Why I’m not an Atheist #3 – Jesus

Everything Iʼve said to this point you might describe as the negative reasons for my not being an atheist — things which others find persuasive about atheism which I donʼt find persuasive.

But the strongest reason I refrain from choosing atheism is because of Jesus. I suppose itʼs natural for someone like myself to be categorised as a ʻtheistʼ, but I feel no particular attachment to theism per se. I am a Christian — if I am a theist, it is not because I have highly developed arguments for theism which have led me there. It is because I am convinced — rightly or wrongly — that God took on human form in the man Jesus Christ, and that he did so in order to save humanity from his own judgement.

But again atheism is quick to expose my convictions as a delusion.

“Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history…” (The God Delusion, p. 122)

Why do I hold on to my convictions about the historicity of Jesus Christ when there is so
much scholarship indicating itʼs a myth generated over time?

Well, the thing about this scholarship Dawkinsʼ talks about is that it doesnʼt actually exist.

I donʼt mean that there are NO scholars that propose the kind of things Dawkinsʼ says, but that the claim that ʻreputable biblical scholars in generalʼ say this kind of thing is just not defensible. There are SOME scholars who make those kind of claims, and often do so not in journals but in publishing direct to the public.

But reading a little more widely than just Richard Dawkins, and Barbara Thiering, you discover that within scholarship itself there is large ʻmiddle groundʼ which just gets on and analyses the NT documents in just the same way you would analyse any other document from history — neither to debunk nor to defend Christianity, but to see what they say historically. Sweeping claims that that scholarship slants towards a mythological reading of those gospels is just absurd. It shows that Dawkins is not acquainted with serious historical scholarship, or chooses not to write about.

Terry Eagleton is a marxist scholar who wrote a justly famous review of Dawkins book. In it he had this to say about Dawkinsʼ engagement with scholarship:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they donʼt believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday. – Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”, London Review of Books, October 19, 2006.

In talking about Jesus, I need to address that historical question, because you may be expecting me to defend my convictions about the historical Jesus. But I would suggest the shoe is on the other foot — if you are convinced of the mythology of the gospels, and heir mutilation over time … where have those convictions come from? Why are you so sure of them? Is it because you understand the history, or because you have taken on faith the claims of certain scholars and writers? I know you can run off to the web, or pull out the God Delusion and find someone who agrees with you — but Christians can do that too.

Finding someone to agree with you can help, but it doesnʼt make it right.

For me, there is good reason to understand the documents of the New Testament as providing a historically reliable connection with Jesus Christ. The documents were written by eyewitness, or were the words of the eyewitnesses written down within the lifetime of those who had lived with Jesus. There were many other gospels, but these were second century documents that synthesised the original Jesus with 2nd century gnosticism — which was the reason for their rejection. The transmission of the documents was not without error, but there are so many copies of the NT from different periods and different regions that the copying errors are pretty easy to identify, and very few of them are of any real significance.

Now they are just claims, and there is historical data behind those claims — I did a whole talk on it at CU last semester called “True Words?”— you can listen to it on CUʼs website if you want.

So when I say that Jesus is the definitive reason that Iʼm not an atheist, I hope you donʼt think to yourself, Well heʼs just deluded, and has an imaginary friend called Jesus, or that Iʼm worshipping some later myth about Jesus. When I say Jesus, I mean the real historical Jesus who I think it is plausible to believe was a man who claimed to be both the son of God and the saviour of the world.

But itʼs not Jesusʼ historicity — itʼs Jesus himself who is the main reason why I interpret atheism’s claims negatively.

I donʼt worship Jesus because Iʼve got good arguments about him — I worship him because he is supremely worthy of worship. He is the creator who has written himself into his creation. I hope you will forgive me if I speak about him!

He claimed to be without sin; he claimed to be God, and did things that only God could do; he claimed to be the only path to reconciliation with God. It was because of those claims that Jesus was treated without compassion. He wasnʼt crucified for telling people to love each other — but for claiming to be the king! He was lied about, arrested, endured a mock trial, beaten, whipped, nailed to a cross and a crowd mocked him and spat on him. In the face of that rejection, on the cross, his concern was for the forgiveness of his enemies. In his death, he paid a penalty, enduring our death for us – that we could be forgiven. The creator died for us in order to reconcile us to himself.

Jesus confronts us: he says we are corrupt, not just morally, but intellectually. That in cut
ting ourselves off from God we have forced ourselves into a position of having to invent
alternative explanations for the world that donʼt include God.

So I have a choice — I can listen to what the atheist says about Jesus (a mythological figure, misunderstood by Christians), or listen to what Jesus says about the atheist (humans loved by God but in rebellion against him creating philosophies with which to remove Godʼs influence). Each has an explanatory power about the other — itʼs not an easy decision. I am not an atheist, because I have listened to Jesus and for my part, I am persuaded he speaks truth.

71 Comments Why I’m not an Atheist #3 – Jesus

  1. Brian

    "The documents were written by eyewitness, or were the words of the eyewitnesses written down within the lifetime of those who had lived with Jesus."

    That seems a pretty bold claim. From what I understand, we don't know the identity of any of the authors of the Gospels and they don't read like a first hand account. They often look like they are written from a third person omniscient perspective, describing people's thoughts as though the author could read their minds.

    The differences between the Gospels are enough to make many wonder how they can disagree over some pretty important details if they were written by eye witnesses.

    I think Bart Ehrman addresses these issues in a pretty reasonable manner, but some don't like the suggestion of a Bible that has very human finger prints all over it.

    Personally, I have considered the issues at pretty great length and Christianity seems no more divinely inspired than any other of the thousands of religions that have come and gone.

  2. Jus

    I like. I thinks sometimes christians can be just as offensive and smug as atheists about what they believe, and in most discussions people blog 'in anger' after being offended and end up with an argument with people stuck in there respective corners, with fingers in their ears, trying to get their point across. I like that you have just presented your viewpoint and why you beleive in that without trying to win easy/low points by condemning anyone else beliefs or their intelligence. I guess we will see where the discussion will go . .

  3. David

    Hi Brian,
    Thanks for the comments. Here’s some quick responses.

    “we don’t know the identity of any of the authors of the gospels”

    Well, it depends who you’re happy to listen to. There’s 2nd century writers who retrospectively identify the authors pretty well — eg, Papias in the 120’s (check him out on wikipedia). Of course, those documents are within the church tradition, so there’s plenty of skeptical scholarship (I think about 50/50 actually), but my gripe with skeptical scholarship is that it’s skeptical about everyone’s scholarship except its own. Why should I trust a 20th century skeptic rather than a 2nd century believer — should I trust them just b/c they are skeptical (and therefore not ‘taken in’)? What if I adopted the same skeptical stance towards them?

    “don’t read like a first hand account”

    That begs the question: What does a _first century_ eyewitness account read like? If you mean it doesn’t read like a _twentieth century_ eyewitness account, well that’s no surprise. But what does it read like? In fact they don’t read like anything — not even the ancient mythologies (as C.S. Lewis often pointed out). They are their own genre — which could mean they are either a clever invention or the product of a singularly extraordinary event.

    “as though the author could read their minds”

    No need to do mind reading if you speak to the people involved — as Luke’s gospel claims to have done. The recounting of inner thoughts could just as much be evidence of a connection to the original person.

    “disagreements”

    If they all spoke exactly the same, our suspicions would go into hyperdrive — obvious evidence of the books being ‘cooked’. Some differences are readily explained (see Wenham’s excellent “Easter Enigma” that does a great job understanding the differences of the resurrection accounts). For my part, other differences are evidence of genuine eyewitness variation — but I guess that discussion would need to look at particular instances of variation.

