Still baffled over the historicity of Jesus stuff


Oh, good, now we have an argument. After my discussion with Eddie Marcus, others have joined battle: Neil Godfrey and Tim O’Neill in the comments.

I’m agnostic on the subject of the historicity of Jesus, in that I can be whipsawed back and forth depending on who I listened to last. What I was interested in was a much more general topic. What are the criteria a professional historian would use to assess the status of a named figure from the past, when lacking any direct documentation from that person’s life? How do you separate legend from human being? There’s no denying that there is a remarkable mass of unbelievable legend wrapped around this Jesus guy, but if you peel away the myths bit by bit, will there be any vestige of a person left? Or, alternatively, there is not enough solid information to make a distinction, but is the most parsimonious, reasonable explanation is that there was a man, around whom the myths accreted?

As I said at the beginning of the video, I DON’T KNOW. I’m coming at it from the perspective of a completely different discipline, one with its own approaches to dealing with historical events, so I keep trying to find correspondences between how a biologist would infer a species with no fossil imprint, and how a historian would infer a person with no contemporary documentation. I also don’t know if that’s an appropriate analogy to make. So far, I’ve heard a lot of arguments.

One common one that nobody sensible is making is that the miracles and powers were true supernatural events. There are lots of people who insist on that literalist interpretation, and I dismiss them out of hand — fortunately, most of the historians are also willing to ignore those claims. I don’t consider the argument that the supernatural phenomena described in the Bible mean a human Jesus couldn’t have existed to be particularly credible. I think George Washington probably did lie now and then, and that some claim he never told a lie, which is unlikely, does not imply that Washington didn’t exist.

Another common argument is the one from the absence of contemporary accounts. Absence of evidence is only evidence of absence if you’ve got so much other data that the hole becomes obvious, and the ancient historical records are almost as tatty and bare as the fossil record. We’re not going to find Jesus’ birth certificate, or even his gravestone…which is true for virtually everyone from the ancient world. We’re lucky that we even have third person accounts from decades after his death of this hypothetical individual.

Here’s one from the historical Jesus side that I also don’t find persuasive: that it is the consensus of historians that he existed. Unfortunately, there is a strong alternative explanation for that, in that most of these historians are imbedded in a culture that insists as a matter of dogma that Jesus was real. This is a deep bias. You can tell me that most historians agree, but then I have to ask, what percentage of those historians are Christian? It’s why I find atheist historians more convincing on this subject (and the atheist historians are split!), although even there I have to watch out for a negative bias.

Another one that induces a mild cringe is the parsimony argument — let’s apply Occam’s Razor! Then the simplest hypothesis is that there was one man who got the whole religion rolling. I can sort of agree, except we might differ on who that man was. Was it a Jesus? Or was it that wandering evangelist Paul? Or was it the mystery man who wrote the first of the gospels? I’m inclined to agree that these religions start with a singular vision, by comparison with the modern faiths of Mormonism and Scientology — that there is often a first prophet who crystallizes something that becomes canon.

To counter that, though, we have other other examples — the Second Great Awakening and the Burned-Over District, for instance. Joseph Smith was one man, but he was just one among many who were stirring up radical revisions of religious thought. Was the ancient Middle East just another fermentation chamber, with all kinds of weird ideas bubbling up, so that pinning the credit/blame for Christianity on one man is a misrepresentation of the emerging ideas? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that early Christianity was made by weaving together strands from multiple sources? (also note: you can believe that but still credit one real person as the inspiration.)

This was one moment in the discussion with Eddie Marcus that caught me off-guard. I suggested that one way to infer if there was a singular ancestor to Christianity was to compare it to other other beliefs arising out of roughly the same area and time, and ask if there were unique elements to make it unlikely that it was part of a general pattern. I’m basically saying that we should look for apomorphies that set it apart. To my surprise, he said no, and I’ve read other writers who say there was this likely mass of oral tradition and this complex set of written literature at that time that made for a fertile medium for religious ideas to sprout. It seems to me that is an argument against a singular author of the Christian faith.

One final question I have for anyone who wants to argue about this: does it matter? We do have solid historical evidence from the mid- to late- first century CE that there was a community of people who identified as Christians with a diverse body of literature that they regarded as true stories of their prophet. That’s the anchor point. Then we have almost two millennia of history shaped by these beliefs. That’s what matters, and no one, atheist or Christian, is going to dispute that. Then there is the question of what happened in the earliest few decades after the putative death of the hypothetical prophet. That’s an interesting phenomenon from a historical and sociological and psychological perspective, but until the physicists get off their butts and invent a time machine, we don’t have a way to resolve anything in that window of time with the necessary level of detail.

What we’re left with is battling sides. Christians, who have a stake in professing the reality of the founder of their religion, are arguing that of course there is good evidence for his existence. I disagree. There is reasonable inference, which is not the same as direct evidence. Meanwhile, atheists have what they consider an easy way to undermine the supernatural claims of Christians: show that he never existed, and poof, Christianity collapses with its foundation gone. They can’t do that, either. They can question the hypothesis, which is a good thing, but they’re not going to be able to demonstrate the falsity of the idea, and the louder they insist that their evidence of absence is true, the more they undermine their credibility.

Barring the invention of that time machine, that is.

Comments

  1. John Wilkins says

    A professional historian (oh, if only you knew one) would say that contemporaneous mentions are sufficient in the period in question to presume that the named individual existed. For example, Socrates, Pythagoras, and so on. Physical evidence and uniqueness of ideas are not required. However, while a professional historian might put the onus on proving the nonexistence of the individual, there is absolutely no presumption that what the individual said or did according to the sources is either unique to them, or that they in fact said it. For instance, Plato’s Socrates gives the parable of the cave, but I doubt Socrates himself did.

  2. Snarki, child of Loki says

    Well, the Time Machine is still a work in progress: can send someone back through The Singularity, but can’t get them back with the hard evidence. So they’d have to do something to leave a message, and hope it survived.

    Best option so far: plant a story that would be passed down, with a subtle variation that indicates the result of the time-excursion: if there’s something about Jesus luvvin’ him a Fig Tree for the tasty and bountiful fruit, they he really existed.

    I think there’s a technical term for planting such hidden messages, but it escapes me at the moment.

  3. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    @snarki,

    We could plant a story about Jesus stealing a donkey and riding on it into Jerusalem.

    Or is that too absurd?

  4. says

    You sound like you’re in a similar place to me, PZ.

    Sure, I can believe that some dude (and I stress dude) was probably more key to getting the Christianity ball rolling than any other person.

    But what of that?

    For historians to say that a “Jesus” most likely existed, but we can’t know anything about him except he existed in a particular time and place and did some preaching seems to me to be an empty claim. The sum is that, in the time and place where we know this religion started, a human was involved in starting it.

    It that’s what we’ve got, it’s truly banal, and this historical “Jesus” does not resemble the Jesus of the bible in any particular way, and to the extent that it does, it’s because the bible itself was used as the source to determine the qualities that this “Jesus” must have had.

    But I go further: I say that if that’s all we’ve got, then while historians are free to use whatever professional language works for them when communicating with their peers, to use the same language when speaking to popular/”lay” audiences is tantamount to knowing misrepresentation. They have to know that the lay public means something different by “Jesus was an actual historical figure” than professional historians mean by the same phrase.

    I agree that “theory” in the phrase “evolutionary theory” means something different than how “theory” is used amongst the general public. For that reason, while I support the unqualified use of the term in the scientific literature, I also argue that science popularizers must take some care with the terms “theory” and “hypothesis” when speaking to general audiences to make sure that the actual meaning intended is capable of being conveyed to the non-expert audience.

    I hold historians to a parallel standard. Use whatever terms work for you in your professional literature, but if you’re going to say, “There was a historical Jesus,” in a non-professional venue where general audiences will hear or read your statements, then be prepared to accept your share of the responsibility for any resulting misunderstandings.

  5. petern says

    The problem with asserting that there was a living, breathing individual who gave rise to the myths about Jesus is that the very earliest writings about him, the authentic letters of Paul, don’t seem to have anything to do with an actual man. Jesus is some kind of celestial figure who has descended through the various realms of heaven down to the lowest one, which is still somewhere up in the sky, to do battle with the demons who rule there. And Paul adamantly assures us that he figured this out entirely on his own — he’s not basing this on eyewitness accounts of Jesus. I’m not suggesting that Paul single-handedly established Christianity, only that he promoted one of the many dying-and-rising-savior cults that were common all over the eastern Mediterranean region at that time.

    It was only a whole generation later that the first gospel was written, which for first time portrays Jesus as a human being — and that was a story which was probably composed in Rome and set in a long-ago, far-away place.

    I invite the curious to read a talk I gave on the historical Jesus here.

  6. tussock says

    There’s a lot of people from the time are well documented. The Romans rather liked documenting famous people and made many copies of previous such documents in large history books at regular intervals. The life of John the Baptist is well covered in Roman books, as well as Peter who ran the church in Jerusalem, and Paul, and all the local Romans from the time, and lots of other people.

    Christianity (as a faction of Judaism, the Brothers of Christ) itself is well documented from very early times, before it got to Rome, but the only original source mention of Christ as a person is the Gospel of Mark, from before it had the Nativity and the Resurrection attached, starting with John the Baptist and ending with the empty tomb, and that wasn’t written until around 60 CE, over a generation late. It gets important things wrong about who was where at the time.

    The thing is, it was important to educated people in Rome around that time to have a real person be the source of fantastic stories. They’d stopped accepting religious figures as being literal, and every old fantasy tale was assumed to be a very long series of whispers removed from a real person doing real things. The Gospel of Mark was exactly what they would have wanted, and they copied and modified it over time to make the historical Christ a better tale, with a birth story.

    But even the name, Jesus Christ, Iosus is a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic Yeshua, which means annointed one, who is the Messiah, which means “savior”. Christ is the Greek word for the Messiah. That is what all the “surnames” in the new testament are, no one had surnames then, it’s just a Greek translation of the meaning of the Aramaic name. Judas Iscariot, Judas means traitor in Aramaic, Iscariot means traitor in Greek. When people in English call him “Our Saviour Jesus Christ”, that’s just translating it again!

    None of that speaks of a real person who did any of the things in the Gospel of Mark. It’s just a dodgy translation of a story about “saviour” and his buddy “traitor”, who, funnily enough, betrays him. The fisherman’s name is fisherman.

    If you go back one more step, and ask, hey, maybe there was another person, who isn’t mentioned as being Jesus, that created Christianity?

    Well, there’s a concept of the savior saint sitting beside god and being available to forgive your sins by prayer alone from about 100 BCE, for Jews who lived too far away to sacrifice to the temple. That’s in the Roman histories too. The name for that saint would be Yeshua, where people spoke Aramaic, which was roughly half way between the Hebrew speakers and Greek speakers. That’s probably where the religion starts, and the Roman concept that everything starts with a real person got attached ~160 years later as they tied to dig up the mystery of this new Brothers of Christ thing in Jerusalem, where they were agitating for independence, which lead to the war and destruction of the temple a few years later.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    Despite Disappointing Some, New Mark Manuscript Is Earliest Yet

    In early 2012, Daniel B. Wallace, senior research professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, seemed to confirm Carroll’s statement. In a debate with Bart D. Ehrman, Wallace reported that a fragment of Mark’s gospel, dated to the first century, had been discovered…
    Finally, a first-century manuscript of Mark would be the earliest manuscript of the New Testament to survive from antiquity, written within 40 years of when the Holy Spirit inspired the original through the pen of the evangelist himself...
    On the basis of the handwriting, Obbink and Colomo estimate that the manuscript was written in the range of A.D. 150–250.

