Did Jesus Exist?

Knowing this provokes debate among skeptics let me say it this way...

Unless we're willing to throw out the whole New Testament, and much of it can indeed be thrown out, then there is one test which can be found within its pages to show there was probably an original founder of the Jesus cult. It's this: The criterion of embarrassment. It seems improbable to me that these writers invented a prediction of the eschaton to happen in their generation which had to continually be explained away because it never happened--that is, unless there was someone who initially predicted that the "Son of Man" in Daniel 7 was to return in his own day and era. As we date the books of the NT we see the goal posts continually being moved to allow this prediction to be put off until it becomes so watered down that the 2nd century epistle of 2nd Peter says "a day with the lord is like a thousand years."

There have been a plethora of millennial movements down through the ages and Jewish literature both before and afterward shows us they expected this event. So the existence of such a prophetic person seems to be a reasonable one. We have evidence that people in that period expected such an event. And we see from the criterion of embarrassment in the NT that later and later documents continued to explain away why it didn't happen as time moved on.

From this evidence we don't need extra-biblical evidence to support his existence, but the strongest extra-biblical evidence we have is Josephus who stated that James was the brother of Jesus (Antiquities 20,9,1).

Cheers.

49 comments:

edthemanicstreetpreacher said...

Aaaah the good old Criterion of Embarrassment.

“The Gospels’ account of women being the first to discover the empty tomb would have caused problems for the early church at a time when women had far lower standing in society than men, so it is unlikely to have been a fabrication.”

Or as any rational person would phrase it, “Look everyone, this is just soooooo ridiculous you couldn’t possibly have made it up and expected anyone to buy it. They must have needed the anesthetising influence of the Holy Spirit to stun their powers of reason in order to swallow the whole farrago hook line and sinker!”

Biblical scholarship FAIL!!!!

For my full thoughts on this and other pieces of pseudo-academic casuistry, read my disgracefully unscholarly post in response to Richard Bauckham’s recent appearance on Premier Christian Radio discussing the, erm, “arguments” in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

In particular, watch the video of Christopher Hitchens tearing apart the reliability of the NT during his debate (massacre, more like; I don’t care how the audience vote at the end went!) against Dinesh D’Souza at Freedom Fest 2008.

“What religion that wants its fabrication to be believed is going to say, ‘You’ve got to believe it, because we have some illiterate, hysterical girls who said they saw this!’?”

More rhetorical genius from The Hitch!

manic

Mike said...

It always feels like the Josephus reference is a cop out to me. He's barely mentioned (one time I believe?) and with little or no context.

If Josephus had been discovered with stories about a Jesus, miracles performed and corroborating facts with other secular writings from the time, then it would feel more valuable.

I stand in the middle somewhere on this issue. It certainly seems likely a person named Jesus existed. On the other hand, the way information and folklore surely traveled 2,000 years ago... it seems just as plausible that the myth became legend became fact.

Neither the reference in Josephus nor the idea that a "second coming" was prophesied really seems to address this satisfactorily.

Duke said...

It seems to me that the criteria of embarrassment only indicates that there was an pre-existing story that was so well known the later gospel writer couldn't change it.

Now, admittedly, one way you could get that story was by having some schmuck named Yeshua wandering around Palestine predicting stuff that didn't pan out later. Of course, it is also possible that the story itself was the thing that spread, as a midrash of Yeshua (the man who lead of the Israelites into the holy land) updated into Roman times. The story became so popular in the first incarnation (as fictional midrash) that when the Christianity asserted that Jesus the Christ actually existed, they had to go treat the midrash as actual events.

It's like Batman and Robin. Would you ever invent a man you present as a hero who dressed up a boy in a sexualizing, revealing costume, takes him out at night, and puts him in danger constantly? Of course not! It's child endangerment, at the very least, and possibly outright abuse.

That doesn't mean that Bruce Wayne actually exists, though. It just means that the original tellers of the Batman story had different conceptions of what was appropriate for heroes to do.

Duke

Brad Haggard said...

John, can I just say that it the comments sections to these types of posts from you make me smile?

busterggi said...

There are plenty of non-canonical gosples, apocalypes, etc that also embarrassed the early church.

If they had edited every embarrassment out they wouldn't have had any book at all.

Vinny said...

I agree that Josephus is the strongest extra-biblical evidence. I just don't think that it is strong enough to overcome the lack of evidence in the epistles. If there had actually been a miracle-working teacher who lived shortly before Paul's time, I find it very difficult to believe that discussions of the meaning of specific things he had said and done wouldn't have come up repeatedly in the letters of his earliest followers.

The existence of a prophetic person may be reasonable, I just don't see much reason to think that it was the itinerant preacher described in the gospels rather than Paul or some other founding member of the cult.

