Thursday, August 28, 2008

Jesus - historicity debate continues

Gosh I really have upset a lot of people by simply questioning whether Jesus is a historical figure!

Remember, I don't say he wasn't a historical figure (some of you seem to have missed this; even Rev. Sam suggests I "deny" - I don't). I just have my doubts whether he was. It may be those doubts can be allayed by the empirical evidence.

If Sam has the evidence, let's see it.

I am simply refusing to accept Jesus' historicity on the say so of "biblical scholars", the majority of whom are Christian. (I also note anon said in his comment: "MANY of the Jewish historians and Biblical scholars I read then... doubted the historicity of Jesus".) If I am going to be convinced of the historicity of Jesus, it will be by the evidence itself.

So let's see it.


[NB. I TWEAKED THE ABOVE SLIGHTLY 14.00HRS ON THURS 28TH AUG]
TWO SMALLER POINTS:

1. By the way Peter, in your comment you say:

[quoting Stephen] "Hmm. Are you nuts, or significantly biased, for not taking the vast majority of Koranic scholars’ word for it that Mohummad was God’s prophet?"

- This really isn't fair. Presumably, Sam believes that Muhammad existed. That Muhammad was God's prophet is not analogous to Jesus *existing*.

My reply: Peter I think you miss my point about Koranic scholars - the point is, very many religious textual scholars are highly partisan. They are - it's just a fact. That's just one of the several reasons I have for not unquestioningly accepting their say so on this matter. I am illustrating the point that it's not "nuts" to be cautious, even when they are more or less unanimous. (EDITED SLIGHTLY 2PM 28THAUGUST)

2. I ran this analogy earlier (in response to the claim that there's as much evidence for the existence of Jesus as there is for the existence of Socrates):

If two friends tell me that a man called Bert visited them at home last night, I have every reason to believe them. That's evidence enough.

But if they then tell me that Bert flew around the room, then dropped dead, and them came back to life again, before turning the sofa into a donkey, well then that's no longer nearly good enough evidence that they are telling the truth, is it?

In fact, not only am I justified in rejecting their testimony about the miracles, I would now also be wise to suspend judgement on whether any such person as Bert even exists, let alone did the things they claim.

The moral is pretty obvious, I think. No one claims Socrates performed extraordinary miracles in front of audiences of thousands. The gospels claim Jesus did. That is why we need rather better evidence for his existence than just the say so of four rather inconsistent documents written by the faithful decades after the event.

Kosh 3 now says:

I do think the distinction between whether "there was a man x", and whether "there was a man x bearing supernatural properties y" is one worth making. The evidence may much more easily support the former and not the latter.

Bert works against the latter, not the former. In the Bert scenario the claims of supernatural powers are so incredible as to undermine the idea that there was any such person as Bert at all in the house (perhaps the two were on LSD). In the case of Jesus I don't see that same 'washing out' applying, because I can see a plausible way in which the supernatural stories were simply added.

Yes of course the distinction is worth making Kosh. I make it. I also agree that the evidence could support the view that Jesus existed more than it supports the view he did miraculous things. In fact I think it does (very slightly!).

But you objection to my Bert analogy is no good, I think. For compare: I can similarly see a plausible way in which there was a person called Bert, and he spiked my friends' drinks and made them think he did miraculous things in their living room. That's possible, I agree. Indeed, that there was a person called Bert that visited them is indeed a little more supported by the evidence than is the hypothesis he flew around the room. But notice that that doesn't mean I am now justified in thinking there was any such a person Bert. I'm clearly not.

Ditto Jesus.

Precisely because of all the extraordinary claims of many miraculous things done by Jesus, I need rather more evidence for his existence than just four rather inconsistent documents (plus Paul, who has no first hand knowledge, and in fact knows remarkably little about Jesus) written decades after the event.

45 comments:

Sam Norton said...

"Peter you miss my point about Koranic scholars - the point is, very many religious textual scholars are highly partisan... That's just one of the several reasons I have for not unquestioningly accepting their say so on this matter."

Your use of 'their' in the last sentence is misleading. You move from saying 'many religious' (ie a part of the whole) to a rejection of a consensus including the non-religious (the whole). Why do you do that? What are your grounds for rejecting those elements that are agreed on by those who are partisan and those who are not?