    Can anyone doubt the biases driving early dating of religious manuscripts? How wonderful it would be to have solid evidence with which to refute those nasty atheists.

  8. weylguy says

    “I DON’T KNOW.” The wisest three words in the English language, but they invoke uncertainty, and they disallow the notion of “I believe in it because I know in my heart that it just has to be true.”

    Ordinarily I wouldn’t care what people want to believe in, but their beliefs lead to action, especially voting for and supporting dangerous political demagogues. Unsubstantiated, dogmatic belief is almost certainly what will ultimately destroy civilization.

  9. KG says

    Here’s one from the historical Jesus side that I also don’t find persuasive: that it is the consensus of historians that he existed. Unfortunately, there is a strong alternative explanation for that, in that most of these historians are imbedded in a culture that insists as a matter of dogma that Jesus was real. – PZ

    Yes, just like most biologists are strongly embedded in a culture that insists as a matter of dogma that evolution is real, and most climate scientists are strongly embedded in a culture that insists as a matter of dogma that anthropogenic climate change is real.

  10. tacitus says

    There is a slightly more plausible scenario than inventing a time machine for discovering what exactly happened 2,000 years ago — i.e. that we are under long term alien surveillance. As a bonus, being the subject of a multi-millennial covert alien study would also go a long way to answering the Fermi Paradox.

    Of course, this scenario depends on the observers ending their study and releasing the recordings to us, but one can only imagine the uproar once they’re in our hands and we began to examine the historical claims of all the major religions, and beyond. Aside from the anguish of the priesthood as their world comes tumbling down (those who don’t continue to live in denial, anyway), it would be fascinating to see exactly how history turns to myth, to legend, to religion.

    I raised this scenario with a “born-again” Christian one time, and asked him what he would do if ever happened. He was honest enough to admit it would be a major problem for him, and that he would be forced to conclude that the aliens were demons sent by Satan to subvert the Christian faith by the means of fabricated recordings.

  11. vancouveratheist says

    So let’s assume that at some point in the far distant future, the flux capacitor is invented that allows people to travel back to specific points in time, such to the year 0. So what we need to do RIGHT NOW, is initiate a well-known effort (an effort that will survive the ages) to communicate with the future. E.g., put into the historical record for future generations a lasting message that when they DO go back in time, to go back to the year 0 and place evidence at a specific location on earth (put the evidence in a deep deep hole at the NE corner of the pyramid at Giza) that Jesus existed.

    Once the location information is entered into the historical record, all we have to do RIGHT NOW is go to that location. The Jesus proof should be there if he ever existed. If the proof is not there, then he never existed. QED.

  12. KG says

    Reginald Selkirk@8,

    You’re not quoting from those responsible for dating the fragment in question, or from any scholarly publication, but from an evangelical Christian magazine – of course it’s likely to babble about the Holy Spirit. And the article itself notes that the fragment turns out not to be first century, but from 150-200 CE. Seems it’s not only Chrisitans who exhibit biases in this matter.

  13. KG says

    Meanwhile, atheists have what they consider an easy way to undermine the supernatural claims of Christians: show that he never existed, and poof, Christianity collapses with its foundation gone. They can’t do that, either. They can question the hypothesis, which is a good thing, but they’re not going to be able to demonstrate the falsity of the idea – PZ

    Actually, it is possible evidence could turn up showing that the notion of a real Jesus in the time and place he is traditionally supposed to have lived is false: an obvious source for the Gospel of Mark, dated 100 BCE. Not likely, of course, but quite conceivable.

  14. Cuttlefish says

    “But surely there was an historical Jesus,
    Who walked on the earth, and who died on a cross—
    He might have been God, or he might be a prophet,
    Whoever he was… what a horrible loss!”

    Well, honestly, no. I have heard all the stories,
    The claims that the evidence can’t be denied—
    But the jury’s still out; there’s no verdict I’ll swear to,
    I don’t know he lived, and much less, how he died.

    But frankly, the question is really much simpler
    Than if there’s a Jesus in whom I believe—
    The purpose of Christ is irrelevant, really,
    Unless there’s a literal Adam and Eve.

    If Eden is only a fable or parable,
    Not how the life on our planet begins,
    If Adam and Eve are not literal people,
    No Jesus is needed to die for our sins.

    And here, there’s an answer; there wasn’t an Eden
    There wasn’t an apple, there wasn’t The Fall
    Original Sin is a fictional concept
    So Jesus was never required at all.

    So, go ahead—argue that Jesus existed;
    Muster your evidence; make me aware—
    His reason for being was falsely constructed,
    So… “Was there a Jesus?” I really don’t care.

    https://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2012/04/10/historical-jesus/. Wow, over 5 years ago.

  15. says

    PZ Myers:

    Being agnostic is a perfectly fine place to be.

    The evidence is thin, and the answer doesn’t matter.

    Even if there was an ‘historical Jesus’ his story has become so encrusted with myth and legend that virtually nothing can be known about him and he has no influence on what christians believe and act on in our daily lives.

  16. says

    #1: Historians who live on remote barren continents surrounded by venomous animals that want to kill me don’t count.

    An analogy: we know from the genetic/molecular evidence that all tetrapods had a last common ancestor. We’re pretty damn confident about that and have the evidence to back it up. But what was that LCA? If somebody tries to say “Tiktaalik!“, all the professional biologists (including Neil Shubin) would look at them funny and say no, Tiktaalik is representative of a group of transitional forms, but isn’t The One.

    So Jesus is like Tiktaalik, with even less evidence that he existed. I kinda feel like the people who insist Jesus never existed, though, are as deluded as the ones who insist they’re sure he existed.

  17. says

    I agree with petern #5 that the strongest argument for a mythical Jesus isn’t the lack of historical documentation, but positive evidence that early Christians – Paul especially – didn’t seem to think of him as a human being.

    If you read the New Testament epistles and other early Christian writings without presupposing the gospel story on top of them, you can assemble a picture of Jesus as a spiritual savior figure whose sacrificial death and resurrection took place in some Platonic higher realm, and who communicates with human beings exclusively through revelation. The NT epistles say a lot of things that make no sense if their authors thought of Jesus as a human being who had recently been on earth.

    If self-linkage is OK, here’s a few of the verses that really stand out in that regard:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/essays/choking-on-the-camel-part-3/

  18. petern says

    Thanks Adam @#19! I read your essay Choking on the Camel years ago and that was the eye-opener that got me started on researching Christian origins. Since then there’s been a ton of excellent new scholarship, and the case for an historical Jesus is looking very, very dim.

  19. says

    I used to think Jesus mythicism was a thing for atheist conspiracy theorists (and people who fell for Zeitgeist), but after hearing from historians I was persuaded that it was a respectable position with some things going for it. But I have never been persuaded that I, as a non-historian, should take any sides on the issue. It doesn’t matter how many arguments I hear from historians, I clearly don’t have the expertise to make a judgment, nor is there any need for my judgment.

  20. wsierichs says

    The best way to think of a historical Jesus is to compare him to a historical King Arthur.

    We have no contemporary evidence of Arthur or anyone else in the Arthurian stories. While some historians have made heroic, and interesting, efforts to pick a historical Arthur out of the mess, it all ultimately comes down to assumptions that Arthur existed and some genuine material about him is mixed in with the later fictions. But it’s impossible to be certain what, if any, historical material is valid. All one can say is: There’s a reasonable inference that someone like Arthur might have existed, leading the Romanized Celtic resistance to the Anglo-Saxon invaders, but any valid information about him is too buried in fictions to know for certain who he might have been, if he existed.

    The same problem applies to Jesus. We have no certain, credible sources of information about him. The problems with the 4 official gospels (out of a dozen or so floating around in the ancient Mideast) are so massive that they’re worthless. Only the discovery of an independent, certifiably contemporary source of info – non-Christian at that – could allow us to separate fact from fiction. Also, we don’t know when the 4 official gospels were written or who wrote them. The only certain date is that by the 170s, bishops of what would become the catholic church began treating these 4 gospels as authentic, and also assigned names to them. We don’t know if any were written in the 1st century, if the author(s) actually knew a historical Jesus, if the versions we have are original or were edited or rewritten in the 2nd century. Reasons exist to think they were edited and quite possibly given their final form a century or more after a historical Jesus might have existed.

    An additional problem is the assumption that Christianity was born in the 1st century. It’s strange that by mid-century, Paul and his (probably bitter) rival Peter were dealing with a widespread church, one that supposedly sprang up only at Jesus’ death, spread rapidly and then stalled in growth for 3 centuries. A stronger assumption is that multiple groups of proto- or pre-Christians were developing in the 1st century BCE, and if there was a Jesus, he existed up to a century before his official birthday party. That would explain why Paul had no knowledge of a living, breathing Jesus, but only a gnostic figure that spoke to him in visions. FYI: some 1st century CE Christians believed Jesus had died about a 100 years before his official death in the 30s CE.

    There’s far more material than a comment can cover, so I’ll just conclude that I think agnosticism is the only viable option about a historical Jesus and atheism about the Jesus god of Christian scriptures. If he was real, he’s been lost in centuries of myth-making.

  21. scottde says

    “The problem with asserting that there was a living, breathing individual who gave rise to the myths about Jesus is that the very earliest writings about him, the authentic letters of Paul, don’t seem to have anything to do with an actual man. Jesus is some kind of celestial figure who has descended through the various realms of heaven down to the lowest one, which is still somewhere up in the sky, to do battle with the demons who rule there.”

    This is incorrect and is based on a tendentious misreading of Paul’s letters. Paul states that Jesus was a flesh and blood person who was born of a woman. He met Jesus’ biological brother, James.

    The argument that most, if not all early Christians believed Jesus was purely celestial prompts the question of how and why that view changed, and why is there no trace at all of it in the sources? If some Christians started to believe Jesus was real while others continued to believe he was celestial, we would expect evidence of that in the form of condemnation by one side (or both) that the other side was guilty of heresy. And yet though we have lists of hundreds of Christian heresies, the idea that Jesus was purely celestial and never appeared on Earth is not among them.

  22. anxionnat says

    There are two problems with this: (1) The evidence we do have is basically the “letters of Paul” (some of them are thought to be fake by historians who have specialized in that era) and the gospels. The problem with the gospels is that we don’t know who wrote them, though the purposes of them are pretty clear. Also, they were written a whole lifetime after the supposed events. They are not eye-witnesses to the events. (2) There are no written sources that cannot be attributed to the christian communities. If all we knew about Julius Caesar’s life was Shakespeare’s play, the life of Caesar would be in analogous position. Or, if all the accounts of Big Foot were written by a religion that counts Big Foot as their deity, we would in both cases be skeptical that any such person (Caesar or Big Foot) existed. I’m not a historian, nor do I have the language skills to make a judgment in this case. I’m a biologist with language skills in other languages, so I have to make decisions based on what information historians of religion say. If we had evidence for, say, the existence of Alexander von Humboldt that was as bad as the info we have on Jesus, we would be justified in being skeptical that Humboldt ever existed. (3) I just read something that argued that the gospels were written anonymously because a lot of works were written that way at the time in question. That was common when Greek and Roman writers were writing fiction. In at least one gospel (Luke) the author comments that the author of Luke and Acts (probably the same person) probably knew he was writing fiction. Again, I can’t check that independently, but the argument is interesting. I’m an atheist but was brought up Roman Catholic, so the debate and writings on this topic are interesting to me. Thanks for the discussion!

