that they are not historical either. If not he is only presenting ad hoc arguments.
    Another questions, for those who have seen the entire video: does Fitzgerald mention Polycarpus of Smyrna?
    If no the conclusion is inevitable that Fitzgerald presents propaganda as science, just like creationists do. And I do not see any reason to justify pseudoscience just when an atheist commits it.

    Of course the correct approach is to formulate the question as a hypothesis and then apply the well-tried methods of classical history to it. Only then you should decide if the hypothesis or its antithesis describes the few known facts best.
    That’s how close scrutiny should begin.
    But if Fitzgerald would have shown such intellectual honesty he would have been deprived of the jokes he only can make in those first five minutes, because he takes a few myths literally, plainly ignoring the attitude of the ancients towards this writing style:

    http://www.livius.org/ea-eh/edges/edges.html

    The ancients knew they were myths – after all they actually had reached the edges of the earth.
    I repeat it. Pseudoscience is not justified just because an atheist commits it.

  3. 5keptical says

    M.Nieuweboer:
    It is amazing that you present such barefaced prevarications.

    It’s a lie that there is no contemporary independent support for the existence of Alexander the Great (coinage for one). And Socrates? Historians acknowledge that we only know about him from later writers and two contemporaries, Xenophon and Aristophanes (who may have made him up). Historian say he may not have existed. Can you admit that possibility for Jesus?

    And Polycarpus? A disciple of John and even later in the timeline?

    You’re the intellectual coward here. Herod ruled in the wrong era, there was no slaughter of the sons, and there is no independent contemporary supportive evidence of the existence of Jesus as described in the bible. How is that ad hoc?

    If you disagree, then present/summarize your evidence, and where was it published.

  4. Kevin says

    He was presenting the evidence for an historical Jesus. Since Polycarp wasn’t born until somewhere around 40 years or so after Jesus’ alleged life-and-death-and-resurrection-and-disappearance-into-the-clouds-but-he’s-coming-back-really-really-soon, he can hardly be counted as someone who would be an eyewitness to those events.

    It would be like me being counted as an eyewitness to the life of Teddy Roosevelt.

    But the answer to your question is “yes”. He was on a timeline along with all of the other early church leaders who could not possibly have seen a living Jesus because they were born decades to centuries after the alleged events.

  5. HP says

    “Perhaps I’m not fair, having only seen the first five minutes.”

    You could’ve saved yourself a whole lotta typing if you’d just stopped there.

  6. Ace of Sevens says

    The alternative is clearly that Jesus was a real person who got mythologized. See the comments for more details. Besides the details he points out that show Paul apparently did think of Jesus as an actual man, Barth Ehrman is fond of pointing out lots of the details of the Jesus story lack any good reason to make them up. For instance, Nazareth doesn’t feature into any of the prophecies, even the ones that were shoe-horned in. The obvious explanation is that Jesus was really from Nazareth and early Christians had to invent a convoluted way to tie him to Bethlehem.

  7. J. J. Ramsey says

    The alternative is clearly that Jesus was a real person who got mythologized.

    Indeed, and that’s McGrath’s own position. Furthermore, it’s a position that both accounts for the obviously legendary material and avoids the need for complicated arguments for why passage XXX that implies that Jesus existed was an interpolation or shouldn’t be interpreted according to its plain meaning.

  8. SAWells says

    Is Hercules a real person that got mythologised? Or Orpheus? Or any of the other semidivine miracleworking demigods? At some point we have to stop Special Pleading for Jesus.

  9. F says

    Evidence is sketchy as to the existence of Nazareth existing at the time. And what is translated as the appellation “Nazarene” doesn’t necessarily suggest “from Nazareth”.

  10. Makoto says

    “Perhaps I’m not fair, having only seen the first five minutes. But I’d like to see Fitzgerald apply his arguments brought up so far to say Alexander the Great and Socrates”

    Perhaps I’m not fair, concentrating on only these two lines, but his talk was about the historical Jesus, not the historical Alexander or Socrates. Perhaps next year he’ll present on one of those two figures with the same level of detail.