Also you now say "I also agree that the evidence could support the view that Jesus existed more than it supports the view he did miraculous things. In fact I think it does!" Are you accepting, then, that there is _some_ evidence that Jesus existed? If so, I would find that very reasonable :o)

Stephen Law said...

Yes there's some evidence - but don't get over excited. After all, there's some evidence that Bert flew around the room - my two trusted friends said he did. Point is I have seen nothing like enough to make it a justified belief.

What, exactly, convinces you?

What about the many Jewish scholars who deny the historicity of Jesus, btw? I guess they are blinded by their religious convictions, right? But then once we know religion is blinding people - even "scholars" - so effectively in this context, shouldn't we be very wary about unquestioningly taking the word of such scholars for anything?

Seems to me, given everything I have said, that you should be very wary about unquestioningly taking any scholars' word for it, here. It would be irresponsible of you not to be fairly cautious.

But of course, perhaps you don't have to their word for it - as you (think) you have seen good textual evidence yourself. If so can I see it? Maybe there's some agreement between the texts, or something, that you'd appeal to?

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephen, I guess you could save a lot of time by stating what it would take for you to believe Jesus existed! And the second question would then be do you apply the same standards of belief to other things that you don't know for certain.

Cheers, Andy
(Not a Christian!)

Stephen Law said...

Hi anonymous'

Lot's of things. One example: a contemporary, non-Christian, record of his existence form a source that I could be pretty confident had not been later tampered with by Christians would be quite persuasive.

I am not aware of such a record but perhaps you are?

Remember, I am not expert in this area. You may well be able to help me out by providing evidence I am unaware of. But I am pretty expert when it comes to what *counts* as evidence.

Timmo said...

Stephen,

I just have my doubts whether he was. It may be those doubts can be allayed by the empirical evidence.

I'm not an ancient historian, so I hesitate to weigh in here. But, there are at least two ancient writers, Josephus and Tacitus, neither of which is Christian, who both refer to Jesus, His alleged status as Christ, and His performance of miracles, in their works. These references are a matter of some controversy, and I'm not very familiar with the scholarly literature around it. A quick google scholar search suggests this paper:

Montefiore, H.W. (1960) "Josephus and the New Testament," Novum Testamentum 4, p. 139 -- 160

Ditto Jesus.

There are some big assumptions packed into that 'ditto', don't you think? What exactly is the analogy supposed to be? Why should we think that Christianity is epistemologically on par with the Bert story simply because both involve claims about miracles? In Miracles, C.S. Lewis points out, not in these words, that the credibility of a particular piece of testimony will always be relative to an agent's background beliefs. And, for Christians, Lewis says that miracles are always going to be judged in relation to Resurrection, the big one. So, there's a principled basis from which Christians can reject the Bert story. Or, for Reformed epistemologists like Plantinga, the source of warrant for Christian belief is independent of whatever (tenuous) historical connections the individual believer has to Jesus. Plantinga is not too impressed with "historical biblical criticism" in Chpt. 12 of of Warranted Christian Belief.

I doubt there's really a neutral perspective from which one might indifferently evaluate the testimony of the Gospels. It's a loaded "ditto."

Stephen Law said...

I keep asking for some evidence of historicity of the sort that convinces Biblical scholars, and the response is deafening silence. I'll help you out - you might perhaps say that there are agreements between the documents on the details of J's life that can only reasonably be explained by there actually being such a person. What about that?

Paul Power said...

timmo:
neither Josephus not Tacitus had first-hand evidence of the existence of Jesus, so they get us nowhere.

theObserver said...

To run with Anons point slightly, I was pondering recently what would construe sufficient evidence for me to believe that Jesus the miracle worker as described by the bible did exist and that Jesus did rise from the dead.

I concluded that nothing short of actually seeing the event with my own eyes would convince me. Especially given the nature of mythology and the strange notion that a god-like entity would choose to communicate with us through a god/man localized to a backwater in the Roman empire.

Communication is not the Christian Gods strong point it seems. May I suggest he hires himself a PR firm?

Stephen Law said...

Hi Timmo - Josephus, yeah right. I would look into it a bit, first, Timmo, before you suggest its good evidence for anything.

I notice that suddenly, rather than actually producing the evidence that convinces Biblical scholars, some of you are now attempting to muddy the waters by playing that old stand-by - "ah, well, there's no neutral standpoint from which to assess evidence."

