2010-05-01

Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons

by Neil Godfrey
Julius Caesar and wife Pompeia
Image by Dallas1200am via Flickr

(This theme is surely past its ‘use by’ date, but it’s one I’m working through from a number of angles at the moment, so here goes once more.)

While it is often said that there is as much, even more, evidence for Jesus than for other ancient historical figures, this is simply not true.

Historical Evidence for Alexander and Julius Caesar

For Alexander the Great we have coins and other epigraphy as primary evidence. We also have a number of mythical narratives of Alexander. But the primary evidence testifies to his real existence nonetheless. With that primary evidence in mind, we can have confidence that not all literature about Alexander is necessarily fictional. I have compared the character of the five historical accounts of Alexander with the Gospels in an earlier post, Comparing the Sources for Alexander and Jesus.

For Julius Caesar, we also have coins and monuments with relevant epigraphy. There are many literary works that attest to be by contemporaries of Caesar (and that refer to Caesar), such as Cicero, and even works claiming to be by Caesar himself. I don’t think these are forgeries, but even if they were, the primary evidence alone would keep Julius Caesar “real”. That is before we even get to ancient historical works proper about him (Plutarch, Cassius Dio, Suetonius, Arrian).

Knowing or Believing?

None of this mean that anyone today can “know” that either of these characters existed in the same sense that we can “know” who our bosses are at work, or who our prime ministers or presidents are today, or that Kennedy was president and was shot, or that Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon. Evidence for contemporary and recent persons in history is of a completely different order, and impacts our awareness and “knowing” far more profoundly than an ancient coin testifies to a once-upon-a-time king.

It is probably more correct to say that we believe that Alexander and Julius Caesar existed rather than that we know they did. That is not a faith-belief. It is a belief based on good evidence. It is belief with good reason. It is theoretically possible that one day we might discover that the Alexander we thought we “knew/believed” was historical was really a myth through and through after all. But it is not even theoretically possible to that we may one day discover there was no president named Kennedy and none who was shot. The evidence is simply too overwhelming and vast and woven within so much else for it ever to be overturned from our experience.

What about the bit characters?

Within the pages of the secondary literary evidence associated with these historical persons are many other names for whom we have no primary evidence. But because these names appear in works for which we have some good grounds for believing are about genuine historical persons and events, we can have some confidence that they, too, are historical. They may not all be. We cannot always know how many were a product of rumour or misinformation, or even outright fabrication by the author, but for most part it will matter very little what the truth is for each name.

Of course, any who appear in other independent sources have their probability for existence raised even higher. The trick, of course, is in knowing how we can be sure the sources truly are independent.

Socrates

But what about non-political figure like Socrates? We don’t have coins minted in his name or other epigraphy testifying to his existence. We have no primary evidence for him. (By primary evidence I mean evidence that is physically contemporary with him.)

We only have secondary evidence attributed to Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes.

Plato, reputedly a pupil of Socrates, claimed to be writing about Socrates in his philosophical tracts. Aristophanes is said to be a contemporary playwright who lampooned Socrates in one of his comedies, The Clouds:

DISCIPLE

. . . . Lately, a flea bit Chaerephon on the brow and then from there sprang on to the head of Socrates. Socrates asked Chaerephon, “How many times the length of its legs does a flea jump?”


STREPSIADES

And how ever did he go about measuring it?


DISCIPLE

Oh! it was most ingenious! He melted some wax, seized the flea and dipped its two feet in the wax, which, when cooled, left them shod with true Persian slippers. These he took off and with them measured the distance.


STREPSIADES

Ah! great Zeus! what a brain! what subtlety!

(from http://classics.mit.edu/Aristophanes/clouds.html)

This is quite an independent testimony to Socrates from the one of the several we find in Plato:

for I do believe that there are gods, and in a far higher sense than that in which any of my accusers believe in them. And to you and to God I commit my cause, to be determined by you as is best for you and me.

(from http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html)

That being said, it is nonetheless clear that Plato varies his depiction of Socrates in accordance with arguments he wishes himself to make. Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates is one of a shallow-minded sophist. Was the name a popular caricature? Although there have been a few questions occasionally raised about the historical existence of Socrates, he continues to be treated as a part of the historical furniture. It is easy to think that there probably was a real Socrates, whatever doubts may sometimes arise.

The historical questions relating to Socrates are not, however, to find “The Historical Socrates”. That would be a pointless task. The significance of Socrates lies in what he represents in the history of the development of Greek philosophy. Historical questions relate to the rise, function, impacts, etc of Greek philosophy. What is significant historically is the nature and content of Plato’s Dialogues as philosophical treatises.

A Gospel comparison might be to study the Gospels as a literary and theological phenomenon, including their place in the development of the Christian religion. Questions of the historicity of Jesus would be pointless, not to mention impossible.

Evidence or just stories?

As Philip Davies showed in relation to the Primary History of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings), it is circular reasoning to argue for the historicity of a narrative by appealing to the historical construct created by the narrative itself. For example, a narrative claiming to be about King David and itself written within an approximate time time of that same King David, is not evidence that it really was written then, or that it its narrative is about a real king. Any fictional story can make such claims. That’s how authors create atmosphere and credibility.

There can be no substitute for credible external controls to enable us to accept the historicity of the narrative. This is particularly the case in ancient literature. Fictitious narratives and letters and histories claiming to be by so and so or about such and such abound. Audiences have been fooled into thinking a supposedly ancient history of the Trojan War by “eyewitnesses” Dares and Dictys was real. Rosenmeyer shows us that ancients loved to write fictitious letters with realistic touches to make them appear authentic. We have ample evidence from the New Testament and other classical and Christian literature that ancients have been fooled into accepting as authentic many letters and Gospels and Acts and other narratives with false author-names attached.

Forgery has been big business especially before the printing press.  Many commentators acknowledge that we have forged documents in the New Testament canon, although the more polite term is pseudepigrapha.

A historian’s justifiable starting point

A bit of grandmotherly wisdom can go a long way. We all know it is foolishness to believe whatever we are told without good reason. Historians begin with good reasons for believing in certain persons and events. From this starting point they can explore and test evidence and learn more things. There will be various degrees of probability associated with much of what they conclude, but the starting base will generally be secure.

