Category Archives: Apologetics


2015-03-06

Richard Carrier Replies: McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier continues his response to James McGrath’s criticism of Carrier’s On the Historicity of JesusMcGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype. He begins: 

Yesterday I addressed McGrath’s confused critique of portions of On the Historicity of Jesus (in McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy). He has also published a second entry in what promises to be a series about OHJ, this one titled “Rankled by Wrangling over Rank-Raglan Rankings: Jesus and the Mythic Hero Archetype” . . . . This entry is even less useful than the first. Here are my thoughts on that.

Once again Neil Godfrey already tackles the failures of logic and accuracy in the very first comment that posted after the above article. Which he has reproduced, with an introduction, in better formatting on his own blog: Once More: Professor Stumbles Over the Point of Rank-Raglan Mythotypes and Jesus.

I could leave it at that, really.

TL;DR: McGrath doesn’t understand the difference between a prior probability and a posterior probability; he uses definitions inconsistently to get fake results that he wants (instead of being rigorously consistent in order to see what actually results); and he shows no sign of having read my chapter on this (ch. 6 of OHJ) and never once rebuts anything in it, even though it extensively rebuts his whole article (because I was psychic…or rather, I had already heard all of these arguments before, so I wrote a whole damned chapter to address them…which McGrath then duly and completely ignores, and offers zero response to).

That’s pretty much it.

But now for the long of it…

McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype

 


2015-03-05

McGrath on Richard Carrier’s OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy

by Neil Godfrey

From Richard Carrier’s blog post, McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy:

In preparation for my upcoming defense of On the Historicity of Jesus at the SBL regional meeting, I’ve set aside time to publicly summarize my take on James McGrath’s critique of (parts of) the book for Bible & Interpretation: “Did Jesus Die in Outer Space? Evaluating a Key Claim in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus.”

Critics have already adequately shown the problems with McGrath in understanding facts and logic, so I don’t need to reproduce their work. I fully concur with the responses of Covington and Godfrey (any quibbles I have I’ll mention here).

As Godfrey correctly shows, McGrath not only botches logic and facts, he misreports what my book says, such that “uninformed readers are falsely led to think McGrath has simply identified errors in Carrier’s work.” When in fact he did not identify any. And Covington rightly concludes that when you compare what McGrath says with what my book says, “he hasn’t said anything an agnostic onlooker of the debate should take note of.” They both show that McGrath gets my arguments wrong, makes obvious logical mistakes, and incorrectly reports what experts have said in key matters. This does not make historicity look well defended. It makes it look like it needs rhetorical warblegarble to survive.

The most detailed response to McGrath’s paper is that of Neil Godfrey [who discusses issues of method and fact]. But for a good brief response to start with, see Nicholas Covington, which is ideal for anyone who wants a TL;DR on the matter. . . . . 


2015-01-20

Destroying Egyptian Antiquities for Jesus

by Tim Widowfield

In case you missed it, recently the web site “livescience” published an update on the mummy mask mutilation controversy.

http://www.livescience.com/49489-oldest-known-gospel-mummy-mask.html

For a little background on the matter, see Brice Jones’s blog post from last May.

http://www.bricecjones.com/blog/the-first-century-gospel-of-mark-josh-mcdowell-and-mummy-masks-what-they-all-have-in-common

I can’t deny that finding new and perhaps much older papyrus fragments of NT manuscripts sounds fascinating, but it’s a bit gut-wrenching to see apologists ripping apart archaeological items, destroying them forever. It doesn’t matter if they’re “low quality” masks or not. They’re priceless and irreplaceable. Furthermore, they’re part of the heritage of humanity; they shouldn’t be thought of as “owned” by private individuals who can do whatever they want with them.

Bart Ehrman has posted his thoughts about it on Facebook.

https://www.facebook.com/AuthorBartEhrman/posts/809740275764435

From his post:

This complete disregard for the sanctity of surviving antiquities is, for many, many of us not just puzzling but flat-out distressing. It appears that the people behind and the people doing this destruction of antiquities are all conservative evangelical Christians, who care nothing about the preservation of the past – they care only about getting their paws on a small fragment of a manuscript. Can there be any question that with them we are not dealing with historians but Christian apologists?

Nope.  No question about it.