This smacks of desperation. I was, quite, genuinely, expecting to be given some actual evidence

Steven Carr said...

Paul says Christians were preaching about different Jesus's.

Did all those Jesus's exist?

If other Christians really were preaching a different Jesus to the one Paul preached, then where is the evidence that the Jesus of Nazareth was not one of the false Jesus's that Christians preached about?

Stephen Law said...

Sorry Timmo that last comment sounded a bit fractious!

Stephen Law said...

Come on, let's see the evidence that convinces scholars of J's historicity. It would be very interesting. I don't doubt it exists, Sam. I might learn something and even change my mind. I'm sure it's complicated, but you could at least pull out a couple of examples to give me an idea of the sort of evidence that exists.

BUT, don't say "Well there's this evidence that.." Show me the actual evidence...

Kosh3 said...

Whereas I can see easily how LSD might cause the fabrication of the perception of human beings in small rooms very easily (and all sorts of other arcane phenomena), it seems a little less plausible to me that religious fervor could fabricate from nothing a whole person (reports about his miraculous workings from that point on, sure! but the person themselves?...)

And so, I would agree that testimony that Bert was in the room is consistent with him actually being there yet not doing all the weird and wonderful things he was seen to do, the effects of LSD are simply such that I can easily see with LSD that Bert was not there at all.

It is a little more difficult to think that religious motivations could as easily generate a person from nothing, as they could add superpowers to his tales. (although I admit it *is* possible that Jesus was cooked up out of nothing).

So in sum, I elect to clarify my position: The Bert case works *better* for the latter case than the former.

Joe Otten said...

I suppose a lost book by Philo Judaeus would be pretty convincing. As it is, it is suprising given his time, place and interests that he doesn't mention Jesus at all - if Jesus existed.

But the real problem with this question is a lack of sufficient reference? Where there people called Yeshua (Jesus) at the time? Probably. Were some crucified? Probably? Were some sons of stone masons? Probably. But you're not really asking this, you're asking whether a particular idea of a person corresponds to a real historical person.

So the question is to what extent are gospel narratives based on real events, and to what extent are they mythical. Almost all elements of the stories - the (conflicting) infancy narratives, miraculous healing, etc, can be found in other religious stories of the time. Many are good copies of events in the old testament.

And when we consider a century of oral tradition before they were written, we should expect a substantial amount of mythic storytelling to be incorporated. This would also explain a lot of the inconsistency.

Paul, from what he wrote, shows little sign of believing Jesus to be a real person, as opposed to a god who does not visit the earth.

So, it seems fair to me to conclude that little if any of the gospel text is historical. But even if it were historical, it would still be hard to conclude that some particular idea of Jesus corresponded to a real person.

Anonymous said...

kosh3-"It is a little more difficult to think that religious motivations could as easily generate a person from nothing, as they could add superpowers to his tales. (although I admit it *is* possible that Jesus was cooked up out of nothing)."

There appear to be plenty of reports from those not obviously under the influence of psychoactive substances, of whole people or things being seen. e.g. faeries, elves, Elvis, little gray aliens. There is also the possibility that there was someone but not the person claimed. For example one might mis-identify a figure in the distance or in a crowd. If you fervently hope/expect to see someone it becomes more likely does it not?

Nick said...

Sam,

To the best of my knowledge, the following pertains to the evidence for the existence of Jesus:

1) The authors of the Gospels are unknown, and cannot confidently be taken to be eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry.
2) The dates when the Gospels were written is unknown (but probably between 70 AD and 110 AD - a significant time after Jesus is supposed to have died)
3) The Gospels contain numerous well-documented examples of improbabilities, contradictions, propaganda, obvious fictions, and legendary embellishments.
4) Some parts of the Gospels (and other parts of the NT) come from dreams, visions etc. - which are not reliable ways of obtaining knowledge.
5) There is no reference to Jesus in other extra-Biblical documents before 95 AD, and much of that is historically dubious.
6) We have no record of what happened in the early Christian church from 62 - 95 AD (the First Christian Dark Age), and no evidence that what oral knowledge survived was reliable.
7) The initial revelations about Jesus (from 20 - 40 AD) detail his incarnation, death, and resurrection to have taken place in heaven, not on Earth.
8) The Jesus story bears many striking similarities to known myths, and mythical beings have often been historicized (euhemerization). Jesus scores very highly on the Rank-Raglan scale for mythical heroes (the same as Dionysus, and more than Hercules, Jason (of the Argonauts), Zeus etc.).