The narratives contained within the Gospels find no reliable external corroborating evidence to support any of their central characters or events. (Of course background setting and characters, like the city of Jerusalem and the governor Pilate are real. But even James Bond novels are set in the midst of real persons and places.) There are alternative gospels, narratives and histories. Some say that Jesus was crucified by Herod, not Pilate. Some say he was crucified in the time of Claudius, not Tiberius. Some even say he never died on the cross.

Yet nearly all Historical Jesus scholars begin with the assumption that the Gospels are about a historical person, Jesus of Galilee, who had real followers named Peter, James and John, and who was really baptized by John the Baptist and who was really crucified outside Jerusalem by Pilate. Narratives about William Tell and King Arthur have been believed by many to have been historical, too. But given the absence of corroborating evidence, and the means to explain their literature in terms of mythical heritage and mutation, wiser heads today acknowledge that there is no historical basis for such narratives.

So why do we find an exception to this common wisdom among historians of the Gospels? The answer might be found on Sunday morning TV programs with Televangelists thumping all the authority they can muster out of the Bible. The Bible is, by virtue of cultural heritage, “the” authoritative book of our religious and moral origins. It comes with our culture with “authority” written all over it. Historians have been unwilling or unable, for most part, to treat it at arms length like any other collection of ancient literature. (Of course they do not consider it an authority in the same sense as those fundamentalist preachers. But what both have in common is an unquestioned assumption that it does have an authoritative place in our culture and history, nonetheless.)

So even many atheistic or non-Christian historians still accept it as some sort of attempt to give an authoritative account of what happened. They may not believe the details, but they do still believe it is what our heritage says it is: an authority (however open to question), an historical account of our Christian origins.

I have been working out my own thoughts on this topic with a series of blog posts now. It is clear to me that HJ and early Christianity scholarship is built on the unjustifiable assumption that the Gospel narratives are more than mere theology.

If there really is anything historical to their narratives we have no way of knowing or justifying such a view.

The real historical question needs to begin with why such a literature appeared when it did. What function did it serve?

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29 Comments

  • Steven Carr
    2010-05-01 15:27:28 UTC - 15:27 | Permalink

    Neil, you have forgotten that some scholars can translate bits of the Greek of the New Testament back into Aramaic.

    And that other scholars have pointed out that later NT authors realised that they had to explain that when the disciples gathered food in a field, they did that because they were hungry.

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  • mikelioso
    2010-07-10 06:09:59 UTC - 06:09 | Permalink

    Having looked at this post and the other you linked too I don’t think your broad dismissal of the early Christian writers as clues to what they thought the knew about their founder is justified.

    I don’t think the founders of these religions or philosophies are irrelevant to the study of their religions and philosophies. If Christianity is based on a mythical character that tells us something about Christianity vs. its basis lying in an actual person. To say we have no more evidence for the existence of Jesus than William tell or King Aurthur doesn’t do justice to the material at hand. Not every one needs to study the early history of Christianity but those who don’t shouldn’t dismiss those that don’t simply because they are not interested in exploring the works in detail. The same criteria that we use to determine what parts of Livy are fantastic vs. likely or any one else can be applied to the Gospels. I dont think it wise to decide that these are works of mythology and then dismiss any possibility that they may contain facts. I don’t think Vespasian healed any blind people or cripples, but I don’t think Josephus’s account is pure fiction, though I wouldn’t put to much faith in his depiction of his patron. I can not assume Josephus or Livy is wholly accurate or that they just made up all this stuff to impress their friends. All these works are just clues, they are not facts. In your example of Socrates in “Clouds” shows that even fiction can provide clues to the past. We cannot say for certain that this Socrates is Plato’s Socrates, but given the two it makes that interpretation more likely. When people determine that stories like William Tell and King Aurthur have no basis in fact, they do so after careful investigation of the text and the any evidence that might be connected to it. The inquires can take all sorts of surprising turns. I was surprised that William Tell didn’t seem to pan out, his story seemed so reasonable. I mean the arrow and apple part seemed a bit like Washington’s cherry tree, but the rest was reasonable. But looking into the sources gave a different picture. I used to think the Barabbas Jesus tale seemed reasonable enough, until I read a similar account in a work from Philo. On the other hand there are like what 5 guys who could have been the inspiration of for Robin Hood? We can’t say that one of the Robin Hood tales can shed light on the “real” Robin Hood, but it isn’t unlikely that the author didn’t have one or two of these guys in mind. One should never make assumption of text with out investigating them.

    • 2010-07-10 11:07:36 UTC - 11:07 | Permalink

      No one suggests that the Gospels may not include some historical data. Pilate and Herod were certainly historical, for example, and Pharisees and Sadducees were historical interest groups. But these historical facts need to be balanced against historical anachronisms, too. We know from other evidence that Pharisees were very few and far between in Galilee before 70 ce. There is also reason to believe synagogues did not dot the Galilean landscape until after this time, too. And the evidence for the existence of Nazareth (both literary and archaeological evidence) strongly suggests the unlikelihood of that town being a population centre before 70, too.

      But after 70 we do find synagogues and Pharisees — and Nazareth — all emerging in Galilee. So we have external evidence to strongly suggest the gospels were written very late, and were projecting the conditions of a later time back into early first century Galilee.

      The reasons to doubt the historical accounts of Jesus in the gospels are many:

      (1) there is no independent external witness to verify the narratives; (this is not the case with other ancient figures known to be historical)
      (2) the gospel narratives can nearly all be shown to be based on other narratives, mostly in the Old Testament. (this is not the case with other ancient figures known to be historical)
      (3) there is no purely biographical data about Jesus in the gospels — every piece of data can be shown to serve some theological or propaganda message (this is not the case with other ancient figures known to be historical)
      (4) there is no attempt to indicate sources of information or attempts to offer evidence to prove any of the miraculous stories (this, again, is not the case with any other ancient historical figure I can think of at the moment)

      Now I have never argued, and it is not logical to argue, that we can prove from all of the above that there was no historical Jesus. But the Jesus we read about is, from all of the above, very much a literary or theological creation. If there was a real Jesus in the back of the author’s mind, then he has demonstrated no knowledge of such a figure in the gospel. Now there might very well have been such a historical figure. But we have no way of knowing one way or the other from the evidence we have.