J. Quinton said...

I'm an advocate of a more subtle clue for the historicity of the person "Jesus". His trial before Pilate is pure fiction since the Pilate presented in the gospel narratives has the opposite character that he has in Josephus and Philo, who had no reason to invent an arrogant and corrupt Roman prefect. If the situation was made up whole cloth, why didn't the gospel authors choose a prefect that was more level-headed for their theological agenda (blaming the death of Jesus on the Jews instead of the Romans)? Pilate was known for executing troublemakers without trial, yet supposedly gave both Jesus the Nazarene and Jesus "son of the father" (BarAbbas) a fair trial. This is highly unlikely for the historical Pilate.

If Jesus really did cause a disturbance in the temple during Pilate's prefecture, then he most certainly would have been summarily executed by Pilate without hesitation. However, if the gospel authors were making stuff up, they could have chosen a prefect in history that wasn't as short-tempered as Pilate. It's like they had no choice but to use Pilate - a more subtle criterion of embarrasment.

As for Jesus citing Daniel 7, I tend to think that Jesus never said this, but is Mark talking through Jesus to Mark's readers about either the fall of the temple (70 CE) or the BarKokhba revolt (132 CE). If Jesus really did make this prediction, why would he say "let the reader understand" (13:14)?

vader said...

A minimalist Historical Jesus is a Jewish holy man who preached a bit and was executed by the Romans. He likely cursed gentiles.

Brian_E said...

As a self-described lay atheist, to me it is as simple as this:

The New Testament does not have its own story straight - this is an undeniable fact.

If Jesus really did come to earth to die for our sins, that a pretty freakin important event!

If this all-powerful God who loves us so darn much cannot clearly and comprehensively convey this to us, without error and confusion, then what does that say?

It either means God exists, and he could only mean to purposely confuse us and cause turmoil, which means he is an a-hole and not worthy of worship.

Or it means the whole story is made up.

Considering there are plenty of other stories just like this that are made up, it lends more credence to this conclusion.

Merry Christmas!

Tyro said...

It continually strikes me as absurd & presumptuous for you to try to strike down arguments you haven't bothered to understand even when some of the seminal works are freely available on the net and written for a popular audience. It's inexcusable.

I can only imagine how you would react if someone tried to demolish your book by pointing out a single "fact" from the bible.

Bah.

Mark Plus said...

The argument that the culture of the Roman empire didn't respect women's authority about supernatural matters (in this case, the female witnesses to Jesus' resurrection) doesn't take into account that the Greeks and Romans believed that certain women called sibyls often spoke on behalf of the pagan gods:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sibyl

I find Mary Magdalene's role in the resurrection story interesting, BTW. Jewish culture at the time had strong taboos about not only physical and social contacts between unrelated men and women, but also about the handling of corpses. Yet MM, apparently unrelated to Jesus, felt comfortable with the prospect of handling Jesus' naked corpse to anoint it with something, even though she lacked the obligation to do so.

Unless, that is, she had married Jesus and her culture told her she had one last conjugal duty to perform.

A married Jesus would also address another issue about Jesus' earthly status. Alpha males almost by definition attract women who offer themselves sexually to them, at the expense of less sexually desirable beta males (the "cad versus dad" mating strategy women tend to pursue when they have the opportunity). If Jesus had "beta male" written all over him and couldn't attract women, other men wouldn't have respected and followed him. So I can see why some christians, like the Mormons, postulate that Jesus had at least one earthly wife (the Mormons give him several), otherwise they would find themselves in the anomalous situation of worshiping a 2,000 year old male virgin.

Mike said...

@Vinny - I believe Josephus is the *only* reference to Jesus outside of the bible.

John W. Loftus said...

Tyro, I did research into the subject for chapter 12 in this forthcoming book.

No wonder Christians like Brad Haggard smile when he see us debate this issue. He sees what I see. Skeptics somehow are so emotionally tied to denying Jesus existed that they respond to anyone who doesn't espouse the party line as ignorant. I'm not ignorant and that chapter makes the case as best as can be made, or at least as best as I have seen it made in one single chapter.

The disjunctive is that either the NT cannot be trusted at all or Jesus was a failed apocalyptic doomsday prophet. In either case Christianity is falsified. But when given this choice I cannot see for the life of me that the NT cannot be trusted about anything unless independently corroborated. We have plenty of independent corroboration in it of people, events, places and topography, so surely it cannot all be untrustworthy.

I might indicate that YOU are ignorant in so many words too, since you haven't read my chapter, but then ad hominems don't advance the discussion.

Cheers, my friend.

Tyro said...

The Jesus Puzzle book, required reading before attempting to undermine it.

re "james, brother of jesus" - many, many people were called "brother" presumably as a sign of respect or unity. Today Catholics call their priests "father" though there is no familial relationship and other religious or quasi-religious groups do the same ("comrade" for communists, "brother" for monks, "sister" for nuns, etc). Matt 28:10 says Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." Just how many brothers does Jesus have? :) (Same in John 7 & other passages.)

If Jesus really did have a flesh-and-blood brother, we'll need something more than an allusion. The whole argument strikes me as being very weak, even grasping.