  23. thirdmill301 says

    If there were a Jesus who did even half the things the New Testament claims he did, his existence would be well documented. And that, to me, is the central issue: There may or may not have been an historical Jesus — as with PZ I’m agnostic on the subject — but there is zero reason to believe the New Testament accounts. Which is as much of an answer as I need.

  24. consciousness razor says

    The problem with asserting that there was a living, breathing individual who gave rise to the myths about Jesus is that the very earliest writings about him, the authentic letters of Paul, don’t seem to have anything to do with an actual man.

    Indeed. Read the epistles, while trying to forget everything you read in the gospel narratives.* Whenever you come across something where you think you’ve got a clear picture of things happening to a real person (Jesus), not an alleged vision of Paul’s, remind yourself that you weren’t supposed to color over it with your reading of the gospels. See what you have left. It’s Paul telling various groups of people about his imaginary friend, who doesn’t do anything or will do something which you might have thought he had already done in the past. He’s acting like there was no Jesus on Earth, who was already the authority on such matters, who set some kind of example by saying and doing things at some place/time in the physical universe, etc., since Paul gets his info directly from the source. If you thought a real Jesus started the religion, not a real Paul, ask yourself how exactly that is supposed work, while you also take Paul seriously as a source about what early/proto- Christians were thinking.

    *The four “canonical” ones, that is. People differ on which ones are merely fan fiction and which ones have the blessing of George Lucas. In any case, it’s not a good idea to watch the prequels first, if you want to understand how those sausages were actually made.

  25. OverlappingMagisteria says

    Adam Lee #19:

    …the strongest argument for a mythical Jesus …[is] that early Christians – Paul especially – didn’t seem to think of him as a human being

    Except that Paul did. Paul refers to Jesus as a human being in Galations 4 as being “born of a woman”. He claims to have met Jesus brother, James, in Gal 1. In Romans 1:3, Paul explicitly says that Jesus was of flesh and the descendant of David. Mythicists tend to wave these off as later additions or come up with other ways to dismiss them that don’t hold much water.

    I just re-read your “Choking on the Camel” post… I think many of the points are a bit of a stretch. A lot of the argument boils down to “Paul should have mentioned Jesus here, but he didn’t, therefore he must not have believed in an earthly Jesus.” These kinds of arguments rely on the heavy assumption that Paul should have mentioned a specific thing at a specific point in is writing. An oftentimes he DOES actually mention that thing just not in that specific point.

    For example, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says that believers must walk by faith, not on sight in believing that there is an afterlife (ie the general resurrection of all). Your article takes him to task for not mentioning Jesus resurrection and all of the supposed eyewitnesses at that moment. True, Paul does not bring this up at this specific instance, but he does often talk about Jesus’ resurrection as proof of the afterlife (ex: 1 Cor 15:12, 20). And he does bring up (supposed) eyewitnesses of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-7) as well. Perhaps he doesn’t bring it up because he already did in his previous letter to the Corinthians. (Also, if you’re living in Corinth, you kinda had to walk by faith since it would be a bit of a trip to Jerusalem. You kinda had to just trust what this guy was telling you about what happened in Jerusalem.)

  26. jasonfailes says

    When in conversation with Christians, I stress that any which way you look at it, this kills their theology.

    Maybe Jesus wasn’t mythic. Maybe the religion was started by one of scores of illiterate ancient Judeans lost to history…

    …so what’s up with omniscient God (who knew ahead of time that Jesus would become one of scores of illiterate ancient Judeans lost to history) setting up belief as the criteria for eternal torture/happyland?

    We’re hardly “without excuse” if even the mere mortal existence of the messiah is a legitimate open question.

  27. OverlappingMagisteria says

    #23 scottde
    I was about to make the same point. If the earliest Christians believed in a purely celestial Jesus, the later Christians who believed in an earthly Jesus would be calling them heretics. We have plenty of this kind of writing condemning all sorts of different factions of Christianity. There are condemnations of Christians who followed the Jewish law too closely, Christians who believed that Jesus was not god, even condemnations of Christians who believed in multiple gods. But no condemnations of Christians who didn’t believe in an earthly Jesus.
    Somehow, Christianity went from believing in a celestial Jesus to an earthly Jesus without any controversy? I’m not sure how that happens…

  28. mikehuben says

    Another way to consider a historical Jesus is to compare him to a historical (human, likely a king) Jehovah. This has the advantage of showing how much more myths can evolve.

  29. mnb0 says

    “This is a deep bias.”
    Typical that you don’t mention the anti-christian agenda of about all Jesus Mythologists. Apparently your bias that atheists – especially you – are so rational is too comfortable.

    “we might differ on who that man was.”
    Nice abuse of Occam’s Razor. The real issue of course is: why would and Paulus and the authors of the Gospels invent a fictional character, especially when there was not exactly a shortage of messias pretenders there and then? Every possible answer has to be backed by evidence. Or an actual Jesus being that man is the simple answer. Or you must love some conspiracy theory of course; quite a few JM’s have invented some. Quite typical that you don’t mention that one either.
    Something similar happens with your dismissal of consensus. It shows your bias that you don’t notice how much it looks like the creationist non-argument against Evolution Theory: the suppressing culture at universities like yours. So of course you totally miss the point: there is consensus because method. There is no JM consensus – just like there is no creacrap consensus – because they don’t have any method but sucking on big fat thumbs and an unhealthy fondness of logical fallacies. Hence JM attracts loons like “Julius Caesar was Jesus Christ because both are JC” and creacrap against – well, pick your favourite loon.
    Plus of course the way you formulate smells like a false dilemma. Has there to be one single man founding a religion? What about a shatterbrain gaining some local popularity and some other guys running away with him as a sort of mascotte? I may hope you are not so stuck in simple white-black schemes that you reject this scenario – not exactly uncommon, I’d say – without any further do.

  30. says

    I didn’t mention it? You need to read a little further.

    Meanwhile, atheists have what they consider an easy way to undermine the supernatural claims of Christians: show that he never existed, and poof, Christianity collapses with its foundation gone. They can’t do that, either. They can question the hypothesis, which is a good thing, but they’re not going to be able to demonstrate the falsity of the idea, and the louder they insist that their evidence of absence is true, the more they undermine their credibility.

  31. anchor says

    What I CAN conclude is that the fellow specifically identified to be invested with all those preposterous supernatural powers cannot, in fact, have existed. QED

  32. Owlmirror says

    Judas Iscariot, Judas means traitor in Aramaic, Iscariot means traitor in Greek.

    Citation desperately needed.

    (“Judas” is a Greek form of “Judah” or “Yehudah”, a common name in Hebrew, and one of the biblical 12 tribes of Israel, from which the term “Jew” derives)

  33. Ed Seedhouse says

    The main point being, I think, that there being a human being who inspired many of the stories that later went on to become the Christ myth is the obvious default assumption which isn’t an extraordinary claim. We have at least four early texts that say he was a man. If you want to say there was no such man then I think the burden is on you to prove that.

    By the way, I do not believe that the word “myth” means “false” among scholars. For example, one meaning found on the Font Of All Wisdom is: “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon”.

    Myths are of course usually factually false, but they do not need to be. Most of the myths surrounding Evis are false, but that doesn’t prove he didn’t exist.

  34. monad says

    @6 tussock: Judas doesn’t mean traitor, which would be a weird thing to name a child. It seems to have been a reasonably common name – among various apostles and the like, and more famously Judas Maccabeus who led a national revolt against the Seleucids – and various sources give it as a variation of Judah meaning praise for God. Iscariot is also not a Greek word meaning traitor, though it might mean something similar in some other language. All in all, it looks like an eponym rather than a translation of his name.

  35. anat says

    mikehuben, the name Jehovah comes from a misunderstanding of how Jewish scribes treat their god’s name. The emerging view is that early Israelites and Judahites learned about a god with a name somewhat like Yahu (with a meaning related to blowing wind, as he was a storm god of some kind) from some other tribes living to the southeast from them, somewhere in the area of Edom or Midian. Why would there have been a human person underneath it? Worshiping personified forces of nature was a common thing. Very different from worshiping a character that is described in myth as human-like. Wondering if the Jesus character was somehow based on a human who once lived is more like wondering if Hercules was somehow based on a human who once lived.

  36. Ed Seedhouse says

    “What I CAN conclude is that the fellow specifically identified to be invested with all those preposterous supernatural powers cannot, in fact, have existed. QED”

    Very bad logic. All you can conclude from that premise is that “the preposterous supernatural powers” themselves did not exist. It might easily be that a charlatan who gulled people into believing he had these powers did actually exist. Or that a madman who sincerely believed he had these powers actually existed and other people believed in his mad ideas. And I can think of a couple of other possibilities without hurting my head. All of which involve an actual “historical” person as the one the myths were based on.

    We have, for instance, the shining example of a POTUS who, apparently sincerely, believes that if he is removed from office the entire economy will crash. And who apparently is an actual person…

  37. anat says

    tussock, @6: Jesus is indeed derived from Yeshua (in the Galilean version, in the Jerusalem area the name would have been pronounced Yehoshua, like the name of a famous rabbi from the late 1st century CE), but it does not mean anointed. It derives from ‘Yahweh saves’. Anointed is the meaning of ‘mashiach’ or more commonly Latinized spelling ‘Messiah’, which indeed is translated as Christ.

    I agree with monad @37 that Judas is simply the common Jewish name Judah (Yehudah). In Hebrew Iscariot is rendered as ‘ish qarioth’ ie man from a place called Qarioth. I have no idea if such a place existed, but if not and the name was meant to be symbolic then I would translate it as ‘city man’ or more literally ‘cities man’.

  38. petern says

    A growing number of professional and amateur historians have already addressed every objection to the idea that Jesus was not a historical figure that has been raised here. The Big Book on the subject is Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus (a peer-reviewed academic publication, as Carrier is always eager to point out), and a casual persual of Amazon will reveal quite a few more. Not all Christ-myth theories are valid, but in the light of recent scholarship, get this: all the theories for his historicity are weak. The evidence is not there to be found.

    And no, the gospels are not evidence. It is widely agreed that the first gospel to be written was Mark, and all the rest (some three dozen, in addition to the other three canonical ones) all derive from Mark. So the entire story of Jesus rests on Mark — a literary creation, anonymous, undated, unsourced, and containing almost nothing but supernatural tales. Unbelievable. Christianity has controlled the study of history for most of two thousand years and we’re just starting to see that their religion is based on myth and misunderstood fiction.

  39. etchison says

    I heartily agree. To me, the way Christians point so fervently to the four “eye-witness” accounts connotes an insecurity around Jesus being a real person. But your ultimate question is the right one. “Does it matter?” From a secular standpoint it does not, because we are left either way with a battle between enlightenment principals and the dark ages. From a religious standpoint it matters only in theory, because even if Jesus’s historicity were disproved (which it won’t be) his followers would never accept that as fact. It’s still fun to talk about though. :)

  40. dacotah says

    Remember that Mark copied at least some of his stuff from some earlier author whose work is not available.

  41. Reginald Selkirk says

    John Wilkins #1: A professional historian (oh, if only you knew one) would say that contemporaneous mentions are sufficient in the period in question to presume that the named individual existed…

    In the case of Jesus H. Christ, none of the mentions are contemporaneous. Not a single one. The earliest accepted dates for anything are literally decades after his alleged death.

