2011-06-30

The worst historical Jesus “argument” of all

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by Neil Godfrey

Bart Ehrman says ‘If you want to make up a story about the Messiah, will you make up the story that he got squashed by the enemy and got crucified, the lowest form of execution in the empire? No! If you’re going to make up a story about the Messiah, you’d make up that he actually overthrew the Romans and he’s the King in Jerusalem now…Why didn’t [early Christians] make up that story? Because everybody knew Jesus was crucified…this is why Christians had the hardest time convincing people that Jesus was the Messiah.’

It must be true because nobody would make it up….. (Cited from a recent Carr comment)

What pathetic drivel is capable of coming from the pens of some biblical scholars! This is a rhetorical question that is advanced as a substitute for an argument. There is no argument. The evidence actually belies the very assumptions upon which the rhetorical question is grounded. Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s advice for his own students needs to be fed into the screen savers and wallpapers of the computers of every biblical scholar inclined to avoid intellectual rigour and honesty by regurgitating this specious challenge fit only for childish ‘gotcha’ word games. The level of reasoning is what one would expect from the grab-bag of tract-FAQs handed out by door-to-door preachers. Dennett wrote of argument by means of rhetorical question:

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments.

Of course the scholars who advance this rhetorical question — presumably because they are at some level attempting to hide or deny to themselves the fact that they have no substantial evidence at all on which to base their entire historical Jesus inquiries — know very well all about the popularity of paradoxes, ironic reversals, the overturning of expectations in the philosophical, religious and popular literary thought of the day.

Even in Jewish Second Temple thought there were those who believed that the blood of a mortal martyr could atone for the sins of the Jewish nation, that God could and did work victory through weakness and worldly loss.

But the rhetorical question also completely mis-states the nature of the Gospel story. The Gospel story is NOT about a loser-messiah as the question implies. It is about a classic victory of even greater magnitude than is visible to most onlookers. It is the victory imagined by the losers — ah hah — they really won but in secret. In heaven. Spiritually. And though the world does not yet see that Satan has been defeated, the fact that this demon world has been conquered in some sense will be demonstrated in a future apocalyptic day of vengeance, or simply when they all burn in hell.

To suggest that such a messiah concept was somehow supposed to be incomprehensible and impossible to imagine mythically is to walk intellectually naked while pretending to be garlanded with roses of rationality.

I would turn the rhetorical question around and say:

If you want to make up a story about the Messiah, will you make up the story that he smashed the Romans even though in real life everyone knew it was the Romans who smashed them? No! If you’re going to make up a story about the Messiah, you’d make up that he actually overthrew the heavenly powers greater than the Romans, and by extension the Romans in the day of judgment to come. You’d draw on the common wisdom of the day that the real conquerors, those greater than worldly conquerors, are those who conquer themselves by denying their fleshly impulses and vain thought. You’d make your messiah greater than the earthly kingdom-conquering Davidic messiah.… Why did early Christians make up that story? Because many knew it was a story that a defeated and conquered people could relate to, and feel defiantly proud of. Many others saw it for what it was: a cop-out for losers. But over time and for reasons well understood and in the record, it became the dominant narrative.

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17 thoughts on “The worst historical Jesus “argument” of all”

  1. You are right that claiming Jesus had defeated the Romans would be a hard sell in about 70 CE. When I first heard Ehrman say this, I said, “What?”

    That said, historically, secret “spiritual” victories are resorted to predominately by disappointed sects. The weight of probability has to go to the idea that failure and execution was a fact that early Christians had to explain away, hence the rationalizations. Although I find the mythicist arguments Personally I retain a nugget of agnosticism on the whole question.

    1. Yes, the failure and executions experienced in the Jewish Wars between 67 and 135 CE that resulted in the banishment of the Jews from their homeland. It strikes me this is a much more salient fact than any dead Galilean peasant.

    2. Maybe the alternatives to balance are these —

      1. Developing a construct of a Divine Messiah who conquers more than human kingdoms;
      or
      2. Turning a failed mortal messiah into a divinity responsibe for even the creation of the world itself.

  2. “No! If you’re going to make up a story about the Messiah, you’d make up that he actually overthrew the Romans and he’s the King in Jerusalem now…”

    What? How is that supposed to work? I can just imagine it: “Paul, I actually was in Jerusalem last week, and everybody there seems to think that a Roman prefect called Pilate runs the place!” 😛

    1. Who knows…maybe Jesus dies defeat the Romans and rule from Jerusalem. Why else would the Romans come back in 70 to destroy the temple? He must have been reigning as king in there. Isn’t there a story in Josephus that says when they destroyed the temple a man dressed like a king came out of a hole and ran away….but got caught and crucified. There you go—both stories in one!!!!! Badabangbadaboom!!!!