      We can only work with the Jesus we find in the texts, and that Jesus is certainly a literary construct.

      Next we need to ask when the gospels were written. External evidence assures us that they did not appear on the scene until well into the second century. That does not prove they were written then, but it is a piece of evidence we need to seriously consider.

      The question is not about proving Jesus was a myth. It is about asking if there is any evidence for an historical Jesus. I think the answer is no. But you know what they say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. He could well have existed. But I don’t see evidence for him in the Gospels. Just about all the stories there can be shown to be adaptations of other older Jewish stories. Even the names are all “coincidentally” symbolic — Jesus=Saviour, Peter=Rock, Jairus=Awakening; etc etc. This alone should alert one to the possibility we are reading a parable, not history.

      (Additionally the names of Jesus’ brothers are all suspicious, in the view of historian Paula Fredriksen — imagine parents today naming all their children Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, Kennedy . . .

      The structure of Mark’s gospel in particular is remarkably similar to the structures of ancient fictitious epics and histories, also. This post is getting long, so I will spare the details for another time.

      Mark’s Jesus is also a cardboard character who is little more than a mouthpiece for sayings that are not original, but well known among ancients before Jesus, and we know nothing of his personality or character in this so-called “biography”. (This is not the case with other ancient figures known to be historical).

      You are right that one should never make assumptions about a text without investigation first. The reason I doubt the historicity of Jesus on the Gospel evidence is a result of the above sorts of investigations about them. I certainly don’t just assume any text is historical or nonhistorical without some reason.

      I have good solid reasons for treating Josephus and Livy and even Herodotus as containing some real history. But when I look at the Gospels I find none of the reasons that justify the historical nature of Josephus, for example, are present in the case of the Gospels.

      • Henk van der Gaast
        2010-07-25 10:39:14 UTC - 10:39 | Permalink

        Thanks for your post Neil! You do make a common mistake in misquoting “absecnce of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Where you do quote that you are indicating a rational debate between two sides where one has no evidence and is making claims.

        This isn’t how reason works and same argument (absence etc) can be argued by homeopathy verus vaccinations. There is no evidence that homeopathy works or has a fundamental nature behind it but there is absolutely no real empirical evidence for either to have ever been exhibited. Hence it cant be used as an argument to replace an intervention call vaccination.

        The same goes for a god. Sure, there might be a god but anyone arguing for one is doing it on invention, not even an absence of evidence.

        In the case of Jesus, there is a lot to be said that he is confused with a lot of prior sayings and stories. There is evidence for that.

        The stories of moses etc can be said to be the same. I would not approach a history paper with copious notes and quoting at the end;
        (Neil, 2010, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence)

      • 2010-07-25 13:12:09 UTC - 13:12 | Permalink

        Hi Henk,

        I might be misunderstanding your point, but my reference to that infamous saying was to put out that it is not enough for a Jesus-mythicist to say that there is no evidence for an historical Jesus. In addition to an absence of such evidence, there needs to be positive evidence for the mythical/fictional creation of Jesus. I think there is.

        N

      • Henk van der Gaast
        2010-07-25 13:55:30 UTC - 13:55 | Permalink

        Thanks for your prompt reply Neil,

        I could be a conspiracist in saying that Josephus and Saul of Tarsus are incredibly lacking in pointing to a firm jesus when Paul should have known about him and Josephus’ father should certainly have made some goodly mention of the “facts” of those days in Jerusalem.

        This is where I feel, evidence should be sought as the Nazareth “disappearance” is now claimed to be due to fortunate redaction of the gospels.

        Yet moving on to the kooky end of the NT, John of Patmos being dated to @60 CE indicates that some folk were firmly convinced that jesus was a known entity. On the other hand, John the gospel writer is claimed to be a very late writer and (somehow by some) to be the selfsame as Patmos.

        The fact remains, whether jesus is contrived by an earlier writer or is an entity that was built on is an ongoing debate. Taking that further as the early church did was gilding the issue somewhat.

        We know that books that all the christian sects carried as the truth tended to be “deleted” once the cynicism of Roman Imperial Christianity finally bore its weight on the empire.

  • mikelioso
    2010-07-11 15:27:41 UTC - 15:27 | Permalink

    Am certain someone else has put forward a case for the historicity of Jesus who was an atheist and you have read, so I won’t go though the trouble of writing one my self, I’m knee deep in Modding my Rome Total War game to play a year of four emperors scenario and I’m on summer break and summer is short here. I do need to increase my reading and maybe get some subscriptions to a few biblical archeology journals, do you have any good suggestions? One thing though, doesn’t Paul call someone “Cephas” meaning rock? It’s hard to be a symbolic person when your an actual person. And Jesus seems to be a fairly common name. I occasionally see arguments to show how all of some story are allegories of something else or based on some other work, and I’ve come to realize that you can do this in some vague way to just about anything. It’s like how you can apply Bible code methods to Moby Dick and get stunning prophesies just like in the Bible! I mean I could point out some things that I feel are biographical, but what are the chances that someone couldn’t make a case for their being some hidden theological message. Ever read a discussion of the song of Solomon from an evangelical preacher? No sire don’t think it is a simple marriage poem, it is all about Jesus Christ. Often time the theological or propaganda message is stretched really thin. look at Matthews “prophecy” on Jesus being a Nazarene. Nobody can even figure out what verse of the Bible this is supposed to be.

    • 2010-07-11 23:59:32 UTC - 23:59 | Permalink

      I used to subscribe to a biblical archaeology journal, and there are some online, but why not check out historians who analyse the archaeological data and argue what history can be gleaned from it. Archaeologists are not historians, necessarily. And some who are are not very good ones. I can’t recommend any without indicating my bias.

      Maybe one of the easier as well as more comprehensive reads might be something by Niels Peter Lemche. Google or Amazon the name and take your pick of a title.

      If you want something heavy and detailed, check out Thompson’s Early History of the Israelite People.