    I haven’t read a great deal of Bart Ehrman, but the bits I have read make me think he overplays his hand. I think if you go as far as Ehrman does in his discussion of ancient literary methods you would have to dismiss not just the gospels but pretty much everything from ancient history — something I don’t think he’s willing to do. But happy to be corrected if I’ve misrepresented him!

    Christians (as distinct from muslims) have never been embarrassed by the very human fingerprint on the texts. We’ve always loved that God’s sovereignty does not work around humanity (as in Islam), but even in and through human frailty.

    Just some quick thoughts… thanks for stopping by.

    1. Brian

      Hey David, you stated above that, "I donʼt worship Jesus because Iʼve got good arguments about him — I worship him because he is supremely worthy of worship. " so I'm not sure you are really interested in a detailed discussion of the things I mentioned above.

      I'll just make a few observations on your response.

      You said to check out Papias on Wiki and after doing so I was struck by this,

      "There is question whether the documents which Papias knew as the Gospels of Matthew and Mark are the same ones that we have today: Matthew is a narrative, rather than a sayings gospel with commentary, and some scholars reject the thesis that it was originally written in Hebrew. (See the Gospel according to the Hebrews.) [4]

      Papias also related a number of traditions that Eusebius had characterized as "some strange parables and teachings of the savior, and some other more mythical accounts."[5] [6]For example, Eusebius indicated that Papias heard stories about Justus, surnamed Barsabas, who drank poison but suffered no harm and another story via a daughter of Philip the Evangelist concerning the resurrection of a corpse.[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papias_of_Hierapolis

      You ask whether you should trust a second century believer or a modern skeptic. I say check the evidence and see how well it holds up. If Eusebius had questions concerning Papias as a reliable source, what are we to make of it?

      You'll have to forgive me, but appealing to the traditions of the church elicits very little confidence in me. I have observed enough "lying for Jesus" by modern Christians (Young Earth Creationists as an example) to have formed a healthy skepticism of the claims made by early Christian apologists. It's not that I dismiss them, I just don't attribute any more honesty to them than to any other person with a faith to protect.

      Dave >>"They are their own genre — which could mean they are either a clever invention or the product of a singularly extraordinary event."

      Well, as there were myriads of writings from that period that Christians reject as invention, so I don't think it is a stretch to seriously consider the Gospels as inventions as well. Again, here we have to rely on church tradition. Is there good reason to believe the Gospels that made the canon were indeed the right ones? I don't have that level of confidence in the Catholic church.

      Dave>>>"I haven't read a great deal of Bart Ehrman, but the bits I have read make me think he overplays his hand. " If you have the inclination read Jesus Interrupted. If nothing else it will give you some insight into why some reject the Bible as an inerrant set of writings.

      Thanks for responding and I appreciate your comments.

      1. Andrew

        "I just don't attribute any more honesty to them than to any other person with a faith to protect. "

        That's just an assumption that their bias (an everyone has bias) always corrupts their viewpoint. It assumes that they are more committed to their views than to the truth, which is an unsubstantiated assumption, and one which actually cuts both ways.

        "Well, as there were myriads of writings from that period that Christians reject as invention, so I don't think it is a stretch to seriously consider the Gospels as inventions as well."

        The gnostic gospel came later and were obviously invention. The synoptics hold up far better to historical scrutiny, and so it's rather presumptuous and premature to dismiss them a priori. But you say you don't dismiss the testimony of early church fathers, so what is your argument against such early attestation, apart from simply being sceptical?

        "f nothing else it will give you some insight into why some reject the Bible as an inerrant set of writings."

        I tend to agree with Dave that Ehrman overplays his hand. But the point of the matter is that one doesn't even need to assume inerrancy to establish the historicity of the resurrection, let alone Jesus' himself. Non-inerrancy is no reason to reject the text out of hand as having value as historical documents (as some, such such Dawkins seem want to do)

        I realise you were responding to Dave… sorry If I've butted in where I shouldn't have.

        1. Brian

          Hi Andrew, I don't mind you butt in. : )

          I wanted to clarify something though,

          Me>>I just don't attribute any more honesty to them than to any other person with a faith to protect. "

          Andrew>>That's just an assumption that their bias (an everyone has bias) always corrupts their viewpoint. It assumes that they are more committed to their views than to the truth, which is an unsubstantiated assumption, and one which actually cuts both ways.

          Dave said "The documents were written by eyewitness, or were the words of the eyewitnesses written down within the lifetime of those who had lived with Jesus."

          I said that was a bold claim.

          He offered Papais as a source to back up that claim and I pointed out that

          "Papias also related a number of traditions that Eusebius had characterized as "some strange parables and teachings of the savior, and some other more mythical accounts."[5] [6]For example, Eusebius indicated that Papias heard stories about Justus, surnamed Barsabas, who drank poison but suffered no harm and another story via a daughter of Philip the Evangelist concerning the resurrection of a corpse.[7]

          To which I added that appeals to tradition are not very weighty to me and that I have seen enough "lying for Jesus" to be suspicious of apologists. At this juncture, we are at we have eyewitness accounts attested by a Christian historian appealing to Papais whom on other matters thinks that Papais puts forth "some strange parables and teachings of the savior, and some other more mythical accounts."

          One of these accounts being "Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out. "

          Hopefully you will pardon the strength of the language I used and understand the sentiments behind what I said. I agree that all people have biases which is why the more fantastic a claim, the better the evidence needed to substantiate it.

          >>ME-"Well, as there were myriads of writings from that period that Christians reject as invention, so I don't think it is a stretch to seriously consider the Gospels as inventions as well."

          >>Andrew-"The gnostic gospel came later and were obviously invention. The synoptics hold up far better to historical scrutiny, and so it's rather presumptuous and premature to dismiss them a priori. But you say you don't dismiss the testimony of early church fathers, so what is your argument against such early attestation, apart from simply being sceptical?"

          I think you misunderstood my position of the early church fathers. I pointed out the quote of Eusebius in the Wiki article to show that Papais is being used as evidence that we know who wrote the Gospels, and yet Papais is said by Eusebius to have some wacky ideas on other things.

          As for things being "obvious invention", II Peter is included in modern Bibles and yet
          "In spite of its heavy stress on Petrine authorship, II Pet is nowhwere mentioned in the second century. The apologists, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, and the Muratorian Canon are completely silent about it. Its first attestation is in Origen, but according to him the letter is contested (αμφιβαλλεται). Eusebius lists it among the antilegomena. . . Even down to the fourth century II Pet was largely unknown or not recognized as canonical. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/2peter.html

          How would it be possible that a letter written by Jesus's right hand man Peter would be unknown up until the fourth century? Is this a case of someone writing something and putting a well known name on it to give it weight? So when it comes to what is "obvious invention", there seems to have been some questions early on.

          This and many other things are what give me pause when someone comes along with a Bible and says, "This is God's Word.".

          Just to be clear, I didn't reject the Gospels a priori, I came from a religious home and spent around 8 years as a devout and believing Christian. I studied these things in great depth.

          Thanks for your thoughts, I hope I've made my position a little clearer.

          1. Andrew

            Thanks for your reply, and apologies for why I misunderstood you.

            "I added that appeals to tradition are not very weighty to me and that I have seen enough "lying for Jesus" to be suspicious of apologists."

            Some appeal to tradition is legitimate. The question is whether there is sufficient unanimous tradition in this case. Also, the behaviour of AiG is basically irrelevant to ancient sources, which must be assesed independantly of whatever a particular modern special-interest group like AiG does. I might otherwise point to holocaust deniers who lie about certain historical aspects and thus suggest that all historians are thus under suspicion of 'lying for their agenda'. So pointing to AiG is a red herring, if not ad hominem.

