2016-04-08

Proofs that Jesus Did Exist (by Professor McGrath)

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor James McGrath explains in the Talk Gnosis video interview what he believes is “the case for the historical Jesus”.

Interestingly the interviewers open the program by assuring viewers that the interview with McGrath will provide loads of fun. To be discussed is a “fun topic” and “a super fun topic”. The point is to explain whether or not “there is a good reason to believe that Jesus actually existed”.

The prime interviewer opens by asking McGrath if the reason most scholars don’t believe Jesus is a myth is because they might think there are good reasons for thinking he is historical. Makes sense.

McGrath “personally” thinks a good case can be made for the historicity of Jesus.

Point one: When a mythicist apologist gets up and says that there is not as much evidence for Jesus as for an emperor who minted coins and fought battles then serious historians are not surprised.

Point two: Historians don’t bother discussing improbable miracles. What many mythicists lack is a detailed acquaintance with the New Testament texts and the rationalist (i.e. don’t believe in miracles) perspective that historians bring to them. Most mythicists are familiar with the Jesus they have been brought up with — i.e. that Jesus is God incarnate, etc. And so most mythicists are as shocked as conservative Christians are when you explain to them that Jesus as we meet him in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Luke is “not that sort of figure”. He is a human being in those gospels though people believed he carried out cures etc — just like other people in that day and even today who are believed to have those abilities.

So Jesus being believed to have these powers is just like other people also believed to have these powers whom we do think are historical.

McGrath says mythicism is not a taboo topic but an outdated one. Casey and Ehrman took the time to look at recent claims and still found it to be unpersuasive. McGrath has “long wanted there to be some serious well-argued cases for this so it would give us something to discuss”. Scholars as part of their job description want things to discuss so if they don’t discuss mythicism it is because they think they’ll be hurting their own credibility if they do.

Next question: What are the reasons scholars believe there was a historical Jesus? Specifically, what are the reasons the crucifixion leads us to believe there was an HJ?

McGrath: No one would say that Socrates did not exist if the earliest evidence for Socrates came from a disciple of his. So it is bizarre to discount the evidence of early “Christians” for Jesus.

Paul says he met the “brother of Jesus (sic)”

Paul says Jesus was of the seed of David according to the flesh — thus indicating he believed him to be historical. Here Paul is talking specifically about “the Davidic anointed one” and referring to a “kingly figure” and the “expectation that the kingship would be restored to the dynasty of David”. That expectation meant that the messiah would be made the king, not crucified. So crucifixion was almost automatic disqualification from being the Davidic messiah.

“So if you’re inventing a religion from scratch and trying to convince Jews that this figure is the Davidical anointed one, then you don’t invent that he was crucified.”

Tony Sylvia (interviewer) adds that if you are inventing a story and wanted people to believe it you don’t include all the embarrassing things that don’t further your point. And crucifixion doesn’t help the early Christians’ case at all.

McGrath: It doesn’t give them the kind of figure they are claiming.

Mythicists often credulously swallow what historians find problematic. Example: mythicists often claim Jesus was based upon Old Testament prophecies as their fulfilment. It seems to McGrath that these mythicists have only heard this claim from Christian apologists or the NT authors themselves and that they haven’t actually looked carefully at these texts. In fact most of the scriptures are not prophecies at all and the few he seems to fulfil he doesn’t really (unless one forces the interpretation) so — if you’re inventing someone who fulfils the prophecies, you invent one who fulfils the prophecies. (Jesus doesn’t fit this bill.)

When we see the evangelists trying to link Jesus’ life with texts that don’t really fit him at all, then we have a situation where they have a real figure and they are struggling to make him fit — they can’t just make up anything about his life that they wanted to.

12 Comments

  • flummoxed
    2016-04-08 15:44:28 UTC - 15:44 | Permalink

    Is it my brain that’s befuddled or the interviewee’s ? Just couldn’t follow McGrath’s train of thought most of the time.

  • Vinnyjh
    2016-04-08 16:58:18 UTC - 16:58 | Permalink

    That we don’t expect to find much evidence that Jesus existed is not itself evidence that Jesus existed. Or is it?

    • Tim Widowfield
      2016-04-08 18:10:43 UTC - 18:10 | Permalink

      He finds it necessary to imply that mythicists are surprised that we have so little evidence. The only time I’ve heard mythicists bring up the lack of evidence is when they’re arguing with apologists who believe huge crowds followed Jesus everywhere as he went from town to town performing miracles.

      But more than painting with a broad brush (implying mythicists are laughably ignorant) it distracts from other, actual issues.

      • Neil Godfrey
        2016-04-08 19:29:22 UTC - 19:29 | Permalink

        What struck me was the extent of his ivory tower perspective. He was relegating mythicists on the whole to outsider unwashed ignoramuses unacquainted with biblical scholarship. Has all of his communication with mythicists, including me, been through such a disdaining perspective? That would fit. He refused to believe I had read some of the books I quoted from. Larry Hurtado has also expressed scepticism that I have read widely. It might appear that they just put up a wall when engaging with the other so nothing said from the outside is going to ever register seriously with them. McGrath clearly comes across as one who has never engaged with Doherty’s or Carrier’s arguments. He has merely flicked off a few of their points that never penetrated his protective mind-shield in the first place. That would explain why he so blithely misrepresents and even lies about the arguments.