      Or maybe you would appreciate Lester Grabbe’s “Ancient Israel, What do we know and how do we know it?”

      The shortest read that I really like as an intro to the whole minimalist thing is Philip R. Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel.

      On the other side, you have Dever’s Did God have a Wife? for an intro to ancient Israelite religion — and Dever has long been the arch enemy of the minimalists, but here he seems to tilt a little towards some of their views.

      And of course, Finkelstein’s and Silberman’s books about ancient Israel and David (Bible Unearthed and David and Solomon). Many readers like them — they seem to be very popular, but after you read Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel, you find yourself wondering if they are only playing at being “radical” or “minimalist” and are really trying to keep one and a half feet in the conservative camp, with little really clear rationale.

      Davies also has another fairly short intro titled Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History — ancient and modern.

      If you are into the political implications of the scholarship, have a look at Keith Whitelam’s The Invention of Ancient Israel.

      There is also a debate between Finkelstein (sort of a half way minimalist) and Mazar (orthodox “maximalist”), chapter by chapter, edited by Schmidt, in The Quest for the Historical Israel — that’s a pretty neat start to get an idea of where the two sides stand on the issues.

      But others may offer very different recommendations.

      As for your point about Paul and Cephas, it is noteworthy that Paul is not the Gospel author. What relationship is there between Paul and the Gospels? One name in Paul is not the same as finding a cluster of names, just about every name, in the gospels having a potentially symbolic meaning.

      And why do we find both Cephas and Peter in the same chapter within Paul? Does not this sound odd if we are really reading a coherent text by a single author?

      And what is our evidence for the dating of Paul — before or after the gospels — anyway?

      And how do we explain at least one early Christian text listing both Cephas and Peter as different individuals in the list of apostles?

      Sure the names are common, and I am not saying they are proofs of fictional creations at all. But surely we are entitled to ask and explore the question at least when we find name after name after name in a single short narrative have meanings that seem just too neatly appropriate for the events they appear in.

      In cases of arguments about bible codes, etc, I have rarely bothered to check these for some time now. They are usually the result of forced or ambiguous meanings. Allegories can be forced, of course. But the reason I mentioned the names is because they are so obvious, and commented on regularly in the mainstream literature I have read.

      But if you are suspicious of anything to do with symbolic names at all, I’m more than happy to drop the point. It is an incidental reason for raising questions — based on something fairly open and obvious to all commentators (not hidden codes or esoteric analogies).

    • 2010-09-23 22:35:17 UTC - 22:35 | Permalink

      One thing though, doesn’t Paul call someone “Cephas” meaning rock?</blockquote

      Josephus describes someone named Joseph Caiaphas who was High Priest during Pilate's tenure. Caiaphas and Cephas are derived from the same Aramaic word for "rock".

      • 2010-09-23 22:41:01 UTC - 22:41 | Permalink

        Thanks for this. It ties in with a post I’ve been trying to get out for a little while now. It has to do with Peter’s commissioning as the rock in Matthew’s gospel and the indications (via Enochian tradition) to his being a replacement to the high priest.

  • 2010-08-03 04:28:56 UTC - 04:28 | Permalink

    Miracles were an anathema to the Jews as was the idea of a living physical God, either animate or inanimate. The whole idea is not Jewish. Neither was the concept of Christ Jewish, it was Hindoo. The idea was brought back to Israel c 38 CE by Apollonius of Tyana and it is he who tried to sell it to the Jews. They wouldn’t buy it so he took it to the Romans.

    The Romans under the influence of the Piso family had an idea on how to subvert the religion of the Messianic Jewish Movement which was the fastest growing religion in the Empire at that time. A plot was created called the ‘Pisonian Conspiracy’. The plot called for the assassination of the the Emperor Nero and the creaton of a new religion to compete with the Messianic Jewish one. It failed and 50 Romans met their maker.

    Apollonius had brought back some religious documents from India which formed the basis for the new scriptures. Quite revealing are the more secular mentions of Jesus Christ or Jesus of Nazareth. First, we have the infamous ‘Testimonium Flavianum’ of Josephus made at the end of ‘Jewish Antiquities,’ which was not published until the middle of the 90s, then we have the quotes by St. Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome also made at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century. At that time, we also have the famous apologetics quotes by Suetonius and Tacitus about Jesus and the Christiani.

    Conversely, we have the Pauline Epistles which were written and preached during the 50s making no reference to Jesus of Nazareth. The author knows about a cosmic Christ the Savior, but nothing about a real live crucified Jesus Christ. Then we have ‘The Shepherd of Hermes’ which most scholars have attributed to the early second century, but others believe may have been written by ‘Paul.’ Paul was actually Apollonius of Tyana, who was of Greek ancestry, which makes him an obvous candidate to be the author. This scripture was a part of the early Church canon and makes no mention of Jesus of Nazareth. Then we have ‘The Epistle of Barnabas’ believed to have been written during the 80s. This early Church scripture only mentions Jesus Christ, but knows nothing about a real live flesh and blood Jesus of Nazareth.

    The gospel accounts of the life and passion of Jesus Christ are believed to have been first written during the late 60s and early 70s. Strangely, prior to this time no one ever heard of Jesus Christ or Jesus of Nazareth. It was only after the gospels were written that we hear quotes about Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were a real person who was crucified c 30 CE we would not need gospels to tell us that he existed and that these events actually happened.

    Dead Sea Scroll archivist Joseph Atwill in ‘Caesar’s Messiah’ clearly shows in the empty tomb narrative, which appears in all 4 gospels, that the gospels had a common source and were not eye witness accounts of some quasi-literate Jewish Apostles. Starting with John, then Matthew, then Mark and finally Luke, what we find is that in Matthew, Mary sees the tomb scene precisely as she left it in John and so on. This shows common knowledge among the authors of all 4 gospels. To learn more about how the Romans subverted the teachings of Yeshu and the Nazoreans and proclaimed them the revelations of their godman Jesus Christ visit: http://www. nazoreans.com

    • Bill Warrant
      2010-09-23 22:35:20 UTC - 22:35 | Permalink

      What makes you think the order of the Gospels is John-Matthew-Mark-Luke? I agree with you on the posteriority of Luke by the way, but I’d be interested to read what makes you suggest this particular order.