            "As for things being "obvious invention", II Peter is included in modern Bibles and yet… "

            2nd Peter is largely irrelevant, as I don't recall it being used a source, nor do I recall encountering nay apologists who use it as a main source. Mark's authorship of his gospel is generally accepted, and the earliest references in the Pauline epistles are likewise generally accepted.

            "This and many other things are what give me pause when someone comes along with a Bible and says, "This is God's Word.". "

            I don't know that anyone has actually done that here? Have they?
            One does not need to assume inerrancy to establish the historicity of the resurrection.

  4. @cameronreilly

    Brian is correct.

    There is hardly any evidence to support the theory that Jesus actually existed. The NT "gospels" were written anonymously and don't even claim to be written by eyewitnesses. Papais' attributions have nothing to support them as being factual.

    The simple fact is that there isn't a single eyewitness or contemporary account of Jesus – nothing. All that exists are stories about a magical healer – all of which were written many decades after events are supposed to have occurred. The letters of Saul / Paul are the earliest known writings and he, by his own account, wasn't an eyewitness. Furthermore, he doesn't refer to any life events of Jesus apart from oblique and vague references to the "last supper" and crucifixion. All in all, the Jesus stories (including the non-canonical texts such as "The Infancy Gospel of Thomas") appear to be just another mystic cult that arose out of the primitive minds of Jewish peasants living in the Middle East 2000 years ago. The only thing that made it any different from the many similar cults was that, somehow, in the early 4th century, they managed to win the support of a brutal dictator – the Emperor Constantine – which enabled them to murder their enemies and crush dissent.

    1. Andrew

      "all of which were written many decades after events are supposed to have occurred."

      Hi Cameron. With all due respect, the only people who consider this an issue are anti-Christian popular media types… oh wait… ;)
      Seriously, though, this really isn't isn't the problem that the so called 'New Atheists' make out. In historical terms, the documents relating to Jesus are very early. I'm sure I needn't point you to a comparative chart to show just how close in time, and how many more extant manuscripts exists of the NT documents than any other comparable ancient text.
      20-50 years is very early in ancient terms.

      "There is hardly any evidence to support the theory that Jesus actually existed."

      This simply is not the case. You will not read this in any serious, mainstream, reputable scholarship. The only place you will read this is in the works of the popular 'New Atheists' and the very extreme fringe of scholarship (more often by people working outside their field of expertise – e.g. Wells.) To do deny the historicity of Jesus is akin to denying evolution – I take those who deny the historicity of Jesus against the overwhelming acceptance of scholarship the same way that I suspect you take Ken Ham and AiG.

      "All in all, the Jesus stories (including the non-canonical texts such as "The Infancy Gospel of Thomas") appear to be just another mystic cult that arose out of the primitive minds of Jewish peasants living in the Middle East 2000 years ago."

      N.T. Wright has shown that this is simply a very very poor and improbable explanation.

      "somehow, in the early 4th century, they managed to win the support of a brutal dictator "

      Indeed. The Christian cult was too powerful to ignore and persecute anymore! And just how did that extrememly unlikely thing happen? Historians who presuppose naturalism have no valid answer.

      1. @cameronreilly

        Andrew

        "In historical terms, the documents relating to Jesus are very early."

        This is a) nonsense and b) beside the point.

        It's nonsense because we have plenty of historical documents written by actual historical figures in their own hand (Julius and Augustus Caesar come to mind) as well as accounts of those people written by direct eyewitnesses (in the case of Julius, we have the writings of Cicero, Sallust, Catullus, etc).

        It's beside the point because, as I said before, we don't have a single direct eyewitness or contemporary account of Jesus. Even if that was true of all historical figures – and it isn't – it still wouldn't lend credibility to the historicity of Jesus. Absence of evidence isn't evidence.

        "You will not read this in any serious, mainstream, reputable scholarship."

        Again, this is a) nonsense and b) doesn't refute my statement. There are a number of brave scholars (Earl Doherty, Robert M. Price), albeit a small number, who are have written "reputable" works on the subject. The fact that most scholars, who are, of course, Christians, aren't prepared to state the obvious doesn't refute my statement that there is hardly evidence for Jesus. Rather than make blanket dismissals of my point, perhaps you'd be kind enough to point to the evidence instead?

        1. Nathan

          Cameron,

          I'm curious as to why it matters so much to you, as an atheist, that the recordings of Jesus's teachings be accurate or not.

          What rests on the matter? If you were convinced that the recorded words of Jesus were accurate would that change your opinion on Jesus? On the question of the existence of god(s)?

          I'm curious more than anything.

          When you say "hardly any evidence of Jesus", I think you need to also provide some rational rationale for the existence both in the first century, and since, of people who choose to follow him.

          What is your explanation for Christianity – not for religion – particularly in the first and second centuries?

        2. Andrew

          Hi Cameron, thanks for taking the time to reply.

          "It's nonsense because we have plenty of historical documents written by actual historical figures in their own hand (Julius and Augustus Caesar come to mind) as well as accounts of those people written by direct eyewitnesses (in the case of Julius, we have the writings of Cicero, Sallust, Catullus, etc)."

          But of course, that is exceptional (and we might very well expect such a disparity between the Roman Emporer and a provincially executed Rabbi), and one cannot use lack of such as an indicator against historicity, else we'd be forced to throw out a considerable amount of accepted scholarship.

          "It's beside the point because, as I said before, we don't have a single direct eyewitness or contemporary account of Jesus. Even if that was true of all historical figures – and it isn't – it still wouldn't lend credibility to the historicity of Jesus. Absence of evidence isn't evidence."

          I agree that absence of evidence isn't evidence, but you ignore the evidence that does exist, the textual evidence. Absence of direct eyewitness testimony (which I dispute) is not evidence of myth either.
          You can only assert that no eyewitness testimony exists if you first dismiss authorship. And again, a document dating to within 20 years is very very close – let alone when sayings within that text can be reasonably dated to within 5 years of the event. The texts were written based on eyewitness accounts (if not some by eyewitnesses) and within the lifetime of witnesses.
          The fact remains that the NT stands up as well, if not better, than many historical documents – unless you move the goalposts because of bias.

          "Again, this is a) nonsense and b) doesn't refute my statement. There are a number of brave scholars (Earl Doherty, Robert M. Price), albeit a small number, who are have written "reputable" works on the subject."

          Reputable perhaps (of good repute?), but not mainstream. The Jesus Seminar is the radical fringe of scholarship (and the majority of it's members are not employed as professional historians.. perhaps that explains the fundamentally flawed criteria of dissimilarity they employ? In fact, it is even only a minority within the JS who deny the existence of Jesus). According to Wikipedia, even Wells, who agrees with Doherty's conclusions criticises his arguments. Pointing to the Jesus Seminar and assuming you've made you argument is like someone pointing to 'the brave scientists' at Answers in Genesis and thinking they've rebutted Evolutionary Biology. I further note that neither Doherty or Price hold professorships in history or NT studies at accredited universities. That, of course, doesn't make their arguments wrong, but it does show that they are not mainstream' and leads a layman like me to question how reputable they are in historical circles and to side with the consensus of professional historical scholarship.

          "The fact that most scholars, who are, of course, Christians, aren't prepared to state the obvious doesn't refute my statement that there is hardly evidence for Jesus."

          That's nonsense. The consensus of scholarship includes the critical scholars who don't accept the historicity of the resurrection, and the consensus comes to their conclusion on the evidence, not a prior commitment (the argument of which easily cuts both ways!). If it was so obvious, as you say, that there is no evidence for Jesus, such a consensus of historians would not be the case.