  11. Reginald Selkirk says

    I want to see him do something on the historical Paul Bunyan, and the historical John Frumm, and the historical King Arthur of the round table.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    How much of a syncretized myth has to be true before we acknowledge a historical basis? Suppose the bit about Nazareth was true, but the itinerant preacher was really named Floyd. The apostles got together and deecided a messiah named Floyd just wasn’t gonna cut it, so they renamed him Jesus.

  13. Ace of Sevens says

    Our sources for Hercules and Orpheus are a lot farther removed from any historical basis they may have than those for Jesus. We are talking about hundreds of years rather than dozens. Any historical basis they have would be lost to time by now.

  14. Ace of Sevens says

    There actually are quite a few books on the historical Arthur. It’s debated, but plenty of scholars think he existed, albeit without most of the familiar elements as we can trace when they were added to the story.

    The problem with the no Jesus theory is it seems to be pushed mainly by amateurs with very few historians specializing in the era or Biblical scholars backing it. Also, they rely on a bunch of dubious claims, like the idea Paul thought Jesus was a purely heavenly figure, but Paul’s letters don’t back this. For that matter, some people think Paul didn’t exist either, but that’s even further out of the mainstream.

    Just from looking at the arguments and who’s making them, it looks like if you don’t want Jesus to exist, you can come up with some arguments, but it’s not something the evidence would lead you to normally.

  15. J. J. Ramsey says

    F: “Evidence is sketchy as to the existence of Nazareth existing at the time.”

    According to who? Mainstream archaeologists? A consensus of experts? If you are going to make such claims, cite your sources.

  16. CJO says

    @Ace of Sevens,

    a bunch of dubious claims, like the idea Paul thought Jesus was a purely heavenly figure, but Paul’s letters don’t back this.

    They back it more consistently and obviously than they back the career of Jesus outlined in the gospel narrative. Although I personally think there’s too much weight put on “purely heavenly” as if it’s the case that if Paul’s conception of the savior’s sacrifice took place on Earth, then that means we are free to import into the letters all kinds of biographical interest that simply can’t be found there. I personally think the author of the bulk of what we call the genuine Pauline Epistles believed that God’s plan for salvation involved a clandestine sacrifice of a descended heavenly figure “in disguise” as an ordinary man. The point is, though, it’s a false dichotomy to say that if the author known as Paul didn’t conceive of the Christ as “purely heavenly” then one or another version of a demythologized historical Jesus must be correct.

    For that matter, some people think Paul didn’t exist either, but that’s even further out of the mainstream.

    Here are the facts: The narrative presented in the canonical Acts of the Apostles is a fiction. The Pauline literature and the endorsement of its putative author were both the field of play and the prize in a long game of theological tug-of-war in the second century between the proto-Orthodox and the Marcionites (among others). We have large pieces in the seven “genuine Paulines” that have every appearance of being by a single author in the mid First Century.

    Taking these three facts together simply does not lead to a clear demonstration that we must accept that this author was named Saul/Paul or that he had a career resembling the fictional one presented in Acts. The letters are massively interpolated and rearranged, and exactly what they had to say was a matter of theological life or death for opposed Christian leaders over a span of decades. Somebody wrote the core of seven of the letters as they appear in the Bible, so in that sense “the historical Paul” certainly existed. But it’s entirely reasonable to have doubts as to practically everything else that it is claimed we know about this man.

    Just from looking at the arguments and who’s making them, it looks like if you don’t want Jesus to exist, you can come up with some arguments, but it’s not something the evidence would lead you to normally.

    Because of the extremely confused nature of that evidence and the inadequacy of any modern attempt to make coherent sense of it in a way that has led to any consensus about this supposed historical figure other than his bare existence, I beg to differ, strenuously. This is just a deflection tactic by the scholars: “don’t look that way, the evidence doesn’t go there. We all say so, but don’t ask exactly why. It’s consensus.” When the range of reconstructions taken together yields a patchwork consensus that barely papers over many glaring flaws, and returns the same basic picture that has been a matter of religious orthodoxy for centuries to boot, hell yes the evidence normally leads to reconsidering the assumptions that led to such a situation.