  42. Saad says

    What really makes this question uninteresting is that there are 525788 humans with magical powers that people have believed in.

  43. Reginald Selkirk says

    KG #14:Reginald Selkirk@8,
    You’re not quoting from those responsible…

    So happy you got my point. Baffled that you think this would be news to me.
    Now tell me: what is the earliest NT manuscript dated by scientifically reliable methods, i.e. radiocarbon dating rather than assumptions about writing style?

  44. bachfiend says

    I think this is a good occasion to give a plug for one of my favourite science fiction writers, Andreas Eschbach, who wrote two very good novels – ‘Das Jesus-Video’ and ‘der Jesus-Deal’ (I don’t know if they’ve been translated from the German) – in which there was time travel and a real miracle performing Jesus who died on the cross (for the purposes of the plot, which were great fun).

    I don’t know if there was a real Jesus with considerable mythical accretions, or an entirely mythical Jesus. One of the best arguments for Jesus being entirely fictional is that the earliest account in Mark makes more sense if it’s entirely fictional in the way it’s constructed in a literary fashion with its repeated motifs. You’re supposed to have had a wandering preacher for 3 years teaching both his 12 disciples and whatever general population bothered to listen, and his disciples never understood what Jesus was teaching, never discussed it amongst themselves, and had to realise after his death what he was getting at? His disciples seem to have been incredibly dim and not capable of starting a major religion.

  45. richardemmanuel says

    There might have been a Jesus, probably not called Jesus, who didn’t do anything particularly Jesusy. Got it.

  46. CJO says

    scottde:

    This is incorrect and is based on a tendentious misreading of Paul’s letters. Paul states that Jesus was a flesh and blood person who was born of a woman. He met Jesus’ biological brother, James.

    There are a couple of well-worn proof texts, yes. It’s tendentious to insist on reading the narrative gospels back into the Pauline corpus and to proceed by scouring the texts for any hook that might be sturdy enough to hang the details on, which is always what happens in this argument, seriously, every single time. “Brother of the Lord” does not unambiguously mean biological sibling of anybody, and Paul does not use “Lord” exclusively to refer to the Christ, but also refers to God that way. “Born of a woman, born under the law” is more troublesome, but when it’s just used as a hammer, as if one line against so much that points the other way in the Pauline literature should be taken as definitive, I despair of being granted the charity of entertaining a case that simply sets it aside for the sake of argument as anomalous in favor of actually trying to understand what Paul is saying throughout. It’s incurious. I mean, if the matter is settled by that line for you, then great. But the Pauline texts are genuinely strange to the modern analytical mind, and I’m interested in approaching a reading of them that can interrogate and contextualize that strangeness in the thought wold of its author and audience, and to have that project reflexively labelled “tendentious” on the basis of a single fragment is tedious.

    The argument that most, if not all early Christians believed Jesus was purely celestial prompts the question of how and why that view changed, and why is there no trace at all of it in the sources? If some Christians started to believe Jesus was real while others continued to believe he was celestial, we would expect evidence of that in the form of condemnation by one side (or both) that the other side was guilty of heresy. And yet though we have lists of hundreds of Christian heresies, the idea that Jesus was purely celestial and never appeared on Earth is not among them.

    The flaw here is that everyone believed Jesus was celestial, that, whether subsequently to an earthly existence, death and resurrection or not, he was an angelic, celestial presence “at the right hand of God”. For Paul, this figure was a new Adam, the first man of a new creation that those “in Christ” were imminently to join following the “passing away” of the current age. It is not that difficult to see how a shift might have occurred that consisted of a gradual and piecemeal “fleshing out” as it were of the pre-apotheosis Jesus across a period of time with different aspects of his supposed life taking on more significance to different mystery-cult like groups across the Greek speaking East until a gathering together of the various pieces with some creative additions took the form of the now familiar narrative gospel known as Mark.

    I think it should be noted in this context that, first, we know that Paul was in fact dealing with controversy and “different gospels” (by which Paul did not mean a narrative text, but a “message” that he had received direct from the Christ, probably in actual practice by ecstatic inspiration from Scripture), but we don’t really know what these competing messages were at that stage; and, second, that the 2nd and 3rd century controversies that are illuminated by the heresiologists whose works survive included intense disagreements about the nature of Jesus’ incarnation, suggesting that a straightforward “everybody knows” Jesus was this preacher who worked various miracles proving his messianic status and got crucified and subsequently raised to celestial resurrection had no particular authority. Docetism, the idea that Jesus on earth was a divine being who only seemed to have the form of a man, for instance, possibly betrays some early influence of an originally celestial-only belief that had to be retrofitted to later gospel stories.

  47. nomdeplume says

    I think the case for a real Jesus is as poor as the case for a real god. In both cases I think an atheist position is that the burden of proof is on the one making the claim. And there is no proof for either mythological figure. And no, I don’t think the scales will sudden;y fall off the eyes of the religious, but I do think it is important that history is grounded in evidence and proof. The absence of proof in many examples in the past has enabled the rise of religious and political movements based on mythology. To the great detriment of humanity and the rest of the natural world.

  48. says

    Someone compared historicity of Jedus to historicity of Socrates.
    Interesting is, that whether Socrates existed or not, whether there was a single person or was it many people combined- it doesn’t matter for philosophy.
    It does matter for religious claims if Jesus existed or not.

    I like the comparison placing Jesus somewhere between Robin Hood – while historical figure himself, he wouldn’t probably recognize his legend as talking about him – and King Arthur, who even though claimed for a long time is historical, probably is purely fictional amalgam of different stories and even if those stories originated from real people, neither one of them was English, a king or was named Arthur.

    Comparing historicity of Jesus to popularly known scientific theory (like Theory of Gravity) is flawed, because with historicity of Jesus many theories explaining the known sources give similarly good (or rather bad) explanation.

    There is a continuum from a real, existing apocalyptic prophet whose real life story, enhanced as it usually is in oral tradition, become a basis of gospels, through real life prophet that gave start to the legend, but the only thing true was that he existed, preached and died and other stuff was either pulled out of the air or “borrowed” from other people, up to completely mythical figure that was later taken to be real.

    For me it is most interesting to wonder where is the border between historical figure that has few elements borrowed from other people and pure amalgam of many dfferent real and mythical figures. How much stuff we may add to the historical person before it is no longer a person but a combination of many….

  49. says

    @richardemmanuel

    There might have been a Jesus, probably not called Jesus, who didn’t do anything particularly Jesusy. Got it.

    That’s the message I’m getting from professional historians about Jesus.

    Anchor:“What I CAN conclude is that the fellow specifically identified to be invested with all those preposterous supernatural powers cannot, in fact, have existed. QED”

    Ed Seedhouse:Very bad logic. All you can conclude from that premise is that “the preposterous supernatural powers” themselves did not exist. It might easily be that a charlatan who gulled people into believing he had these powers did actually exist. Or that a madman who sincerely believed he had these powers actually existed and other people believed in his mad ideas. And I can think of a couple of other possibilities without hurting my head. All of which involve an actual “historical” person as the one the myths were based on.

    But this is the problem with having bad definitions. Christians say “Historical Jesus” means that a magic man really did walk around doing magic, because Jesus is magic by definition. Others come along and say, “Oh, Jesus really existed, except he wasn’t magic.”

    What the Christians hear you saying is, “Magic Man really existed & did magic! Even the skeptics/atheists say so!”

    They go on to add, reasonably in their view given your concessions, “Of course, they try to portray him as deluded about whether he was actually God, but hey, that’s Satan’s influence for you … and they’ve already conceded Jesus existed, so we know there’s universal agreement that Satan exists as well!”

    You’re back to lunatic, liar, or lord, and simply ruling out lord, while accepting that the other two must hold the answer.

    But the thing is … say that there was a con man, a Joseph Smith, for instance. We know that the Smiths and the Hubbards exist. We know that they don’t portray themselves as gods.*1 Imagine that this 1st Century Smith (1CS) actually changes his story a bit over time, just the way that Hubbard and Smith did. We have actual, good evidence that religions can and do spring up this way.

    While it’s absolutely inevitable that some human was involved in the founding of a church in which humans come to know their god Jesus the Greaser, and it’s almost inevitable that, had we lived at the time and tracked the work being done, one person would have done more of the church-founding work than others, it’s not at all inevitable that the person who preached what would be come the tenets of Christianity ever held himself out as the godhead. There’s no requirement in human sociology or psychology that someone had to have represented himself as Jesus in order to found a Jesus-church. Hubbard didn’t represent himself as Xenu. Smith didn’t represent himself as god, Jesus, or Moroni. There is no need to assume that 1CS did not exist and that therefore “Historical Jesus” (here meaning someone who was a complete madman or who consciously chose to lie about being god, per the Seedhouse hypothesis) must have existed.

    Why does “Historical Jesus” study seem to be so devoid of comparative religion and the insights we can gain from looking at the founding of modern religions?

    As far as I can tell, no one even seems to attempt to refute the 1CS hypothesis, simply saying that “the most plausible explanation is that there was a guy who preached and who died on the cross and was then deified”. They seem to get this from the observation that in order to found the church at all, someone must have done some preaching at some point. Well, sure. But was that person “Jesus” in any meaningful sense?

    And the answer I keep getting is, “Yes, it is Jesus in an important and meaningful sense, but we can’t tell you anything about this Jesus, not even his name.”

    This is why I think the definitions have to come first: If you define “Historical Jesus” as “some guy who was important to the early church somehow though we’re not clear on exactly why”, then sure. Some Historical Jesus existed.

    Get back to me when you can explain how you concluded that 1CS didn’t exist and when HJ has at its base some reasonably supported conclusions about who that HJ actually was and what that HJ actually did besides “being important to the founding of the Christian church somehow, though we’re not sure exactly why”.

    Because right now that doesn’t add up to anything like what any Christian or even any agnostic would call Jesus. At a minimum, any HJ that would do justice to the term would have had to 1) actually exist, 2) personally care for the sick, some of whom recovered from their illnesses, 3) provide food to people who needed it (at weddings or just generally to poor people), 4) preach to significant crowds, 5) that he, himself, was the (or a) “Son of God” in some important sense not shared by most persons.

    We know that this is how he was portrayed in the Gospels. But do we know that these are the attributes of the church founder? They could be attributes of 1CS’s Xenu or Moroni.

    Alternatively, these more plausible facets of the Gospel Jesus character (“GJ”) could (in addition to the supernatural bits) be concretions or syntheses, until we can (reasonably) rule out the possibility of such concretions or syntheses. If there were three different persons who each did some of the things that this HJ did and who each separately inspired a portion of the character stories would identify as the GJ, does that mean that there were three HJs? If not, what does it mean to say, in such a situation, that there was, in fact “an Historical Jesus”? If so, what does it mean in such a situation to say that there were “three Historical Jesuses”?

    That’s why I think definitions are so important here. The historians and the lay persons appear to be speaking of entirely different people, yet the lay persons think that their HJ has been found by historians when he hasn’t.

    If the HJ does not resemble the GJ, then I would argue that for any reasonably important purpose, no HJ has yet been found. Moreover, if all your sources for the HJ’s characteristics that resemble characteristics of the GJ are themselves biblical texts, then what you have is merely the particular instantiation of the GJ that chucks out the supernatural and some other bits until it has been precisely scaled to your willingness to believe.

