Dr Sarah of FreethoughtBlogs.com Geeky Humanist has posted two interesting posts in favour of the historicity of Jesus. It makes a wonderful change to read arguments on this topic that are expressed in a civil and calmly reasoned tone. Her first post is Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: an argument in favour of the latter; her more recent one, Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: a reply to R. G. Price. This post gives my take on her earlier essay. (All formatting and bolding in Dr Sarah’s comments is my own.)
If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers.
If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as an actual person who walked the face of the earth and did normal (as well as miraculous) things.
Dr Sarah finds the first option the more simple one.
My first thought is that the two options are embedded in faulty, or at least questionable, assumptions. If the gospel figure of Jesus did indeed reflect the life of an ordinary person then the two horns of the dilemma are both a quandary. If, on the other hand, we pause to reflect that the earliest gospel that we believe to have been written was the Gospel of Mark, then we have quite different options. That’s because in the Gospel of Mark the Jesus figure is most unlike any ordinary human figure in ancient (or modern) literature. He is a human, of course, with brothers and sisters and a mother, and he eats and drinks. But he is unlike any other figure in works that we know to be ancient biographies or histories. He is presented to us “cold”, that is, without us having any knowledge of who the biographer is or why he is even writing about him. Without any explanation of how the author came to know anything about his life, he is depicted as engaging in conversations and activities with spirit beings both in heaven and on earth. He calls and mere mortals drop all their livelihoods in a moment and obey. He reads peoples minds and hearts. He exercises God’s prerogative to forgive sins and rules the physical elements. He talks in mysteries so none can understand, and though he explains all his mysterious messages to his disciples, even they don’t truly believe. Even his disciples are far from genuine human beings: they walk as if mesmerized into obedience to follow him at his call; they are unrealistically stupid in not recognizing his power despite seeing it demonstrated time and again; they, along with the crowds in the narrative, come and go as the author needs them, not as per any realistic plot device. In other words, Jesus is depicted in the earliest gospel as a figure of a human but certainly something trans-human. The story-line is absurd — quite against the grain of the way real people really are and how real people really respond — if read “realistically”. But if read a ciphers, or symbols, or personifications, or mouthpieces for some particular set of beliefs and doctrines, if read as a parable or symbolically, the story makes perfect sense.
We have evidence to encourage us in our view that this earliest gospel’s Jesus and disciples (and even his enemies and other persons that appear in the narrative) are far from realistic or natural. That evidence lies in the way that the subsequent evangelists (“Matthew” and “Luke” — even “John”, some would argue) changed Mark’s Jesus and disciples into somewhat more realistic figures. (“John”, on the other hand, went in the other direction and made him even less human.) “Luke” even reduces Jesus to a martyr in the tradition of the Maccabees.
With that background, the two horns of the dilemma are modified somewhat:
- If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers.
- If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as a parabolic or allegorical type of person who walked the face of the earth conversing with humans and spirits and did many inexplicable things and spoke in ways that his hearers did not understand.
Or maybe I should make the dilemma a triceratops with a third horn:
- If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how two of the three canonical evangelists who followed their earliest predecessor “corrected” his account and made him and his followers a little more realistically human.
Okay, you might think I’m playing with that second option a bit too loosely. But how else might it be worded given what we know about the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus and characters generally?
Dr Sarah proceeds to set out her reasons for embracing the historicity of Jesus in five dot points. I address each one.
- We have four official accounts portraying Jesus as a real person, which have been established as having been written within a century (the earliest probably within a few decades) of the events alleged in them.
Again, we see traditional historicist assumptions doing their work in the way the point is presented. We do have four canonical accounts but a number of scholars would not want to limit their sources to those four. Recall the Jesus Seminar with its inclusion of the Gospel of Thomas as an arguably early document. The narrative behind the Gospel of Peter has also been argued as a very early source, again in existence before our canonical works were recognized as such (i.e. as “canon”). And many critical scholars further are of the conviction that our canonical forms of the four gospels are far from how they appeared when first composed.
Secondly, not all critical scholars are convinced that all the canonical gospels were written within a century of the alleged life of Jesus. On this blog we have considered several strong arguments for our canonical form of Luke not coming together until the mid or even later second century as a response to the Marcionite heresy.