The question here is not whether there is any historical evidence - as there clearly is some - but whether this evidence is reliable. The fact is that no other similarly anonymous, undateable, clearly propagandistic and supernaturalistic collection of ancient documents, whose sources are unknown and whose claims are uncorroborated would be given any credence by genuine historians.

So, Jesus may have existed, but the NT doesn't provide the compelling historical evidence necessary to corroborate this (unlike many other people and events recorded in ancient history). Hence, under the circumstances, I don't agree that it is irrational to doubt the existence of Jesus as a historical figure (even without all of the supernatural characteristics assigned to him).

Stephen Law said...

Hi Kosh3. Not sure I follow you.

Just to recap: the analogy is - 2 friends report not just that there was a visitor called Bert, but that he did miraculous things.

Now this is hard to explain. Perhaps they were drugged. Perhaps hypnotized. Perhaps lying. Truth is, none of these explanations is really that plausible.

My conclusion is simply this - despite the difficulty in explaining their testimony in terms of drugs, etc., we still have little reason now to suppose there even was such a person as Bert, let alone that he did these things. The key point is: the introduction of the miracles severely taints the evidence that Bert even exists.

Similarly, if 4 documents (plus Paul maybe) say there was a person, decades earlier, who did miraculous things, well that's not, as yet, much evidence that there was such a person, let alone that he did these things. Even if we can't explain exactly how this story developed.

But, fact is, I *can* see how, over decades, a religious story about a non-existent person might develop, especially given that, at that time, people were clearly more than comfortable about making stuff up, even about Jesus (as we have already established). There might have been a few earlier myths, that got combined, and given a new central character, or there might have been several individuals going around being prophet-like who morphed into one (non-existent) individual. If people are going to invent a whole lot of miraculous stuff, there's no particular reason why they wouldn't also invent a person to do it, is there?

True, you may not find any of these explanations of the Jesus myth terribly convincing. But then I don't really have a terribly convincing explanation for what my friends tell me about Bert (we can even suppose, if you like, that they had no access to drugs, immediately pass a dope test, etc.). Point is - the absence of any terribly plausible explanation for their testimony (other than that it's true) still not enough to justify saying Bert is real.

At this point, ditto Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Sam- Why does it matter, apart from historical interest, whether or not Jesus was a historical figure?

[ Yes I do think accuracy and honesty in historical scholarship matters but the reactions here seem to indicate more is at stake.]

terence said...

Well. . . if Jesus did not exist, he could not be the Son of God . . . and the whole framework of the christian church which is built on this tenet would collapse like a deck of cards.

Stephen Law said...

Hi anon

That there at least be good evidence for J's existence mattered to Jamie because the he could run his (awful) mad, bad or god challenge. The same may be true for Sam.

The Barefoot Bum said...

I think it's worth mentioning that it's important to be precise about what we mean by "Jesus".

If we were to define "Jesus" as "the person who performed certain miracles attributed to him in the gospels" then the existence of Jesus hinges on whether those miracles were indeed performed.

There are two points: The existence and properties of some individual real person can exist as a hypothetical explanation for the gospels, but unless it specifies some definite properties of that person, the hypothesis is vacuous. Just saying "Jesus existed" doesn't say anything without describing "Jesus".

The Barefoot Bum said...

Also, I think it's the most pointless thing in the world to argue what we should or should not believe based on just the opinions of experts.

If they're really experts, they should be experts at making direct arguments for their positions, and we should just examine those arguments directly.

The statement, "All (or most) experts believe that yada yada yada..." should be followed by their arguments.

Stephen Law said...

Actually, anon, I also think that it's an important part of many Christians belief system. That Jesus at least existed and was a real person gives them something firm from which they can build out - possibly accepting the miracles, or possibly not. They can say - well, there's *something* sensible there, at the core, that I can cling to. The credibility of this belief also, in their minds, spreads out to support, somewhat, their other beliefs. "Hey, if there really was such a person, then it's not so mad to suppose that some of what is said about him is true, is it?" [I see the logic working the other way - the nuttiness of what was said about him undermines the credibility of the claim he even existed].