  17. M.Nieuweboer says

    Only now I’ve seen the entire presentation. The similarities with creationism are striking for those who want to see them.

    Creationists like to concentrate on what they perceive as a weak spot in evolution theory. Then they conclude that it must be wrong, which means that creationism is correct. What they don’t do is ask themselves if something like speciation actually happens. In the same way Fitzgerald points at contradictions in the Gospels, concludes that they are unreliable, which means that Jesus isn’t historical. What he doesn’t do is separate two questions. A) was Jesus a historical figure? B) If yes, what do we know about his life? Typically Fitzgerald pretends to answer the first question but actually addresses the second one. That Marcus got the topography of Palestine wrong does not mean that Jesus never existed.
    There are no missing links! the creationist cries. Fitzgerald points out that contemporary writers do no mention Jesus. In both cases a well known scientific principle applies: absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. Fitzgerald rather skips that.
    A related typical creationist argument is: you weren’t there. So what does Fitzgerald say: those who write about Jesus weren’t there. And he doesn’t ask further questions. Well, for the Romans, who typically were the ones to write on history in that time, Palestina was an unimportant province. Governor Pontius Pilatus didn’t even belong to a senatorial family. He was subordinate to the governor of the way more important province of Syria. Apparently contemporary authors weren’t interested in just another religious fanatic, if they had even heard of him.
    One of the leading figures of Discovery Institute is a lawyer writing about biology. A respected branch of science is textual criticism. When dealing with Flavius Josephus Fitzgerald pretends to be a textual critic, something he as a historian is not qualified for. So does he refer to qualified textual critics? Of course not. Those guys might actually know what they are talking about and oh horror! conclude that the disputed fragment is based on an original core.
    Even the conspiracy is not lacking. Fitzgerald needs to “prove” that that fragment is forgery. He conveniently doesn’t mention a very likely explanation, based on historical facts. Books etcetera in Antiquity had to be copied every 20 till 50 years or so. From about the second half of the Second Century all copiists were christian. They grabbed the chance to correct a piece of text with what they saw as wrong content. The result is the weird quote Fitzgerald presents. He tells us nothing about this.
    Creationism is not a theory; it doesn’t predict anything, it doesn’t explain anything evolution theory doesn’t. Fitzgerald only presents a sketchy alternative theory. It can be found back on Earl Doherty’s website. It doesn’t explain anything the hypothesis of a historical Jesus doesn’t. Everything it does explain can be explained by the hypothesis of a historical Jesus with lots of myths attached. Guess what? That was common practice back then. Just look up all the myths that Julius Caesar surround.
    The highlight though is when Fitzgerald talks about the book of Acts. Suddenly we may enjoy the spectacle of an atheist practicing theology to “prove” his point! That’s actually what Doherty does too. Fitzgerald nor Doherty can accept the argument that Paul wasn’t interested in the person Jesus. Their logic reflect the expectations of a 20th Century rationalist, not of a contemporary writer.
    If this lecture is close scrutiny, then so the average article on the website of Dicovery Institute is.

  18. M.Nieuweboer says

    For the sake of clarity: I’m since 25 years or so a convinced atheist. I would welcome evidence that Jesus is fictional. I just can’t stand pseudo-science.
    If that’s what New Atheism is about I rather remain an old-fashioned one.

  19. J. J. Ramsey says

    In both cases a well known scientific principle applies: absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.

    Be careful with that. Absence of evidence of X can be evidence of absence of X if X should have left certain evidence behind. That said, as McGrath pointed out, “Fitzgerald makes a telling admission. He says that Christianity was not ‘tribe-sized’ until later. If so, then lack of reference to them in earlier sources is not surprising.” In other words, Fitzgerald makes a big show of how Jesus isn’t in contemporary sources, but undermines that by pointing out a feature of early Christianity that would make it unlikely for those contemporary sources to say anything about it. Oops.

    Of course, we don’t have a total absence of evidence. For example, we have the extant text of Josephus, especially the offhand reference to “brother of Jesus called Christ, James his name.” Fitzgerald knows that and tries to argue that it is (rather conveniently for him!) an interpolation. You can see from one of my links in my first comment what I thought of that.