      1. I heard on good authority, that Jesus and Nero were one and the same person. The roman world back then really did believe in the return of the anti Christ mentioned in Revelation. The messianic Nero who ruled the world is of course the prototype for the man we now know as Jesus. If you translate Nero into 666 and multiply by ‘e’ one arrives at Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is part of the transformation of Nero into a god.

        1. I’m suspicious of unnamed authorities. I’ve never heard of anyone thinking they were the same person. Nero was a very popular emperor, especially in the eastern part of the empire, and after his death there were rumours that he was not really dead and that he would return at the head of an army to overthrow his enemies and restore his rule. I know of no reason to identify him with Jesus.

  3. Hi, Neil,

    Philosopher Jay, on FRDB, recently made reference to this quote:

    Pagan Christs; John M. Robertson, [1911]

    http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/cv/pch/pch41.htm

    “The scourging and crucifixion of Antigonus, again, must have made a profound impression on the Jews; 2 and it is a historic fact that the similar slaying of the last of the Incas was kept in memory for the Peruvians by a drama annually acted. 3 It may be that the superscription “This is the King of the Jews,” and even the detail of scourging, 4 came proximately from the story of Antigonus”.

    (I posted the reference after Stephan Carr’s post on FRDB)

    The point is that the Jews had their crucified, scourged (and beheaded) Christ figure in 37 b.c. (70 years back from the last date given for the JC crucifixion story in 33 ce.) The historical model was already there for those who cared to take things further re any spiritual developments. The Hasmoneans lost their last King and High Priest, Antigonus, in 37 b.c. There is plenty in that historical context that could have provided a historical spark for rethinking the way forward. And yes, there is no need to included all Jews in this – it’s the Hasmoneans that had reason to re-consider their position and how they were going to move forward. Forward under the nose of Rome Forward with circumspection etc. And from Alexandria not Jerusalem or Galilee.

    And, Neil, if the ahistoricsts/mythicsts are going to move forward, it is history that they have to accommodate in their re-constructions of early christian history. No, of course not, Antigonus is not the gospel JC – but his crucifixion and flogging in 37 b.c. could well be the model for the crucifixion part of the JC storyline. (ie JC being a composite figure)

    Very interesting that Robertson made this observation 100 years ago…..;-)

  4. This also flies directly in the face of an argument that Richard Carrier makes regularly that has not been refuted by Ehrman or any other critical scholar:

    There are many examples and I give several where completely false things that made great difficulties for religious people were invented none the less. We know they’re invented. One of them is the castration of Attis. There’s this Attis cult, there’s this whole religion going on around the time of Christianity, it originates before Christianity.

    It spreads through Rome like 100 BC at least, so it’s all over the place. In this there’s the myth that Attis kills… this is a God, the God Attis. Son of a God in fact even, kills himself by cutting off his balls. [laughter] In honor of this, his priests cut off their balls. [laughter]

    Now in Roman culture this kind of emasculation is one of the most embarrassing insulting things that you do. It totally dehumanizes you and this whole sort of masculine, macho culture is like that. That’s the worst thing you could do and why on earth would you ever worship a eunuch as your savior?

    That’s just disgusting and foul and contrary to all nature. A lot of Romans make this argument. It’s just ridiculous and absurd. It’s like Seneca has a line… If it wasn’t for the vast number of the mad throng you would be certain they were crazy, right?

    It’s the only argument you have for them being sane is that there’s so many of them. Other than that there’s no argument really. So, clearly there was no son of God Attis who cut off his balls. That’s clearly a myth, it’s completely made up.

    1. My first impulse is not to bother even responding to such silly non-arguments that biblical scholars like Ehrman and McGrath and others come out with. But then I remember that the whole point of their claims is to perpetuate the status quo, always claiming the myth that mythicist objections have long been dealt with, can continue to be fielded, abd while all the time simply avoiding them altogether.

      1. Wells is important here, and his points as follows were on the JM list over the last few days regarding Moses, Jesus, and William Tell:

        (1) some of the deeds alleged of them had been told of previous heroes;
        (2) there are discernible motives for the origin and growth of the stories;
        (3) the silence of the earliest documents has been remedied by interpolations and forgeries;
        (4) although there is no testimony contemporary with the time of the hero’s supposed existence, references which assume his achievements become legion later, even hundreds of years later;
        (5) the later documents give more precise details (for instance, exact names and dates) than the earlier; and finally
        (6) the evidence of scholars has been fiercely resisted by parties committed to the traditional view.