  • Henk van der Gaast
    2010-08-03 09:21:21 UTC - 09:21 | Permalink

    Hmm, I have a major problem with the last comment article and I certainly would have liked to have seen it thoroughly referenced rather than passing allusions. I am sorry Donald, you’ll have to rewrite that for examination at an appropriate level. Its identical in construction as anything you’ll see Penn Gillette write. It’s just the message is the opposite.

  • Amy
    2010-09-23 22:12:21 UTC - 22:12 | Permalink

    Where are YOUR evidences? I, like the last person who commented, would like to see thoroughly referenced arguments … though I would like everyone here to provide such information.

    Being that you are giving your opinions for the lack of evidence of the existance of Christ, the burdon of proof falls upon you to be thorough. Many times, you bring up a point, but you are vague and don’t support your opinions with evidence.

    We have more than the gospels to prove the existance AND deity of Christ, including the Old Testament. Many of your points have already been brought up, thoroughly researched, and concluded to be inaccurate. I am certainly not the best debate-worthy scholar, but there are many out there that I’ve studied for years.

    So think about this, please. It’s your choice, obviously, but here are my thoughts. Just humor me and suppose there really was a Jesus. Imagine that there are twelve disciples, all sent scurrying at his arrest and his trial. Exactly what do you think could have possibly happened that inspired one of them to commit suicide and changed eleven of them from frightened men who abandoned Jesus into men who were on fire for the word and so convinced of their prophet’s deity that they would ALL be willing to die for Him? Takes something pretty big.

    So just humor me and imagine that maybe, just maybe this is true, and maybe, just maybe, He really did die for YOU, that he was scourged, skin ripped and muscle ripped from bone, thorns (and these weren’t just your run-of-the-mill small thorns. These were like long needles) digging into his head, nails in his hands and feet, and all this time He has the power to stop it, but He looks upward with love and thinks of you and endures it, even though he despaired it and it terrified Him.

    Just lean more one way with me, with that open mind that goes both ways (right?) and consider for a moment that perhaps it is true. Don’t you think you owe it to Him and to your own intelligence to be more thorough, to read scholars from both sides, to thoroughly read the Bible, both old and new testaments, to study the concordances, the archaeology, the documents, to wonder what it is about the name of Jesus that is so strong, so enduring. Could you look into His eyes and say, “Sorry Jesus. Maybe you did exist and maybe you did even die for me, but I’m content to attempt to debunk you without really being thorough for you. Maybe you sacrificed yourself, but it just isn’t worth it.”

    Do you really want to take that chance without being thorough?

    [Vridar note: I have reformatted this comment into easy to read paragraph breaks.]

    • 2010-09-23 22:25:38 UTC - 22:25 | Permalink

      Hi Amy,

      Thanks for your comment and concern. I would like to prepare a response that does justice to your thoughts and concerns. Unfortunately I will be away for a few days and it may not be till some time next week when I can do that, though others may possibly respond in the meantime. (I may post other things in the meantime but they are largely re-editings of drafts I have prepared ready and waiting, so don’t think your comment is being forgotten.)

      Cheers,
      Neil

    • 2010-09-23 22:40:59 UTC - 22:40 | Permalink

      We have more than the gospels to prove the existance AND deity of Christ, including the Old Testament.

      While I’d like to see just what other evidence you have for the existence of Jesus besides the gospels, saying that there is evidence for the existence of Jesus (and his divinity) in the Tanakh is pretty… far off base.

      Well, unless you’re talking about the Jesus that Moses handed down his succession to, or the Jesus who was the first high priest after the return from Exile. Then again, we would need some other evidence besides the bare narrative claims in the Tanakh for the existence of these people. But somehow I doubt this is what you meant.

    • 2010-09-24 06:14:25 UTC - 06:14 | Permalink

      Amy said, “Imagine that there are twelve disciples…”

      It seems that the four evangelists did exactly that. They knew there was supposed to be an inner circle of twelve followers, but the tradition had preserved only some of the names, so they imagined the rest. Check out the lists from each gospel and ask yourself why they don’t match. And don’t leap to the conclusion that some disciples had two names, or nicknames. What’s the most likely reason that the lists differ?

      Amy wrote: “Exactly what do you think could have possibly happened that inspired one of them to commit suicide…?”

      Concerning the fate of Judas (leaving aside the question of his historicity), we have to make a choice. Matthew says he hanged himself. Luke (in Acts) says he fell over, flopped on the field that he had bought with blood money, and split open, his bowels gushing out. But Papias says Judas became disgustingly bloated, oozing pus and worms, and that he finally died at home. Either one is right, or they’re all wrong. If you think he committed suicide, I guess that means Luke and Papias lied or just didn’t know the true story.

      Amy continued: “…and changed eleven of them from frightened men who abandoned Jesus into men who were on fire for the word and so convinced of their prophet’s deity that they would ALL be willing to die for Him?”

      If it were true that the disciples were on fire and were willing to die for the cause, I suppose it would be worth noting. However, there’s nothing in the canonical record that says one way or the other. The NT is silent as to the fates of Peter and Paul, arguably the two most important figures in the early church after James (who is also relegated to obscurity). Acts implies that Paul died in Rome, but the story cuts off before his demise.

      It’s a circular argument to say that your source material (the NT) is true because the characters within the material believed very strongly in the gospel of Jesus. First, we don’t have external evidence to back up the claims. Second, even if we did, plenty of people have died for dubious beliefs. Joseph Smith died for his, but that doesn’t mean he really received golden plates from the angel Moroni. Nine years ago, some guys who had strong beliefs flew jets into a couple of skyscrapers. Intensity of one’s beliefs does not prove veracity of one’s claims.

      Amy asked: “Do you really want to take that chance without being thorough?”

      I can’t speak for Neil, but I was a born-again Christian who read the Bible, studied it, and memorized a lot of it. I believed very strongly in the inerrant Word of God. However, it was my continuing search for knowledge and the truth that led me to understand that it is all a mirage. I still find the study of early Christianity fascinating, but that’s as far as it goes. However, I have no desire to “convert” anyone to atheism — if you’re happy, that’s all well and good. But don’t presume that people become skeptics and apostates out of a lack of knowledge.