    Now, if someone wanted to assert that John the Baptist is actually the person who inspired (in some important sense) Christianity, I’d have to give that some thought because there exist qualities of JtB that are ascribed to JtB by sources other than the Christian “New Testament”. Some of those qualities may parallel qualities of the GJ and some may not, but they are not simply qualities of the GJ scaled down to my willingness to believe.

    Anyway, I find “Historical Jesus” to be a nonsensical concept unless and until it is

    1 Well defined
    2 Shown to have characteristics attested to by sources outside the Christian bible.
    3 At least some of those characteristics had a source other than religious faith (because though the Gnostic gospels aren’t in the Christian bible, to my mind they provide what would be more accurately described as “an alternative GJ” than something more reasonably called “HJ” and also because faith is not a path to truth)

    This of course may very well not comport with important rules or practices of professional historians, and I won’t discount that they know a lot of things that I don’t know, but until the previous three minimal conditions are met, I’ll give professional historians who talk to general audiences about HJ the same side-eye I give to lawyers and legal scholars who speak to general audiences about “natural and foreseeable consequences” without taking steps to make sure that the audience understands that this is a term with specific meaning entirely different from what they probably expect the term to mean.

    ==========================
    *1: The Smiths & Hubbards. There are also, of course, the Jim Joneses who do portray themselves as Gods, but that would already be covered under the Seedhouse “Conman” hypothesis. We’re addressing the Smiths & Hubbards separately right now.

  50. says

    @tussock #6:

    But even the name, Jesus Christ, Iosus is a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic Yeshua, which means annointed one, who is the Messiah, which means “savior”. Christ is the Greek word for the Messiah. That is what all the “surnames” in the new testament are, no one had surnames then, it’s just a Greek translation of the meaning of the Aramaic name. Judas Iscariot, Judas means traitor in Aramaic, Iscariot means traitor in Greek. When people in English call him “Our Saviour Jesus Christ”, that’s just translating it again!

    Where are you getting this? Someone’s mislead you.

    The Aramaic/Hebrew ‘Yeshuah’ means “God Saves”, not Messiah. For instance, the eponymous hero of the Book of Joshua (the anglicized version of ‘Yeshuah’) was not a messiah. Judas doesn’t mean “traitor” in Aramaic, it was a common name among Jews because it would literally translate to “Jewish guy”. One of Jesus’s brothers was named Jude. Iscariot’s meaning is still contested, but it doesn’t directly translate to anything in Greek. Some authors connect it to the sicarii we read of in Josephus, who were Galilean bandits.

    @dacotah #44: No one can say with any confidence that Mark “copied a previous source”. That’s just needlessly multiplying entities, much like the Q hypothesis.

  51. A Masked Avenger says

    Tussock, #6:

    But even the name, Jesus Christ, Iosus is a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic Yeshua, which means annointed one, who is the Messiah, which means “savior”.

    Not quite. Yeshua meant “Yah Saves,” and was a very common name at the time. It’s an apt name, but not a terribly portentous one. And “Christ,” which is indeed Greek for Messiah, was specifically a title rather than a name. He would have been called Yeshua bar Yoseph by the locals, and certainly not Yeshua hameshiach.

  52. albz says

    PZ:

    One final question I have for anyone who wants to argue about this: does it matter?

    What? If Jesus actually existed or not? Yes, it matters a lot, at least for Christians. If he existed then we’re back to faith vs reason debate on Christian religion, but if he didn’t…well, then we don’t even need to go to this further step, and two thousands years of myths crumble down into the non-existence of theis founder.

  53. John Morales says

    And, of course, cultural Christians wouldn’t be fazed, either, for (hopefully) obvious reasons.

  54. Rob Grigjanis says

    John @57: He didn’t really slay the Bull of Heaven, so “historical Gilgamesh” is a nonsensical concept.

  55. says

    Re: does it matter?

    Why do we study history and religion at all? I think there is utility in learning what we can about how one of the major world religions was founded: what the original doctrines were, how they conflicted, the process by which they were resolved/evolved into what we have now. This stuff has applicability; I think it’s especially important for atheists to understand how religions work.

    And I’d say it’s a rather big distinction to go from saying there was an actual person with followers [who then presumably dispersed into their own schools/communities that later diverged in their respective outlooks], to attributing it all to scriptural back-fill + creativity on the part of whichever contemporary theologians [Peter? Paul? Apollos? Philo of Alexandria? John the Baptist? the folks camped out at Qumran?] were trying to resolve Judaism’s Y3D Problem [i.e., WTF was up with that calendar in the Book of Daniel predicting that Something was going to happen then?].

    Yes, much of the evidence we need is either missing or hopelessly compromised; obviously we’re not going to get to 100% certainty on anything. But being able to establish the idea that he didn’t exist as a likely or at least respectable possibility is already a big deal in historical terms,

    … even if, as numerous people have already pointed out, it completely sucks as an argument against Christianity [if for no other reason than that the vast majority of Christians these days are not literalists — the ghost of John Shelby Spong will find a way to get a mythic Christ to work for him — and for the ones that are, even if Carrier’s thesis were to ultimately win out and historians eventually settle on, say, only a 5% probability that a Historical Jesus existed, they’ll take that and run with it — the notion that 95% of academic historians are tools of Satan isn’t going to be a new idea for these folks…

    … or alternatively, check out how modern Jews and main-line Christians deal with the emergent archaeological/academic consensus that Exodus never happened. And for that too, you can reasonably ask why do we care? And again, I’d answer it’s useful to know [to the extent that we can] where the myth really came from, how Judaism really got started, etc.

  56. A Masked Avenger says

    Crip Dyke, #54

    Christians say “Historical Jesus” means that a magic man really did walk around doing magic, because Jesus is magic by definition.

    Funnily, you agree with the christians on this point, and conclude that since nobody did the magic tricks ascribed to Jesus, therefore Jesus didn’t exist. That’s… not how historians work. They disagree with both you and the christians in this regard. They’re quite accustomed to dealing with sources that are various admixtures of fable, propaganda, fantasy, and the occasional bit that sheds some light on actual history. Josephus, Herodotus, and other historians were half-decent at recounting events they witnessed, but drew liberally on other sources that they treated with too much or too little credibility, and incorporated with less or more artistic license, following one or another agenda. They read every source with a fair amount of skepticism, and try to tease from it whatever light it might shed on what happened.

    In the video dialogue (which I watched some of, but not all), the historian was struggling to come up with the word “model,” but it’s a decent way to put it. A “historical figure” is a model that attempts to explain the observations. With luck, it will line up reasonably well with actual reality. Our ability to test the historical model is quite limited, though, and so the models are often a bit threadbare.

    The general consensus of historians is that there was probably a Jewish dude, probably named Joshua, who went around preaching, and got a bit of a sect started, but was crucified. Afterward, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the sect failed to dissipate, but instead they constructed the fable of the resurrection around him. That’s the historical Jesus. There’s not much more to it, except speculation that, for example, he was probably from Galilee rather than Judea, and that some of the sayings in the gospels and other sources, like the didache, may be reasonably representative of his teachings. That sort of thing.

  57. John Morales says

    A Masked Avenger:

    Crip Dyke, #54

    Christians say “Historical Jesus” means that a magic man really did walk around doing magic, because Jesus is magic by definition.

    Funnily, you agree with the christians on this point, and conclude that since nobody did the magic tricks ascribed to Jesus, therefore Jesus didn’t exist.

    No. CD is saying that Christians* say that, not that she herself does, and how therefore the compound term “Historical Jesus” is problematic because different people interpret it differently.

    (your error in interpretation renders your subsequent discourse otiose, since she clearly understands all of that)

    * Synecdoche, presumably, for the subset that does so.

  58. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Re: does it matter?
    I’m surprised to hear a scientist asking that; it’s the wrong question. On one level, no, it probably doesn’t matter, in that it won’t have much of an effect on people’s lives if we ever have a more or less definitive answer to the question. But on the other hand, you could say the same about whether dinosaurs were killed off by an asteroid or volcanic activity, or whether there’s a ninth planet somewhere way beyond Neptune, or what happens to PZ’s spiders. All academic disciplines are populated with esoterica that don’t “matter” (although every now and then some obscure study about, say, the relative size and shapes of finches’ beaks on islands of the coast of South America can have profound effects).

    But on another level, recently we’ve had three threads here on this topic full of passionate debate. Clearly it matters to some people, and clearly history is a legitimate field of study with fairly rigorous methodologies. So what’s wrong with the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge? It’s fine to critique the methods or the logic or even the framing of the question; it’s also fine to say it doesn’t matter to you. But if that’s the case, why are you even in the conversation?

  59. says

    Funnily, you agree with the christians on this point, and conclude that since nobody did the magic tricks ascribed to Jesus, therefore Jesus didn’t exist.

    Did you read what I wrote? I do NOT agree with Christians on this point. I spelled out precisely what would be minimally necessary for me to consider that a useful HJ had been identified and it has nothing to do with working magic. I have to wonder if you are deliberately lying on this point when I was as clear as clear can be. Allow me to repeat myself:

    Anyway, I find “Historical Jesus” to be a nonsensical concept unless and until it is
    1 Well defined
    2 Shown to have characteristics attested to by sources outside the Christian bible.
    3 At least some of those characteristics had a source other than religious faith (because though the Gnostic gospels aren’t in the Christian bible, to my mind they provide what would be more accurately described as “an alternative GJ” than something more reasonably called “HJ” and also because faith is not a path to truth)

    Are any of those “worked magic”? No? Then wherefore are you making shit up?

    I really don’t fucking care how the label “Historical Jesus” is used by professional historians in works written for history students or for professional/academic historian audiences. What I pointed out is that while it’s fine for lawyers to have an outlandishly weird definition of “foreseeable”, but when you’re educating the public or your clients about potential liability for negligence claims, you can’t just say “reasonably foreseeable” and leave it at that. The word that has a specific use in professional circles also has an ordinary meaning which conflicts – drastically – with that use.

    I further pointed out that historians using “Historical Jesus” in works for public consumption should very well fucking know that their now non-professional audience has a very different conception of what “Jesus really existed in history” means to that general audience. If they don’t tailor their language to make sure they are not using professional terms in ways that lay audiences are going to perceive as having their common meanings, they’re going to mislead people rather badly and they should be knowledgable enough to be aware of this problem and cautious enough to avoid it.

    I don’t appreciate you saying that I “agree with the christians on this point” when I’ve been clear that I disagree strongly with the Christians, I have a willingness to put forth a specific definition that we can discuss as being or not being met, and have never once insisted that what I think is a reasonable minimum for establishing a HJ has anything to do or should have anything to do with what professional historians say in their own journals and at their own conferences.

    Whoever the fuck you’re talking to clearly doesn’t resemble me. Maybe you’re just talking to the Historical Crip Dyke. Pfft.

  60. richardemmanuel says

    It appears there are two schools of thought:- that Jesus did not exist, or that not-Jesus did. But this is to wilfully ignore the many millions of contemporary accounts – today! For is it not gibbered so that the living Jesus walks invisibly among us, filling our God-shaped holes with bimillenial zombie love for torture, infanticide, and a wariness of shellfish and Jews.

  61. johnlee says

    God says Jesus existed in the Bible. Why would He lie about His own existence? Answer me that, atheists! Nur, nurdy nur-nur!