Tyro, I did research into the subject for chapter 12 in this forthcoming book.

I will have to take you at your word though I do find it hard to believe as both of these points are addressed clearly & repeatedly by Doherty yet you haven't referred to any of his points. After researching it, I would expect something more. I can only hope that you will deal more directly with the issues in the future.

He sees what I see. Skeptics somehow are so emotionally tied to denying Jesus existed that they respond to anyone who doesn't espouse the party line as ignorant.

I really don't care about the conclusion, what does bother me is shoddy scholarship and the appearance of casually dismissing something without bothering to understand it. I get "emotional" whenever I see any scholarship treated this poorly and I think you react the same. You behave well when someone disagrees with you but less well when someone dismisses your book & argument without bothering to read it. It's human nature, no need to imply something deeper. Had you dealt with Doherty's arguments directly and reached a different conclusion then I'm pretty sure you would receive a very different reception.

I might indicate that YOU are ignorant in so many words too, since you haven't read my chapter, but then ad hominems don't advance the discussion.

I'm not saying that your argument is wrong because you're a mean, nasty smelly-face (an ad hominem) but because you are not addressing the arguments the people you're ostensibly addressing.

Pull The Other One! said...

If Mark's gospel was written around 70 AD then there was still time for the prediction (supposedly made in around 30 AD) to come true, so why wouldn't it go in?

When the writer of Daniel wrote his predictions there was still time for all of them to come true. They didn't, but the book still made it into the Bible.

Does that mean that there actually was a Daniel who said all those things?

Luke said...

Yeah, that's the same reason I think there was probably some sort of historical person Jesus. However, I basically agree with Bob Price that whoever he was is so drowned in myth and legend that we can't say much of anything about him that has any probability of being true.

John W. Loftus said...

Pull The Other One!, whether there was a Daniel or not, writings attributed to him were accepted as canonical and dominated the Jews because the restoration of Israel with a king ruling the world from David's lineage never happened as predicted in the book of Jeremiah. It was a huge problem for the Jews who accepted both Jeremiah and Daniel as inspired texts. It forced Jews to rewrite in every generation what Jeremiah's prophecy of 70 years and then later Daniel's reinterpretation of 70 x's 7 years meant.

We human beings have such a fascination for end time predictions, don't we? This is the normal mind of a believer. Prophets calling for the end of the world were a dime a dozen and so far they've all failed. The sense of urgency brings people together for a common cause.

John W. Loftus said...

Luke, Price does indeed have a point to make, but I think at the very minimum such a historical person gathered a few band of barely noticeable disciples (probably not 12) based upon him predicting the imminent coming of the eschaton. At best that's all we can affirm, and I do.

John W. Loftus said...

But Tyro, I am "a mean, nasty smelly-face."

;-)

Vinny said...

I very much appreciate what Richard Carrier has to say on this topic. He finds the historical Jesus unconvincing but he acknowledges that it is the current scholarly consensus. He hopes to change that consensus, but until he is able to do so, he sees no basis to criticize anyone for accepting it. No one can thoroughly investigate every issue for themselves and there is nothing wrong with accepting scholarly consensus.

Although I find myself less and less convinced that Jesus was historical in any meaningful sense of the word, I think these "gotcha" games that the mythers like to play are silly.

John W. Loftus said...

But Tyro short of writing a whloe book on the topic no one can expect me to deal with every objection in one single post that merely sums up my conclusions.

Why would you even think to ask me that?

The bottom line for me is that skeptics are asking the evidence from history to be as unassailable as the evidence from science, and if that's the case then most things in history can be denied. When we look at the paucity of evidence available for any historical claim the standards must be relaxed, and if not then most historical trees of evidence would be cut down by that same axe.

And no, I do not plan on writing a book about it dealing with arguments to the contrary and making the necessary distinctions in order to make my case. I have much better things to do, and I will.

My target is evangelical Christianity. I won't let myself be sidetracked. I am though, just being intellectually honest with the evidence even if you disagree. I think I need to state my conclusions if I ever hope to reach Christians since they will scoff at anyone who thinks Jesus was not in at least some sense a historical person. I do this to gain credibility. I do this because this is what I think. You should be grateful that I do even if you disagree.

Jason said...

I think he used to mow my lawn

Tyro said...

John,

But Tyro short of writing a whloe book on the topic no one can expect me to deal with every objection in one single post that merely sums up my conclusions.

I don't think anyone expects a book but when you presents an argument which has been refuted or directly rebutted by your opponents then something more is needed. A couple sentences acknowledging and addressing their arguments for a start. "My naive opponents say X and point to passages A, B, and C which I find unconvincing because..." Instead we get a strawman & some Cartesian extreme scepticism which has nothing to do with mythicism.

Please help me understand why you won't even address their arguments directly.

The bottom line for me is that skeptics are asking the evidence from history to be as unassailable as the evidence from science, and if that's the case then most things in history can be denied.