          "Rather than make blanket dismissals of my point, perhaps you'd be kind enough to point to the evidence instead? "

          It's not a blanket dismissal to point out that you hold to a significant minority view, one not held by any professor of History (that I know of) at a major university. And thus the burden lies with you to show why the scholarly consensus is wrong. So far you've done little more than shift the goalposts.

          Jesus existence is attested by multiple, independent sources, some of them very early. Further, as someone has pointed out, the Christ-Myth theory fails to actually account for the existence of the church (not to mention, lacks any evidence to support it, e.g. there is no such competing account).

          I don't expect to be able to overcome your apparent prejudice, but for those reading, here is some links:

          http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=GtdzmykR_XMC&a

          http://www.bethinking.org/bible-jesus/advanced/th

  5. Leah

    "I just don't attribute any more honesty to them than to any other person with a faith to protect. "

    I always find it remarkable when I hear comments like this; people seem to think a person is first a Christian, and then a rational being who attempts to protect the Christianity they've committed to, instead of the reverse; a rational being who has been convinced of the claims of Christianity.

    Also as for @cameronreilly – There are many eyewitness accounts of Jesus, AND accounts from secondary witnesses who met and talked with eye witnesses – both Christian and non-Christian. There are more documents to support the notion of Jesus' life than there are to support Julius Caesar's conquests. The oldest known copies of the gospels may have been written several decades after Jesus' life, but the oldest known copies of Caesar's Commentaries were written several centuries after his life. Of course it's very probable there were earlier manuscripts, but as they've long since been lost, we can't study them or compare them with what we have to verify the accuracy of the accounts we do have.
    Whether you believe Jesus' claims he was God or not is a different matter, but it's virtually universally agreed by modern historians that he at least existed.

    1. Brian

      "I just don't attribute any more honesty to them than to any other person with a faith to protect. "

      I always find it remarkable when I hear comments like this; people seem to think a person is first a Christian, and then a rational being who attempts to protect the Christianity they've committed to, instead of the reverse; a rational being who has been convinced of the claims of Christianity.

      Hey Leah, I see you feel offended that I don't attribute more honesty to those defending their beliefs. Fair enough, but I would ask how you approach those of faiths you don't share and what you might think about their apologetics.

      Take Mormons (forgive me it you are a Mormon and I can find another example) and their defense of Joseph Smith and their church history.

      Do you think all those who go to bat for the authenticity of the Mormon church are Mormons because they were led there rationally or are they defending a faith they have all ready committed to? Do you suspect that perhaps the leaders and founders of the Mormon faith may have suppressed things contrary to and emphasized things supporting their positions? Or would you consider them no more honest than say a Muslim defending the Koran?

      The early church was known for destroying all written materials that they deemed subversive and we wouldn't have known anything about some groups had some manuscripts not been uncovered by some very fortuitous discoveries.

      If the early church suppressed what they didn't want to exist, is it really so offensive that I don't attribute any more honesty to them than I do Mormon apologists? Andrew didn't think my mention of AIG was relevant, but it does illustrate the lengths some will go to suppress material that disagrees with them and promote material that does (or seems to).

      Just a question on your reply to cameronreily- if the documents that support Julius Caesar's conquests made claims that he was born of a virgin, performed miracles and died and came back to life would you give them equal weight to what the Gospels say of Jesus? Do you believe Romulus was born of a virgin? Zoroaster was said to have many qualities similar to Jesus, do you accept them?

      Christianity didn't really bring anything new to the table in the person of Jesus and Justin Martyr went as far as to explain the similarities between the pagan stories and the Gospels as diabolical mimicry. The devil knew it would happen and influenced the beliefs of pagans to preempt Jesus. http://shemaantimissionary.tripod.com/id11.html

      Your claim of eyewitnesses is very strong, I would be interested in which documents you are referring to.

      Thanks for voicing your thoughts, I hope it is a bit more clear where I am coming from.

      1. Kutz

        Hey Brian,

        I'd just like to thank you and Dave and Andrew for this discussion and the manner in which you've conducted it. :)

        Kutz.

        1. Brian

          I appreciate your appreciation. :)

          I find I have to really pay attention to how I say things. As you can see, I don't always succeed in picking the right way to phrase my thoughts.

      2. Kutz

        Hey Brian, :)

        I don't think I'd agree with your reasoning in the above response. Take this statement:

        "Do you think all those who go to bat for the authenticity of the Mormon church are Mormons because they were led there rationally or are they defending a faith they have all ready committed to?"

        I think the first reason would be that you're arguing here against every Mormon having integrity. Fair enough argument, too. It would be particularly strange if every single Mormon maintained their integrity. The conclusion you end up drawing, however, is that no person who makes a faith claim is likely to have integrity. It's moved from a 'not all' argument with regard to the example to a 'not one' argument with regard to any religious claim. (I know you're working in probability and not absolutes, but can you see what I mean about the change in conclusion?)

        You mentioned:
        "If the early church suppressed what they didn't want to exist, is it really so offensive that I don't attribute any more honesty to them than I do Mormon apologists?"

        This is essentially an argument about character, if I'm not mistaken. (Correct me if I am!) A good argument form to use, I would say. If they are known for x, then could they not do y? The problem with your use of the argument, it seems to me, is that it doesn't take into account all the data we have about the early church. They were also known for willingly dying for the sake of Jesus, other Christians and even non-Christians, at no personal benefit to themselves. There are plenty of other things the early Christians were known for. You have to take into account more than one bit of the data.

        So my main response to your thoughts seems to be with respect to the tendency to generalise somewhat about credibility issues. Do you think they're fair comments?

        Just a couple of other thoughts, less important though.

        I'm actually surprised to hear you say:
        "The early church was known for destroying all written materials that they deemed subversive and we wouldn't have known anything about some groups had some manuscripts not been uncovered by some very fortuitous discoveries."

        I'm no expert in the field, so I'm ignorant as to what evidence you're referring to. Could you give me some examples or something?

        And lastly:
        "Christianity didn't really bring anything new to the table in the person of Jesus"

        I'm not sure this claim can be justified. Claiming to be God incarnate and the source of all salvation for all the world, while no human effort can achieve this, is a claim that seems to me to be reasonably unique in terms of world religion. Zoroaster certainly didn't preach himself in this manner, as far as I have been able to make out.

        Cheers for taking the time to read.

        Kutz

        1. Brian

          Kutz, thanks for bringing up these points, maybe I can elaborate a little more. I hope David doesn’t mind us using this comments section to dialogue, if it’s not o.k. with him we can take it somewhere else. :)

          Kutz>>>Hey Brian, :)

          I don't think I'd agree with your reasoning in the above response. Take this statement:

          "Do you think all those who go to bat for the authenticity of the Mormon church are Mormons because they were led there rationally or are they defending a faith they have all ready committed to?"

          I think the first reason would be that you're arguing here against every Mormon having integrity. Fair enough argument, too. It would be particularly strange if every single Mormon maintained their integrity. The conclusion you end up drawing, however, is that no person who makes a faith claim is likely to have integrity. It's moved from a 'not all' argument with regard to the example to a 'not one' argument with regard to any religious claim. (I know you're working in probability and not absolutes, but can you see what I mean about the change in conclusion?)”

          Brian>>> Maybe I need to back up. Here is what I said,

          “Do you think all those who go to bat for the authenticity of the Mormon church are Mormons because they were led there rationally or are they defending a faith they have all ready committed to? Do you suspect that perhaps the leaders and founders of the Mormon faith may have suppressed things contrary to and emphasized things supporting their positions? Or would you consider them no more honest than say a Muslim defending the Koran?”