        This seems to me to be the primary crux of the mythicist case. This is what Ehrman, McGrath et. al. need to address when discussing the case.

  5. Yeah, I saw Bart make this argument on video. It struck me as being a bit bizarre. Another problem I have with Bart’s mindset is that he seems to take the view that there is an “authentic” Gospel of Mark. Maybe no such thing ever existed. Maybe there were always multiple versions of a proto-Mark floating around and eventually they were collated into book called Mark. Or there were multiple collations…etc

    I was interested in what he would give as the best reason for dismissing the mythicist position. The weakness of his argument convinced me that a real reason for dismissing christ as myth is either very difficult to find, or simply nonexistent.

    Bart, if you are out there, you gotta do better than this bro.

  6. In trying to point out the worst argument, you advance to runner up.

    The Behavior of Christ’followers and the subsequent spread of the diabolical message to love the Romans is akin to a few Guatemalans rowing up to America and claiming “Lupe” rose from the dead and we eventually tore down our whole system on the word of those we saw as the peasants of the world. In Christs’ day, I’d think we’d all agree that Romans worshiping a Jew is one of the most fascinating occurrences in human history And the Christians controlled the flow of information all thru the centuries. Virtually ever record was transcribed and translated by scribes and monks. They could have said anything they wanted. They could’ve easily changed many details of Roman and European history but didnt. They added no fake mentions of Jesus. They stood by what happened.

    What atheists want to do is pretend we just dig up the bible yesterday instead of objectively seeking to comprehend how inexplicable it is that Greeks, Romans, and eventually everyone else worshipped a poor subject of what they considered a detested inferior race. This is not a Roman cheered by Rome or an Arab cheered by Arabs. Cultural religions are obvious and predictable. To deny that this is the most astonishing event in history is to be so biased as to be essentially blind.

    But who consents to their own doom? If a person is never going to acknowledge the universe was created so you can seek God and find Him simply by just sincerely asking Him if Christ was who he said he was, then that person is never going to honestly look at the situation without the fear that any ground he gives is ground surrendered to his own ultimate demise. This topic contains pathological bias. More bias than is possible because of the fear of being wrong.

    1. My post is not an attack on Christianity or Jesus or the Bible in any way, shape or form. I am not interested in attacking or undermining people’s faith here. The post is a criticism of very poor scholarship, the deplorable ignorance among a surprising number of theologians of some fairly basic knowledge outside their own specialist areas, and the apparent inability of too many biblical scholars to avoid the most common informal fallacies of logic. All of these failings appear to have a common cause: an interest in rationalizing the fundamentals of their beliefs and confusing their work with genuine scholarship.

      You might say my argument is with the scribes and Pharisees, not with Jesus.

    2. @Dr. Evans…at the risk of being admonished by Neil or Tim for butting into a discussion
      which is not directed at me, I want to reply to your comment.

      “…subsequent spread of the diabolical message to love the Romans…”

      -If you are using “love” in regards to a relationship between divine beings and lesser mortals,
      I think Greco-Roman culture offers mythology which is rich enough that it does not require
      any amendment by another culture. Just reading Suetonius, we might come away thinking
      that the Romans were bloodthirsty lizards, but the idea that pre-Nicene era Christian
      missionaries offered a radically new vision of psychological bonding and emotional
      reciprocation, is not in accordance with the condemnation allegedly threatened by Jesus
      in Mark 16:16, as well as other warnings about eternal destination for non-believers.

      “…we’d all agree that Romans worshiping a Jew is one of the most fascinating occurrences
      in human history…”

      -In my fairly informed opinion, “Romans” and “Jews” are not firmly integrated cultural entities
      which can be neatly arranged into a virtually static paradigm; pre-Nicene Romans were not
      worshiping a “Jew”, but a myth icon derived from supposed apostolic tradition which served
      as a foggy basis for various proto-orthodox, or explicitly orthodox doctrines.

      From the alleged stories about Christian origins in the NT, to the 2nd Nicene council, is a
      timeline which shows a set of basic religious interpretations accumulating information
      from all cardinal directions, re-interpreted, distorted, misunderstood, and even re-cast, to
      an eventual climax in the enthronement of “Jesus Christ” as eternal divine emperor, not a
      long dead, common rebel from a far away imperial district.