Hence they get very upset when this particular claim - that there's at least good evdience he existed - is challenged.

Anonymous said...

"If Jesus did not exist, he could not be the Son of God . "

Well OK but only for one of those crude reductive theists. If we accept this story in a mythic sense there isn't a problem is there?

Sam seems OK with the idea that at least certain parts of the story are literary embellishments or mythic interpretations.

Billy said...

I concluded that nothing short of actually seeing the event with my own eyes would convince me.

Absolutely. You are also demanding no more than Thomas asked (and was shown) at the end of "John's" gospel.

With christians, we are supposedly talking about a relational god, yet they have to resort to "arguments" concerning design, fine tuning and first causes - with plenty of personal incredulity thrown in.
Why is God so shy?

terence said...

But I don't think any christian CAN accept Jesus as a mythic figure only as his really being the Son of God (in fact) is the foundation on which the christian church is built. Without him really existing, he could not have died for our sins, we could not be saved, etc.

Mursu said...

I think the Bert analogy is missing the point, because when we try to investigate of the historical Jesus, the first thing we do is to throw away the miracles. There were added later to make the story more interesting/touching/political correct.
We would not doubt the existence of Julius Caesar, even if Suetonius wrote: "He died ... and was numbered among the gods, not only by a formal decree, but also in the conviction of the common people. For at the first of the games which his heir Augustus gave in honour of his apotheosis, a comet shone for seven successive days, rising about the eleventh hour, and was believed to be the soul of Caesar, who had been taken to heaven; and this is why a star is set upon the crown of his head in his statue."

One thing in favor of historical Jesus is that there are some embarassing parts in Gospels, that different writers of Gospels try to explain away in the different ways, based on their agenda.

Anonymous said...

"Hey, if there really was such a person, then it's not so mad to suppose that some of what is said about him is true, is it?"

Hm.Isn't this just the sort of device used in literature -throwing in names of real people and places to either add dramatic effect (nice scenery) or plausibility. I was struck by a recent TV show about Ian Rankin and his creation the police detective Rebus. He carefully researched police procedure as used at the time of the character's life, checked the geography and made sure that the pubs mentioned in the books were the ones that an off duty policeman would drink in and so on. Real people asked to be mentioned in the books, and some (winners of contests or some such) were written in.

Anonymous said...

"embarassing parts in Gospels,"?


Do tell! I seem to have missed the scandal...

Andrew Louis said...

Aside from the objective validity of Christ, is there any objection to the message that’s delivered?

In other words, if we found out that Plato and/or Socrates didn't exist, would the philosophy that exists in they're name become irrelevant?

To some degree it bothers me that people would wrangle back and forth about such nonsense as whether someone existed or not; it seems ridiculous to me, but perhaps I miss the point? Who cares!?!

Isn’t what’s important the content of the message? The meaning? If the Buddha never existed, is there no Buddhism?

Of course one could argue that the whole of Christianity is the belief that Christ was a real person and did the things the Bible says; so this is a valid debate. But, I’d say the point is being missed then. I’d be interested in understanding why objective validity is so important to actual Christians, and why in many cases it seems to trump the message.

If Christianity hangs gingerly on the truth or falsehood of a man dieing and miraculously coming back to life, then it fails rationally right out of the box. We should discard it immediately. Surely Christianity is more then this?

terence said...

Andrew,

I do think the message of the metaphor of tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness as a means to personal salvation (from the evils of this world) to be extremely important. But, as Campbell said, when we begin to take our metaphor itself as literally true, all manner of mischief follows. In extreme cases we have people killing over whose metaphor is literally true.

anticant said...

Andrew:

Because the last thing most professedly believing Christians do, or want to do, is to live the message.

Andrew Louis said...

Terence/Anticant,
Agreed.

Again though, I'm curious why some Christians (and I say some) believe that the objective validity of they’re religion is such a necessity. I think we have a handful of rather intelligent folks here, but this conversation is just plain silly.

If both atheists and religious folk agreed to the validity of the message (which I think they would in many cases) and put aside objectivity for the time being, we’d be taking a huge step forward in understanding each other; but here we are, arguing over the existence of a man. Even the Biblical Paul states that one should not argue over disputable matters, as of course this queers the message.

