All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.
The Ambiguity and Difficulty of the Evidence
Tim O’Neill in his initial review:
No-one except a fundamentalist apologist would pretend that the evidence about Jesus is not ambiguous and often difficult to interpret with any certainty, and that includes the evidence for his existence. This, of course, merely means the idea he did not exist is simply valid, not that it’s true. (O’Neill 2011)
Dave Fitgerald’s response:
So much of what I argue should not sound controversial. O’Neill admits as much when he dismisses Myth No. 1 (“The idea that Jesus was a myth is ridiculous!”) as “not really controversial” and that: “After all, no-one except a fundamentalist apologist would pretend that the evidence about Jesus is not ambiguous and often difficult to interpret with any certainty, and that includes the evidence for his existence.” He and I are in almost in perfect agreement here. (Fitzgerald, 2012)
In the following series of posts it might be worth keeping this little exchange in view.
Which one of the debaters does in reality concede that any point relating to the historical existence of Jesus might indeed by “ambiguous” or “difficult to interpret with any certainty”.
In the following post we will see TO accuse DF of framing the debate in a black and white manner, but readers should note the ensuing exchange and decide which of the contestants is taking a dogmatic stance and denying any possibility of ambiguity or “uncertain interpretation” in the evidence under discussion.
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9 thoughts on “O’Neill-Fitzgerald Christ-Myth Debate; #2, Point of Agreement”
One of the things I find most frustrating in trying to judge the strength of the case for mythicism is how poorly the other side gets argued. People who claim to understand how problematic the sources routinely claim unjustifiable degrees of certainty about their conclusions.
One of the things I find most frustrating in trying to judge the strength of the case for mythicism is how poorly the other side gets argued.
This is actually what led me from my initial position of being skeptical towards a mythic origin for Christ to being skeptical towards a historical Christ figure. First there was just how appallingly bad the folks who make the historical Jesus case are at arguing, but then there was the sudden realization that they were making appallingly bad arguments because they had no evidence, and when you have no evidence to pound you have to resort to pounding the table.
Every Historical Jesus apologist that comes along pounds the same table without presenting any evidence. Every time. After a while you start to think you’re arguing with creationists because you keep saying “I’m open to your point of view, if you’ll show me your evidence” and they retort back that the evidence is obvious and you’re an idiot if you don’t see it.
I definitely moved from “obviously Jesus was at least based on a historic figure” to “there’s a strong case to be made that the figure of Jesus was constructed via a process of euhemerism for a lot of possibly reasons by Christians relatively early on in the Church’s history”, and that move has been almost entirely based on responses that Neil sees here and reading things from respected scholars like Bart Ehrman – whose historical Jesus book made me wonder just how bad the evidence must be, because the case that Ehrman puts forth in that book is pretty terrible. I’m not sure I’d believe in a historical Joseph Smith if the only evidence we had for him were like what Ehrman puts into his book.
I’m a pretty fair chess player and one of the things I’ve learned is that it is easy to misjudge the strength of your moves against a weak opponent. In post-game analysis, I often find that my moves were not as brilliant as I thought they were when I played them. It was just that my opponents were not strong enough to find the flaws in my thinking.
I would like to see an argument for historicity from someone who understands that a fact can be relevant even if it’s not dispositive and who understands that you cannot have greater certainty about a conclusion than you have about a premise.
I’m particularly tired of discussions about the Jesus passages in Josephus and Tacitus. How many gallons of ink have been spilled over these two historians’ brief paragraphs about what Christians believed?
It’s almost as if they’re doing it to distract us.
If there is a good argument for historicity, I suspect it will lie in some broadly observable phenomenon, such as the way that Jesus gets more supernatural with successive gospels. Perhaps this might support an argument for extrapolating back to a purely human original.
One question that occurred to me while reading Galatians was why Paul didn’t didn’t just break away from the apostles in Jerusalem given the fact that he thought so little of them and he seemed to be doing fine on his own. Peter seems to have some clout which Paul never really explains. Does the fact that the various factions held together as well as they did make more sense with Peter knowing a historical Jesus rather than everyone simply experiencing a visionary Christ?
I don’t know whether there is anything in these arguments and I certainly don’t have the expertise to analyse them, but I can imagine finding such an argument persuasive. Of course, I am never going to see it made by the kind of historicist who thinks the question is settled by the fact that Paul met Jesus’ biological brother.
For what it’s worth in this context, Aviezer Tucker, Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography, has a chapter discussing the Bayesian theorem as a formal way of describing what historians do when evaluating evidence in terms of hypotheses:
Tucker is quite independent from Carrier, and I think Carrier even said he wished he had known of Tucker’s book when writing his own.
Well speaking of James that Paul (or whoever wrote Galatians) identifies as “the brother of the Lord,” he is also identified by the same writer as one of the Three Pillars of the Church along with John and Cephas / Peter. Now with an historical Jesus, one would think that the Three Pillars mentioned in Galatians were one and the same with the inner circle of the three disciples closest to Jesus according to the Synoptic Gospels: Peter, James and John — the latter two being sons of Zebedee. Clearly, if James mentioned by Paul was the brother of Jesus then to me, somebody dropped the ball and Mark, Matthew and Luke never heard of it. Luke goes so far as to have James son of Zebedee dispatched by the Jews in Acts 12, leaving James the Lesser (=son of Alphaeus) and the unidentified brothers of Jesus. Worse, the James who is the head of or a higher-up in the Jerusalem Church, Luke does NOT identify as the brother of Jesus!
it seems, from my modest point of view, that O’Neill did many mistakes…
good end of year
It is going to take me awhile to sort through that, although it does not surprise me that there is a lot more to it than O’Neil acknowledges.