          This needs to be taken along with what I said earlier,

          “You'll have to forgive me, but appealing to the traditions of the church elicits very little confidence in me. I have observed enough "lying for Jesus" by modern Christians (Young Earth Creationists as an example) to have formed a healthy skepticism of the claims made by early Christian apologists. It's not that I dismiss them, I just don't attribute any more honesty to them than to any other person with a faith to protect.”

          I hope it is clear that I am mostly talking about skepticism at an institutional level, and I am not saying every Christian has honesty issues. I was hoping the Mormon example would show Leah that she probably harbors a healthy skepticism in regards to the founding and propagation of Mormon history and doctrine. Another excellent example is the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their many predictions and doctrinal reversals.

          Kutz>>>”You mentioned:
          "If the early church suppressed what they didn't want to exist, is it really so offensive that I don't attribute any more honesty to them than I do Mormon apologists?"

          This is essentially an argument about character, if I'm not mistaken. (Correct me if I am!) A good argument form to use, I would say. If they are known for x, then could they not do y? The problem with your use of the argument, it seems to me, is that it doesn't take into account all the data we have about the early church. They were also known for willingly dying for the sake of Jesus, other Christians and even non-Christians, at no personal benefit to themselves. There are plenty of other things the early Christians were known for. You have to take into account more than one bit of the data.”

          Brian>>>As I understand it, much of the earliest data about the early church comes from the pen of Eusebius, of whom there is doubt that he was a reliable historian. If nothing else, Eusebius was certainly a bit of a notorious figure. See- http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.v.htm

          Kutz>>>”So my main response to your thoughts seems to be with respect to the tendency to generalise somewhat about credibility issues. Do you think they're fair comments? “

          Brian>>>It’s fair in the sense that I am usually skeptical about credibility issues at the institutional level among apologists for their religions.

          I’m out of time, I’ll try and get the last points later.

          Brian

          1. Kutz

            Hey Brian, thanks for your response.

            I think your conclusion is helpful for interaction purposes.

            Brian>>>It’s fair in the sense that I am usually skeptical about credibility issues at the institutional level among apologists for their religions.

            I guess what I'm saying here is that this statement ultimately adds up to a scepticism of individuals, because of being part of an institution. The only individual with a faith claim that could be exempt from your institutional scepticism is one who never met with others who shared their faith. In practice, this rules out the testimony of any person holding Christian conviction as inherently suspect. From my perspective, the position still uses the argument that starts at "not all" and moves to "not one", casting something of a preconception over what evidence may be there. I hope that I'm being clear why it appears this is the case! Do you reckon that's a fair point?

            I would think that, as far as possible, an investigation of the evidence that doesn't a priori rule out (or make mandatory!) a truthful testimony by those who trust Jesus. I know we'll all come with bias and subjectivity, but that doesn't mean we can't work hard at removing that and examining each different truth claim for what it is.

            My question is, on what grounds do you choose the starting point of suspicion? I, like Dave, when I look at these documents see anything but the homogeny that comes with the kind of suppression that you suggest might have been characteristic of the early church. Especially in the NT itself it seems not to be scared of reporting its own doctrinal (and other) failings. (As you mention in terms of the differing details in certain of the gospels)

            Which of the gospels have you read most? Are there issues in them that for you make them not ring true? John claims to be written by an eyewitness, and Luke claims to have collated eyewitness testimony (though it's clear that for Luke II (Acts) he's claiming to be an eyewitness in the "we" passages). Those two claims could act as a starting point, I guess.

            Cheers for reading, looking forward to reading yours.
            Kutz

    2. @cameronreilly

      Leah

      "There are many eyewitness accounts of Jesus, AND accounts from secondary witnesses who met and talked with eye witnesses – both Christian and non-Christian. There are more documents to support the notion of Jesus' life than there are to support Julius Caesar's conquests."

      Sorry, Leah, that's just factually incorrect. Perhaps you'd like to provide the names of the eyewitnesses who claimed to see Jesus?

      As for Caesar, as I noted above, as have his own writings as well as writings of people who knew him personally and witnessed his deeds with their own eyes. The same can NOT be said about Jesus.

  6. David

    Hi Brian, Andrew, Kutz & Lurkers,

    Thanks all for the comments. Brian, I’ve enjoyed interacting with your thoughts — it’s challenged me and made me think things through again seeing new material.

    Can I come back to Papias? Or more specifically, Eusebius use of Papias. The wiki article as you rightly notice reminds us of E’s questions about P’s reliability. But what does this reservation on E’s part actually show? I think it _doesn’t_ show that E thought P was completely unreliable — since he is actually recounting some material positively. But then, on the other hand, it shows that E is not suppressing or hiding certain things that might be unhelpful for his cause. If Eusebius really was an AIG protype, he would never have mentioned anything about Papias’ questionable statements. But Eusebius is actually preserving ‘negative press’ and counter productive material. (In fact, this is rather like the gospels themselves, which contain much material that is critical of, or at the very least embarrassing for, the leaders of the nascent Christian movement.) I don’t think that makes E less reliable, or that we therefore have to reject everything Papias says — if anything it makes it _more_ difficult to assert that there’s some ‘agenda’ that is screwing up Eusebius’ history.

    And of course, Papias is just one example, albeit the earliest we have. There are many other 2nd & 3rd century attestations of the apostolic authorship of the gospels. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, Eusebius, Origen and probably the Muratorian Canon all have their say. Marcion, no friend of orthodox Christianity, attested Luke’s authorship in the mid 2nd century.

    Again, skeptical scholarship will be slow to given any weight to any of these statements — which is why I think, in the end, ‘going into the details’ is not always a path to solving the disagreement. A lot depends on the assumptions that we both bring as to who may be relied upon.

    1. Brian

      Hello again David, I don't have a lot of time so I thought maybe I would throw this out here.

      Let's say for arguments sake I accept E as a disinterested historian just penning info he is aware of and P's attestation concerning Mark is total fact. Where does that leave us?

      Say I grant Mark was a follower of Peter who according to Irenaeus wrote (Against Heresies 3.1.1): "After their departure [of Peter and Paul from earth], Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter." Note that Irenaeus had read Papias, and thus Irenaeus doesn't provide any independent confirmation of the statement made by the earlier author. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/mark.html

      This Mark's Gospel is supposed to be the earliest (despite claims that Matthew is, by early writers) and there are known deficiencies in this persons knowledge of the geography and customs of Palestine.

      A few examples,

      Mark 10:12, he has Jesus say that if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. Women could not divorce their husbands.

      Mark in chapter 7, where Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees, Jesus is made to quote the Greek Septuagint version of Isaiah in order to score his debate point. Unfortunately, the Hebrew version says something different from the Greek. Isaiah 29:13, in the Hebrew reads "their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote," whereas the Greek version – and the gospel of Mark – reads "in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men" [Revised Standard Version). Source http://www.opposingviews.com/arguments/mark

      There are geographical blunders as well that show he was not familiar with the area of Palestine and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke correct (or try to) some of these errors in their own accounts.

      So where does this leave us? We have a suspiciously mistaken account from a follower of a follower of Jesus attested to by E around 300A.D.? appealing to P as evidence of authorship.

      You said, "Again, skeptical scholarship will be slow to given any weight to any of these statements — which is why I think, in the end, 'going into the details' is not always a path to solving the disagreement. A lot depends on the assumptions that we both bring as to who may be relied upon."

      What advice would you give a skeptical scholar that would bring the right assumptions to their inquiries?

      Sorry to leave some things out there unaddressed but maybe debating details isn't going to go far until I can understand what approach you advocate in looking at the information.

      Thanks for your reply and I am enjoying exploring these questions.

  7. @cameronreilly

    David, with regard to E's attribution, the best we can say is that "Eusebius claimed that Papias claimed that he'd been told by someone (unknown) that the author of the book of Mark was a disciple of Peter." It's the worst case of chinese whispers in history and hardly the basis for an historical argument.