Speaking of Joseph Campbell, I believe it was him who said that while observing Catholic and Buddhist monks together, there was an understanding that even though they’re respective religions had a different story; they nonetheless spoke the same message. However the common believer from the 2 respective religions would haggle back and forth over objectionable matters and come to no common ground.

So is this all an exercise of trying to convince oneself of something, convince another of something, or just time killing?

The debate with Sye was just plain fun, but this, I don’t see it going anywhere. No new evidence is going to creep out of the walls to convince the atheist, and nothing new will creep out to discourage the theist. So where’s the common ground?

terence said...

Andrew,

Because the message changes when you start taking the metaphor literally. Christians see Jesus as literally the Son of God, literally the only way to salvation, literally the only way to a very real place called Heaven, where you will have a real afterlife, where sinners and nonbeleivers will burn in a very real Hell, etc. As opposed to seeing it as metaphor telling us how to live a more healthy (physchologically) and happy life.

Steelman said...

Andrew Louis said: "Speaking of Joseph Campbell, I believe it was him who said that while observing Catholic and Buddhist monks together, there was an understanding that even though they’re respective religions had a different story; they nonetheless spoke the same message. However the common believer from the 2 respective religions would haggle back and forth over objectionable matters and come to no common ground."

The Pope recently reiterated the Catholic doctrine that only Catholics will reside in heaven for all eternity. All others, of course, will spend the afterlife in hell. Others certainly include Buddhists and non-catholic Christians.

But the Pope isn't a "common believer" is he? He's the highest religious authority (for Catholics, anyway).

In addition, even if it were just a question of the common believers' understanding of the divinity of Jesus vs. his message (e.g. sermon on the mount), that's a very large number of people taking action according to their beliefs regarding that asserted divinity.

Some of those actions are beneficial to social progress in an open, liberal democratic society, and some aren't. So, the question of Jesus' existence, and what it literally entails, is an important one I think.

It would at least make some of my Saturday mornings a little quieter; no more evangelicals, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. knocking at my door trying to "save" me with the "truth". Not to mention these groups taking political action on serious social issues primarily based on "WWJD?"

Andrew Louis said...

Terence,
You’re absolutely right.

Steelman,
Point taken. I would agree that from that perspective it’s a worthy discussion.

Sam Norton said...

Nick, I'll pick up on your list:

1) The authors of the Gospels are unknown, and cannot confidently be taken to be eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry.

Sam says: actually the consensus is that there is a substantial amount of eyewitness testimony contained in them - along with a lot of other accretions along the way. We can also be pretty sure that Luke's gospel is by Luke (given that Vol 2 is Acts with the first person testimony).

2) The dates when the Gospels were written is unknown (but probably between 70 AD and 110 AD - a significant time after Jesus is supposed to have died)

Sam says: shift it to 60AD as an earlier borderline and I would agree with you (it is almost certain that Mark's gospel predates the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70AD). However, that still means that they were written down when the events were in living memory - and, indeed, that what was written down had been circulating as stories within the community for some time.

3) The Gospels contain numerous well-documented examples of improbabilities, contradictions, propaganda, obvious fictions, and legendary embellishments.

Sam says: Yes, on the whole.

4) Some parts of the Gospels (and other parts of the NT) come from dreams, visions etc. - which are not reliable ways of obtaining knowledge.

Sam says: yes.

5) There is no reference to Jesus in other extra-Biblical documents before 95 AD, and much of that is historically dubious.

Sam says: this is an anachronism. There was no 'Bible' at the time these documents were produced. Part of the reason why they were included in the New Testament was because they were perceived as being the most historically reliable.

6) We have no record of what happened in the early Christian church from 62 - 95 AD (the First Christian Dark Age), and no evidence that what oral knowledge survived was reliable.

Sam says:? You've just said that this was when the gospels were written... As for the reliability of oral knowledge, that has been the subject of much research over the last couple of decades.

7) The initial revelations about Jesus (from 20 - 40 AD) detail his incarnation, death, and resurrection to have taken place in heaven, not on Earth.

Sam says: eh? where did you get this from? Rennes-le-Chateau?