2014-11-29

On Christians and Christianity, Bible Scholars and Bible Scholarship

by Neil Godfrey
IMG_3589

Campus evangelism

I have some sympathy for people who embrace religious faith, even Christianity. I have a lot of respect for scholarly research, including that into Christian origins.

But I loathe some forms of Christianity that do irreparable damage to many people. I also have little respect for public intellectuals (scholars) who betray their public by fostering personal antipathy towards those who raise radical questions about the foundations of their work and protect their professional status and faith by means of culpably ignorant and fallacious arguments.

So I have some reservations about attacking religious belief head on. I’m reminded of Tamas Pataki’s point about the importance of trying to understand the function of religion for so many: “its emotional significance for its adherent, its intimate relations to human needs.” I know I am much better off as a person since having turned my back on religion. I do believe (in theory) that all of humanity should be much better off without religion. But then I wonder if that belief assumes some kind of overly optimistic view of human nature.

I don’t mean that I’m comfortable with the way things are. I suppose I would find myself rejoicing like an angel in heaven over learning of another friend who learned to leave God behind and walk through life as a humanist, naturalist, rationalist, atheist, or whatever term they thought most apt for capturing their new identity.

And it’s certainly good that there are others who take the time to expose the follies of faith for those whose time has come to listen. I am riled every Thursday when I see members of a religious cult setting up at a main crossroads on campus a display stand of their tracts and standing there attempting to invite young overseas students who are away from family, friends, cultural roots into conversation. Preying on the vulnerable (many have scarcely heard anything about Christianity before they arrive) looking for a new friendly community. Lovebombing. I wish I could do a Christ and overturn their table and whip them out of the grounds.

On the other hand I have no desire to go out of my way to try to deconvert my grandmother.

Then there are the bible scholars.

I don’t mean scholarship. The distinction is important. Richard Carrier’s point is pertinent:  read more »


2014-11-13

“The Jesus Story Cannot Possibly Have Been Fabricated”

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Carrier presents a “mock analogy” to illustrate the absurdity of so much of the reasoning that lies at the heart of the bulk of serious historical Jesus scholarship today. In fact the analogy is similar to ones Tim and I have independently made here. (One scholar who took himself far too seriously was so offended that he even accused me of extreme disrespect for drawing the analogy. I was reminded of the embarrassed crowds shushing and scolding the boy who dared yell out “The king is not wearing any clothes!”)

Here is Carrier’s version (with my formatting and bolding):

Imagine in your golden years you are accused of murdering a child many decades ago and put on trial for it. The prosecution claims you murdered a little girl in the middle of a public wedding in front of thousands of guests. But as evidence all they present is a religious tract written by ‘John’ which lays out a narrative in which the wedding guests watch you kill her.

Who is this John?

The prosecution confesses they don’t know.

When did he write this narrative? 

Again, unknown. Probably thirty or forty years after the crime, maybe even sixty.

Who told John this story?

Again, no one knows. He doesn’t say.

So why should this even be admissible as evidence?

Because the narrative is filled with accurate historical details and reads like an eyewitness account.

Is it an eyewitness account?

Well, no, John is repeating a story told to him.

Told to him by an eyewitness?

Well . . . we really have no way of knowing how many people the story passed through before it came to John and he wrote it down. Although he does claim an eye witness told him some of the details.

Who is that witness?

He doesn’t say.

I see. So how can we even believe the story is in any way true if it comes from unknown sources through an unknown number of intermediaries?

Because there is no way the eyewitnesses to the crime, all those people at the wedding, would have allowed John to lie or make anything up, even after thirty to sixty years, so there is no way the account can be fabricated.

(On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 251)

It does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation

Below is a comparable absurdity set out by Tim back in 2011. For me his punch line is “Our imaginary detective rejected the case because it does not even rise to the level of requiring investigation.” read more »


2014-11-01

McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 2, Ascension of Isaiah

by Neil Godfrey

Related pages:

After addressing the introduction to James McGrath’s initial post reviewing Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus I now discuss his primary focus — the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI). I should be able to say that I will discuss McGrath’s treatment of what Carrier himself writes about the AoI but just as we saw with McGrath’s treatment of Earl Doherty’s mythicist case McGrath gives readers very little idea of what Carrier himself is actually arguing.

One does read at length McGrath’s own viewpoint but without fairly addressing Carrier’s own point the reader has no way of understanding the potential validity of McGrath’s criticisms. No-one reading McGrath’s review would realize, for example, that Carrier includes strong arguments for believing that significant sections of the original text describing the details of Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath (including a one and a half year span of time in the lower firmament) have been lost.