  • Henk van der Gaast
    2010-09-24 11:15:33 UTC - 11:15 | Permalink

    Before I write further, the correspondent named mikelioso can write beautifully from time to time. I am insanely jealous!

    Whereas I made fair comment on the note left by Donald (asking for the indicative materiele of the first century) I certainly did not ask to be aligned with impassioned speeches regarding the last day of the christ figure.

    There is little to say that such a character existed and the corruption of the evidence of the gospel monickered “Mark” leads one to think that the whole story is totally embellished with mythos.
    A decade ago I used to subscribe to a forum on the dead seas scrolls. One of the major contributors had a penchant for ridiculing a particular scholar’s “Pesher Theory”. Sadly, she naturally debated the contributor and the rules of engagement rapidly fell apart due to the original contributor introducing non-related thought into the argument.

    Sadly, I would have liked to talk to that scholar (she worked within driving distance). Not for her theory (which may or may not be absolutely valid) but to really get a hold on her research directions. I’ve read a few of her papers on Simon Magus, Peter and Clement of Rome and they are interesting none the less (even if Peter, Simon Magus and Paul were code names in the 9th decade, it does shed a light on the argument we are having now).

    Now back to the crux of the matter here we are looking at the historicity of Jesus the man who may have been many things and supposedly chronicled in what is now thought to be a singular document most often debated as the “Q” source. Neil has presented scholars opinions on this matter in many of his good articles (kudos there Neil) as well as a fairly precise (as far as we can ascertain) sequence to the mythologisation and legendary processes. Furthermore he fairly states what is his point of view when he notes it.

    I am pretty sure the baseline sequence of thought on a historical jesus runs as such;
    a) Jesus is a godman who is not to be confused with Yahweh but is Yahweh in one aspect, the other aspect being a hotly argued holy spirit which is also Yahweh (but not to be confused with Yahweh).
    Jesus did many things wonderful, performed miracles, justifiably scourged sin from folk and society.
    He says many things that are very profound and some of his sayings only surface 1900 later. As a godman he arranges for his own death with the very calculating factions of the temple and is judged by a roman official. He faces brutal execution, dies and rises. He says a few more things and rises to heaven witnessed by the grace of his other aspects, Yahweh and the Holy spirit. He, Yahweh and the holy spirit are declared (at one stage and hence forever more) as one with three aspects called god.

    b) Jesus is a real man. Jesus did many things wonderful, performed miracles, said many things that are very profound and some of his sayings only surface 1900 years later. He is crucified. He is real and the legend that surrounds him comes from very influenced comment in the next century or three following his reported execution.

    The words he spoke are translated and quite often erroneously attributed to him by witness of events at the time.

    c) Jesus was a real man who did what any man can but may have been popular with his peers. He is crucified.

    d) it doesn’t matter what the guy’s name was. It is the history that is important. This is the crux of this debate.

    So let’s review the positions
    a) This statement is essentially the total statement that a devout christian would cede as a historical jesus. You hear it being argued at every point between a christian, a historian and a mythologist. The mythological factors that produce such a story were more profound then as they are now. But quite often the mythologists and historians dont get the science right, they do not have the real histories (pit fall of that 2000 year gap). The christian can call victory on what appears to be a complete mythological and historical invention on behalf of the apparently apocalyptic texts of the old testament and the new.

    A historical jesus cannot be reconstructed from such zeal. It cannot be destroyed by the ridiculous motions of the overzealous (but ignorant and inept posturing) zeitgeist type popularists either (I really wish that movie had a technical director and proof reader. The period from intro to credits would have been reduced to an appropriate 5 seconds).

    What can be said of position a) is it is so damnably ludicrous and unverified at any point that a position b) should be examined for historicity.

    Position b) is a very acceptable version of events for most christians. In fact its the go to position whenever debate is raised (as a supernatural spider man called god is invoked everytime the debate “does god exist?” is invoked). It is in fact a very acceptable position for any one except a historian or mythologist. The evidence just isnt there, the text is developmental, and the docetic or gnostic arguments that raged in the day appear word for word as the mythology is developed culminating in John’s elaborate, beautiful, reality show deity gospel. The mythologist would sit very comfortably with the position, jesus is developed from the thought that developed dionysus. The historian would not like this historical jesus one bit.

    Position c) would indicate something that a historian or a mythologist cant argue against. Nor could a religious person. It’s sparse and its certainly no reason to go to church on sunday or have extended posts on the Vridar community (and thank you for letting me post).

    Position d) expounds what everyone is trying to work out. How does a religion form around a perfectly natural (for the period) narrative?

    We do get hung up on the interpretations of the gospels and developments in the epistles and letters and hold exegeses as evidence (no they are not guys, they are casual observations of ancient texts). Treatises and exegeses have been used to do some terrible things in the past (and present).

    Personally, I think the historical evidence does far more prove position d) (not by extrapolation but by elimination).

    So what are the implications of the above? Really, what does Amy’s emotional case pleading add to the argument? How does one factor in a historical jesus with today? How can any history be gleaned?

    To the first, it adds little other than an added notch from a positional argument “I believe this, how dare you not?”. The Gibsonesque/Pythonesque scenario only affirms the best case that Amy will hang on to her beliefs until jesus tells her otherwise (the populist doubting thomas scenario).

    To the second, the jesus myth pervades to today in a number of religions (mind you, the damnably ecumenical eastern mysticisms do not shed light on the matter). The problem with stating jesus was real by extrapolation deals a deathblow to christian practice and lore. Its unacceptable if the cases for jesus are any other than positions b) to d). Jesus by comparison or extrapolation is definitely not allowed unless its done by a believing exegete that comes up with the accepted truth of position a) (just compare erhman and spong’s view of either historical or just christianity to the neochristianity sweeping the African continent at present).

    Herein lies the crux (pun) of the matter. The convenience of believing in a wishy washy god, a heraldic christmas jesus, easter docetism, and ascension trinity (that is never stated) has always drawn the lay christian (anyone without a frock or order) to either acceptance (for the overwhelming many) or rejection for the very few.