Finally, the view that the canonical gospels were all completed within a century of the supposed life of Jesus does not cohere with the norms of scholarly dating of documents in other fields of study. I have shared the explanation of how “scientific dating” works in other posts, in particular in the first that appears on this page.
Finally finally, if we want to work within the methods of mainstream historians, including classicists or ancient historians, then we will not accept as reliable any source that is beyond the time any eyewitnesses could be claimed as appropriate sources. No, I am not saying that all works written beyond the lifespan of any witnesses are unreliable. No. I am saying that the normal method of the best historians in history departments is to look for sources that can claim some reasonable connection with eyewitness or contemporary accounts. A late source that informs historians of the sources it uses, and gives some information about the author so that readers can have some idea of how reliable he or she potentially is, is useful as a historical source. But an anonymous source that cannot be dated with any reasonable certainty and that does not inform readers of its agenda or sources drawn upon for its narrative, and even appears to be a re-write of other stories known to be “fiction”, — then, well, I think you can get the point.
- These accounts include quite a few things which were clearly quite awkward for their authors.
- Jesus was supposed to have been the Messiah – despite this being a Jewish title that referred to someone who would rule over the country in an era of peace and prosperity, which Jesus clearly hadn’t done.
- He apparently came from Nazareth – even though this was another big problem for his followers’ claims that he was the Messiah, requiring two of the gospel authors to make up complicated and contradictory accounts about how, despite having grown up in Nazareth, he had actually been born in Bethlehem.
- He was executed by the Romans for sedition – which would have made the cult widely unpopular and could have got them into real trouble (if you read the gospel accounts, you can see the writers coming out with some wildly implausible stuff intended to paint a picture of Pilate as really innocent in the matter and the Jews really being the ones to blame for the whole thing).
- And apparently, despite the gospels painting a very anti-Pharisaic picture, his teachings as portrayed were in fact rather typically Pharisaian (Maccoby, Revolution in Judea and The Mythmaker).
- So… these things all got included, and we need to ask why.
Again, we see historicist assumptions at work. No, there is no prima facie reason to think that any author will write something that is seriously personally embarrassing. We know that Matthew, Luke (and John) did not like some things they read in Mark — we might say they felt embarrassed by his accounts — so they simply ignored or changed those details. There is no reason to assume that the earliest evangelist could not have done the same.
The view that any of those points listed by Dr Sarah were “embarrassing” depends entirely upon the assumption that the earliest gospel authors shared the same theological presuppositions as the scholars of today who say they would have been embarrassing. I will keep this post at manageable length and not cover at this point all the critical scholarship that is at hand, but simply link to some related posts that does address some of the NT scholarship:
- On Jesus being a “failed messiah”, see Novenson: Christ among Messiahs
- On Jesus being from Nazareth and that being an embarrassment, see Questioning the apologetic argument for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem
- I don’t understand at the moment how the next two points somehow favour the “historicist” argument. But the gospels clearly blame the Jews for pressuring Pilate to act against his better judgment and they all make clear that the followers of Jesus were not part of the condemnation. There is nothing in that scenario that would risk making Christians unpopular. (Pilate was already unpopular for his “mis-directions” and complaints about him were being sent to Rome anyway.)
- And as for the Pharisaic teaching, one slight difficulty with the Maccoby view is that Maccoby relies upon later records for the essence of Pharisaic teaching. But many scholars have on the other hand noted the same teachings of Jesus were very much in accord with widespread Stoic and Cynic philosophies of the day. (Pharisaic teaching often coincided with these.)
Next, Dr Sarah falls in line with another common assertion that is in fact open to question:
- These accounts also show signs of getting increasingly fantastical over time, suggesting the stories are getting embroidered as they go along.
Except that the Gospel of Luke presents a much more human Jesus, a martyr in the tradition of the Maccabees. The christology of the Gospel of Mark (the earliest gospel) is hotly debated among NT scholars, some asserting that it in fact portrays a very high christology. The stilling the storm episode, for instance, is taken directly from the Psalms that have speaking the very words of God himself.