Anyone who has read Carrier’s book also quickly realizes McGrath has read little more than the pages he is discussing.

Carrier introduces the AoI as part of his definition of “the minimal Jesus myth theory”.

For those not aware of the AoI, the AoI is an early Christian composite text:

  1. chapters 1 to 5 describe Isaiah’s altercations with false prophets and culminate in his martyrdom;
  2. the second half (6 to 11) narrates a heavenly vision in which a Beloved Son, one who is predicted to be called Jesus on earth, descends to the lower regions to be crucified, resurrected and exalted again in the highest of the seven heavens;
  3. nested in this second part is another section (11:3-22), in the view of many scholars evidently much later and quite out of character with the style and theme of the surrounding vision, that pictures graphic details of Jesus’ nativity and his crucifixion outside Jerusalem.

That outline is a simplified overview (other verses are also thought to be interpolations and there is some debate about sequences of interpolations) but the general idea can be grasped from this image (also simplified). I have also tried to capture the different viewpoints one is likely to encounter in the various studies on this text:

ascisaiah

1995 was a turning point in the study of the AoI. That year saw two pivotal Italian works that have paved the way for a new consensus:

  • Ascensio Isaiae: Textus, ed. P. Bettiolo, A. Giambelluca Kossova, E. Norelli, and L. Perrone (CCSA, 7; Turnhout, 1995);
  • E. Norelli, Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius (CCSA, 8; Turnhout, 1995).

These were both included in volumes 7 and 8 of the Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum in 1995.

Significance of the AoI

Richard Carrier, like Earl Doherty, argues on the basis of the New Testament epistles that the earliest Christian belief about Jesus was that he was understood to have carried out his works of salvation in the heavenly realm and not on earth. Other texts from the era are drawn in as supporting evidence for this belief. Both Carrier and Doherty see in one of these supporting texts, the AoI, direct evidence external to the epistles for an early Christian belief that Jesus was crucified by demons in a region above the earth.

How Early is the AoI?

read more »


2014-10-31

McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 1, the Introduction

by Neil Godfrey

Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 8.43.31 amJames McGrath has begun to review Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus at the Bible and Interpretation site. The tone of his review makes a striking contrast to his “review” or Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. McGrath explains that he will cover Carrier’s book in several posts. This opening assessment, Did Jesus Die in Outer Space? Evaluating a Key Claim in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, McGrath explains, will

seek to interact with one key element, and a central one at that – a core part of what Carrier calls the “basic myth hypothesis” or the “minimal Jesus myth theory.”

That “key element” is the Ascension of Isaiah.

I will address the details and rationale for McGrath’s choice of Carrier’s pages 36-48 discussing this text in my next post. For now I am only commenting on McGrath’s introduction. This first instalment of McGrath’s review exceeds 3400 words and the introductory paragraphs 500. I single out his introduction here because is an ominous warning that despite McGrath’s new-found professional tone in his criticism of mythicism we are still going to encounter the same failure of logic and explanation of the arguments he claims to be critiquing.

And a great many details are compatible with more than one scenario. This is one reason why Carrier’s claim, that multiple contradictory reconstructions show that there is a methodological problem with mainstream historical methods, is actually disproven by his own book, which acknowledges time and again that certain details are true of the evidence regardless whether there was a historical Jesus or not.[1] If the same historical data can be compatible with more than one interpretation – and all historians know that this is often the case, particularly when it comes to matters of ancient history, when the evidence is often piecemeal – then a plurality of interpretations is bound to be par for the course. . . 

[1] Carrier p.11; see also for instance pp.85-88.

McGrath’s point is simply wrong. Carrier is not contradicting himself or disproving his own point in his book. The fact that certain evidence is decisive for neither historicity or mythicism is not a question of “interpretation” in the sense McGrath uses the word but a question of fact and logic that can and must be agreed upon by both sides. read more »


2014-09-09

Under the Grip of Christianity: New Testament Scholars and the Myth of Transparent Fiction

by Tim Widowfield
Engineer's Bench Vise

Engineer’s Bench Vise Source: Wikipedia

Under the Grip

I just noticed over on the Cakemix that Dr. McGrath is once again comparing Jesus mythicism to creationism. He writes:

Mythicism says: universities are so much under the grip of Christianity that mythicism cannot get a fair hearing.