      “Virtually ever record was transcribed and translated by scribes and monks. They could have
      said anything they wanted.”

      -Transcription and translation are never perfect, the Johannine “comma” is one example of how
      an apparent mistake creates issues for those who want to promote the apostolic witness,
      presented through the NT, as a divinely inspired project. We do not have explicit evidence of
      large scale textual manipulation for the purpose of girding the loins of orthodoxy, but in the
      modern age, we know how the human mind can unconsciously, and gradually, manipulate data,
      sources, and text.

      Yes, Christians “did control the flow of information” and that may be a huge flaw in apologetics.

      -Although a person from antiquity was capable of logic, the power of the state as an instrument
      of divine will inculcated ideology into the brain, wiring it into primal drives about survival. Offense
      towards the state, as divine instrument of control, might make an ancient person literally soil
      their undergarments. In this way, bias becomes so ingrained, that “information flow” can roll on
      through time without much opposition from neutral evaluation by logicians.

      Independent corroborating evidence is essential to confirmation of historical claims. If a company
      is under investigation by law enforcement, and all they present are in house audits as a defense,
      then they are wrong in thinking investigators are just going to accept that with wink and a nod.

      “What atheists want to do is pretend we just dig up the bible yesterday instead of objectively
      seeking to comprehend how inexplicable it is that Greeks, Romans, and eventually everyone else
      worshipped a poor subject of what they considered a detested inferior race. This is not a Roman
      cheered by Rome or an Arab cheered by Arabs. Cultural religions are obvious and predictable. To
      deny that this is the most astonishing event in history is to be so biased as to be essentially blind”.

      -Atheists are also not a firmly integrated entity which can be analyzed like a non-dynamic system.

      As I said before, imperial citizens and their slaves did not worship a common Jewish rebel, or any
      other “Jesus” which aligns with the current minimal facts model. By 325 ad, and even earlier, no
      one was venerating a mortal being. Framing the alleged events of “the Passion” as well as actions
      from the gospels/ NT as history, let alone “astonishing”, is forgetting that there is no corroborating
      evidence for most of the 1st century for 99.9 percent of those texts.

      So, if we have no reports from a contemporary journalist, hostile, independent, or neutral, then we
      are justified in refusing sectarian truth claims as a source for our spiritual life.

      Just because Josephus loosely mentions a “Jesus” and a “Christ”, “John the Baptist” and “James”,
      does not mean the Gospels, or any part of the NT should be respected as a pristine resource for
      apologetic arguments. There are weak attempts to support a chain of custody from the Apostle’s
      through Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, Papias and onwards through Justin Martyr to Eusebius, but
      all of that “apostolic tradition” is organizational propaganda, not the basis for strong apologetics.

      You seem to frame antiquitous cultures as starkly compartmentalized, but syncretic exchange of
      ideas has shown itself as an important constant in world history. We do not have enough facts
      about the past to know if religions from antiquity were/are “obvious and predictable”. We do know
      from the findings of archeologists, anthropologists, and other researchers into the past, that
      cultures are not static entities which bounce off each other; they merge, they integrate.

      Interdependency is a fundamental principle of phenomena, and all our knowledge has to be sifted
      through it.

      “But who consents to their own doom? If a person is never going to acknowledge the universe was
      created so you can seek God and find Him simply by just sincerely asking Him if Christ was who he
      said he was, then that person is never going to honestly look at the situation without the fear that
      any ground he gives is ground surrendered to his own ultimate demise. This topic contains
      pathological bias. More bias than is possible because of the fear of being wrong.”

      -I think Noam Chomsky gave an excellent argument about “consenting to doom” in the documentary
      called: “Manufacturing Consent”.

      As a person with 1200 years of Christian ancestry, and a history of spiritual association with credal
      formulas and doctrinal statements, not to mention raw faith born from authentic desire, I find your
      apparent “altar call” to be condescending in consideration of what Neil and Tim have said about their
      own history in Christianity.

      My former prayer life was serious, humble conversation with the deity of my ancestors, and what I
      thought to be the presence of the Godhead via the Holy Spirit. Now that I see how confirmation
      bias is so embedded in the believer’s mind, and acts to falsely confirm the effects of prayer, I am
      able to think clearly about spirituality, theology, and religious doctrines; I am not afraid of eternal
      agony, or any other type of divine retribution.

      There is no monolithic “atheist” position which can support organized or systemic bias.

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