When you write things like this, I shudder. Who are you referring to? Not Doherty, that's for sure! Again it looks like you're either unaware of the mythicist arguments or are dishonestly representing them.

When you say you've done research, have you actually read Doherty's work?

I have much better things to do, and I will. My target is evangelical Christians.

What, you can't find eight hours to read a single book targeted at a popular audience on a subject that you repeatedly cover on your blog? That's hard to believe.

Carrier is able to deal with evangelicals just fine - when in debates he simply grants the existence of Jesus as an historical figure. Simple & easy.

This statement doesn't square with your repeated posts defending the existence of Jesus. Evangelicals know Jesus existed and don't really care if you back them up or not; you're targeting an entirely new group when you post about the historical Jesus.

Pull The Other One! said...

John,

Thanks for your answer.

Your point about Jeremiah is a very good one, but let's not forget that Jesus's prediction has also been reinterpreted, whether it be the example you gave from 2nd Peter or attempts to change the meaning of 'the Kingdom of God' or even 'this generation'.

The Bible is full of bits that should really have been edited out but weren't for whatever reasons, and that goes for failed prophecies as well.

It would be quite natural for Mark, if writing at around 70 AD, to put the prophecy about the temple in Jesus's mouth, whether the latter lived or not, and then add other prophecies about the end of the world. The reference to 'this generation' would be even more poignant at that time than at the time of Jesus, because the deadline was approaching fast.

John W. Loftus said...

Tyro, Doherty is blissfully unaware of Albert Schweitzer's thesis that Jesus is best seen as an end times eschatological prophet, which is the dominant view of Jesus and the main reason why there is a scholarly consensus that he existed. He shows no awareness of the defenses of this position as defended by Dale Allison, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredricksen, E. P. Sanders, even if he does footnote and list their books in the back.

Skeptics like him as well as Evangelicals seem unwilling to look into this. The recent evangelical book, "The Historical Jesus: Five Views," with contributor Bob Price does not allow for that as one of the views of Jesus either, except in a few footnotes.

Until both skeptics and evangelicals are willing and able to deal with the dominant view of Jesus I am unimpressed.

Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

John wrote, "The disjunctive is that either the NT cannot be trusted at all or Jesus was a failed apocalyptic doomsday prophet. "

Or,a third choice......that God is gracious about our fallibilities and misunderstandings and misconceptions. Just something to consider...

Take care,
3M

Tyro said...

John,

I can't confirm or deny anything you've written as I don't know any of the details. As you say, I'm ignorant, but trying to learn. I have read a little of Ehrman and found his defence of an historical Jesus to be as thin and reflexive as anyone else's, but I haven't read any of the others.

As an ignorant outsider I am not in a position to judge. It may be as you say and there are ample rebuttals. It may also be that you are using a form of the Courtier's Reply, hinting that Doherty must be wrong until he deals with an unending list of scholars.

I can say only that the impression I get from Doherty, you, Ehrman and other books recommended to me is that the mythicist position is able to account for a far greater number of observations and make sense of far more biblical quirks and mysteries while using fewer ad hoc justifications. I can say that every time I've eagerly chased down an alleged rebuttal, I've found that the apologist shows no signs of reading or understanding the mythicist argument or will use passages in a "naive" sense which are addressed in much greater depth by Doherty.

I'm open to persuasion, I think. How does this historicist position account for the many, many mysterious passages in the bible (quite apart from the even greater silences)? Why do defenders resort to such weak lines of evidence as the "brother" argument when that seems to be simply dismissed using a quick read of the bible?

BTW: your several spirited attempts to defend an historical Jesus here and on external sites all suffer from the same problems that all other historicist defences have so I don't mean to single you out.

Instead of presenting these cases for the historicity of Jesus and getting the same reactions, why don't you spend a blog post or two and directly undermine the mythicist arguments? I think that would go a long way towards convincing me and others.

John W. Loftus said...

Tyro, thanks. But here's the problem my friend. I can never satisfy the mythicists unless I write a whole book about it. To defend this position it would require it. But once I start down that road I will have wasted a lot of time and effort. Because most likely I will not convince them. And I wouldn't be doing anything to change the evangelical mind either.

So what I'll say is that until both sides deal effectively with the dominant view of Jesus as an eschatological prophet I won't have to. All I have to do is point it out to them, and I do in the chapter of my forthcoming book.

But my main thrust is not that I'm arguing Jesus existed. No, not at all. I'm merely offering the disjunctive I mentioned earlier. Either/or.

Besides, what would it gain me if I successfully made my case? There's no pot of gold for me if I do. Even if there was a historical figure behind the stories, that would mean nothing much at all, for this figure is still wrapped with a great deal of mythology.

So I say to both sides, deal with Dale C. Allison, Jr., Bart Ehrman, E.P. Sanders and Paula Fredriksen for starters, especially Allison.