  62. rationalrevolution says

    Dr. Myers,

    I’d like to send you a copy of my new book, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed. It just came out, and reviews are in progress currently. My book not only proves beyond a reasonable doubt, using never before published analysis of the Gospels, that Jesus never existed, it also explains WHY this is such an important issue.

    What my book shows, essentially, is that whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark did so by inventing all of the scenes from literary allusions to the Jewish scriptures. It was these literary references, which were copied into the other Gospels as all of the Gospels are really copies of Mark, that led Greeks and Romans to believe that “Jesus had fulfilled many ancient prophecies”. The Greeks and Romans at this time believed heavily in the power and importance of prophecy. This was regarded like a science among the Roman elite, and Constantine himself was a devout believer in prophecy.

    Because the Gospels contains dozens of literary allusions in them, it appeared to the Roman elite that they had solid proof that this Jesus person had precisely fulfilled dozens of prophecies. This is what led directly to the adoption of Christianity by the Roman elite, and thus the empire.

    When this happened, “Christian scholarship” overturned many of the much more advanced fields of knowledge of this time, which is what my next book is going to be about. What happened was the Romans thought they had solid evidence for prophecy fulfillment and “divine knowledge” and this resulted in the claims and phenomena described in ancient Jewish mythology trumping all of the most advanced knowledge of the time. This was because they thought they had evidence that the Jewish scriptures were “divine true” because they had been proved to have exactly predicted the circumstances of Jesus’s life and death.

    Of course the reality is that these so-called “prophecies are really just literary references, and instead of proving that Jesus is divine, what they actually prove is that the narrative of the Gospel of Mark is totally fictional and all of the scenes are made up.

    So what this shows is not only that Jesus never existed, it also explains how and why the ideas of prophesy and divine knowledge and biblical inerrancy rose to dominance in Western Civilization and overthrew much more rational worldviews. And this completely debunks those bogus views, essentially by showing people “how the magic trick was done”. What my book does is explain how the gospels were actually written and how they were misunderstood and how those misunderstandings manifested themselves.

    As I said, the book just came out. I’m having reviews done now, several should be coming out soon.I’d love to send you a copy of the book, if you can give me an address to mail a copy to. I’ve e-mailed you regarding this as well.

    You can read a preview of it via my website: http://www.rationalrevolution.net/pdf/web/viewer.html?file=/pdf/DecipheringTheGospels_Preview.pdf#page=1

    You can also preview a lot of it on Amazon.

    I also have a summary of it on my website: http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/deciphering_the_gospels.htm

  63. says

    Whether or not there was some actual person who could be identified as the historical Jesus is of only mild interest to me. Much more interesting is how this putative person went from being an itinerant preacher circa 30 CE to becoming an avatar of God by 325 CE. There’s a terrific book (Christian Beginnings by Geza Vermes) that lays it all out.

  64. anchor says

    @39: You obviously have trouble reading comprehension and/or with logic. The premise is that a person specifically described and identified as ‘Jesus’ possessing supernatural powers existed. It is refuted by the qualification. I’m not at all referring to any person who didn’t possess them, or even to any person people imagine possessed them. Whether the two latter can have existed is utterly irrelevent.

  65. anchor says

    @39 — Let’s try that again since this sprang directly to posting instead of preview. You obviously have trouble with reading comprehension and/or with logic. The premise is that a person specifically described and identified as ‘Jesus’ possessing supernatural powers existed. It is refuted by the qualification. I’m not at all referring to any person who didn’t possess them, or even to any person people imagine possessed them because of gullibility exploited by a charlatan. Whether the two latter can have existed is utterly irrelevant. The ‘Jesus’ as specifically described and identified by the gullible as possessing supernatural powers cannot have existed unless you gullibly entertain the notion of the existence of supernatural powers.

  66. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    anchor,

    You obviously have trouble with reading comprehension and/or with logic. The premise is that a person specifically described and identified as ‘Jesus’ possessing supernatural powers existed.

    Well, then you’re arguing against a straw man, since no one here has defended that premise.

  67. Steve Morrison says

    We’re not going to find Jesus’ birth certificate, or even his gravestone

    Well, you wouldn’t convince me of anything even if you did find his birth certificate! It wouldn’t prove anything because it wouldn’t be his long-form birth certificate!
    [ducks and runs]

  68. neilgodfrey says

    PZ writes:

    One final question I have for anyone who wants to argue about this: does it matter? We do have solid historical evidence from the mid- to late- first century CE that there was a community of people who identified as Christians with a diverse body of literature that they regarded as true stories of their prophet. That’s the anchor point. Then we have almost two millennia of history shaped by these beliefs. That’s what matters, and no one, atheist or Christian,

    While I think that the earliest forms of Paul’s letters were produced around the middle of the first century I have to concede that this is not a “solid” fact but an interpretation of the data. It as based on the assumption that some of the letters are indeed by Paul just as they say they are. But even that detail has historically been questioned by some critical scholars, and one prominent mythicist today, at least a biblical scholar who “came out” as a mythicist after his retirement, Thomas Brodie (still a Catholic Christian, by the way) believes the letters of Paul were written by “committees” or “schools” of some sort — just as some scholars argue some Old Testament works were produced by schools rather than the named prophets. Part of discussion on this point involves what we know of letter-writing techniques of the day (from rhetoricians) and the extent to which issues they address were otherwise known to be concerns of the first or second centuries. When we first meet Paul in the external record he is “the apostle of the heretics” and their is much disputing about what he originally wrote and who was editing or forging his works.

    The gospels likewise. There are very good reasons to argue that the earliest gospel (Mark) was written around 70 CE but at the same time we have no external attestation of its existence until the late second century and only an ambiguously possible reference in the mid second century. Several scholars both in the past and today have argued that Luke-Acts were products of the mid to latter part of the second century.

    As for a group identifying themselves as Christian, the term Christian as an identifier of a group is not known until the second century. Ignatius is the first to use it as such. Before then other terms like Nazorean were used.

    Moreover, there was evidently not a single group but a constellation of groups, “a riotous diversity” of groups that appear to have had their roots in the first century. Some of these did not even place any apparent theological significance on the crucifixion, if they taught a crucified Jesus at all. (It appears that even Paul fought against such “false apostles” who claimed to be Christ followers. They may be represented by groups who produced the book of Revelation and the Didache — the latter (by a group whom some scholars date pre-gospels) has a eucharist that us is purely thanksgiving and has no symbolic meaning for the bread and wine as flesh and blood of Christ. Other groups appear to be represented by the Odes of Solomon, the Book of Hebrews, and so forth. This is not just a mythicist interpretation but is grounded in the scholarship (e.g. Burton Mack).

    So even what we begin with as “solid evidence” for a particular starting block is not, on closer inspection, necessarily so solid after all.

  69. neilgodfrey says

    Another common argument is the one from the absence of contemporary accounts. Absence of evidence is only evidence of absence if you’ve got so much other data that the hole becomes obvious, and the ancient historical records are almost as tatty and bare as the fossil record. We’re not going to find Jesus’ birth certificate, or even his gravestone…which is true for virtually everyone from the ancient world. We’re lucky that we even have third person accounts from decades after his death of this hypothetical individual.

    Indeed. A number of enthusiastic mythicist sympathizers have overstated the argument from silence. But serious works that address it (such as Earl Doherty’s) do so from not only the silences in the external record but especially in the New Testament writings themselves and writings of early “Church Fathers” — and indeed to focus is on the assault against legitimate expectations for at least a peep if not a shout.

    But even ancient historians such as Moses I. Finley acknowledged the methodological significance of “lack of evidence”. It does not prove absence but it is obviously more difficult to claim it supports presence. The most significant silence or absence, I think, is when we find after peeling away all that is evidently mythical or literary borrowing we find no body left exposed at all. That does not prove there was no such figure to begin with, but it does leave us with no way or using the stories we have about that figure as a useful resource from which to extract historical information.

    Ancient historians do not rely upon texts whose information cannot be dated any earlier than a generation from the narrated events. I think we find that in almost all cases the later sources that are used do at the very least give some clues about their sources, the provenance of their stories, that can be traced with some degree of confidence back to the time of those persons and events being written about.

    Our earliest written sources about Alexander the Great come long after Alexander but they all give us some information about their authors and their ability to acquire information, and the sources they use that do indeed go back to Alexander’s time.

    Similarly for Socrates and Pythagoras, persons less likely to have left other monumental evidence behind — historians rely upon contemporary documents or those that can be linked eventually to contemporary sources.

    One interesting case I have discussed is that of Demonax, a philosopher apparently written by a pupil. It has all the trappings of genuine biography and written by a personal acquaintance. But it is arguably entirely fiction. The reason is that there are no independent sources with which to test it and it is in places raises serious questions about other “silences” if it is genuine.

    I have posted links to that and related articles in another comment on the Ontology of Historical Figures page but given the number of links it has been held up in moderation. Hopefully it will be approved. I posted links simply because the topic is so vast to cover in all its details in comments here.

  70. says

    The most significant silence or absence, I think, is when we find after peeling away all that is evidently mythical or literary borrowing we find no body left exposed at all.

    Yes, this.

    Not having studied the topic and having no expertise in history, I wouldn’t have gone quite so far, but I would have said that [given the popular accounts I’ve ready by serious historians who do disagree – at times quite vehemently – about what needs to be peeled away and what is sufficiently well-supported to remain] there’s apparently very little body remaining. I’d love for people to explain to me how much body there is, but when explicit statements are made about what characters can be reliably included in a model of Historical Jesus I get back character sets that include so little as to be entirely uninteresting. Someone preached in Galilee one time? Color me stunned.

    I’d love for the research on early church development to reach a point where specific claims about aspects of HJ can be plausibly made where at least some of those aspects are supported by sources entirely independent of the Christian Jesus stories (canonical and non-canonical gospels + whatever smaller anecdotes might be sprinkled through other Christian texts, such as Acts or the epistles). But from what I can tell, the difference between Gospel Jesus and Historical Jesus is that HJ is just the partial-skeleton fossil of GJ, with none of the interesting tissue and too few diagnostic syn/apomorphies remaining to positively identify the remains.

  71. neilgodfrey says

    I get back character sets that include so little as to be entirely uninteresting. Someone preached in Galilee one time? Color me stunned.

    Even the setting of the story in Galilee and preaching the kingdom of God there is derived from Isaiah, not historical memory, it appears from the available evidence, and calling disciples to become fishers of men is straight from Jeremiah. A number of scholars have addressed the theological and prophetic origins or meaning of the Galilee setting of the preaching of Jesus (though of course they also believe he was historical, I am sure.)

    Arguments from silence carry some weight when they are “heard” in sources that we know had a strong interest in the type of subject and place and time, and where we know there were institutions or persons who had a very strong interest in preserving at the very least a record of such would-be witnesses.

    The “church fathers” had a strong motivation to find and report and repeat such sources in their battles against those who denied Jesus was a real flesh and blood person (in the second century this “heresy” appears to have been more widespread than orthodoxy), so motivated that they manufactured historical sources to prove it. Presumably there were none to be found otherwise.

    I recommend R. G. Price’s new book, .Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed. (http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/deciphering_the_gospels.htm) Price is a layman, not a scholar, and the book is an easy to read colloquial style, and I do quibble and disagree with some of his points, but his main thesis is well worth engaging with.

  72. neilgodfrey says

    Postscript: The motif of a singular preacher (sometimes with a band of followers) wandering around Israel doing miracles is taken straight from the stories of the Jewish Scriptures. Many scholars have seen behind this portrayal of Jesus the inspiration of stories of the prophets and patriarchs.

