I Believe Jesus Was a Historical Person, Part 2

I believe there are some identifiable fables and mythic tales in the Bible, such as the Genesis creation accounts, the sons of God producing children from the daughters of men in Genesis 6, the Exodus, wilderness wanderings and Canaanite conquest in the Old Testament. In the New Testament there are some other identifiable fables and mythic tales, like the virgin birth story about Jesus, several miracle stories, the existence of Judas Iscariot, Joseph of Arimathea, and the resurrection story about Jesus. There are others. Given these things it becomes an important task to try to figure out if Jesus himself really existed.

I do not intend to revisit this question very often, because while it is an interesting one it’s not essential to debunking the Christian faith, nor are Christians likely to even consider the question unless they are first convinced that the other things I just mentioned are mythic tales. That’s why I focus on these other fables and myths. Getting them to recognize these things as myths is hard enough. Why focus on that which is harder when there is an easier route?

I’ll be excited to hear the conclusions that will come from next weekend's seminar on the Sources of the Jesus Tradition: An Inquiry, which includes participants Hector Avalos, Robert Price and Richard Carrier, all friends of mine

In any case let me once again delineate the problems for someone wishing to deny that a man named Jesus existed and further argue that he did. If you haven’t read my first foray into this field you must stop reading and begin reading what I have previously wrote about this issue right here. Again, stop reading and go there.

Let me elaborate in this post and further make my case.

That there are myths in the Bible doesn’t automatically lead to the conclusion that it is all mythic in nature. It may be, as I admit, but what reason is there for throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Let’s say Benny Hinn’s followers are called Hinnites and carry on after he dies. Does the mere fact that they claimed he did miracles, something we would call myths and fables since we don’t believe he actually did any miracles, automatically mean he didn’t exist? No.

Furthermore, what good reason can be given for demanding that there must be independent confirmation outside the NT before believing anything inside of its pages? That there is some need to do this I don’t doubt, given the nature of the stories, but why must we discount anything in the NT unless it is independently attested? What if there was no independent attestation to the existence of the Pharisees outside the NT? Why must we doubt they existed merely because of this? That’s one of my questions.

There are plenty of details in the NT that have been confirmed, most notably the historical setting of the gospels and the book of Acts. It hasn’t all been confirmed, of course, like the fabricated Roman census at the time of Jesus’ birth for instance, but much of it has. Sir William Ramsay has documented that the setting of the book of Acts, the places mentioned, the people who ruled, and other details are remarkably historical in his classic book, St. Paul, the Traveler and Roman Citizen, as has A.N. Sherwin-White, in his book, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. The setting of the Gospel of John has a remarkably historical setting as well, when it comes to its description of buildings, people groupings, and geographical landscape at the time, like Jacob’s well, the Samaritans, Solomon’s porch, the pool of Siloam, and so forth. According to Christian apologist Paul Barnett, “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the fourth evangelist was quite familiar with the topography and buildings of southern Palestine.” (p. 64).

Sure this isn’t enough, but it is something. It leads us to think the authors (or the sources they draw from) lived at that time, although it doesn’t prove this.

What would prove that Jesus existed? Nothing. Nothing in the historical past can be proved anyway. Almost anything can be denied in history even if it happened. So what can show us Jesus existed? No single piece of evidence can do this, since no single piece of evidence ever led people to believe he did in the first place. It's the convergence of evidence that leads people to think he existed.

In the first place, there is no testimony in the ancient world that denies he existed. There may be some significant silences about his existence, but arguing from these silences doesn’t show he never existed. They are merely silent about it. One cannot conclude from silence that the author didn’t know of a Jesus or an early Jesus sect. That’s an informal fallacy, especially when we have NT documents maintaining he did, including Paul who was the earliest writer of the NT.