BTW: You'd think I did a great job in my chapter on this topic if Dale Allison himself recommended my forthcoming book. He is among a small handful of the cream of the crop of Jesus scholars.

Tyro said...

So what I'll say is that until both sides deal effectively with the dominant view of Jesus as an eschatological prophet I won't have to.

Okay. There were some comments but I don't understand how this is supposed to undermine the mythicist position. The mythicist theory, as I understand it, is that the early Christians like Paul believed Jesus existed in a different plane/sphere of reality and wasn't a prophet at all (eschatological or otherwise). Over time and for a variety of reasons, Jesus was placed on Earth and given a human-like personality. The standard approach of looking for embarrassing passages is reasonable all things begin equal but if there's reason to think the entire account is fictitious then it further weakens an already weak analytical technique. Job number one seems to be to establish whether Paul and the early Christians knew of an earthly Jesus.

Besides, what would it gain me if I successfully made my case? There's no pot of gold for me if I do.

What motivated you to write this post or any of the many others defending historicity? There's no pot of gold in it either way. You say you don't have the time to read a single book by Doherty yet you have listed possibly a dozen authors implying you really do read a lot and expect us to do the same.

The defences don't ring true.

Even if there was a historical figure behind the stories, that would mean nothing much at all, for this figure is still wrapped with a great deal of mythology.

I entirely agree, which is why I think it's inaccurate to say I'm "emotionally tied to denying Jesus existed". It's an interesting intellectual and historical puzzle, little more.

Creep said...

I thought the issue of Jesus existence was settle long ago.

John W. Loftus said...

Tyro, I understand the mythicist position, I just think they are wrong. Why is it that unless I agree with a position people always say I don't understand it? Surely if I understood a position, so the argument goes, I would agree. That sounds very, well, Christian to me. ;-)

Listen, unless you are willing to deny the whole NT then and only then can you say it's all a myth, and my claim is that it's not probable to do so.

Take for instance Paul. Unless you're willing to deny he wrote Galatians where he says he persecuted the church of God, then there was an early church before he believed. It doesn't matter if he hijacked Christianity, which he did. There was already a church before he did so. This church was located in Jerusalem and he says he met with Peter and the other apostles. Now let's start studying the gospels to see what portrait they paint of Jesus to find if it's plausible, and an end times prophet seems entirely plausible given the whole Jewish cultural zeitgeist.

So now you ask me about my motivation? Answer: the truth. Why do I need any other motivation? That question again sounds, well, Christian to me. Christians continually ask me that same question as if it undermines my attempts to show them wrong simply because they are wrong.

I think with you "It's an interesting intellectual and historical puzzle, little more." It's just that if you'll read your first comment that doesn't sound like you earlier.

Tyro said...

This church was located in Jerusalem and he says he met with Peter and the other apostles. Now let's start studying the gospels to see what portrait they paint of Jesus to find if it's plausible, and an end times prophet seems entirely plausible given the whole Jewish cultural zeitgeist.

Why do you skip over the epistles to jump right for the gospels? We can learn a lot about what these cited apostles knew and believed by reading the epistles. Yes, there were apostles and yes there was a church. All signs are that they didn't know a human Jesus either, didn't have any of his sayings, didn't turn to him to settle disputes, didn't have any line of succession, and got all of their information via revelation just as Paul did. The mythicists spend a lot of time looking at the epistles and give good reasons for this, reasons I think are good and strong (least signs of embellishment, greatest corroboration, known intent, known author and known audience, earliest date, etc). If we are to learn the truth, I think we should spend time with these before skipping off to the much less reliable gospels.

When we go to the gospels (as e must), how do we know which parts, if any, reflect the beliefs of the apostles you mention? Are they the same people and do they reliably indicate their views?

It's just that if you'll read your first comment that doesn't sound like you earlier.

If so, that's a mistaken impression. I mentioned the quality of the argument and the apparent lack of scholarship, not the conclusion and I've elaborated on this later in the thread and on occasions in the past. If my comments have prevented fruitful dialogue by implying mythicists are dogmatic and somehow personally invested in the conclusion instead of the process, I apologize. I can only say that I've never presented myself as an expert on this issue and tried only to advocate for an historicist to deal directly with the issues mythicists raise.

John W. Loftus said...

Tyro, I don't skip over the epistles. I start with Galatians written by Paul himself (unless you deny that).

What other epistles are you referring to anyway? No other original disciple wrote one and many that are claimed to be by Paul were not written by him.

So how can you say what the other original disciples believed? The best place is to start with Mark's gospel (and Q).

Most all of these other epistles were written later than the gospels, so the fact that they didn't use the words of Jesus to settle disputes is odd. But Christianity may have already been hijacked by that time, you see.

When we go to the gospels it seems as if they confirm the cultural zeitgeist that a Jewish expectation for the end times was in the very air they breathed.

One fact seems unassailable to me, that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist who himself called for the end of times. The gospels present John the Baptist in this way, as does Josephus, and it's what we would expect given the cultural zeitgeist of that day.