8) The Jesus story bears many striking similarities to known myths, and mythical beings have often been historicized (euhemerization). Jesus scores very highly on the Rank-Raglan scale for mythical heroes (the same as Dionysus, and more than Hercules, Jason (of the Argonauts), Zeus etc.).

Sam says: even if true, so what?

Stephen Law said...

Hi Sam - you say:

"As for the reliability of oral knowledge, that has been the subject of much research over the last couple of decades."

I'd be interested to know more about this - have you details?

Timmo said...

Hi Stephen,

Fractious, indeed. :-P

I would look into it a bit, first, Timmo, before you suggest its good evidence for anything.

I definitely will. It's difficult, though, because history inquiry of this kind is beyond my training as a student of natural science. I hesitate to say anything at all simply because I'm not really qualified to say anything. The Montefiore paper looks interesting, but there just has to be work of more recent vintage as well... Maybe you could invite some colleague of yours who has some expertise in these issues.

Personally, I am not a Christian because I believe there is definitive evidence that Jesus was the Son of God; I am unapologetically a fideist on basically Jamesean grounds. For me, Christian theism is what John Bishop calls a 'doxastic venture.'

some of you are now attempting to muddy the waters by playing that old stand-by - "ah, well, there's no neutral standpoint from which to assess evidence."

This smacks of desperation. I was, quite, genuinely, expecting to be given some actual evidence


I wouldn't dismiss this possibility so quickly. We can certainly learn something from Quine and Kuhn here. Why can't our historical inquiry be theory-laden in such a way that Christians and non-Christians face a kind of incommensurability here? Just as Kuhn would insist there is no neutral position from which scientists can judge competing paradigms, there may be no neutral positions from which historians can judge Biblical and non-Biblical reports of Jesus. This failure to make contact is a recurrent theme in epistemology and philosophy of science -- I'm not surprised if it should show up in such an intractable matter as this one.

Joshua said...

@Sam Norton -
"Sam says: actually the consensus [...] We can also be pretty sure that Luke's gospel is by Luke (given that Vol 2 is Acts with the first person testimony)."

Your consensus seems to be different from mine. Even when I was in a thoroughly orthodox bible class in Catholic school they were not saying that Gos. Luke and Acts were by Paul's associate Luke. Nor were they suggesting that much of the Gospel was from eyewitness testimony. Instead we got to learn about oral tradition and how great people's memory were back then. And this has continued to be the story I've heard from most mainstream sources, including the "Understanding the Bible," textbook I have in front of me.

Grumpy said...

Three points, that might be vaguely relevant:

1 1) The authors of the Gospels are unknown, and cannot confidently be taken to be eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry.

Sam says: actually the consensus is that there is a substantial amount of eyewitness testimony contained in them - along with a lot of other accretions along the way. We can also be pretty sure that Luke's gospel is by Luke (given that Vol 2 is Acts with the first person testimony).


Fibber. Don't xtians have something about not bearing false witness in their instruction manual? Try reading Bart Ehrman's 'Misquoting Jesus'.


2 The Ebionites (according to some scholarship) were contemporaries of Jesus (and perhaps his original followers), to whom virgin birth, divine paternity, miracles, resurrection, were simply unknown. In later centuries they were condemned as heretics. Point? Whether or not Jesus existed is irrelevant - the Jesus of xtian faith is a character of pure invention.

3 PZ Myers' "Courtier's Reply"

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/12/the_courtiers_reply.php

anticant said...

Timmo:

Jamesian fideism boils down to a more sophisticated version of Pascal's Wager - which, as I've observed elsewhere, is a rather morally disreputable justification for belief.

Sam Norton said...

Stephen, on the subject of oral tradition, these are the references in Dunn's 'A new perspective on Jesus' which is my main source for the comment (Bauckham's 'Jesus and the Eyewitnesses' goes into it in more depth but I haven't read it yet - tho' it is by my elbow as I type this!)

AB Lord - The Singer of Tales
J Vansina - Oral Tradition as History
R Finnegan - Oral Literature in Africa
I Okpewho - African Oral Literature


which led to the work of Kenneth Bailey on the synoptics, which people like Dunn and Bauckham have taken forward.

Stephen Law said...

I have put up a new post. I might be less active for a bit as got stuff to do... But v interested in what Sam has to say, of course.

Paul Power said...

Sam:

You seem to be inviting us again to infer Jesus' existence when we are looking for some evidence.