- In the early years of the Church, the person who seems to have been doing more than anyone else to spread this new belief to Gentiles in far-flung places was someone who joined only after Jesus’s death, showed astonishingly little interest in finding out about the doctrines of this new group, thought it quite OK to spread teachings that he believed to have come to him through personal revelation rather than from others in the group, and clashed with the existing group over the things he was teaching, of which they didn’t approve at all. Which gives us a rather bizarre situation where this man has gone off at a complete tangent and is energetically spreading his version of this new belief, which ends up being extremely influential despite being quite different from what the original group believed.
According to that person’s letter to the Galatians his gospel was completely in harmony with that of the “three pillars” in Jerusalem. The differences that surfaced later was about the significance of that gospel message for the observation of the Jewish cultic law.
In that person’s letters to the Corinthians he does speak of rival apostles who preached a different gospel but he does not give us any reason to think that those rivals preceded him or had any knowledge of a “historical Jesus”.
- All this was happening within a society where the majority of the population came from cultures other than the minority culture from which Jesus supposedly came, whose beliefs, and hence their interpretation of stories and events, might be very different from that of the culture in which the beliefs originated. On top of that, it was a society with widespread beliefs in amazing happenings, including the possibility of gods visiting the earth in human form.
That is true to some extent. At the same time, however, we ought not to overlook the extent to which Hellenization influenced Jewish intellectuals (e.g. Philo).
With that background, Dr Sarah proceeds to ask
Against this background information, how does the above question look?
Firstly, let’s look at the hypothesis that Jesus was actually a historical person. How does the above evidence fit with this? . . . .
By the time people get as far as writing the stories down, a few decades later, the stories they have to work with are a mishmash of things that actually happened, embroidered versions of things that actually happened, stories that people have made up out of whole cloth because they sound good, and some rather strange mythology around the whole thing. So that’s what gets written down. Some of the stuff is pretty awkward for them, but, because it goes back to things that did actually happen, it’s firmly embedded in the traditions and can’t just be erased or ignored, so the gospel authors include those bits but do what they can to sugar-coat them or explain them away. We end up with an odd mix of stories, many of which are clearly embroidered or mythicised but many others of which seem to be describing a historical Jesus. Which, as you have probably spotted, pretty much describes the NT.
Yes, that scenario does sound plausible on the face of it. But when we look at the canonical gospels we run into problems. By Dr Sarah’s scenario we ought to be able to find some clues that help us identify stories that are traced to oral tradition that ultimately relies upon an eyewitness; and other stories that are later mythical add-ons. If indeed the gospels do consist of such a mix, then it follows that we can recognize such a mix, and therefore it follows that we should be able at least in theory to sort out what’s what.
If we can’t recognize that the gospels are indeed such a mix as Dr Sarah posits, then the entire hypothetical scenario falls to pieces.
And we really can identify sources for the gospel narratives and they are all found within the works of other literature widely known to literate Jews of the day. (That’s not just my opinion by the way, but is verifiable in many works of mainstream scholarship.)
Besides, look at how many steps there are in Dr Sarah’s scenario and note that each one depends upon a narrative claim in our sources. It is somewhat circular reasoning to use the narrative details to prove the narrative details. But this is a question we have discussed at length often before.
Dr Sarah then looks at the mythicist view in the light of the above background:
Well, the epistles seem to fit reasonably well, purely as far as theology goes; the theological descriptions of the Lord in the epistles could plausibly fit with a group who believe in a spiritual leader somewhere up in the heavens. (Even then, there are a lot of lines that wouldn’t plausibly fit with this; the epistles do contain several lines about Jesus having existed
- according to the flesh,
- or being born of a woman,
- or being of the seed of David,
- or having brothers, one of whom Paul mentions meeting, all of which is rather difficult to reconcile with mythicism and requires some highly strained logic on the part of mythicists.
But if we ignore all that – which mythicists do, on the whole, tend to prefer to do – and focus just on the theology, then that seems at first glance to fit.)
I am curious to know which mythicist arguments Dr Sarah has in mind when she characterizes their arguments as “highly strained logic”. Who are those mythicists? What are their “highly strained” arguments?