  8. David

    Hi Brian,

    Mark 10:12
    It depends whether you think Jesus spoke of divorce or desertion. With William Lane I tend to think the ‘divorce’ word was a later logical extension of the verse for the Roman empire situation where female divorce started to be permitted. But Jesus spoke of separation (as per the Western and Caesarean texts) — just as Ecclesiasticus 23:22-23 spoke of the same a couple of centuries earlier, and just as Herodias had sent a letter of separation to her husband (Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, ch v. 4.)
    Indeed (though I don’t know the underlying Greek) the English translation of Josephus here says “Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive” — the same Herodias Mark speaks of just 4 chapters before Mark 10. Almost certainly this is what Mark 10:12 is referring to.

    Mark 7
    Is there a substantive difference between the MT and the LXX at this point? I think it’s entirely appropriate if Mark is writing his gospel for a Greek reading audience, and quotes from the (familiar to them) Greek translation rather than the MT. There is a formal difference, but not a substantive difference between the two – in each case the fundamental issue is God’s refusal to accept worship when those worshipping are playacting with him.

    This is an apposite point at which to return to Ehrman. Ehrman pounces on this kind of thing and says: Look, here we’re getting Mark rather than Jesus (and maybe rather than Peter!). But the gospel writers are clearly being pastoral and theological and evangelistic in all their writing — and it’s a shame when Christians say otherwise. I just don’t agree with Ehrman that this means their history is unreliable — that’s a very big assumption that, I’m guessing, underpins all of Ehrman’s writing. That assumption needs to be demonstrated, rather than, well, assumed. Why is it not possible that the Gospel writers are doing theology, not b/c they are _obscuring_ Jesus, but b/c they are _bearing witness_ to the Jesus they have met and come to know?

    So, in terms of my ‘advice’ to the skeptical scholar, I might say, Every now and then, ask yourself whether it might be possible that the gospel writers are doing both theology and history — and that this is actually legitimate. Or, conversely, ask yourself, Why do I think theology and history are mutually incompatible disciplines? For my part, I don’t think _anyone_ can divorce their theology from their history — as humans we’re just not able to compartmentalise ourselves like that. I think Cameron has provided us with a striking example in this blog of someone whose widely known theology (or a-theology) is at play in the vigour of his bald historical assertions!

    1. Brian

      David, it seems my reply to this post was lost. but Andrew must have seen it on his end because he quoted it. Perhaps there is a glitch on my end. Regretfully, I did not save a copy of my post.

      David>> So, in terms of my 'advice' to the skeptical scholar, I might say, Every now and then, ask yourself whether it might be possible that the gospel writers are doing both theology and history — and that this is actually legitimate. Or, conversely, ask yourself, Why do I think theology and history are mutually incompatible disciplines? For my part, I don't think _anyone_ can divorce their theology from their history — as humans we're just not able to compartmentalise ourselves like that."

      These are interesting questions, but do you feel like this approach helps your claim that,""The documents were written by eyewitness, or were the words of the eyewitnesses written down within the lifetime of those who had lived with Jesus."

      I took this to mean that the content of the Gospels were the equivalent of the writers penning what they themselves witnessed or directly heard from the persons who did.

      How would we fit someone doing theology into the role of a historical writer?

      David>>>"For my part, I don't think _anyone_ can divorce their theology from their history — as humans we're just not able to compartmentalise ourselves like that." Can you clarify this?

      Thanks for your reply.

      1. Andrew

        Brian, I think this is your post:

        >>
        Hey David, I see you will be gone a few days, I hope things go well for you.

        Here are a few thoughts on your reply.

        David>>>>”Mark 10:12

        It depends whether you think Jesus spoke of divorce or desertion. With William Lane I tend to think the 'divorce' word was a later logical extension of the verse for the Roman empire situation where female divorce started to be permitted. But Jesus spoke of separation (as per the Western and Caesarean texts) — just as Ecclesiasticus 23:22-23 spoke of the same a couple of centuries earlier, and just as Herodias had sent a letter of separation to her husband (Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, ch v. 4.)

        Indeed (though I don't know the underlying Greek) the English translation of Josephus here says "Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive" — the same Herodias Mark speaks of just 4 chapters before Mark 10. Almost certainly this is what Mark 10:12 is referring to.”

        Brian>>>>So we have Mark detailing Jesus talking to Pharisees about divorce and he makes a reference to women doing something unknown among Jews in that culture, but rather than consider it a lack of knowledge on Mark’s part we ought to interpret it as Mark making a point against Roman women deserting their husbands? How one would read into this a relation to Herodias in chapter six baffles me, but it seems to satisfy you, so I will leave it at that.

        I’m going to skip Mark 7 and the geographical points for now because I think there is a more important issue underlying the exchange here.

        >>>David “This is an apposite point at which to return to Ehrman. Ehrman pounces on this kind of thing and says: Look, here we're getting Mark rather than Jesus (and maybe rather than Peter!). But the gospel writers are clearly being pastoral and theological and evangelistic in all their writing — and it's a shame when Christians say otherwise. I just don't agree with Ehrman that this means their history is unreliable — that's a very big assumption that, I'm guessing, underpins all of Ehrman's writing. That assumption needs to be demonstrated, rather than, well, assumed. Why is it not possible that the Gospel writers are doing theology, not b/c they are _obscuring_ Jesus, but b/c they are _bearing witness_ to the Jesus they have met and come to know?”

        With that in focus, I would like to ask a question that think is important at this point.

        How would a person detect an error in the Bible?

        I don’t know your particular views of inspiration and inerrancy, but in what way can the Gospels be taken to be a message of God? Did God somehow intervene to ensure that accurate information was transmitted from person to person?

        I want to come back to this statement,
        “Why is it not possible that the Gospel writers are doing theology, not b/c they are _obscuring_ Jesus, but b/c they are _bearing witness_ to the Jesus they have met and come to know?”

        Are you now saying the Gospels were written by people who had first hand contact with Jesus?

        I don’t know what kind of documents you consider the NT to be, but first we started with them being claimed as reliable historical accounts of Jesus existence, and now we seem to be at them being a theologized history.

        At this point I am having trouble picturing how you envision the process by which God transmitted information through the NT writers.

        I’m going to throw this out there for what it’s worth. I am beginning to find that many conversations about faults with the content of the NT end up being someone telling me that there are no errors in the Bible but only errors in my perceptions of the Bible. It feels a lot like a game of “heads I win, tails you lose”. This is why I am interested in how you think a person would recognize an error in the Bible.

        Thanks for your time and thoughts.

    2. Nathan

      Hi Brian,

      It is possible that your reply was threaded and hidden under a drop down link – as indicated by a the little triangle.

      I'm not sure why the system does this.

      I also rescued a comment from Andrew that went to spam. Multiple links are hard for my filters to cope with.

      1. Brian

        Thanks for trying to help Nathan, but the only reply that drops down is my second one.

        No worries. :)

  9. David

    Hi Cameron,

    >>”It’s the worst case of chinese whispers in history and hardly the basis for an historical argument.”

    If by that you mean that E is not a ‘airtight’ historical argument, fair enough. But then nothing is airtight in history. If you’re looking for proofs and absolutes, you’ve come to the wrong department.

    But if you mean, that there is no basis for _any_ historical argument, I don’t know what you could mean. The mere existence of _any_ ancient document is axiomatically a basis for an historical argument — it just depends what kind of argument you want to make from it. You want to argue that there have been chinese whispers — are you using Eusebius as _evidence_ for that assertion? I can’t see how it possibly supports it. You have to provide something at _least_ as substantial as the E document on the basis of which you are willing to assert that E (and all who come before him) are manifestly unreliable. Otherwise, those who agree with you will cheer, and those who disagree with you will just see prejudice.

