Friday, August 29, 2008

Jesus - historicity

Hello Sam

You say:

Stephen - you keep asking for the evidence, and I'd be quite happy to provide a worked example of what is considered as evidence, but I want to first ask the question: do you consider all of the documents gathered into the New Testament to be invalid as evidence? Because there is very little else. (NB if you _do_ think it invalid, then I would take it as confirmation of your 'unreasonableness'!!)

My response: What might reasonably support the claim that a particular historical individual existed? Prima facie, four rather inconsistent documents, written by true believers some decades after the event, telling a story about that individual, attributing extraordinary miracles to him in not just one or two, but many of the episodes, is not, by itself, terribly good evidence even for the existence of such an historical figure (not even when you add Paul, who seems to know very little about Jesus). Not enough to make me confident such a person even existed.

As I say, if the documents simply said there was such a person, I'd give it more weight. But the fact that almost every episode of the Jesus story involves miraculous claims integral to the story that are pretty obviously silly undermines that support.

I can't really believe you think otherwise. But I am stressing the "prima facie". I am happy to acknowledge there may be something about these documents and what they claim that I'm currently ignorant about, which actually makes at least the *existence* of such a person fairly likely.

Given what I know (which is much less than what you know) I'd currently put the probability of there even being such an individual at or possibly below 50 percent. Let's be clear, though, that I also doubt the hypothesis that Jesus is entirely mythical. At this stage, given the evidence available to me, I'd say it was no better than 50/50 whether there's a single historical individual as the subject and source of these stories.

What would you say the percentages are, and why? Obviously you won't say 100 percent - so it would be helpful to have a figure. Perhaps we're only 15 percent apart?

P.S. I just read all of Mark - the earliest Gospel. It's a great story. No nativity story, of course. But loads of miracles, especially in first eight or so chapters - the story pretty much is the miracles for the entire first half. Then we get more teaching coming in. But much of it is weird and I can't believe you think it should be taken literally: the kingdom of God coming in their lifetime, Jesus cursing a fig tree for failing to provide fruit out of season (he approaches it, having thought it would have figs, and disappointed, curses it - charming!) - the rich man being as likely to go to heaven as a camel to pass through eye of a needle, etc. But hardly any actual narrative other than miracle stories. Then right towards the end, we finally get a bit of non-miraculous extended narrative. A rather terse account of betrayal and crucifixion in 14 and 15. Followed by the biggest miracle of all at 16. In short, Mark is almost wall-to-wall miracles of one sort or another, plus various weird and cryptic teachings, with hardly any real non-miraculous narrative at all, except of course for 14-15.

This, I think, makes my Bert analogy particularly relevant. If what an ancient document - the earliest, and probably a source for two of the others - reports is mostly miraculous, the suggestion that, nevertheless, the non-miraculous bit of the story is quite likely to be substantially true is pretty questionable isn't it? Even if the document were written by a supposed eye-witness, which it wasn't?

But look that's just me looking at this earliest text myself, without the benefit of any training. I am aware I do need educating (really- I'm not being sarcastic.)

19 comments:

steph said...

As an agnostic, I think it has been demonstrated that there is alot of synoptic material which paints Jesus as a typical Jewish teacher, has particularities of Jewish Law and tradition that wouldn't be intelligible to a "Gentile" audience (particularly in Mark and Matthew), and doesn't reflect later Christian interests. I think this points to a very early date for at least Mark and Matthew - not decades after the event. See the published work of Prof Maurice Casey (Aramaic Sources of Mark etc) and James Crossley (The Date of Mark). I don't think you could call either any more Christian than me. FWIW I didn't have a Christian upbringing, education or environment.

Sam Norton said...

Okeydokes.

Let's first summarise the claim - because I accept that language of 'insanity' is mostly just rhetoric :o)

I want to say that it is significantly unreasonable to deny the historical existence of an itinerant Jewish preacher and healer named Jesus, who taught about the Kingdom of God and who was crucified by the Roman Empire. I'd summarise that by talking about the 'historic Jesus'.

(It's worth emphasising that the above is not prima facie implausible. It involves no miracles or radical historical improbabilities. There were lots of itinerant preachers at the time, there were various Messianic claimants etc.)

Now for some figures. I accept that it is _possible_ that the stories and historical effects tied up with the early church were invented out of whole cloth; it's just that I consider it radically unlikely, and not a reasonable belief to hold. So to put that as a figure I'd say the probability of there being an historic Jesus is - for the sake of argument - 99%; the point about the mythical elements is slightly different - I'd be happy to run with a more significant percentage of the gospel accounts being mythical, say 15-20%, but that's a guesstimate, I haven't thought it through precisely.