This is what I establish in the chapter for my book.

All else is up for grabs.

John W. Loftus said...

I shouldn't have used the word "unassailable" earlier. At best we can only have some range of probability. When it comes to historical conclusions there can be no such thing as an unassailable fact, especially when it comes to ancient history that has definite mythical elements in it like we're discussing.

Tyro said...

John,

We are getting uncomfortably close to the limits of my knowledge. Let me re-iterate that I'm looking for two experts to debate, not to present myself as an expert!


Tyro, I don't skip over the epistles. I start with Galatians written by Paul himself (unless you deny that).


No mythicist that I know of denies anything. There are questions about the authorship of some epistles but I'm not aware of any issues here.

So how can you say what the other original disciples believed?

There are a few ways. We can look at how the apostles were appointed and how they resolved disputes, we can even look at the nature of the disputes.

For instance, Paul says in Gal 1:11 that, despite being in touch with the apostles, he has all his information about Jesus through revelation and there's no hint that anyone considers this amiss. Indeed in Gal 2:6, he says that the other apostles are distinguished by reputation, not because of any additional knowledge or personal connection. Gal 2:8 says that the apostle Peter was likewise appointed by God (not Jesus) and is treated just as if Peter too received revelation and not direct instruction. There are many other examples of this, where Paul states that information about Jesus comes from revelation only and not even the other apostles are any different.

As to who was an apostle, in Gal 2:8, Paul says the apostles acknowledged that he has been entrusted with the gospel as they have been, yet Paul knows nothing of Jesus save through revelation, and it appears that they appointed/acknowledged him. No hint that an earthly Jesus chose anyone or that there ever was an earthly Jesus teaching apostles. It doesn't sound like they all got along either as 2 Cor 10&11 Paul defends himself yet again, no hint that revelation rather than personal knowledge should be a factor. That would be a perfect time for the "real" apostles to assert themselves, but they do not. He even goes further in 1 John 4 and denounces false prophets without once addressing historical reliability or eyewitnesses, instead still relying solely on revelation. The implication is overwhelming that the apostles and early Christians did not know an earthly Jesus to settle disputes, teach the gospel, appoint apostles or anything else.

The best place is to start with Mark's gospel (and Q).

The gospels must be dealt with for sure but they aren't "the best". We both know how unreliable they are as historical documents so it seems hard to credit the claim that they are "the best place". Jesus himself appears to be a fictionalized character in fictionalized situations so why should we assume that the supporting cast are historically accurate? I'm not saying they definitely are not, only that we can't assume that they're the baby in the bathwater when it's so filthy we can't see the bottom. (Would that mean that any baby would be submerged, dead & drowned? Bad metaphor... Or is it? :) )

Chris said...

I'll chime in here. I happen to be an atheist who spends a great deal of time reading everything I can get my hands on having to do with the question of the historical Jesus and who he may have been (at least for those works that assume a historical Jesus). I, too, am unfashionable among skeptics as I accept the existence of a real human Jesus at the core of the movement. I don't accept that the heavy layer of myth that eventually became a part of the story is necessarily evidence that the entirety of the Jesus story is mythical. It is essential that the extent of purely Jewish elements at the root of the story be taken into consideration. Stripping the Greco-Roman mythology leaves us with a wholly plausible apocalyptic prophet figure who fits cleanly into the 1st century Palestinian context.

There are a couple of additional "criterion of embarrassment" items that apply as well. The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist should have been an embarrassment to the early Christians, and is indeed an event which is clumsily handled by the synoptic gospels.

We also have an intriguing remark in the Gospel of John (7:41-42) that seems to be saying that it was common knowledge at the time that Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem. If we discount the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke, which I think we must (these are pure mythology, not a scrap of history within), then this would appear to be possibly the only reference to Jesus' birthplace aside from the fact that he's referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth". If we can take this passage as evidence that it was well known that Jesus wasn't from Bethlehem (why would such a passage be included?), that would be an embarrassment for "the Messiah".

The passage reads: "But when others asked: 'Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee [3], does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?' "

In all, I'm most persuaded by a real historical figure at the beginning of the movement as the best accounting for how things unfolded and for the quirky features of the literature. The classic "fish story" where embellishment grows and grows as the story is retold is more in line with the end product than a myth cut from whole cloth.

John W. Loftus said...

Thanks Chris, there are several of us skeptics out there. We will have our day when my book is published.

Tyro, as I said I'm not interested in writing a book about this issue. But I think if you were fair with the evidence from Paul he does know of an earthly Jesus. I think people are trying to explain away that evidence is all. The institution of the last supper as the basis of weekly communion implies a real earthly Jesus and Paul knows of that tradition in I Corinthians (unless that too is denied as being written by Paul).

You see, that's my claim. Either you reject the whole NT as mythical or Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. I see plenty of reasons to think Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet and I just can't believe the whole of the NT is myth, although much of it can be (the Nativity stories for instance).