  20. Reginald Selkirk says

    There actually are quite a few books on the historical Arthur. It’s debated, but plenty of scholars think he existed,…

    1) have they reached a consensus on the identity of the historical Arthur? 2) What evidence can they cite for their belief in his historical existence?

    The problem with the no Jesus theory is it seems to be pushed mainly by amateurs with very few historians specializing in the era or Biblical scholars backing it.

    1) There is a problem with self-selection in the field of Biblical history. Few nonbelievers are willing to dedicate their careers to something they think is a myth.
    2) Note the title of the thread: “weak historical evidence…,” not “Jesus didn’t exist.” The historical evidence is indeed very weak. Biblical historians should admit this.

    Also, they rely on a bunch of dubious claims

    Speaking of dubious claims, look at the arguments offered in favour of a historical Jesus. Ask yourself if the same criteria are applied to other historical questions.

    For that matter, some people think Paul didn’t exist either, but that’s even further out of the mainstream.

    Yes, and? You have admitted this is not a common position. Someone wrote the epistles of Paul. Whereas there are no documents even claimed to be written by Jesus, other than some second century obvious forgeries.

    Just from looking at the arguments and who’s making them, it looks like if you don’t want Jesus to exist, you can come up with some arguments, but it’s not something the evidence would lead you to normally.

    Show me the freaking evidence. That’s what this thread is about: the historical evidence for Jesus is incredibly weak. If you can dispute this by presenting actual evidence, then you should do so. Waving your hands is not going to impress me.

  21. Reginald Selkirk says

    In both cases a well known scientific principle applies: absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. Fitzgerald rather skips that.

    It needs to be pointed out that absence of evidence also does not mean evidence of presence. If you could skip right to the evidence of presence, you could wrap this up quickly.

  22. J. J. Ramsey says

    Reginald Selkirk:

    If you could skip right to the evidence of presence, you could wrap this up quickly.

    Let’s adjust that a bit. Suppose someone sympathetic to creationism wrote,

    If you could skip right to the evidence of evolution, you could wrap this up quickly.

    Would you believe him or her? Probably not. First, the case for evolution is a lot of little things rather than a smoking gun, and someone asking for “evidence” is often really asking for one of those. Second, creationists have built up a library of specious arguments, and anyone who brings up any particular piece of evidence can be rhetorically shot down by one of those arguments. In short, showing some evidence to a creationist is unlikely to wrap things up quickly, but will just be a prelude to yet another time-sink of an Internet argument.

    But the case for evolution is far stronger than the case for the historical Jesus, you say? Well, I agree, but there are some commonalities. First, the case relies on the convergence of little bits of evidence rather than a smoking gun. Second, there’s pretty much no bit of evidence that some mythicist doesn’t have some specious argument against.

    Probably the biggest difference between the case for evolution and the case for the historical Jesus is that the latter relies far more on Occam’s Razor. For example, “brother of the Lord” could be a title, but when a James is described as “brother of the Lord” in Paul’s letters and is described in the extant texts of both the Gospels and Josephus as Jesus’ brother, well, it’s far simpler to read the “Lord” in “brother of the Lord” as referring to Jesus. Is it possible that the phrase “brother of Jesus called Christ, James his name” in the extant text of Josephus is due to one scribe seeing “brother of Jesus, James his name” and adding the marginal note “called Christ” on account of what he read in Origen, and later scribe adding that marginal note to the text? Well, it doesn’t break physical laws, it just strains credulity.

    [You may need to register at the Freethought forums to see the content of that link. Also, FWIW, Fitzgerald himself doesn’t claim the supposed marginal text comes from Origen. Rather he says something that’s daft in a different way, namely that “Josephus‘s idiom is quite specific and unusual, and is not at all the same as the phrase Origen repeats three times in various contexts.” That the phrase that Origen repeats is either verbatim or near-verbatim (with “adelphos” instead of “adelphon”) doesn’t seem to faze him.]

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