And it’s a long treatment, so brace yourself.
I’m not going to disagree with his major points, but am just going to say that I think our background disciplines also tend to color our interpretation of the data. As a biologist, this summary resonates perfectly with me.
As already noted in relation to Myers’ rather different form of “agnosticism” on the question, historical analysis of pre-modern evidence simply cannot arrive at definitive answers and can only make structured, evidence-based but subjective assessments of what is most likely.
Evolutionary biology does the same thing: we gather all the evidence we can, sieve through it, and try to make a best assessment that accounts for all of the data with as little subjectivity as possible…but since we’re human, we can’t eliminate it all. We also try to conform our explanations to existing models of how the world works, and I think that’s where we often get conflicts. When I say there’s a question of parsimony here, I’m really saying is that I have a model in my head, and what’s the simplest way to fit these data to it? And as a biologist I have one model that involves thinking about populations and downplaying individuals (individuals make a transient contribution that is then broken up and blended with all the other individuals in the population), while a historian might focus more on specific instances and place greater weight on an individual’s role. So that’s where this bit doesn’t fit as well into my head.
The problem is that the whole of Mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition – that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed – which has no sound evidential foundation. And Occam’s Razor makes short work of this kind of idea.
This is how the Principle of Parsimony applies to the question. It is not merely that, as Myers seems to think, the idea of a single person as the point of origin is “simple” therefore it is most likely. It is that the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect and all of the alternative explanations for how this could be is based on a weak foundational supposition which can, in turn, only be sustained by contorted readings of the texts which are also propped up by still more suppositions.
OK, I agree with the point that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect”. If you’re just going to accept the sources as your sole objective data (a fair decision!), then sure, an argument between informed historians is going to converge on a single answer, as he does.
Unfortunately, that collides with my biases as a non-historian evolutionary biologist who tries to answer historical questions about organisms. When we try to identify the last common ancestor of all tetrapods, for instance, we don’t have any doubt that such a thing existed, but the “thing” is not a single individual (it ain’t Tiktaalik!), but a population, or a group of populations, or even a few loosely interbreeding species, and we’re averse to holding up a fossil and declaring, “here is the mother of all four-legged vertebrates!”, because we know it’s not true.
So I look at the Middle East of a few thousand years ago (or even today), and I see a fermenting chaos that is throwing up preachers and prophets all over the place, and to point to one guy and say he’s the one seems to avoid the bigger question of what was going on in that particular environment. Wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge the cross-fertilization and interbreeding of ideas that had to have been going on? This Jesus fellow is just one focus, and given how little we know about him, not even a particularly interesting focus.
I also have to question the reliability of the sources that all say there was one man. Writing that Christianity was produced by a committee, or the complicated interplay of a gang of scholars living in one little town, isn’t as compelling a story as saying it was this one enlightened individual. It’s like how in evolution the popular press seems to be locked into the idea of a “missing link”, looking for that one bone that ties a convoluted history into a pretty package, even as all the biologists try to tell them there wasn’t one link, and it’s not all missing, but parts of it will always be lost to us.
But all right, I can accept that historians have reached a practical consensus based on available evidence that there was a guy named Jesus who triggered a major religious movement 2000 years ago, and that denying his existence is a pointless exercise in pedantry that is often misused by lazy denialists. After all, if some revisionist came along and tried to claim that Devonian sarcopterygians were a fantasy and illusion cobbled up by Carboniferous limb apologists to justify the righteousness of tetrapody I’d also find them annoyingly obtuse.
Another thing: if you’re an atheist already, this is an argument that is totally irrelevant. If we had definitive evidence that Jesus existed — a time machine goes back, snaps a photo and takes a DNA sample — it wouldn’t change my mind at all, nor would it persuade Christians to abandon their faith. If the time machine goes back, and the time travelers flounder about, unable to identify which of the multitude of preachers is “the one”, that similarly is not going to change the mind of anyone about the truth of Christianity. It’s a kind of peculiarly bad pattern of argument that doesn’t resolve anything that matters at all.
I guess if you’re the kind of atheist who wants to say, “Hur hur, Christians are wrong about something, therefore there is no god,” maybe it would appeal. But this is like picking the most fuzzy, vaguely definable claim with known deficiencies of data that you can find and then splitting hairs to find a way to say the other guy is wrong, and doing it in the face of a whole mob of scholars who are telling you that your interpretation is non-standard. Tactically, it doesn’t sound smart.
We might as well be arguing that Jesus was an alien. The whole debate just puts us in a looney-tunes cartoon.