What did Paul claim? He claimed he received what he knew about Jesus from revelation of course, which makes us suspect his knowledge, but he also claims he met with the early leaders in Jerusalem and that he had received information directly from them in I Corinthians 15:3-8. What he received from them he passed on to the Corinthians a few years earlier expressed in that creed. He also says he spent fifteen days with Peter three years after his conversion (Galatians 1:18-19), where one could conclude he first learned the creed he repeats to the Corinthians. Paul gives us several details about Jesus, depending on how we date his letters and whether we think he wrote them. Jesus descended from Abraham (Gal. 3:16); was the son of David (Romans 1:3); was born of a woman and lived under Jewish law (Gal. 4:4); had a brother named James (Gal. 1:19) and other brothers (I Cor. 9:5). Paul tells us Peter was married (I Cor. 9:5), and that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper (I Cor. 11:23-25); was betrayed (I Cor. 11;23); was killed by the Jews of Judea (I Thess. 2:14-15), and that he was buried and seen as resurrecting (I Cor. 15:4-8).

This is evidence that shouldn’t just be ignored simply because mythic elements to the life of Jesus were added in the telling of his story. Did Jesus think his last supper was his last one? I don’t know. It might be reasonably concluded that he did, since he would certainly know that people wanted him dead. In any case, such a story and the subsequent weekly practice of communion is evidence he ate the Passover meal at least one time with some men he called his disciples. It might even be thought Jesus did this on the night of his crucifixion, regardless of whether he predicted his death or not. Cultic leaders have been known to be paranoid and to think the authorities will kill them for their teachings, anyway. Some have called upon their followers to die with them, like David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, and Jim Jones.

I have proposed that the best explanation for the rise of the Jesus cult is that Jesus was an apocalyptic doomsday prophet who called for the end of the world. There have been a lot of charismatic doomsday prophets who have gathered a following. Such an explanation fits the facts of what we read in the NT itself and has been the dominant view of Jesus since the time of Albert Schweitzer, as I said. There are other alternative suggestions, but this one makes the most sense to me. That there are ancient pagan parallels to some of the elements in the life of Jesus is interesting to me. Certainly the life of Jesus as told by the early believers took on some of those characteristics. Whether they completely explain the rise of the Jesus cult is something I doubt. Again, I could be wrong since historical studies are fraught with problems like this. It just makes better sense to me personally, even if I might be shown wrong at a later date.

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To read my next installment on this see Part 3.

22 comments:

kiwi said...

"Nothing in the historical past can be proved anyway."

Really? I'm afraid I would not find one historian or philosopher to agree with you. I think Craig already pointed out your error on this in his Q&A, so I wonder why you're still making that blunder.

I mean, you can't prove that an atomic bomb exploded in Hiroshima, or that Abraham Lincoln existed?

Historically something is "proven" when the evidence is such that no rational person would deny it. Radical skeptical can question everything, including their own existence, but history is not worried with that sort of philosophical skepticism.

When the historicity of Jesus is concerned, people CAN rationaly think there was no such person. It is possible to explaining why we have the documents we have, without having to posit a human Jesus.

BobCMU76 said...

I think the two questions are pretty distinct.

1) Is the Christian God plaubible?

2) How did Christianity come to be?

And the historical Jesus is somewhat irrelevant to the first, but significant to the second. Because ultimately the second is an historical question.

Kind of like this question.

John W. Loftus said...

kiwi, you might want to take a class in the Philosophy of history, or in theories of History. You can begin by reading this entry, or this one.

Also note that I used the word "proved." Not much of anything can be proved.

Yes I do think we can know some things probably happened in history. That's what I'm arguing for with this post.

Jason Long said...

I think there is merely a disagreement about what is meant by "proven" here. John's definition is more consistent with the scientific method. Kiwi's definition is more in line with "reasonably certain."

John, it seems you and I agree that there was a historical Jesus that became the basis for the mythical Jesus. I have one question though.

John said:
"There may be some significant silences about his existence, but arguing from these silences doesn’t show he never existed. They are merely silent about it. One cannot conclude from silence that the author didn’t know of a Jesus or an early Jesus sect."