Tyro said...

I think people are trying to explain away that evidence is all. The institution of the last supper as the basis of weekly communion implies a real earthly Jesus and Paul knows of that tradition in I Corinthians (unless that too is denied as being written by Paul).

The more you write, the more I have a hard time squaring this with your earlier claim that you have read and understood the arguments made by Doherty and the mythicists. Everything you ask about has been dealt with in great detail yet you act as if it's brand new.

Tell me straight out: have you actually read Doherty's books, either "Jesus Puzzle" or "Challenging the Verdict"? If you refuse to read a single contrary views, how can you claim to have studied the issue?


Yes, the communion dinner is an earthly tradition, but one that was co-opted from earlier traditions. Is it any wonder there's a mythology surrounding it? Paul explains the purpose of the communion dinner, saying he got the information as revelation from God. It is yet another example of something that should have had a clear, undeniable Earthly origin yet is explained only via faith and revelation! These passages are, to put it mildly, weird and confusing on their own but put together with the countless other examples are downright damning, especially since they hang together so well in a mythicist frame.

This issue is one that Doherty spends a great deal of time on (an the handful of other passages which would appear to support an historical Jesus). It's inconceivable to me that you could have done a proper study and read these books and still not know this.

Double A said...

Jesus himself said that "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." So what you are doing is exposing the fallibility of man's interpretation. Not hard to do. But certainly not a testament against faith. God loves you.

John W. Loftus said...

Tyro, I have in my library dozens and dozens of books not only about the historicity of Jesus but also on the historical method itself, and I have read most of them, skimmed through others and read plenty of online discussions about these issues. I have the essential writings of Doherty, Price, Zindler, Charlesworth, Crossan, Wright, Erhman, Allison, Theissen, Bauckmann, Funk, Borg, Miller, Sanders, Newman, Schweitzer, Fredriksen, Dunn, Johnson, Helms, and Salim. While I do not presently have any by G.A. Wells (who changed his mind on the subject) I did have them at one time and read them). And I have many evangelical texts defending the historicity of the NT and the divinity of Jesus, too many to name.

And yet you ask me if I've read Doherty, eh? I've read most of it online but I also skimmed through his book which I also have.

Sheesh. This is the skeptic's shibboleth. Perhaps rather than "read most of it" I should read "all of it"? Maybe the parts I didn't read would change my mind, right?

You've already told me that you have not read a few books I've mentioned earlier, so you admit that you do not know what I know.

Who do you think I am anyway? As I've said all along, people come to their own conclusions and that's it. That's what people do. They come to their own conclusions and I have.

Just let me know what you think after you read my chapter, okay?

Chris said...

DoubleA:

"Jesus himself said that "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." "

Jesus also says that "some of those standing here will not taste death" until the kingdom arrives (referring to the eschaton), and that "this generation shall not pass until these things happen" (again referring to the eschaton). When Jesus is addressing the high priest during his hearing, he asserts that the high priest will see the son of man arriving in the clouds, a reference to the eschatological passages in Daniel which are again a suggestion that the end of the world would be arriving very imminently. Throughout the synoptics, Jesus speaks as if the end times are to be expected by his immediate audience. Paul clearly believed that the end of the world would arrive during his lifetime. That perspective most likely originated with Jesus. Read your quoted passage and notice that it isn't incompatible with Jesus' belief that the end would be arriving very quickly. According to Jesus, it may be today, tomorrow, the next day, or sometime soon after that. Jesus doesn't know exactly what day or hour, but he does seem sure that "soon" is in the cards.

John:

Carrier's blog from, oh, 6 months ago? had him wrestling with the source material and trying to establish a comfort level regarding what is reliable and to what extent, but he seemed to have given up on the endeavor in frustration. He wasn't clear exactly what work he had done or where he had gotten frustrated, but I gather that he was looking to establish some sort of external source verification (Papias, Clement, etc???). I can appreciate where he's going with this, and that would be necessary to establish authorship, but my opinion is that we can still use other criteria (dissimilarity, multiple sources, etc) to extract some value from the accounts, even if we have little or no idea who actually authored them. I do wish he would elaborate on the work he had undertaken and where it ended up becoming derailed.

Tyro said...

John,

Sheesh. This is the skeptic's shibboleth. Perhaps rather than "read most of it" I should read "all of it"? Maybe the parts I didn't read would change my mind, right?

By "skeptic's shibboleth", I assume you mean "denier". Sigh...

You know, I've seen holocaust deniers, climate change deniers and evolution deniers and I've seen how they operate. They reject evidence but what evidence are the mythicists rejecting? They mine quotes from legitimate scientists out of context and pretend that they support their case. They focus on a few cherry-picked observations but mythicists deal with the entire bible and the non-cannonical works. And tellingly their opponents confront their claims directly and explain not only why they are wrong but why alternate explanations are better. It is maintaining a position in the face of this overwhelming evidence which makes them a 'denier'.