As you know, the good doctor finds this idea laughable. Implicit in his short post is the notion that evolutionary biologists and biblical scholars are serious, trustworthy, trained professionals. Thus, to insist that NT scholars unfairly reject mythicism is to engage in conspiracy mongering. One of his fans (a guy named Jim) chimes in:

Yeah, great point. That’s why I disagree with the current value of the speed of light. It was arrived at by physicists, who are naturally biased because they had … well … advanced degrees in physics. The speed of light should have been determined by a group who is not biased towards physics, like say zoologists. 🙂 Isn’t it weird how science departments are full of faculty that have science backgrounds, and departments focusing on Christian history attract an interest group like people with Christian backgrounds. … (just being a bit of a jerk here 🙂 )

But Dr. Jimmy tells Mr. Jim:

I don’t think you’re being a jerk. I think such snarcasm is called for.

When considering NT scholars, McGrath, of course, isn’t talking about those teaching at universities with a confessional bias.

There certainly are scholars at religiously-affiliated institutions, and I could certainly understand atheists viewing such figures with suspicion and ignoring what they have to say. But people like Ehrman and myself who teach at secular universities do not need to be placed in the same category, do we? And as for having Christian backgrounds, how many professional scientists are from Christian backgrounds, and how many are at least nominally Christians? I am confident that, if such a background does not invalidate the conclusions of mainstream biology, neither does it invalidate the conclusions of mainstream history.

He’s got one thing right: I would never put Ehrman and McGrath in the same category.
read more »


2014-09-03

Fear in the Heart of a Bible Scholar

by Neil Godfrey
Valerie Tarico

Valerie Tarico (Did she really use the R word in a public article?) Her article originally appeared in AlterNet under a different title.

The Professor of Religion who blogs at Exploringourmatrix is a widely respected source of disinformation about mythicism and mythicists. He won accolades from readers for his recent dressing down of Richard Carrier and this blog has from time to time drawn attention to some of his more remarkable triumphs in exposing just how devious mythicists really are through his manufacture of mythicist claims that can be found nowhere in any mythicist publication or website by any other readers, not even mythicists themselves.

Our favourite Professor has done it again with The Myth of Mythicism’s Newness. In this post the Professor betrays a real fear that word might get around that mythicism is undergoing a “resurgence” today comparable to the popularity it experienced in the early twentieth century. Curiously the article he accuses of spreading this dastardly rumour makes no such comparison at all. But that is the nature of fear. It jumps at shadows and sees monsters in the dark. read more »


2014-08-31

Comparing Paul’s Epistles to Augustine’s Letters

by Tim Widowfield
Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

Saint Augustine of Hippo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cakemix explodes

Reacting to Dr. Richard Carrier’s recent article over at The Bible and Interpretation website, the beloved Doctor of Whoville, James McGrath has offered up yet another dog’s breakfast of red herrings and dead horses. (How’s that for a mixed-metaphor gumbo?)

Carrier will likely respond fully to McGrath’s post, especially the headache-inducing section in which James refers to Carrier’s opening paragraph. McGrath writes:

[H]e seems to think that he has made a profound point in a discussion about 1 Corinthians 15 when he observes that it does not contain the phrase “in Christ before me.” That phrase is one that Paul uses in Romans 16:7. But is Carrier really going to suggest that Paul was “in Christ” while he was persecuting the church, and that the gist of 1 Corinthians 15′s list is not that there were others who were what we would call “Christians” before he was? Indeed, that is the overall impression one gets from things that Paul writes in many places. And Carrier doesn’t seem to really want to dispute that. So what is the point of beginning the piece in that way? (emphasis mine)

I will remind you that McGrath is a real PhD who teaches real students at a real university. He not only completely misunderstands what Carrier has written, but betrays his own proclivity toward “reading with hostile intent.” He does not read in order to learn, but rather to find — and if necessary, manufacture — elements to contradict.

Carrier’s point is simple. In his own words:

[The] consensus [of Jesus’ historicity] is based on false beliefs and assumptions, a lot of them inherited unknowingly from past Christian faith assumptions in reading or discussing the evidence, which even secular scholars failed to check before simply repeating them as certainly the truth.

Getting it wrong again

McGrath misrepresented Carrier’s story of an NT scholar (whom we recognize as Mark Goodacre) who actually thought the text of 1 Cor. 15:1-8 says that Paul received his gospel “from those who were in Christ before him.” 