    The structure of a lead figure going through one episode by episode, is a common device used to narrate the adventures of a hero and those episodes usually culminate in a lengthy and detailed narration about the death of that hero. The story of Aesop, in episode after episode he outwits his betters, and finally is unjustly condemned to death in a graphically told trial and death scene, is a classic comparison.

    Comparisons of the gospels with historical biographies are at best controversial, debated. There are major differences, most notably the identifications of the authors and the identifications and discussions of their sources. The gospels are closer to Jewish and other equivalents of our “historical novels”.

  73. markr1957 says

    The problem I’ve had with the historicity is that Jesus wasn’t a god according to the earliest extant copies of NT Gospels, except in one or two utterly bizarre Gnostic gospels. He was promoted to the rank of god over a 300 year period according to the actual historical records of Christianity during the earliest recorded years of the development of Christianity.
    The shame is that the Emperor Constantine needed a cohesive one God religion that dictated giving all the charitable collections to the head of the extant Christian church – easier to steal that way – so the entire recorded history of what has become modern Christianity is founded in a demonstrable lie that benefitted the wealthiest Roman citizens and nobody else.
    If there was a real Jesus the man himself has been turned into an impossible legend and almost nothing of his original message has been left over. My personal opinion (and it nothing more than opinion) is that somebody pointed out the stupidity in giving birth to the future slaves of the wealthy.
    The first followers seriously reduced the available slave pool of the Romans, so of course it was suppressed. Paulianity gave the Romans an excuse to convince early Christians to produce lots of future slaves, and that is where modern Christianity comes from. Our upper echelons demonstrate absolutely no adherence to original Christian principles because they too know the value of convincing people to be willing wage slaves.

  74. Pierce R. Butler says

    I’d feel better about rationalrevolution/R. G. Price’s work if it didn’t come from a print-on-demand vanity press, if the diagrams in the summary linked to in # 71 had arrows pointing the right way, and if the text didn’t show signs of not having had an editor trim down unnecessary wordiness.

  75. sdevlin says

    Dr. Myers,

    You may find the following tangentially instructive. I have recently begun reading : Nat Turner: A slave rebellion in history and memory.

    It is a series of essays regarding the nat turner slave rebellion of 1831 in Virginia. The first essay is titled “name, face, body”. And discusses the difficulty in establishing The historicity of Nat turner, given the social stature of the man at the time, and the differing interpretations of the event as viewed through changing contemporaries lenses.

    There are probably no revelations in scholarship and interpretation for you here, but I do recommend it nonetheless as an example of a much more contemporary example of the difficulty of establishing who someone was, though admittedly it does not deal with was someone was, so to speak.

    https://www.amazon.com/Nat-Turner-Rebellion-History-Memory/dp/0195177568?crid=2ZRIRYJ5U1CRL&keywords=nat+turner+a+slave+rebellion+in+history+and+memory&qid=1536494442&sprefix=nat+turner+a+&sr=8-1-fkmrnull&ref=mp_s_a_1_fkmrnull_1

  76. KG says

    the authentic letters of Paul, don’t seem to have anything to do with an actual man – petern@5

    Well, other than saying he was born of a woman, had a brother called James, was a descendant of David, was crucified, died and was buried, etc. etc.

    The life of John the Baptist is well covered in Roman books, as well as Peter who ran the church in Jerusalem, and Paul, and all the local Romans from the time, and lots of other people. – tussock@6

    This is a load of bilge. AFAIK, the only reference to John the Baptist outside Christian sources is by Josephus, who also mentions both Jesus and his brother James. There are AFAIK no references to Peter or Paul outside Christian sources. If you dispute this, kindly provide specific references.

    They’d stopped accepting religious figures as being literal, and every old fantasy tale was assumed to be a very long series of whispers removed from a real person doing real things. The Gospel of Mark was exactly what they would have wanted – tussock@6

    Well yes… except not at all, if your claim about what was wanted is right (which I doubt), because it identified the real person as having lived only a few decades previously.

  77. Reginald Selkirk says

    Other characters of questionable historicity you might choose as a basis for comparison:
    John Frum
    Paul Bunyan

  78. neilgodfrey says

    @ #83 mark1957 writes:

    The problem I’ve had with the historicity is that Jesus wasn’t a god according to the earliest extant copies of NT Gospels…

    This is a debated topic among New Testament scholars. In recent years, for example, NT scholar Larry Hurtado has published extensively arguing that Jesus was worshiped as divine right from the get-go, from the resurrection. Some even interpret the earliest Gospel, Mark, as having a high Christology: e.g. walking on the water carries over OT motifs and allusions that speak of such a miracle as performed by God.

    Paul, long before the gospels, certainly considered Jesus divine alongside God the Father.

  79. neilgodfrey says

    @ #84 Pierce R. Butler writes:

    I’d feel better about rationalrevolution/R. G. Price’s work if it didn’t come from a print-on-demand vanity press…..

    Understood. But as one who has read many scores of scholarly works on Christian origins I know that sometimes otherwise highly respected academic publishers can occasionally print the worst garbage, presumably merely on some obligation to influential names. When an academy is dominated by those with a determination to prevent serious questioning of the foundational assumptions of their models often the only avenue for challenges is self-publishing of one kind or another. Some of these works are extremely good, and I have had no hesitation in adding my own positive review of Price’s book on amazon and on my vridar blog.

  80. neilgodfrey says

    @ #86 KG wrote:

    Well, other than saying he was born of a woman, had a brother called James, was a descendant of David, was crucified, died and was buried, etc. etc.

    I suspect most mythical figures are human figures. Being a human figure doesn’t automatically equate with being historical. Jews of the Second Temple era believed certain human figures in the past were actually pre-existing heavenly beings (e.g. Jacob, Adam). Sure Paul believed and specifically stated that Jesus was “in the form of a man” but that does not mean he was genuinely historical. We need more evidence than that. Especially when Paul also flatly rejects any information about Jesus that comes from his supposed human disciples and people who had supposedly known him (e.g. Peter and Jesus’ brother James).

    James is also said in early texts to be the very person for whom the creation came into being. Yet the only hint we have outside of Galatians that he was a brother of Jesus is in relation to a gospel account where Jesus rejects his sibling status.

    The evidence, the data, is complex and it is a mistake to avoid grappling with the serious arguments and attempts to address it all (in the “scientific” manner that Eddie Marcu said historians “could” use) and simply repeat a convenient list of “proof texts” to make one’s case. That’s how apologists work, not historians.

  81. mountainbob says

    I accept the historicity of a singular individual we identify as Jesus. The best explanation of his role is that he was a Jewish patriot and reformer. He was a “messiah.” There were apparently many messiahs in those turbulent days, and most of them were bandits who used a term for great leadership to hype their roles within their gangs. Jesus was different, and his manner of death is an example of the difference. When the Romans captured one of the criminal messiahs, they executed the entire gang, extirpating their clan. Jesus was taken as being different; so different that he was executed alone. One of the examples of his radical reformist patriotism is exemplified by “render unto Cesar that which is Cesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s.” The coins of the day featured the face of the ruling monarch, and Jesus was saying that the money was Cesar’s, and he and his representatives could take it. But, the land and the people belonged to God, and their only allegiance was to God and not Cesar. Jesus wanted to reform the corrupt priesthood and practices that were rife within the Jewish society. Jesus so disturbed the leadership of both the Jewish and Roman sides that his execution was deemed critically important. The length of his active role – his ministry as recounted in the synoptic Gospels – is subject to question, with estimates and claims ranging from 4 years to 4 weeks. I think he rose up from the people so rapidly that his fate was sealed within a short time. I’ll opine that his time as a reform leader was rather shorter than longer.

  82. neilgodfrey says

    The “best explanation” you present is a widely accepted attempt to reimagine what a historical figure of Jesus might have been like but it runs up against many problems, both with respect to the gospels themselves and the evidence we have for the time of Jesus.

    We have no evidence for “many messiahs” at that time in Galilee despite the attempts of several scholars to argue that the various bandits and rebels mentioned by Josephus were such figures. In every case the names mentioned by Josephus are a generation away from the time of Jesus and they are no different from bandits we find in other parts of the Roman empire, and the other religious leaders appear to be following prophets like Joshua, not messianic figures. (I can’t help but suspect that many New Testament scholars attempt to read into Josephus what they hope will cohere with their historical construct of Jesus.)

    Josephus never passed up an opportunity to excoriate false prophets and royal pretenders and we would have expected him to have attacked any pretenders claiming to be messiahs, too.

    That the Romans would execute a leader of a dissident movement and ignore his followers is, as you say, unlikely on the face of it. It makes no sense except as a theological trope. The story is in line with the tales in the Jewish scriptures that the shepherd was to be slain and his followers flee. There is no need to introduce a very strained political antecedent to the story.

    (We have no reason to think from the gospels that Jesus wanted to reform the priesthood. He spoke of its doom and destruction, not reform, as an apocalyptic mouthpiece of the author who was writing in hindsight after the temple and its priesthood were destroyed. The gospel gives a rationale for that event.)

  83. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Well, other than saying he was born of a woman,

    In a passage that has clear theological significance, which can easily be read as saying something like “Jesus was a Jew” so that he could fulfill certain prophecies.

    had a brother called James,

    Again, can be read another way.

    was a descendant of David,

    Let’s take this claim seriously. Let’s look at Romans 1:3.

    First, Paul in Romans 1:3 doesn’t say that Jesus was born from Mary, wife of Joseph. Paul just said that Jesus was born from the seed (e.g. semen) of (King) David.

    Second, wasn’t the current status of academia on the existence of King David? I seem to recall that reasonable scholarship is dubious on his existence, along with the rest of the patriarchs of the Bible. So, Paul is saying that Jesus was born from the semen of King David, a person who probably didn’t exist.

    Third, if you want to bring in additional context from the historicity assumption, then this makes even less sense IMO. What does the claim “Jesus was born from the semen of King David” even mean on the historicity interpretation? Is the author trying to communicate that Joseph, husband of Mary, was a descendant of King David? That doesn’t make any sense to me, because Jesus is not a descendant of Joseph. Rather, Jesus was born by “immaculate conception”, e.g. Yahweh magically impregnated Mary, and Joseph had nothing to do with this process. On the assumption of historicity, IIRC, the author is not communicating any facts about the parentage of Joseph, and the authors are being quite clear that Joseph’s seed has nothing to do with it. Perhaps they’re communicating some fact about ancestry through Mary instead of Joseph, but this is probably wrong for several reasons. Thus, it seems to my ignorant and untrained mind, even on the assumption of historicity, there must be a cosmic sperm bank where Yahweh kept some semen of King David, and used it to impregnate Mary.

    This is not evidence of historicity. In fact, IMO this is weak evidence for mythicism; it reads much more naturally on mythicism.

    was crucified, died and was buried, etc. etc.

    Plenty of other contemporary accounts have people being crucified, dying, being reborn, and being buried in heaven. This is not evidence of historicity, and it’s ignorant or dishonest of you to pretend that it is.

  84. Rob Grigjanis says

    EL @95:

    First, Paul in Romans 1:3 doesn’t say that Jesus was born from Mary, wife of Joseph. Paul just said that Jesus was born from the seed (e.g. semen) of (King) David.

    Why did you leave out the last part, “according to the flesh”? To me, that reads like “if you go by earthly descent”. Joseph was Jesus’ earthly father.