BTW you might find this sequence of posts of interest - when you have some spare time! (Anticant might be interested also, particularly this one.)

Now some preliminary responses before moving on. You say "the fact that almost every episode of the Jesus story involves miraculous claims integral to the story that are pretty obviously silly undermines that support. I can't really believe you think otherwise." I think this line of argument also needs a name - how about the 'miraculous invalidity' point, which I would summarise as before:

P1: there are various historical texts which describe Jesus
P2: these texts explicitly or implicitly refer to miraculous events
P3: miraculous events cannot happen (they are 'pretty obviously silly')
therefore
P4: these texts have no (or: very little?) historical validity.

Is that a fair summary?

Some points
a) what you see as 'obviously silly' was not seen as obviously silly at the time (this for miracles in general, not specifically the resurrection, which WAS seen as silly, but not because of a rejection of miracles);
b) the majority of the miracles are healings or exorcisms which I imagine you'd not have too much trouble accepting as having some sort of historical plausibility, even if you view them as entirely psychosomatic;
c) the nature of most of the narratives is not (unlike, eg the birth narratives) 'mythical', it's effectively reportage. In other words, even if you don't accept that it is _from_ eyewitness testimony, it is at least (mostly) in the _form_ of eyewitness testimony;
d) so, whilst incredulity towards miracles might incline to the conclusion 'it didn't actually happen like that', it seems more of a stretch to 'they have made all of this up'.

Now, onto the more substantial stuff. Is there an agreed point that we could start from in terms of what you accept as historical fact? On this scale, where would you want to start questioning what is commonly accepted? -

1. there was an Emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity in the fourth century;
2. there was a Christian church that was bloodily suppressed in the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries;
3. there was a Christian church in the second half of the first century that produced various documents including the gospels and other letters (eg the letters of Clement);
4. there was a Christian church in the middle of the first century which saw various disputes (eg Paul vs James), left various documents (Paul and other Epistles), and which was banned from attending the synagogues in the mid-60s;
5. there was an historical Jesus whose death in AD33 provoked the creation of a movement which became the Christian church.

(The truth of 5. is of course a sufficient explanation of the others and is the conventional view.)

Part of why I ask this is because, for example, the differences between the gospels are normally accounted for by being seen as the products of different Christian communities - so, Matthew's gospel, because the phrase 'Kingdom of God' is not used, with 'Kingdom of Heaven' being used instead, is seen as being written in a Jewish context, where the word 'God' would have been understood as blasphemous. The dating of the texts therefore gives evidence of the truth of 3. above.

I would next want to ask: what sort of evidence could reasonably be expected? Video testimony is out, for example, as is detailed scientific analysis along the lines of a crime scene investigation. I agree that records of a crucifixion that named 'Jesus of Nazareth' would be very helpful, but is the absence of such evidence particularly surprising?

What we have is not just the four gospels but all the documents that were subsequently gathered into the New Testament, along with some others that weren't (eg Clement, Barnabas, the Didache etc). To just stick with the NT material we have 27 separate documents which discuss Jesus in various ways. So, to bring in what is historically appropriate, how does that compare with other historical figures of the time and place, most particularly ones whose historicity you would accept? (Actually, I don't know the complete answer to that question, but it would be interesting to know the comparison with Socrates).

Now... I was going to go on the talk about specifics in the gospels but that'll have to wait as I have run out of time.

Jackie said...

For some resorces on the Jesus mythicist position, Rook Hawkings's article. Sam, Rook would probably be happy to debate you on this subject, online or on the RRS radio show.

Jackie said...

Sam,
The gosples are not considered reliable sources because
1. They were written annonymously.
2. They were written without citations.
3. They were written generations after the recorded events.
4. They contradict eachother.
5. They contain supernatural events.
If you wanted to overcome 5, you'd need no not have 1-4 in your sources.

Jackie said...

That's should be "you need to not have..."

Paul Power said...

Sam:

The evidence we seek is very simple: the same sort of evidence we'd accept for the existence of anyone else at the same period.
All you do is invite us to infer that Jesus existed because of the faith of his followers long after the crucifiction.

Joshua said...

@sam -
"5. there was an historical Jesus whose death in AD33 provoked the creation of a movement which became the Christian church."

Let me see if I can do justice to the mythicists here. They argue that there need not have been a historical Jesus in order to explain your first four points. They say that the figure of Jesus Christ - "Anointed Savior" - was a mythical figure that later got historicised. Like Samson and Hercules, he began life as a myth that later became legend. In this case, Jesus was a dying-rising figure like Osiris. Through oral tradition, stories began to be attributed to him. Someone, perhaps Paul, began preaching his message. Later authors attempted to tie him into history, like Plutarch trying to turn Isis and Osiris into Egyptian monarchs. Like Daniel, he was afixed to a point in history so he could predict the troubles that were contemporary to the authors.