How do you feel about Philo's silence. Do you think we can be reasonably certain that Philo would have mentioned Jesus if the mythical events surrounding him were true?

John W. Loftus said...

Jason Long, there are indeed some silences that are telling. Philo's silence just may be telling. After all he was in Palestine at the very time of Jesus' ministry and death. However, if the New Testament exaggerates how well-known Jesus' ministry was, and of the crowds who supposedly called for his death during his trial, and of the numbers converted on the day of Pentecost, like I think, then Philo might not be aware of it enough to mention it.

Philo's silence is a good argument but probably not a telling one. As I said, I could be wrong. Still, someone would have to explain away a lot of other evidence in order to think Philo's silence is telling.

kiwi said...

"John's definition is more consistent with the scientific method."

Are we talking science, or history? No historian will care about the philosophical or scientific musing that nothing can truly be proven. In the context of history, something is proven when the evidence is there and you cannot rationally deny it. Try to get a job teaching history if you don't consider the bombing of Hiroshima as proven.

So... I maintain my point, even if maybe referring to what John said as a blunder is the wrong way to say it. I would correct myself and say that historians will simply not care about that kind of philosophical consideration. I don't see how injecting radical skepticism in history is helpful in any way, unless one wants to be an obscurantist.

Anyway, the main point is: it is rationaly possible to deny that Jesus existed, unlike a lot of historical people and events.

Jon said...

Some of these details from Paul you mention in my view if anything point away from history. Paul met the "so called pillars" of the church. The ones that supposedly walked and talked with Jesus (though Paul never says this.) Yet they "added nothing" to Paul (Gal 2:6). How is that? You can learn nothing from the people who spent years with the physical Jesus? If on the other hand they didn't spend years with the physical Jesus, this makes sense.

Jesus was "born of woman." Born of woman? Who isn't born of a woman? If Jesus is already assumed to be a historical person, what is the point of noting that he his born of a woman. Everyone is born of a woman. If however Jesus is not a person that walked on the physical earth, but is a person that is known through revelation, and in fact he operated in the upper heavenly realms, then this is worth knowing.

At I Cor 15 Paul is claiming that he got the gospel from the apostles. But then in Galatians 1 verse 11-12 he points out that he did not receive the gospel from any man, nor was he taught it, but he got it by revelation. This is a blatant contradiction. Maybe it's true and Galatians 1 is false. Or maybe the reverse.

I Thess 2:14-16 is judged by many to be interpolated. Note what appears to be a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in verse 16. This is the only place in the entire Pauline corpus where the death of Jesus is attributed to the Jews, and it is questionable.

Tyro said...

I don't have the academic creds to debate you but I trust that you, like me, are interested in the truth rather than pushing forward any dogma so I'll rely partially on your knowledge.

"In the first place, there is no testimony in the ancient world that denies he existed."

Really? I understood that some of the earliest Christian sects believed that Jesus did not have an earthly existence and that the church made several attacks on this, declaring it heresy and trying to wipe out these people.

From what I remember (I can try to find sources but I don't have them at hand), Paul frequently addresses his audience and exhorts them to believe that Jesus was real, was born of a woman, was resurrected etcetera. The first problem is that he treats these as matters of faith and never acts as if people have really witnessed these events. But more to the point, the fact that Paul has to bring these up over and over shows that people were denying that these things happened.

You say there's no testimony that denies Jesus existed but given how few testimonies survive at all (let alone those which include obvious heresies) this shouldn't be a problem. Given the evidence we do have, we have pretty strong indirect evidence that it was a common belief at the time that Jesus did not exist on earth as a preacher but maybe only in some spiritual realm.

This was actually a strong piece of the mythicist position, I'm surprised that you aren't aware of it.



I don't want to delve too deeply into your list of evidences from Paul that Jesus lived on earth. Doherty has done a good job with this already and I would expect any decent defence to address his arguments. I'll take just one, that Jesus has brothers. This is the same answer that Bart Ehrman has cited in speeches and in an e-mail.