In a blog post from 20 December 2012, Carrier wrote:

This was even a key part of Goodacre’s argument that Paul knew the people who knew Jesus, and that he got his gospel from them. In fact, Paul insists up and down exactly the opposite . . .

The question is not “Was Paul ‘in Christ’ while persecuting the church?” nor “Were there people ‘in Christ’ before Paul?” but “Did Paul receive his gospel from those who were ‘in Christ’ before him?”

Predictably, McGrath cavils about Carrier’s “splitting hairs,” as if the entire point of the argument centered on whether Goodacre and other scholars are “imprecise or even wrong about their wording or some other minor detail.” I’m so tired of James’ shtick at this point that I no longer care whether he has reading comprehension problems or self-deception issues. His utter incompetence is wearing me down.

Augustine’s Letters

As I said, I expect Carrier will respond more fully to McGrath’s post, including the obligatory hints of anti-Semitism whenever someone dares mention non-Jewish dying and rising gods. And I’m hoping Richard will tackle that old canard about not being allowed to quote a scholar who’s wrong on some points, but right on others.

For this post, however, I wish instead to focus on the notion that we can gain some insights about Paul’s notorious silence by comparing his epistles to Augustine’s letters. McGrath writes:

read more »


2014-08-30

The Challenge for Pliny the Elder Mythicists

by Neil Godfrey
Pliny the Elder: an imaginative 19th Century p...

Pliny the Elder: an imaginative 19th Century portrait. No contemporary depiction of Pliny has survived. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Professor of Religion, the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, has given his online students a hearty guffaw with the following:

It would be an interesting thought experiment to see whether there is any epistolary reference by Pliny the younger to his uncle that a determined “Pliny the elder mythicist” could not interpret as referring to events that transpired in the celestial rather than terrestrial realm. (August 29 2014)

Apparently to assist his online class with this exercise Professor McGrath linked to the following reference in Pliny’s letter collection:

5. VIII. — To Titinius Capito

Again, there is a precedent in my own family which impels me towards writing history. My uncle, who was also my father by adoption, was a historian  

I guess such a brief reference, and one that spoke of adoption rather than a “natural” paternity, might really be compared with some references by Paul to Jesus.

For the benefit of those who would like to undertake the same exercise at a more advanced level, however, here are the remaining references Pliny the Younger made to his uncle in his surviving letters.

(I’m sure the Professor was pedagogically sound in not complicating the exercise for his typical online audience with such mass of detail.) read more »


2014-06-25

Jesus and the Relationship Between Sin and Disease

by Tim Widowfield
Nicolas Poussin, The Plague of Ashdod.

Nicolas Poussin, The Plague of Ashdod. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spiteful, jealous, and full of love

The God of the Old Testament had a habit of making people sick, often as a form of punishment. My favorite is the story of the poor Philistines who captured the Ark of the Covenant. In 1 Samuel 5:6, we read:

Now the hand of the LORD was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He ravaged them and smote them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territories. (NASB)

The word “tumors” is a nice way of saying hemorrhoids, or, as the KJV translators put it, emerods. In other words, God gave them a wicked case of the piles. Eventually, the populations of Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron wouldn’t sit still for it any longer, and returned the Ark to the Israelites.

More deadly, of course, were the diseases God inflicted upon the Egyptians during the period of bondage. But in the promised land, the Israelites would be safe. In Deuteronomy, he promised to keep his chosen people free of disease.

The LORD will keep you free from every disease. He will not inflict on you the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt, but he will inflict them on all who hate you. (Deut. 7:15, NIV)

So God has complete control over who gets sick and who stays well. What happens if his beloved people stray from the straight and narrow path?

read more »


2014-05-17

Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?

by Neil Godfrey
Professor

Some professors make a false equation between the humanities/social sciences on the one hand and hard sciences/mathematics on the other and imply both are equally incomprehensible to the general public.

Once again we see a representative of the elite coterie of theologians pouring scorn on the ability of mere lay people to make any valid assessment of their highly learned and scholarly arguments.

