It’s the right thing to do on Christmas day.
Oh, yeah, the script:
Since it is Christmas day, I thought it only appropriate to say a few words about Jesus. Or rather, about Jesus Mythicism. This is the idea that a historical Jesus, founder of the Christian religion, didn’t even exist but was instead an invention of later proselytizers to justify their beliefs.
This is an awkward topic for me because I know all the major players on the mythicist side. I’ve met, and had pleasant conversations with, Robert Price and David Fitzgerald, and for a few years Richard Carrier had a blog on our network, Freethoughtblogs. I kept running into these guys, and for a while I was sympathetic to their views. I am not a historian, so I listened to the authorities I knew, and by some unholy coincidence there were a lot of mythicists among them. OK, sure, I said, I’d consider the possibility that Jesus never existed, and that some kind of conspiratorial cabal invented a figurehead. Why not? I wasn’t enthusiastic about it, but I’ll let them tell the story.
But here’s another awkwardness: I later had a falling out with all of them, and one could easily argue that my disagreement with mythicism could be personal bias, not objective analysis at all. That’s fair. After all, Richard Carrier tried to sue me and my friends for TWO MILLION DOLLARS, because we accused him of being a sex pest after he was banned from a conference for being, well, a sex pest. David Fitzgerald submitted testimonials on Carrier’s behalf, making salacious accusations against my friends. And hoo boy, Robert Price turned out to be a wild-eyed raving racist.
Furthermore, an organization called Mythicist Milwaukee has developed into a sponsor for all kinds of anti-woke conservative conspiracy theories. You could make a fair case that I have flung myself as far away from these people as I could, on the basis of issues other than an objective analysis of their mythicist case, and I’d have to concede that that is true in part. On the other hand, my counterargument would be that it suggests a deep problem in their theory, that it mainly seems to attract fringe scholars, pseudo-intellectual bible worshippers, wanna-be nazis, and misogynists and conspiracy theorists. I don’t like these people, making my opinion of their ideas suspect, but also…why do such unpleasant, unsavory characters gravitate towards Jesus Mythicism?
I have my own theory on that, based on my own initial interest in the idea. If you’re already an atheist and an anti-theist, then it is so tempting to be able to cock a snook at Christianity and point out that their messiah was nothing but a phantasm, like their god. It’s wishful thinking that we can pretend to make a religion we detest vanish in a puff of logic. Of course, we can’t do that — showing that ancient historical records about a radical preacher in first century Judea are spotty doesn’t prove much of anything, and people continue to believe in spite of the absurdity of many religious claims.
I think another factor in the acceptance of Jesus Mythicism is the bogus hyper-rationalism of so many new atheists. Everything must be reducible to Science, or worse, Math. Belief requires an unquestionable chain of logic and evidence at every step, and any absence of a step means the premise must be rejected. That is not how science works! It’s also not how history works, either. It’s the flip side of the Salem hypothesis, the observation that so many creationists who claim to be scientists are actually engineers. They have the mindset that every causal explanation must be clearly measurable and documented in a precise blueprint, or the entire idea must be rejected. That’s not how the real world works. We propose tentative explanations that are tested and evaluated on their consilience with a body of observation and theory.
Looking back on my casual dalliance with mythicism, that’s how they drew me in. The mythicists would peck at the Bible, finding problems in the canonical stories. See, the Bible says the dead rose and walked into Jerusalem — that didn’t happen, therefore the Bible lies. You can’t follow a star to a point location, therefore the story of the three kings was false. So much of the Jesus story about his birthplace is patently an attempt to shoehorn his origin to fit prophecy. Why don’t we have any civil records of his birth and early life, until suddenly he appears in the stories in his early thirties? Paul didn’t even meet Jesus, everything was written decades after his death! You get the idea. There are contradictions, inconsistencies, gaps, and doubts about the provenance of various bits of the story. If the anecdotes do not fit, you must acquit.
But that’s not at all how history works. Of course every historical account has inconsistencies. They are documented from multiple viewpoints by observers who have their own biases and may not have been trained in historical methodology. Errors creep in. Tall tales get attached. Propaganda modifies the stories.
How many Persians fought at the battle of Marathon? Contemporary Greek sources peg the number at two hundred thousand, three hundred thousand, even half a million. Modern historians agree those numbers are improbably, impractically high, inflated to make the victory even more impressive. More reasonable numbers go as high as one hundred thousand, more likely twenty five thousand, which seems much more probable, given that they were routed by ten thousand Greeks. By Mythicist reasoning, the simplest explanation is that the inconsistent numbers mean the battle of Marathon didn’t happen.
Real historians would look at the totality of the evidence, including the political and social events in the aftermath of the Persian invasion, and conclude that there was a battle, it ended with a significant Greek triumph, and discount the propaganda.
It’s the same with the Jesus story, only more so. It was a local story, a small time event that only mattered to a small circle of believers, but it grew over time. Much of the story was dubious, but professional historians could look at the legends that arose over time and infer back to a reasonable, even likely beginning. And they have almost universally agreed that the most parsimonious explanation of the rise of Christianity is that it started as the teachings of a small-time holy man who was executed — that is, martyred — by the Romans, and that it prospered and changed over the years by evangelical preachers who spread it throughout the empire.
That sounds likely to me, a non-historian. It also fits with the anthropology of religious cults, which have arisen many times before and since. Look at Mormonism, for instance: would it make sense to argue that their prophet, Joseph Smith, didn’t exist, and was an invention by Brigham Young and the Mormon Elders? Was Scientology handed down directly by an alien named Xenu, or did it involve one guy, L. Ron Hubbard, making up a story? Was Lutheranism a conspiracy by a cabal of anti-Catholic fanatics, or did Martin Luther actually exist?
How many religions have coalesced out of the ether in the absence of a charismatic human catalyst?
It seems to me that the mythicists are the ones insisting that Christianity is unique and special and had to have originated by an exceptional process. I don’t buy it. And neither do the real historians who must roll their eyes in exasperation at every fringe kook who brings up an inconsistency or gap in the historical record. They already know about these problems, their whole discipline is about winnowing out hearsay and distilling information down to what is most plausible and reliable.
I am not going out on a limb, nor am I betraying atheism, if I plainly state that a preacher named Jesus existed in the Middle East in the first century, that he built a small following before he was executed, and that his disciples promoted a religion that spread around the world. That’s the most reasonable explanation for the start of Christianity, only weirdly deluded fanatics argue otherwise.
That doesn’t imply that I think he was the son of a god, or that he had magic powers, or that believing in his divinity is required to enter paradise after my death. I don’t believe that, nor do many of the historians who study his mundane and mortal influence on ancient history. I’ll trust the authorities in a scholarly discipline way outside my own, rather than the opinions of outliers and oddballs.