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.