It's preposterous to act like the situation is analogous here. If anything, the historicists are focusing on a few, cherry-picked lines and taking them out of context. Certainly I've never seen any attempt to present an explanation for the observations which the mythicists use to support their case.

No one is closing themselves off to evidence and no one has shown themselves immune to evidence and argument so treating me like I'm David Irving feel unwarranted and unconvincing.

And yet you ask me if I've read Doherty, eh? I've read most of it online but I also skimmed through his book which I also have.

Exactly, you're a prolific reader and generally a detailed, meticulous writer which is why I reacted with shock to your complaints that you don't have time to read books. I'm even more surprised when you present an argument that you should know is irrelevant while acting as if it should clinch your case. There's a huge disconnect somewhere and for the life of me I can't figure out where.

Oh well.

If you have read and understood these books as you say, then instead of presenting quotes which support the historicist's case could you please say why you reject the mythicist's case? I mean, I agree with everything you say, I know those quotes are there, I know how the argument goes and were there not what I consider a far stronger and more convincing interpretation I would agree with you. What's holding me back and what I think is holding others back as well is the fact that the mythicists present a theory which accounts for more evidence, answers more questions and does so with fewer ad hoc explanations. What I'm missing isn't the handful of quotes to support your case but something which lets me make sense of the passages in the bible which the mythicists have (successfully I think) argued are serious problems.

As long as you continue to pull one or two lines from the bible, plunk them down and expect that you've made an argument, I think it's you who will resemble the deniers you so despise, since you'll be mining evidence and ignoring counter-evidence. Yes, maybe this is a chapter- or book-length argument but that's no excuse. You've broken down your case against Christianity into small chunks so it's easy to imagine you doing the same for this. Plenty of bloggers and YouTube contributors have done this for mythicism though it's just as big of a task.

If the argument is not available on the net or even in book form (as far as I'm aware) then you can hardly be surprised when reasonable, rational and well-informed dilettantes like me are using the information we have available to conclude that you are wrong. There's a reasonable chance this conclusion is wrong which is why I'm explaining what I think it would take to convince me (& others).

Double A said...

Chris, your interpretation of 'before this generation shall pass' and 'some of those standing here' and 'before they taste death' is, I believe: somebody's life (i.e. cradle to grave). But that is narrow to someone who believes in eternal life. To me, some of 'those standing there' still await the return of the King. They are just not here right now, with us. I have yet to see an atheist 'ah-haaaa' moment which does not include some sort of wordly interpretation of what is being said. And don't get me wrong, those interpretations are often times very well thought out and articulate, and I can appreciate them. But I am not seeing it the same way.

Metacrock said...

Wow James. You finally wrote something I can really get behind!

Chris said...

Double A,

It doesn't seem obvious to me that it makes much sense to take "some of you who stand before me will not taste death before ______" as referring to people who are physically dead but spiritually whole. That understanding has an ad hoc feeling about it.

What purpose would have been served had Jesus spoken those words with this understanding? What information could this convey that wouldn't have been conveyed had he said nothing at all?

Do you have any particular reason for expanding your understanding of this passage beyond the apparently obvious meaning, aside from the theological challenges that are created by a plain reading?

Vinny said...

Tyro,

The more reading I do, the more sympathetic I find myself with the mythicist position. Nevertheless, the mythicist faces the same problem that the historicist does: the sources suck. The best we are ever going to be able to do is talk about the various possibilities, of which I think the mythicist position is one that rates greater consideration than it gets.

Vinny said...

By the way John, I don't think of that as particularly being a skeptic's shibboleth. If I had a nickel for every time some evangelical Christian told me that I cannot really understand an argument because I haven't fully absorbed some specific book or article by Craig or Habermas or Bauckham or Bock or Wright or Strobel or Holding or some other apologist, I'd have a decent pile of nickels.

Double A said...

Chris, I believe 'the wages for sin is death' and to truly taste death, one will have to wait until judgement day. Jesus died for our sins, and if we accept that, then we won't ever truly taste death. So in the passage, the 'some of you won't truly taste death before ...' refers to folks present who will be judged upon the eschaton, and then will truly taste death.

Janet said...

The Jesus Puzzle is an absolutely brilliant refutation of the concept of an historical Jesus, and the author has written a new and enlarged version of it too. As well as this book you should read Robert Price's "The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man". It comes to the same conclusion in a completely different way. There was no historical Jesus, Paul didn't believe in an historical person either. Paul's Jesus was a cosmic god who's adventures all happened in various heavenly spheres. But don't take my word for it, read the books!

Bart Erhman has an emotional attachment to the idea of an historical Jesus which he is unable to sustain logically. He points out that when Paul talks about Jesus' return to earth he uses a word which only means coming, not coming again or return, then he goes on to assume that coming is the same thing as coming again! I wrote him an email on the subject but got no response.