        In other words, he fits that classical stereotype of the most arrogant and insufferable of academics who must always be shown the utmost deference or else.

  • Pofarmer
    2016-04-08 18:53:17 UTC - 18:53 | Permalink

    “Tony Sylvia (interviewer) adds that if you are inventing a story and wanted people to believe it you don’t include all the embarrassing things that don’t further your point. And crucifixion doesn’t help the early Christians’ case at all.”

    Yeah, but the crucifixion does help in that it was already pre existing in Pauls theology. Also, it’s helpful in explaining the fall of Jerusalem. “The messiah was here but we killed him.” Type of thinking. It’s really not that hard.

  • s.levin
    2016-04-08 18:57:16 UTC - 18:57 | Permalink

    McGrath: “No one would say that Socrates did not exist if the earliest evidence for Socrates came from a disciple of his.”

    Among the many, many sentiments worthy of discussion, in critical fashion, from McGrath’s interview, I will select only this one point to argue.

    One of the most famous students of Socrates was Xenophon, who studied with Socrates, just before the latter’s death, when Xenophon was a young man of 25 or so.

    How do we know, with certainty, that Xenophon himself, lived? Is Xenophon’s own existence debated?

    Is there any person, anywhere in the world, who would deny that Xenophon lived, wrote, and in fact, studied with Socrates?

    Then, who are these “disciples” of Jesus, who offered the “earliest evidence” for the existence of Jesus? Is McGrath referring to Mark? Mark is the name assigned, so far as I know, by “Irenaeus”, a late second century figure who, himself, is poorly attested. Even Dr. Ehrman acknowledges that “Mark”, our first gospel, hence, our “earliest evidence”, did not exist, per se, until the time of Irenaeus, writing at the end of the second century CE.

    Japan, China, Somalia, Iceland, Kuwait, Bolivia, Belgium, Madagascar, Nigeria: what they have in common is that intellectuals in all those countries accept, and acknowledge, that Xenophon lived, wrote, and studied with Socrates. Can we say the same for those unnamed “disciples”, claimed by McGrath to have studied with Jesus? Who were these disciples, what did they write about the life of Jesus, and who attests to their own existence?

    Here are three historians from second to third century CE. Do any of them comment on any of Jesus’ disciples, by name or with reference to texts supposedly authored by these unknown disciples? Do any of them refer to Irenaeus? Do they mention Justin Martyr? How about Clement of Rome?

    Arrian (92-175)
    Dio Cassius (160-230)
    Herodian (170-240)

    Does McGrath imagine that since Philo of Alexandria writes so persuasively about the life of Herakles, that therefore Herakles was an historical person, and not a mythical character?

    • Pofarmer
      2016-04-08 20:54:20 UTC - 20:54 | Permalink

      You just hit upon something but I have noticed recently but hadn’t had time to really look into. Eusebius quotes papias. But the only knowledge we have of papayas is through eusebius. None of his own work survived and he shows up nowhere else in the historical record. I wasn’t aware the same could be said of Clement of Rome. It’s been known for some time that there is no record of Peter anywhere in Rome in the first century CE e. For that matter there is no record of the other Apostles being anywhere either. The church is attributed to the various Apostles seem to be a late accretion of Legends. Where the heck are all these people if they traveled all over and never showed up anywhere else.

  • Steven Carr
    2016-04-09 07:23:47 UTC - 07:23 | Permalink

    If you can’t invent a crucified Messiah, then you can’t invent a Messiah who blinds people and who killed his childhood playmates.

    ‘After that again he went through the village, and a child ran and dashed against his shoulder. And Jesus was provoked and said unto him: Thou shalt not finish thy course And immediately he fell down and died. ‘

    This must be true because no Christian would invent a story of the Messiah killing children.

    • Nonie
      2016-04-10 07:03:02 UTC - 07:03 | Permalink

      Fortunately even Chris Keith and Le Donne are at last, noting this kind of embarrassing absurdity, in the historicists’ Criterion of Embarrassment. Even McGrath is intermittently aware of it. But not consistently.

  • Dostonj
    2016-04-09 16:17:07 UTC - 16:17 | Permalink

    McGrath: “Paul says Jesus was of the seed of David according to the flesh.” Well, isn’t that just begging the question? Now why couldn’t a fictional character come from the seed of another fictional character?

    • Nonie
      2016-04-10 07:06:34 UTC - 07:06 | Permalink

      This is the best short response I’ve seen so far, to the otherwise interminable James-the-brother-of-Jesus assertions.

  • 2016-04-10 07:15:32 UTC - 07:15 | Permalink

    McGrath has “long wanted there to be some serious well-argued cases for this so it would give us something to discuss”.

    Here McGrath is sounding like Carrier who really wanted Ehrman’s book to be the one he could refer people to for the historicist side of the argument.

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