In 1 Cor 9:5, Paul writes: "5Don't we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord's brothers and Cephas[a]?"

In other places we hear specific people called the Lord's brother such as Gal. 1:19.

I'll quote Doherty's response in the hopes that someone can reply directly: http://humanists.net/jesuspuzzle/rfset3.htm#Sean


Let's take a close look at 1 Corinthians 9:5, which Sean offers, and note especially the words Paul uses. Here is a literal translation: "Have we not the right to take along a sister (adelphen), a wife, as do the rest of the apostles and the brothers (adelphoi) of the Lord and Cephas?" Look at the word "sister". No one would say that Paul is referring to his own or anyone else's sibling. He means a fellow-believer of the female sex, and he seems to use it in apposition to (descriptive of) the word "wife". Indeed, all translations render this "a believing wife" or "a Christian wife."

This should cast light on the meaning of adelphos, both here and elsewhere. It refers to a fellow-believer in the Lord. Our more archaic rendering as "brethren of the Lord" conveys exactly this connotation: a community of like-minded believers, not "siblings" of each other or anyone else. Thus, a "brother of the Lord," whether referring to James or the 500, means a follower of this divine figure, and in 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul would be referring to some of these members of the Jerusalem conventicle.


[...]

Can we find other support for the view that James was not known as the blood brother of Jesus? Two of the non-Pauline epistles offer pretty strong evidence. The letter ascribed to James himself opens this way:

"James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. . ."

Few believe that James the Just actually wrote this letter, but if a later Christian is writing it in his name, or even if only adding this ascription, common sense dictates that he would have identified James as the brother of the Lord Jesus if he had in fact been so, not simply as his servant. A similar void has been left by the writer of the epistle of Jude. (Few likewise ascribe this letter to the actual Jude, whoever he was.) It opens:

"Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ, and a brother of James. . ."

Now if James is Jesus' sibling, and Jude is James' brother, then this makes Jude the brother of Jesus, and so he appears in Mark 6. So now we have two Christian authors who write letters in the name of supposed blood brothers of Jesus, neither one of whom makes such an identification. How likely is this?



I'm not a NT scholar by any means but when it comes to questions of historicity this is the situation I see: the mythicists like Doherty offering detailed book-by-book, line-by-line critiques examining not just the lines supporting their positions but also the lines attacking it; and on the other side historicists who provide a handful of quotes and then seemingly leave it at that without ever addressing the counter arguments.

eheffa said...

Well articulated Jon,

I have read Doherty's work carefully & although I would be quite prepared to accept the existence of an Historical Jesus, I have yet to read compelling counter-arguments to his case for a mythical Jesus idea as the founding principle of the Christian movement.

For a comprehensive articulation & defense of the Mythicist position see:

http://www.humanists.net/jesuspuzzle/home.htm

It has been said that the victors write the history & in the case of Christianity, the flesh & blood Jesus people won out over the heretical Marcionists & Gnostics. I understand that there were many Christian sects who denied the existence of a literal flesh & blood historical Jesus Christ, but that they were brutally suppressed and their literature destroyed by the more orthodox Roman Church.

I do not think that this issue is essential in "Debunking Christianity", but it does help to explain the deafening silence when one goes looking for first century affirmations of a Messiah-man called Jesus Christ.

I believe that there is at least some merit in considering the Mythicist case & that the easy dismissal by the established Historist proponents is unwarranted & unsupported by the evidence we have.

-evan

Lvka said...

Kiwi,

The scholarly consensus is for the existence of a historical person called Jesus.

Tyro,

avoid reading peculiar post-1,000-AD Western European realities (such as the Inquisition) back into the Early Church, who completely lacked any possibility of "whipping out" or "ditching" anyone in the first place.