    The fact that there are gaps in the history is neither here nor there. There are gaps in every area of history. We just have to live with that.

    1. Brian

      Hey David, I see you will be gone a few days, I hope things go well for you.

      Here are a few thoughts on your reply.

      David>>>>”Mark 10:12

      It depends whether you think Jesus spoke of divorce or desertion. With William Lane I tend to think the 'divorce' word was a later logical extension of the verse for the Roman empire situation where female divorce started to be permitted. But Jesus spoke of separation (as per the Western and Caesarean texts) — just as Ecclesiasticus 23:22-23 spoke of the same a couple of centuries earlier, and just as Herodias had sent a letter of separation to her husband (Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, ch v. 4.)

      Indeed (though I don't know the underlying Greek) the English translation of Josephus here says "Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive" — the same Herodias Mark speaks of just 4 chapters before Mark 10. Almost certainly this is what Mark 10:12 is referring to.”

      Brian>>>>So we have Mark detailing Jesus talking to Pharisees about divorce and he makes a reference to women doing something unknown among Jews in that culture, but rather than consider it a lack of knowledge on Mark’s part we ought to interpret it as Mark making a point against Roman women deserting their husbands? How one would read into this a relation to Herodias in chapter six baffles me, but it seems to satisfy you, so I will leave it at that.

      I’m going to skip Mark 7 and the geographical points for now because I think there is a more important issue underlying the exchange here.

      >>>David “This is an apposite point at which to return to Ehrman. Ehrman pounces on this kind of thing and says: Look, here we're getting Mark rather than Jesus (and maybe rather than Peter!). But the gospel writers are clearly being pastoral and theological and evangelistic in all their writing — and it's a shame when Christians say otherwise. I just don't agree with Ehrman that this means their history is unreliable — that's a very big assumption that, I'm guessing, underpins all of Ehrman's writing. That assumption needs to be demonstrated, rather than, well, assumed. Why is it not possible that the Gospel writers are doing theology, not b/c they are _obscuring_ Jesus, but b/c they are _bearing witness_ to the Jesus they have met and come to know?”

      With that in focus, I would like to ask a question that think is important at this point.

      How would a person detect an error in the Bible?

      I don’t know your particular views of inspiration and inerrancy, but in what way can the Gospels be taken to be a message of God? Did God somehow intervene to ensure that accurate information was transmitted from person to person?

      I want to come back to this statement,
      “Why is it not possible that the Gospel writers are doing theology, not b/c they are _obscuring_ Jesus, but b/c they are _bearing witness_ to the Jesus they have met and come to know?”

      Are you now saying the Gospels were written by people who had first hand contact with Jesus?

      I don’t know what kind of documents you consider the NT to be, but first we started with them being claimed as reliable historical accounts of Jesus existence, and now we seem to be at them being a theologized history.

      At this point I am having trouble picturing how you envision the process by which God transmitted information through the NT writers.

      I’m going to throw this out there for what it’s worth. I am beginning to find that many conversations about faults with the content of the NT end up being someone telling me that there are no errors in the Bible but only errors in my perceptions of the Bible. It feels a lot like a game of “heads I win, tails you lose”. This is why I am interested in how you think a person would recognize an error in the Bible.

      Thanks for your time and thoughts.

  10. Andrew

    @Brian "I don’t know your particular views of inspiration and inerrancy, but in what way can the Gospels be taken to be a message of God?"

    Inerrency and inspiration are basically irrelevant when considering the historical argument for the existence of Jesus. I don't think any other ancient text would be dismissed wholesale because of the existence of some errors. A reliable historical core can still be found. The two apparent errors you've cited bear no relevance to the existence of Jesus, because this is multiply attested – and attested by an earlier source. (Whether those apparent errors are actual or apparent is another issue)
    The earliest written reference to the crucifixion (and thus existence) comes about 20 years after the event, but the creed can be reliably traced to within five years. Further, Matthew and Luke might have used Mark and Q for some material, but there is also non-Markian material in both, which means they are to some degree independent. Then there is the non-Christian references (yes, there is some dispute about Josephus, but most scholars agree he wrote something about Jesus, even if it was edited later) Many other ancient figures' historicity would not be questioned on far less attestation. It seems that because of Jesus' claims the goal posts have been unfairly moved.

  11. Kutz

    Hey Andrew,

    In fairness to Brian, I don't think that he's coming from the same place as Cameron. Though he hasn't really clarified his exact position, which I think would be helpful, he doesn't seem to be working at the level of suspecting Jesus' existence entirely.

    @Brian: Where are you up to in your thinking on this one at the moment? Do you credit the existence of Jesus of Nazareth? Give any historical value to the NT documents?

    Perhaps I'll wait for Dave to get back and let him clarify his comments in response to Brian's thoughts. I suspect that what Dave was trying to communicate isn't exactly how Brian understood the post.

  12. Brian

    Andrew>>>Inerrency and inspiration are basically irrelevant when considering the historical argument for the existence of Jesus.

    Brian>>>O.K., I’ll set aside those considerations for now.

    Andrew>>>I don't think any other ancient text would be dismissed wholesale because of the existence of some errors. A reliable historical core can still be found. The two apparent errors you've cited bear no relevance to the existence of Jesus, because this is multiply attested – and attested by an earlier source. (Whether those apparent errors are actual or apparent is another issue)

    Brian>>>I don’t think the only two options are either accepting it wholesale or dismissing it wholesale. Errors are relevant to how much accepting or rejecting we might do in specific cases.

    You seem to say that even if Mark erred it’s irrelevant because we have multiple sources that pre-date Mark. Which source are you referring to?

    Andrew>>>The earliest written reference to the crucifixion (and thus existence) comes about 20 years after the event, but the creed can be reliably traced to within five years.

    Brian>>>Can you direct me to a source here? I’d be interested to look into this.

    Andrew>>>Further, Matthew and Luke might have used Mark and Q for some material, but there is also non-Markian material in both, which means they are to some degree independent. Then there is the non-Christian references (yes, there is some dispute about Josephus, but most scholars agree he wrote something about Jesus, even if it was edited later) Many other ancient figures' historicity would not be questioned on far less attestation. It seems that because of Jesus' claims the goal posts have been unfairly moved.

    Brian>>> It seems that Matthew contains about 89% of Mark and Luke has around 72%. They both contain much of Mark’s material and do not reveal who or where they got their information from, what do we make of that? I think it argues against them being eyewitness accounts as has been posited here earlier by David.

    You seem to be saying that, since the Gospels contain all sorts of miraculous claims there is a higher standard of evidence needed to establish Jesus’ place as a historical figure. Since you brought up Josephus, when he relates accounts of supernatural events, are we forced to choose to either accept Josephus wholesale or reject him wholesale?

    If we doubt the historicity of his miraculous accounts, are we moving the goal posts unfairly? He reports a heifer being taken to sacrifice that gave birth to a lamb. What do we do with a claim like that? He says a star the shape of a sword and a comet lingered over Jerusalem a year prior to its destruction. Does this lead to a rejection of everything he wrote? No, but when fantastic accounts are contained in an ancient document, we have to ask ourselves what is going on and do we treat it like an account of a war or a uprising or possibly an embellishment or myth or some other such thing?
    http://books.google.com/books?id=MNkUAAAAYAAJ&amp

    I feel like you are offering the choice between either, accepting the Gospels wholesale, or dismissing them wholesale. Are there other possible options you feel exist? A point I find interesting that ties in here is that Paul’s writings, which are considered earlier than the Gospels, make minimal references to Jesus’ life or teachings. Paul doesn’t even claim to be an eye witness, but has had some mystical communication with him. Was Paul’s Jesus a historical one?