I know of nothing “strained” about the problematic nature of the “being born of a woman” passage in Galatians 4:4. (Oh, I do remember now. Yes, I do think Dr Carrier’s argument on this passage does leave us with some problems.) A pretty comprehensive list of various posts on what look to me like very simple and straightforward arguments can be found in this blog’s Galatians 4:4 archive. Ditto for the “seed of David” passage in Romans. And of course that old canard, “the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians. If any of the explanations on those pages appears convoluted or “strained” then I’d appreciate being informed of the specifics. And before anyone tries to dismiss outright any arguments for interpolation as deus ex machinas then I plead that they examine the prevalence of interpolations and textual corruptions and forgeries in the ancient world as set out by both classicists and reputable biblical scholars themselves.
Dr Sarah raises a good question after the above problems are set aside:
However, once we get to the gospels, things get a lot more difficult to explain. If the group at this stage believed that the person they held so dear was in fact a celestial being who had never visited this world as a human, how did we end up with multiple books telling detailed stories about his time living in this world as a human?
. . . . .
But what do we actually have? Multiple different books describing a historical Jesus. (While the gospels are not independent in terms of what information they give us, each one does nevertheless represent a different person sitting down and putting a lot of effort into writing a detailed and lengthy story.)
Again, I think most critical NT scholars would not accept that any of our canonical gospels describe a historical Jesus. I have never heard any scholar accept that claim except apologists. The gospels are uniformly said by critical NT scholars to be “mythical” or “christological” narratives that overlay a historical person, and that it is only be peeling back and applying various criteria or other methods that we can somehow find a historical figure.
My response to that claim has always been that those methods used by historical Jesus scholars are unique to biblical studies in the way they are used, and that no historian outside the field of biblical studies uses those methods to try to establish some “historical” event or person.
I think the methods of those NT scholars to find a historical figure beneath or behind the text are fallacious (and many scholars think so, too), and that if we applied the methods used by ancient historians and classicists we would be left with nothing but the christological or mythical figure in the gospels.
Highly awkward claims – that the authors seem to be desperately trying to soft-pedal, but nonetheless include – that a specific and powerful public figure was responsible for the death of this founder.
Further highly awkward claims that the revered founder was making claims that got him (rightly, under the prevailing Roman law) executed for sedition.
Again, the view that the gospel’s claims are “awkward” depends entirely upon the assumption that the authors of the gospels shared the theological and world-view perspectives of people today. We have posted often enough scholarly explanations for why the baptism of Jesus, his crucifixion, etc. were not, or would not have been embarrassing to those who magnified those events in their narratives. Paul even said he boasted in the cross of Christ. We need to take a step back and try to imagine the perspective of authors. We need to be aware of the trap of circular reasoning and claiming historicity best explains the gospel narratives and that the gospel narratives make the hypothesis most likely historical.
This is where I miss the great scholar Philip R. Davies. I wish he had lived long enough to have followed through his desire to apply the sound historical methods applied to the OT and the historicity of the Davidic kingdom being applied to the NT and the question of the historicity of Jesus.
Complicated and contradictory stories attempting to explain how a man from Nazareth was actually born in Bethlehem, when it would surely have been so much simpler to leave out the Nazareth claim and write Jesus as coming from Bethlehem in the first place.
I linked above to a critical scholarly argument demonstrating the problems with this question.
What would lead people to make all this stuff up – all of it – from scratch?
I don’t believe that it was “all made up from scratch”. The evidence indicates anything but. Earl Doherty addressed this question, to a significant extent drawing upon the NT scholar Burton Mack’s scholarship, to show how the story gathered detail slowly, and from OT scriptures primarily. There are other arguments relating to evidence that are much more extensive than even Doherty referenced.
On the other hand, where we find some narrative episodes consisting of well over one hundred allusions to OT scriptures (as do the final scenes in the Gospel of Mark) it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the author was playing with those scriptures in order to find details for his narrative.
But writer’s fatigue is setting in (notice my weariness showing as I fail to add more links to relevant essays) so I will finish this post at this point.
I do thank Dr Sarah for posting her arguments so clearly and courteously.
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