Robert M. Price points out that Paul showed little interest in Jesus's earthly life. Perhaps this is because Paul didn't believe that Jesus had an earthly life. Perhaps Paul believed that Jesus was a heavenly figure.

m8y said...

Historically there is quite a bit of what can be deemed 'evidence' about the existence of a Jesus at around the right time who did many of the things the gospels say he did.
Jesus himself, even outside the new testament has got a lot written about him within a relatively short (historically speaking) space of time following his death.
An american called gary habermas has dedicated his life to reading all the stuff written about this and he's got a website (www.garyhabermas.com) which might prove vaguely useful.
But i'm not an expert in this field nor am i going to pretend to actually be able to understand everything people have written in response to this particular topic of Stephen's.
Although, I would agree that he is a mad philosopher, but then i think a certain degree of madness is required in order to actually be any good at philosophy in the first place.

Joshua said...

@m8y -
"Historically there is quite a bit of what can be deemed 'evidence' about the existence of a Jesus at around the right time who did many of the things the gospels say he did."

Well, that's just what we've been looking for! Trot some out so we can take a gander.

Unfortunately, Habermas is on the faculty of Falwell's Liberty University. Last I checked, this means that he must have signed an statement agreeing to the basic fundamentalist, literalist understanding of scripture. This makes his commitment to true scholarship questionable. That doesn't make him wrong, but he's going to have to back himself up with strong evidence. I'd like to see it, but Habermas is quick to call upon supposed scholarly consensus instead.

Steven Carr said...

Sam should really learn more about the Gospels
My article Miracles and the Book of Mormon shows that Christians made up stories about Jesus in exactly the same way that Joseph Smith and Muhammad made up stories.

We know from Paul, who was there, that different Christians were following different Jesus's.

Not all those Jesus's existed!

So where is the evidence that the Jesus of the Gospels existed, especially when I give documented, photographic proof of the literary invention rampant in the Gospels?

Sorry, Sam, your myths have been exploded.

Get over it.

Steven Carr said...

'I want to say that it is significantly unreasonable to deny the historical existence of an itinerant Jewish preacher and healer named Jesus, who taught about the Kingdom of God and who was crucified by the Roman Empire. '

The earliest Christian writer , Paul, has absolutely none of that.

Paul laments the lack of a preacher.

Paul never mentions any healings, or claims that Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God.

And Paul reassures Christians that the Roman Empire does not hurt innocent people.

Sorry Sam, your myths have been exploded.

Get over it.

Steven Carr said...

SAM NORTON
'To just stick with the NT material we have 27 separate documents which discuss Jesus in various ways. '

Lies. 3 John never mentions Jesus.

Why do Christians LIE about their own Bible?

Why do liars demand respect while thinking nothing of lying to defend their faith?

Christians are like Holocaust-deniers. You have to spend so long pointing out their distortions before you can even begin to have a serious discussion.

All James says about Jesus is that they are followers of him.

And there is the amazing passage

Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

For an example of patience in the face of suffering, this early Christian takes the example of JOB.

And not Jesus!

How the hell can the example of Jesus patience in the face of suffering not have leaped from the pen of the person who worshipped Jesus?

How can he not single out his Lord and Saviour as an example to be followed, rather than refer his fellow believers in Jesus to the 'prophets' who spoke in the name of the Lord?


The answer is obvious.


There was no Jesus who set an example of patience in the face of suffering.

James could not remind his fellow Christians of the example of Jesus.

Because there WAS no example of Jesus to use as an example.

So the author of James uses Job as the example for his Jesus-worshippers to follow.

m8y said...

i think a lot of the whole issue here is how we want to verify the reliability of history, i think in our present day culture the tendency is to history as something to be grasped at but never actually properly be reached. We don't see history as an exact science anymore and instead have moved into a era of historical relativism which rejects the idea that we can have a true representation of what actually happened. Looked at closely and historical relativism kind of crumbles, without wanting to appear to be erecting a straw-man, most of us don't like the idea of the holocaust denial movement...
instead i suppose we should be using some kind of pragmatic hermeneutic system which draws upon converging lines of evidence in an attempt to establish some kind of history about things.
Texturally alone the New Testament has some pretty awesome data behind it, including sheer number of individual copies and the time period within which the earliest ones of these were scribed ~ strange isnt it that we shrug off the time lapse of 1,000 years between Tacitus living and our earliest copy of his manuscripts without questioning the authenticity but the mere 30-310 years between the death of Jesus and the NT being scribbed is called into question again and again. But i'm not here to talk about biblical reliability, i dont think i know enough about it to be able to hold my own for a particularly long period of time.