    The existence of David is irrelevant. There are plenty of cases of real humans claiming descent from legendary figures.

  85. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Rob:
    I believe this is another technical term that has theological significance, and has special theological significance in that passage.

    http://blog.adw.org/2011/03/what-does-the-bible-mean-by-the-flesh/
    https://www.studylight.org/commentary/romans/1-3.html

    I think it pretty clearly is a claim about the nature of Jesus, and how Jesus has become the form of a mere human (so that he might fulfill some prophesies). Just like “born of a mother” in the same passage; the text is making clear that Jesus was a Jew and just a man so that he can fulfill certain old testament prophesies. That’s the purpose of the author here, and that’s what the author means to communicate. In the context of Romans 1:3, Paul is just setting up his bona fide; Paul is just opening with the basic reasons why his audience should trust in him and the basis of Paul’s authority: the fulfilling of scripture.

    At least, that’s how I see it right now, as the ignorant layman that I am.

  86. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Woops – I was thinking of the wrong passage when I said “born of a woman”. Still Paul though. Did I mention that I’m ignorant?

  87. Pierce R. Butler says

  88. Pierce R. Butler says

    The maculacy of my own conception is revealed by the html fail in # 99 – mea culpa, to the max!

  89. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    And also thanks for the correction on my misuse of arcane Catholic theology – you are correct that this term refers to Mary’s birth, not Jesus. I always get that confused. Sorry, thanks.

  90. Rob Grigjanis says

    EL @97: The monsignor in the first link is specifically talking about the meaning of “the flesh”, with the definite article in the original Greek, as distinct from the meaning of “flesh” alone. So, τῇ σαρκί (as in Romans 7:5), rather than σάρκα without the definite article (as in Romans 1:3). In other words, he is certainly not talking about Romans 1:3.

    The second link is too deep into the theological weeds for me.

  91. Owlmirror says

    Second, wasn’t the current status of academia on the existence of King David? I seem to recall that reasonable scholarship is dubious on his existence, along with the rest of the patriarchs of the Bible. So, Paul is saying that Jesus was born from the semen of King David, a person who probably didn’t exist.

    Wait, what? Holy anachronism, 1st century Jews were current on modern scholarship of the Ancient Near East?

    I sincerely doubt that Paul, or the gospel writers, or anyone that they were addressing at the time thought that King David, and the other patriarchs, were entirely mythical.

    Actually, most modern Jews are not current on modern scholarship of the Ancient Near East, and most think that King David and the other patriarchs were entirely real, and did most, or even all, of what the bible claims they did.

  92. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Owlmirror
    I agree, but I think you’re missing my point.

    The first century Jew who says “Jesus was born from the seed of King David” might not have proper scholarship or evidence at hand to justify the assertion that King David existed, and it’s more likely that he doesn’t have proper scholarship or evidence at hand to justify the assertion that Joseph, husband of Mary, was a direct descendant of David (nor justify that Mary was a direct descendant of David). The author is clearly making this claim for theological reasons, and it doesn’t matter to the author if it’s actually true or not. In other words, they’re probably making it up.

    Some people in this thread want to take this passage out of context, and use this passage to conclude something about the belief of the author, specifically that the author believed that Jesus was physical person on Earth who was born, grew up, and did stuff. For the reasons that I just explained, it is not obviously true to me that the author believes this, and for other reasons that I’ve mentioned (i.e. the author is just making up the fact that Jesus was a direct descendant of King David, and Jesus wasn’t born from the seed of Joseph – a fact which suggests the speaker believes in a cosmic sperm bank), I believe this passage alone makes more sense on mythicism than historicity.

  93. says

    @Owlmirror:

    Actually, most modern Jews are not current on modern scholarship of the Ancient Near East, and most think that King David and the other patriarchs were entirely real, and did most, or even all, of what the bible claims they did.

    I can’t speak for most Jews, and though my shul was officially unaffiliated we were more closely aligned with Reconstructionist than even Reform, so my congregants aren’t likely to be representative, but we had no problem saying that it appears that there was actually a king or chieftain with the name David or that name’s then-equivalent but that we don’t know at all that the flesh and blood person did most or even many of the things attributed to him. There are a lot of secular Jews out there, and even conservatives are typically willing to that there’s a lot of historical error in the Tanakh. Orthodox, maybe not. And maybe the conservatives didn’t have that great a basis for believing that King David existed before the BeitDavid inscription on the Tel Dan Stele came to light. But questioning is a long tradition in Judaism, and I think among west-coast Jews you’ll find more that are willing to admit the lives of the Kings are fictionalized in how they are told in the Tanakh than who wouldn’t admit that.

    A similar statement could probably be made about “the other patriarchs” save for the fact that most Jews would probably assert that Abraham, Isaac & Jacob were the actual names of actual tribe-leaders who actually performed actions that actually led to the formation of Jewish identity, even though our ability to be certain about an actual Abraham or Isaac or Jacob is vastly less than the certainty we should attribute to the existence of a king/chieftan named David.

  94. DanDare says

    Did magic jesus exist? No. Atheists not interested in history could stop there.
    However there seems to be Christians who think if they can defend mundane jesus then magic jesus follows.
    As for this historicity of mundane jesus I’m inclined to compare to legendary figures like Robin Hood.

  95. Owlmirror says

    @Crip Dyke:

    Actually, I suspect that most people in general are not current on modern scholarship of the Ancient Near East, and thus think that the bible reflects something like a historical record.

    It’s true that there have been popular works on the topic, and television shows every now and again, but I don’t think those have informed educational curricula. Those who pay close attention or try to research the matter will eventually figure it out, but how common is that sort of curiosity?

  96. neilgodfrey says

    @ #95 Enlightenment Liberal makes significant points about the statement in Romans 1:3 that Jesus was a descendant of David. I would further add that the same passage is yet one more instance of the problematic nature of the evidence we work with. We know Paul’s letters were the subject of fierce controversy with many claims and counterclaims being made over who was trying to change them by adding to or deleting sections from them. Our manuscripts are the artefacts of the victors in that controversy.

    Meanwhile, renowned critic (and anti-mythicist, by the way) Alfred Loisy stated that the Romans 1:3 should not be considered Paul’s words, but a later interpolation. (Loisy, 1935 — p. 9). A more recent proponent of the interpolation view of this passage is Detering.

    William Walker in his book on interpolations in Paul’s letters sets out principles or criteria that possibly argue for an interpolation and I think that Romans 1:3 meets every one of those criteria.

    I can’t prove and wont’ stake a claim on the verse being a late addition to Paul’s letter, but such questions do point to the problematic nature of the sources we have to deal with. We would not be wise to rest too dogmatically on such evidence.

  97. neilgodfrey says

    @ #99 Pierce R. Butler writes

    <

    blockquote>David mythicism pretty much died after the discovery of the Tel Dan stele in 1999, a ~29-century-old inscription mentioning the “House of David”.

    Only among the apologists. “Mininalism” is still a growing school in OT studies. Even the Christian George Athas who (I think) believe in David as historical wrote his thesis on the Tel Dan stele arguing that it did not necessarily refer to the King David at all.
    The evidence against the historicity of David is not “silence”, by the way, but the wealth of archaeological evidence that testifies to the area around Jerusalem being economically and logistically incapable of supporting or being the base of a significant kingdom at that time.

  98. neilgodfrey says

    Oh dammit. Apologies for the botched coding in my #112 comment. It should read:

    @ #99 Pierce R. Butler writes

    David mythicism pretty much died after the discovery of the Tel Dan stele in 1999, a ~29-century-old inscription mentioning the “House of David”.

    Mostly among the apologists. “Mininalism” is still a growing school in OT studies. Even the Christian George Athas who (I think) believe in David as historical wrote his thesis on the Tel Dan stele arguing that it did not necessarily refer to the King David at all.
    The evidence against the historicity of David is not “silence”, by the way, but the wealth of archaeological evidence that testifies to the area around Jerusalem being economically and logistically incapable of supporting or being the base of a significant kingdom at that time.

  99. neilgodfrey says

    Speaking of research:

    https://www.academia.edu/5543833/Galil_G._Gilboa_A._Maeir_A._M._and_Kahn_D._eds._2012._The_Ancient_Near_East_in_the_12th-10th_Centuries_BCE_Culture_and_History._Proceedings_of_the_International_Conference_held_at_the_University_of_Haifa_2_5_May_2010._Alter_Orient_und_Altes_Testament_392._M%C3%BCnster_Ugarit-Verlag

    It is worth seeking out a range of views. Keep in mind that in Israel scholars (including archaeologists) who dissent from the conventional view that supports the myth of Israel’s biblical history risk bitterly hostile responses from both peers and in the media — they will as like as not be accused of supporting anti-semitic views.

    Very often in biblical studies when one reads that “the dominant view now is”, one is seeing what scholars have decided mostly to agree to without seriously engaging with opposing interpretations, even personally attacking those of another viewpoint — especially in the “minimalist” vs “maximalist” debate.

    Dig out the opposing views, look for the evidence supporting each, and the validity of their arguments, the justifications for their assumptions, and don’t waste time head-counting to see how many side up with each view.

  100. says

    @Owlmirror:

    I don’t know about in Christian circles, but among Jews who actually go to temple, it’s quite common to discuss such things. Rabbis frequently will lecture on/discuss the history of the House of David and other topics. In my congregation, gathering at shul pretty much guaranteed that Rabbi would say something about how that week’s parshah related to what we know from archaeology about what actually happened in Israeli prehistory. Granted, what we know about Torah-described events is less than what we know from the Prophets & Kings sections of the Tanakh, but she would usually say something.

    The P & K sections would get discussed as well, usually in talking about how that week’s parshah foreshadowed or related to events that happened later. Then she’d describe the later events as they were described in the Tanakh and compare that to what we know from other sources. We had an active, involved congregation & people were generally listening, with questions & discussion happening after the service. Twice a month we had an oneg (what others might call a potluck) after service and there, too, we’d have people asking a lot of questions and the kind of curiosity you talk about was commonly expressed.

    Again, I have no idea how common this really is, but it was the norm in our congregation, and when I was shul-shopping with my partner one other shul seemed to do similar discussions of what we know from other sources somewhere in the neighborhood of what we did at the shul we eventually chose. The other shul we seriously considered and attended sometimes even after we joined ours if we couldn’t get across town seemed to do less, but they didn’t have a full time rabbi. Volunteers prepared to lead each week, and they probably just didn’t have the wealth of background knowledge that the rabbis brought to their work.

  101. says

    @neilgodfrey:

    The evidence against the historicity of David is not “silence”, by the way, but the wealth of archaeological evidence that testifies to the area around Jerusalem being economically and logistically incapable of supporting or being the base of a significant kingdom at that time.

    Sure, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a “Chieftan David”. It means that if he existed, his wealth and power were dramatically overstated. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there was no ennobled leader named David.

    I find it odd that historians might reject a historical David because the stories about him must have been exaggerated, but accept a historical Jesus though the stories about him must have been exaggerated (or just made up from scratch). I’m not saying you’re wrong to do so. Again, I’m not the historian and I don’t claim any expertise here. I just think it comes across – on the surface – as a double standard. I don’t see any reason why the necessity of exaggerated and or made up details would be an argument against a historical figure in one case, but merely be an argument for a reduced historical figure in another case.

    You’ve already given us a lot, but if you’d care to help me with that, I’d appreciate it.

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