Carrier suggests that laypeople can and should evaluate the arguments of experts, even with respect to the consensus. That seems to me strikingly odd – if laypeople who do not have the extensive knowledge professional scholars do can normally (and not just in exceptional rare cases) evaluate matters in that domain, then surely that implies that one doesn’t need the extensive knowledge of data experts have in order to draw conclusions. But anyone who has studied a subject even as an undergraduate, and has had what they thought was a brilliant insight, only to discover through grad school that their idea was neither new nor brilliant, will probably protest that Carrier is wrong. (Professor James McGrath, Galileo was Wrong, 8th May 2014, my emphasis)

Of course the first thing one notes here is the mischievous framing of the question. Our theologian friend makes it sound as if what is open to challenge are the complex details of “data”, the facts, let’s say the nuances of Greek, Syriac and Aramaic texts, and so forth, by only partially informed amateurs and whether they should be so flippant on a “normal” every-day basis.

Of course that is not what the issue is at all. In matters of historical inquiry there is no argument or data that is so complex that it cannot be explained simply and understood by the average anybody. History is not advanced mathematics or quantum physics. If theologians have good arguments for the historical existence of Jesus then there is no reason they cannot be presented in a way that is comprehensible to all.

To this extent the Professor is being a little misleading when he implies that the views of theologians (and let’s add historians here, too) and scientists deserve equally unquestioning acceptance by the public. A historian can explain to me clearly in a way I can understand the reasons, the evidence, for his or her claims and I can understand the arguments of other historians who disagree. I cannot do the same with scholars who debate questions in mathematics or complex physics and the origins of the universe. I have forgotten too much of the science I once learned to pretend I can even fully understand or evaluate the research of climate scientists.

Unfortunately McGrath’s post fails to grasp this basic point. In his failure to grasp the fact that there really is a vast gulf between the humanities/social sciences on the one hand and the hard sciences/mathematics on the other when it comes to the potential for public understanding, he probably fails to realize how patronizing his stance really is.

That is, his argument takes a turn that sets up an ignorant elitist gulf between academics generally and a riff-raff public.

(Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that academics are not superior to others at some things. There would be real problems if they weren’t. Universities can truly be said to contain more of the most intelligent members of society than other institutions. But anyone who works among academics, whether as an academic or support staff, also knows that a few of them truly are the most arrogant, insufferable snobs. I am sure Professor McGrath is not one of those, but he does unfortunately express a snobbish — certainly a breathtakingly thoughtless — argument in his post.)

Before we turn our attention to the elephant in the room, maybe I could use my own way of evaluating scholarly arguments to make the point that a lay amateur really can make valid evaluations of scholarly arguments. If Professor McGrath or anyone else can find serious error and a propensity for misjudgment in how I go about assessing scholarly claims I would love to be told. I have been seriously wrong about things before so I have tried to hone my methods of learning to try to be less wrong now.

read more »


2014-03-26

Some Thoughts on the Nature of the Evidence and the Historicity of Jesus

by Tim Widowfield

You have the right to remain silent

Over on The Bible and Interpretation web site, James McGrath once again takes up his jousting lance to do battle against the big, bad mythicists. He raises an interesting point:

If we were to combine a number of recent and not-so-recent proposals related to Jesus, we could depict him as a gay hermaphrodite mamzer, conceived when his mother was raped by a Roman soldier, who grew up to pursue multiple vocations as a failed messiah, a failed prophet, a magician, and/or a mediocre teacher of Stoic ethics. From the perspective of traditional Christian dogma, one imagines that for Jesus never to have existed would be slightly easier to stomach (or at least, no more difficult) than some of the claims made by those who are convinced that he was a historical figure, and propose interpretations of the historical evidence which disagree with and even undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety. (emphasis mine)

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here’s the question: Is a mythical Jesus more palatable than a historical reconstruction that imagines Jesus as something other than the Son of God and savior of the world? To answer that question, we might consider the difference between descriptions of an object versus the question of its existence. Emanuel Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument comes immediately to mind. Kant claimed existence is not a predicate, but is categorically different from other properties.

You may not agree with Kant, but more practical considerations come to mind. The historicity of Jesus, whether argued for or merely presumed, must precede the discussion of who or what Jesus was. It necessarily forms the foundation of the ensuing arguments. If we cannot demonstrate that Jesus probably existed, all subsequent arguments are moot. Hence, Christians may intensely dislike reconstructions of Jesus that would tend to “undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety,” but I think they would dislike even more the idea that the evidence calls into question his very existence as a historical figure.

A story problem

And so, here we are again. All roads lead back to the question of the nature of the evidence. If you will indulge me for a minute or two, I’d like to present a parable.

read more »