And as regards the Doketists whom You were reffering, they denied that Jesus lacked a *real* body and said that the body that *it seemed* that He did possess was but an illusion (dokeo=to believe) Just like I were to say, for instance, that You actually didn't post any comment on this thread, and that everyone who thinks that You did so is just hallucinating (so, while saying that He didn't possess a physical body, they were also affirming that anyone else -except them- had this mass-hallucination or 'folie a deux' of Him actually possessing a physical existence).

Lvka said...

Eheffa,

no Gnostic denied the literal or historical existence of Jesus. Some of them (not all-- definitely NOT the Marcionites You mention) said that His body was actually only an illusion, and that -though it appeared as if He was in a possession of a physical body-, He *actually* wasn't, but that it only *appeared* that such were the case. (hence alos their name, doketists, from dokeo=to appear as such, to think so, to believe).

And no, nobody 'ditched' them; sorry.

Geoff said...

We have plausible evidence for the existence of several figures called "Jesus" around the period +/- 50 C.E. What we don't have is a consensus (scholarly or otherwise) about the relationship between the lives of any (one or several) of these individuals and the collection of stories which were assembled a couple of hundred years later and dubbed the "New Testament".

Stating "Jesus Was a [sic] Historical Person" is a bit like saying Menelaus or Hector was an historical person. There's no good evidence against the proposition, but I defy anyone to disentangle the history from the mythology....

kiwi said...

"Kiwi,

The scholarly consensus is for the existence of a historical person called Jesus."

Why are you saying that to me?

Anyway... A scholarly consensus by itself is irrelevant. We should look at why there is a consensus.

Is there a consensus because people simply presuppose a historical Jesus (because of conformity, or because it is their faith, or because it's convenient), or is there a consensus because the evidence is overwhelming?

If it is because the evidence is overwhelming, well, I'd like to see the evidence. Where is it?

Tyro said...

Lvka,

And as regards the Doketists whom You were reffering, they denied that Jesus lacked a *real* body and said that the body that *it seemed* that He did possess was but an illusion (dokeo=to believe) Just like I were to say, for instance, that You actually didn't post any comment on this thread, and that everyone who thinks that You did so is just hallucinating (so, while saying that He didn't possess a physical body, they were also affirming that anyone else -except them- had this mass-hallucination or 'folie a deux' of Him actually possessing a physical existence).

Thank you for the background on Docetism. How did you reach the conclusion that they believed Jesus was a mass-hallucination? I've never heard such a thing. It was my understanding that they believed that Jesus was neither real nor witnessed by anyone. We can see how people defended Jesus - Paul insists that we must believe and it must be a matter of faith. Like Paul, Ignatius attacks them by saying their belief means they will not get God's gift of everlasting life. Neither act as if the question was something that could be solved by turning to witnesses, neither act as if there ever were witnesses, instead both restate their dogma and insist we must believe.

I think it's a mark of strength of Doherty's critique that it can be applied to areas that he did not originally pick, such as Ignatius. We can see the same baffling "silences", the same blank spots in their minds - no one, not the Docetics, not Paul, not Ignatius, act as if there were eyewitnesses to anything that Jesus said or did.

You're act as if the Docetics knew there were eyewitnesses but thought they were all suffering a mass hallucination. Where's the evidence for this? Are you starting with the assumption that Jesus was real and trying to explain how they could have rejected this, despite the fact that they lived at a time when they could talk to actual eyewitnesses?

eheffa said...

Oops...

Sorry, I meant to say:

Well articulated "Jon & Tyro"

My bad.

-evan

Jason Long said...

Kiwi said:

"Anyway... A scholarly consensus by itself is irrelevant. We should look at why there is a consensus.

Is there a consensus because people simply presuppose a historical Jesus (because of conformity, or because it is their faith, or because it's convenient), or is there a consensus because the evidence is overwhelming?
"

Although I believe in some sort of historical Jesus (nothing like the gospels), this is a tremendous point that applies strongly to any consensus when it comes to religion.

AdamKadmon said...