    It is you right to believe what you damn well please, but newton and bernoulli, pascal and darwin gave you the duty to examine, propose and test.

    I certainly havent ever considered if god is watching me and has a sin register that can be expunged when I accept jesus when I conveniently have a death bed conversion. NSW country roads will surely beat me to the priest!

    But, nor do I believe that we can discount that a person ascribed with the name jesus existed. In fact, it is entirely likely that a lot of folk ascribed to many names and popularisms were crucified. Mythologies about them died a natural death. You had to be caligula or nero to have attained permanent register in the minds of folk 2000years hence. Doing really impressive things such as uniting rome didn’t do it, rolling rome in an never to be repeated exurberance didn’t do it. The united religion of rome did.

    Cf vespasian with constantine

    My belief? Its somewhere with most of the contributors. Its very hard to glean reality from the NT. This is not a good reason to reject it. Using it for historicity is fraught with delusion.

  • Amy
    2011-03-23 03:32:41 UTC - 03:32 | Permalink

    My argument is not simply emotional. Yes, my emotions do play a part. However, I have also studied quite a bit for well over ten years. Do you know what I find interesting about everything I have read here? It all goes around and around and around without any clear evidence. If you have concluded with 100% surety that Jesus did not in fact exist, which is what an atheist should be, why do you care? Why are you here debating? The only evidence presented again is not evidence, but theories only, and theories that has already been examined from every angle and proven to be very weak arguments against the existence of Christ. I am not a weak-minded Christian who has not done her homework, and the fact that someone renounces Christianity does not, in fact, mean that Christ did not exist. Again, the burdon of proof does not rest on my shoulders. There are, if you will simply visit the Christianity section in a bookstore, plenty of evidences beyond the gospels that study the existence of Jesus. And you will have a better chance, there of finding more studied minds, or at least a greater number of studied minds, than you will here. All I would be doing would be taking what I have learned from Archaelogical and study Bibles, scholarly articles, books, and concordances and posting that information here. You can find books by former atheists, you can find books on Biblical evidences and archaeological findings that support the Bible. Look at examples like Lee Strobel and Simon Greenleaf. Read “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” Or anything that challenges New Atheism. I can certainly address your questions here, though I would probably not do it nearly as well, but I will give it a shot if you do not want to take the time to check out my recommendations. Thank you.

  • 2011-03-23 18:16:33 UTC - 18:16 | Permalink

    Hi Amy. Thanks for your sincere and thoughtful comment.

    Yes, I am an atheist who was once a Christian, but you should understand that I am not at all interested in disproving the existence of Jesus as a real person in history. I have never concluded “with 100% surety” that he did not exist, and I am not at all interested in trying to prove this. What interests me is understanding historical backgrounds to things, and not only Christianity. But this blog is mostly about exploring issues that relate to Christian origins or early Christianity simply from a historical interest. It is also an important topic for historical inquiry. By no means am I doing this to “debunk” Christianity or because I have some hostility to Christianity. It makes no difference to my atheism if Jesus existed or not. I was an atheist for many years and quite untroubled believing that Jesus did exist. But to suggest I should not be interested in the question of Christian origins because I am an atheist is a little like suggesting one should not be interested in studying the rise of Nazism in Germany unless one is a Nazi. Christianity is a vital part of our culture and all people have a right to be interested in it.

    I would also like to assure you that I have read quite a number of the sorts of books you have recommended, including the sorts of books as one finds by Lee Strobel. (You might also like to read the “other side” of the arguments by Lee Strobel here: I was interested to come across the following news report on Al Jazeera: http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/CTVExcerptsIntro.htm)

    One of the reasons for this blog is because after reading many of those books I saw that their arguments were not on the same level as arguments about the history of other topics. They nearly all begin by simply assuming that the gospels are based on a true story and that Jesus existed. Those few that do attempt to give reasons for believing he existed simply repeat very weak reasons that have been shown to be proving nothing at all. They are more wishful thinking than real proofs. See, for example, http://www.jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/puzzle2.htm

    You said my post here is going around and around without any clear evidence. But it is not an argument for the nonexistence of Jesus. What I am posting about here is that we have clear evidence for the existence of other ancient persons, but we have no comparable or similar evidence for the existence of Jesus. Now that does not disprove Jesus’ existence. But it does allow us to ask questions about Christian origins that may or may not need a Jesus at their start. How do we know the gospel story is based on a true person and events? We can’t just assume it is. We need to have a reason.

    We have reasons for believing other people existed and what stories might be more or less true. Why not study the evidence for Christianity in the same way?

  • Amy
    2011-04-24 16:41:11 UTC - 16:41 | Permalink

    Neil,

    First off, my apologies for not having responded sooner. I don’t have much internet access, save for at work and, every once in a while, at a friend’s.

    I must say that I certainly don’t argue against studying the evidence for Christianity. In fact, I am quite a proponent of it. After all, faith we live by, but we were never meant to live by blind faith. What I do find disturbing is that you call yourself an athiest and yet you cannot say you are 100% sure that Christ did not exist. To me, that is like saying I am a Christian but I am not 100% sure of a resurrected savior. I find it simply odd that you could not have convinced yourself fully that there is no Christ and yet you can still call yourself an atheist.

    I do not believe that Christian writers simply “assume” that the gospels are the truth. Rather, they go off of historical evidences, such as the authenticity of the new testament (Compared to all of the ancient writings in the world, there has been more academic research into its authenticity, and it is the most authenticated document in human history.) and the eye-witness accounts. Really guys, exactly why would the apostles list the women as witnesses if they were trying to make something up? Women couldn’t even testify in court and were not seen as an authority. They would have used a prominant authority to try to convince people, such as Nicodemus.

    If they were trying to convince people, why not dramatize it, but instead of drama, we find that the resurrection is anything but melodrama. In fact, Jesus is said to have gone to Galilee, not Jerusalem (the holy city). Wouldn’t that have made more sense? Jesus rises from the dead and triumphantly returns, the risen savior, to the holy city! And why? Why at that? They were defeated. They thought he was dead. They had scattered. They had no reason to make up such a story. They believed their leader was dead. They had gone back to their old lives. They were broken men who had no reason whatsoever to suddenly concoct a story of a risen savior. They didn’t understand then what Christ had said about his resurrection. They thought he was going to establish a kingdom and overthrow Roman rule! And yes, many people have had boldness to die for a lie, but to my knowledge, they have believed that they were following truth.