Sources for Jesus outside the NT can be found in Tiberius' writtings, which date from around 30CE, the best known and most commonly refered to are from Tacitus who wrote his stuff at around 100-120CE, historically both of these are considered contempory. According to some scribbled notes i've got practially no reputable historian contests Jesus' crucifiction which makes it the best historically known fact about his life we have.
Aside from that (call it convenient if you will, personally i blame it on people talking to fast when they lecture) my notes on such subjects are increasingly illegible, and whilst i'm pretty confident that there are textural verifications of Jesus' life death and ministry I couldn't confidently point anybody in the direction of anybody other than Tacitus and Tiberius.
Although, with the argument of silence in play it would seem odd, if documents proclaiming the things about Jesus that the NT does were appearing within living memory of the supposed events themselves, that there weren't more denouncing them from the same time period, personally i'm not aware of any.
seems criticism only came much much later.

And it is my belief that Habermas' continual reference to scholarly consensus is not an attempt to baffle brains with bullshit, but merely not to bog brains down with huge lists of names.

anticant said...

Anyone interested in historical method and the reliability of history should read Richard J. Evans: "In Defence of History".

Steven Carr said...

'Sources for Jesus outside the NT can be found in Tiberius' writtings, which date from around 30CE....'

Why do Christians lie so much?

Do they think that if they tell enough lies , atheists will start to respect them?

Joshua said...

@m8y -
"Texturally alone the New Testament has some pretty awesome data behind it, including sheer number of individual copies and the time period within which the earliest ones of these were scribed"

I'm confused about this. Why does the "sheer number of copies scribed" relate to the discussion? Does the fact that the Gospel of Mark was popular somehow make it more reliable? Presumably at one point there was only one copy. That's the one we're interested in. As for the date that the earliest were scribed, that's a matter of conjecture. We don't start seeing fragments of these texts until the 2nd century.

"Sources for Jesus outside the NT can be found in Tiberius' writtings"

citation needed.

"Tacitus who wrote his stuff at around 100-120CE"

Correct. We now have evidence that someone named "Christus" was executed by the Roman Procurator - not Prefect - Pontius Pilatus.

Or to put it another way, if Tacitus was reporting some first hand knowledge or personal research, wouldn't he have gotten the names and titles correct? No, he's just reporting word of mouth. I'm guessing he didn't even ask a Christian what they believed, else he would have at least heard the name Jesus.

No one is disputing that Christians existed in the first century. Simply reporting that there were these people, and this is what they believed, does not get us any closer to the historical Jesus.

m8y said...

@steven carr,
you're last comment, which i presume was aimed at me appears to sink to the level of generalised playground-esque name calling.

@joshua
see where you're coming from with your comments. I'd say that a good place to start the search for a historical Jesus is to investigate the beliefs of the Christians from around that time.
Look again at the argument from silence; the early disciples proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead, people at the time didn't refute it possibly suggesting that there wasn't anything to prove that they were barking up the wrong tree into cloud cuckoo land. People did not have the body.

Numbers of copies of texts which agree on things, which in most places the scrolls containing the NT do 'Mark' in one place is the same 'Mark' in another. Does point back to there being an initial one copy, does the fact that we don't have it negate its existence, i would say not.

Working on a citation for my comment about Tiberius, if I cannot find it may i withdraw the comment as academically unverifiable? I wouldn't wish to appear to be grasping at clouds.

Steven Carr said...

If my8 is going to withdraw his Tiberius comments, then I will withdraw the claim that he lied.

But it shows how carefully you have to check Christian claims...

Joshua said...

@m8y -
"People did not have the body."

Which could play into the hands of the mythicists - there was never any body, living or dead. Alternately, if Jesus was a convicted criminal, his body would have been tossed into the lime pit (according to John D. Crossan.) There it would have rapidly decomposed, leaving nothing to show.

Regardless, in several of Paul's letters he seems to speak of a spiritual resurrection. So the notion of an empty tomb and a bodily resurrection may not have been common until late in the game. And why, exactly, would Roman authorities go digging for the decaying corpse, just to deal with yet another nutjob mystery cult anyway? I don't believe that we start to see anti-christan polemics until the third century. I would say that the fact that no one is recorded as having 'produced the body' is meaningless.

"Does point back to there being an initial one copy, does the fact that we don't have it negate its existence, i would say not."

I'm sorry, but do you think that I'm saying that the Gospel of Mark doesn't exist? That would be silly. But knowing that it exists and knowing when it was written are two different things.