There is an EXCELLENT book written by a Scottish Minister in the 1800's called "The Two Babylons" by Alexander Hislop. In it, he discusses how the Virgin and Child, December 25th, etc. were already established by Nimrod (Noah's Great-Grandson) and his wife Semiramis while Noah was still alive. It traces all the myths, from Osiris and Isis, Venus, etc., all back to these two. Nimrod was slain by a wild boar and torn to pieces and his parts were collect by his wife, mummified (wrapped together) and this is also the story of Isis collecting Osiris' body and mummifying it. Also, Semiramis (a past prostitute, then had herself declared a virgin, and to retain her hold on her dead husbands Throne, sacrificed their son, Tammuzi on December 25th to celebrate the re-born sun (son).) Thus declaring herself the mother of God and the Queen of Heaven (one of Mary's titles today).

It has many, many more examples of the borrowing from one religion to another. Really a great book, just a shock it was written by a Christian.

tomverenna said...

I have a response up to John's first article and will work this week on writing up one for this second one. You can check it out here, for those interested. I'm sure some may disagree and I welcome dialog.

Warm regards.

busterggi said...

Don't get me wrong, I'm not exactly disagreeing with you but as to the silence about Jesus during his supposed lifetime - do you expect that someone would have written that he didn't exist during this period?

I mean, how often do you write about non-existant persons not existing, especially if you haven't heard of them to begin with?

busterggi said...

Don't get me wrong, I'm not exactly disagreeing with you but as to the silence about Jesus during his supposed lifetime - do you expect that someone would have written that he didn't exist during this period?

I mean, how often do you write about non-existant persons not existing, especially if you haven't heard of them to begin with?

Modern Girl said...

I believe that Jesus was probably a real person and that huge mythical stories were pinned on him after his death.

I actually wrote about this topic 2 days ago because there was a special on the CBC in Canada about the book "The Pagan Christ."

For more info, here- http://sinnersaintshiksa.blogspot.com/2008/11/pagan-christ.html

Lvka said...

Tyro,

I never said that the Gnostics You've mentioned were eyewitnesses to anything; all I did was presenting the view they shared regarding certain aspects of Scripture and Tradition (in this case, on the Incarnation: how are the written and oral accounts regarding Christ's humanity to be understood? The view they proposed was that it was only apparent).

It was my understanding that they believed that Jesus was neither real nor witnessed by anyone.

No, their belief was that Jesus' physicality was only apparent, and not for real. (i.e., the body was seen was an optical illusion, the corporality which was felt was just a sensorial illusion, etc). The reason for this doctrine was because IF the Incarantion were for real, and not just merely apparent, then this would've meant in their world-view that the only possible Saviour was corrupted by the gross materiality, which, as Gnostics they viewed as inherently evil (i.e., not just merely fallen)

Ignatius attacks them by saying their belief means they will not get God's gift of everlasting life.

Yes, because in the Patristic understanding "that which was not assumed cannot be redeemed" -- in this case, were Christ not to possess a human body this meant that the physical human body is irredeemable. The same Patristical understanding led also to the excommunication of various other heretics who denied that Christ possessed a human soul, or a human 'logos', or who said that in Him the two natures were mixed, or that His divinity suppressed and obliterated His humanity, etc.

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Kiwi,

it's always safe and sane to listen to a consensus of scholars.

(In my own case, it was a question of the origins of my own people and my own language: many challenged the established view with some rather very intriguing facts and data ... very tempting scenarios. Well, anyway ... when I became MORE familar with the reasons behind the 'orthodox' view, I was satisfied and relieved -- there's a reason they're called scholars and why their reasons won out and those of the others did not: and it wasn't that the teachers of either linguistics or etymology or ethnogenesis ever persecuted or oppressed anyone who didn't hold to "their [*imposed*] view", etc).

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AdamKadmon,

same as to Kiwi (and Lee Randolph): avoid pseudo-science at all cost.