    For the disciples to have created the resurrection story, they would have all known it was a lie. They would have had to convince plenty of people that it was truth but they would still have had to get other people to back up their lie, such as Paul (the persecutor of Christians), Thomas(the doubter), James (his brother who thought he was just insane), and the women who first saw the empty tomb (oh hey Salome, Mary, and Mary, can you all just say you saw a couple of angels and there was an earthquake (such a common thing in that area. Why not have fireworks from the sky? That’s more dramatic, isn’t it?) and the tomb was empty, and oh, then Mary, you can say that you just happen to see Jesus. He appears to you first. Yeah, that’ll convince them. And exactly why would so many followers break the 9th commandment in order to start a movement that put them all at risk of death? What could they have possibly had to gain?

    That’s not all, of course, but it’s late, it’s early morning of Resurrection day. I’m emotionally tired from having just watched the Thorn, and I need to be up early for church. By the way, Neil, I’m just curious, why do you think the passover travel and sacrificial system collapsed?

    Tim,

    Your bring up an interesting topic in Judas. I cannot say that I’m overly familiar with Papias’ writings, and so I won’t even comment on that. However, Acts and Matthew are not a contradiction, as hanging in biblical times was often by impalement (the body would be hanged on the pole), in which case the stomach would be impaled and the guts would indeed spill out, either upon impact of the pole, or gallows, or when the body fell to the ground.

    • 2011-04-24 22:23:41 UTC - 22:23 | Permalink

      I’m at an airport internet station now and will try to take the time to reply to this when I return back home in Australia.

    • 2011-04-25 13:55:42 UTC - 13:55 | Permalink

      Amy,

      Firstly, being an atheist has nothing to do with believing or not believing in the existence of Jesus. My interest in whether Jesus was a historical person or not stems from my interest in Christian origins. I love history, and trying to understand the historical origins of Christianity is one of the more challenging historical topics I love to explore. Even among biblical scholars there are a few atheists who believe Jesus existed. Obviously they don’t believe he was a literal son of God, however.

      When I was a Christian I also used to diligently seek to prove my beliefs. I now see that all I was doing was assuming the gospel story was real history. But it is just a story and it was not written by the disciples. The story of the empty tomb is just a story — the sort of thing one reads in ancient fiction. It was also a common literary device in fiction to have women or slaves — those whom few people would ever believe — be the ones who witness the restored body or a god. This is all part of the literary art. It adds irony to the tale, and reinforces the foolishness of “the wiser ones” for failing to believe.

      We simply don’t know who wrote the gospels, but they do contain many of the literary devices found in ancient fiction. Mark has been likened to a Jewish novel and a Homeric epic; John has been likened in several places to classical tales of lost sons returning home, scenes of courtship; Luke-Acts has many features found in Hellenistic novels. I’ve discussed all of these in detail on this blog over recent years.

      As for the martyrs, again many of the stories we hear about those also lack credibility and supporting evidence. There were waves of persecution in the second century in particular, but these were against a variety of Christians, including those who did not believe Jesus was a real man but only a spirit who appeared as a man. Were they dying for truth, too? As for the twelve apostles, tales of their martyrdoms are very late and certainly apocryphal.

      The sacrificial system ended when the Roman armies detroyed the Jewish Temple. But even before then there were a few Jewish sects who appear to have rejected temple sacrifices. Some Jews saw the Temple as a symbol of corrupt priestly practices and wanted nothing to do with it. So there is nothing strange about another Jewish sect branching off and teaching that sacrifices were no longer required.

  • Pingback: Quest for History: Rule One — from Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus « Vridar

  • 2014-01-01 08:14:27 UTC - 08:14 | Permalink

    Just came to to this discussion as a link from Liberals should stop eulogising this reactionary Pope.

    So all translations of the OT/Tnk, NT from Hebrew/Greek into Latin and from all three into initially German/English were made to serve the particular needs of those who commissioned/ made them. For compilation/redaction has been the norm in both the original OT/Tnk and NT

    The Torah from Tnk consists of five pieces, written by five different authors in five different places at five different times and redacted. It is not the work of Moses written down from dictation given by Ywh.

    The NT underwent compilation/redaction to fit in with the needs of the early Church. Irenaeus based his choice of the four canonical gospels on Geography, Meteorology and Symmetry as much as Theology, saying in “Against the Heresies”

    …It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the church is scattered throughout all the world, and the pillar and ground of the church is the gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh…

    NT is not actual eyewitness, historical evidenced writing but mostly conjecture, hearsay and a very selective “truth”, in fact often lies.

    Those early Fathers of the Church, Clement , Eusebius, Jerome, John Chrysostom, were all adept at justifying deceit/lies for the good of the poor sinner.

    …For great is the value of deceit, provided it be not introduced with a mischievous intention. In fact action of this kind ought not to be called deceit, but rather a kind of good management, cleverness and skill, capable of finding out ways where resources fail, and making up for the defects of the mind …

    …And often it is necessary to deceive, and to do the greatest benefits by means of this device, whereas he who has gone by a straight course has done great mischief to the person whom he has not deceived…
    Chrysostom, Treatise On The Priesthood, Book 1.

    When we think of Spin Doctors let us recall those early ones they who set the standards, The Doctors of the Church

    Further more as for the historical Jesus fact is that there is not the slightest physical evidence; no accounts, artefacts, carpentry. dwellings, tools or self authored manuscripts. No contemporary Roman records show Pontius Pilate executing a man named Jesus.

    There occurs not a single contemporary writing that mentions Jesus. All documents came well after the life of the alleged Jesus from either mostly unknown authors, people who had never met the earthly Jesus, or from straight out fraudulent accounts. (haywardsward)

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-01-01 11:19:47 UTC - 11:19 | Permalink

      My next post in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate series (#6) will be addressing the specific point of your last paragraph — the significance of the absence of contemporary secular records of Jesus.

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