    The claim was made that,
    "The documents were written by eyewitness, or were the words of the eyewitnesses written down within the lifetime of those who had lived with Jesus."
    and I still think that claim is bolder than the evidence bears out.

    Kutz>>> “Where are you up to in your thinking on this one at the moment? Do you credit the existence of Jesus of Nazareth? Give any historical value to the NT documents?”

    Brian>>>On the existence of Jesus, it seems there could be several Jesus’. Paul’s mystical Jesus is one of them. The Gospels may be, as David has suggested, theological writings which may be based on some person. It could be pseudo historical fiction written for a Christ cult.

    From what I have considered so far, I think the case for the historical Jesus is weaker than the one for a mythical Jesus.

    Thanks for the discussion.

    1. Andrew

      Hi Brian,

      >>"You seem to say that even if Mark erred it’s irrelevant because we have multiple sources that pre-date Mark. Which source are you referring to? "

      The two points you allege that Mark has erred (And I don't necessarily agree that he has.. but for argument's sake, let's assume he has) are not reason to cause us to doubt his attestation about Jesus' existence. The earliest reference to Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection (thus his existence) is from Paul in his first letter to the Church in Corinth, which is dated around 55 AD. There section in ch 15 I refer to specifically is almost certainly a kind of early creed which he probably first learned while in Jerusalem in the few years after his conversion in around 32AD (That's if we accept the date of 30AD for the crucifixion- which obviously assumes Jesus' existence!). So there's earlier attestation, and then there's the multiple attestation of other gospel and non-christian sources that Jesus at the very least existed and was crucified.

      >>"It seems that Matthew contains about 89% of Mark and Luke has around 72%. They both contain much of Mark’s material and do not reveal who or where they got their information from, what do we make of that? I think it argues against them being eyewitness accounts as has been posited here earlier by David."

      I don't think it necessitates that conclusion. And I'm not sure Luke is necessarily claiming to be an eyewitnesses, rather he claims to have done the research – and indeed, he is reckoned by some rather authoritative historians to be an historian of the first rank. They were still written within the lifetime of witnesses – it would be very easy for the Jewish authorities to rebut the growing cult by pointing out that Jesus never existed. Rather, the extant reference to their rebuttal, as found in Matthew, corroborates that Jesus existed AND that he was buried and the tomb was found empty.
      One of the normal criteria for historicity is lack of competing account, and no where do we see anyone assert that Jesus never existed, not until almost two millennia later!

      >>"You seem to be saying that, since the Gospels contain all sorts of miraculous claims there is a higher standard of evidence needed to establish Jesus’ place as a historical figure. Since you brought up Josephus, when he relates accounts of supernatural events, are we forced to choose to either accept Josephus wholesale or reject him wholesale?"

      No, I'm not saying that – in fact, I think that's part of the goal-shifting I'm arguing against. I do not think we need to reject or accept wholesale. But in rejecting the existence of Jesus one goes further than simply rejecting fanciful and supernatural events – for his existence, his crucifixion, his burial, the discovery of an empty tomb, claims of appearances, conversions, birth of the church etc, which are all accepted as historical by the majority of scholars, are not themselves miraculous. It is the explanation for these events that is miraculous. In other words, because Mark says that Jesus rose from the dead does not mean Jesus' existence is somehow therefore in doubt.

      >>"I feel like you are offering the choice between either, accepting the Gospels wholesale, or dismissing them wholesale. Are there other possible options you feel exist?"

      No, I'm not doing that at all – I'm arguing against that! One does not need to assume inerrancy (though to be clear I do accept it, but I don't argue from it) to find a reliable historical core in the NT documents. What Habermas calls the 12 'minimal facts' are those things which the majority of scholars -including those who certainly don't accept innerancy or the historicity of the resurrection itself – hold to be historical events.

    2. Andrew

      >>"A point I find interesting that ties in here is that Paul’s writings, which are considered earlier than the Gospels, make minimal references to Jesus’ life or teachings. Paul doesn’t even claim to be an eye witness, but has had some mystical communication with him. Was Paul’s Jesus a historical one?"

      Paul is writing pastorally, though he does cite the creed relating the resurrection. I disagree that his communication is mystical – he claimed to have met physically the resurrected Jesus. Paul argues at length that Christianity was firmly based on a physical, bodily resurrection, so yes, Paul's Jesus (which I don't see is any different to the Jesus of the gospels..) is historical.
      Remember there was an oral tradition, so most of the life of Jesus would have been known to the churches – Paul was primarily interested in the implications of Jesus' teaching for them.

      >>"From what I have considered so far, I think the case for the historical Jesus is weaker than the one for a mythical Jesus."

      I must say that I just don't understand how you come to this conclusion when his existence is so multiply attested, and no competing account is extant?
      The mythical Jesus theory seems little more than argument from silence after dismissing or ignoring the attestation for his existence.

      I wonder what you make of Tektonic's Gamaliel challenge? http://www.tektonics.org/jesusexist/jexfound.html

  13. Pingback: St. Eutychus » Who is Bert Erhman you say?

  14. Andrew

    Brian, btw… I have that missing post in my email archive somewhere… I will try to find it and post it for you if I get a chance..

  15. Brian

    Hey Andrew, I didn't want you to think I went AWOL on the discussion, my time has been pretty tight lately and there are a lot of things to consider in this topic.

    I'd like to ask if you would be interested (and anyone else who wants) in taking this topic to a forum I frequent that has a section dedicated to discussing Biblical criticism and history?

    The reason I propose this is two fold. First, as I mentioned I don't have time to address all the issues that are arising with each successive reply, and second I would like to get the input of some folks who discuss these things in great detail.

    If you would be interested, the forum I am referring to is here- http://www.freeratio.org/index.php – and you can post the case you have made here for a historical Jesus.

    If you do not want to do so, then if I can have your permission I will take the points you have brought up so far and post them there for input from the regulars there.

    I also wanted to mention that I looked at the Gamaliel challenge and am uncertain of the point of it. Why would I try to prove the historical existence or non-existence of a rabbi attested to by Acts and some rabbinical literature?

    Gamaliel could be a historical fiction for all I know, and might be a further example of how religious figures can be magnified in the minds of zealous followers.

    Let me know if you would like to pursue my suggestion.

    Thanks.

  16. Andrew

    Hi Brian, I'm pretty busy too and so I'd rather not get involved in another discussion board, if that's ok. Please feel free to take my points across.

    The Gamaliel challenge is a tongue-in-cheek way of pointing out the faulty arguments used by the Christ-mythers. As I understand it, Gamaliel is universally accepted as historical. I think it really points out the prejudice that underlies most of the Christ-myth arguments.

    1. Brian

      Hey Andrew, I can appreciate not wanting to take on another task. :) I just didn't think I can give your arguments the attention they deserve right now. There is a lot of material to read before I address your points and I know some at the forum are more readily up to date than I am on these topics. I shall go ahead and post your points there and if you want I can link the thread here so you can see where it goes.

      I was hoping that the Gamaliel challenge was a cheeky device, but I've been proven wrong before when I have assumed something was not a serious argument.

      Since you brought it up though, I did a little looking and found something interesting about Gamaliel here-

      "At an early date, ecclesiastical tradition has supposed that Gamaliel embraced the Christian Faith, and remained a member of the Sanhedrin for the purpose of helping secretly his fellow-Christians (cf. Recognitions of Clement, I, lxv, lxvi). According to Photius, he was baptized by St. Peter and St. John, together with his son and with Nicodemus. His body, miraculously discovered in the fifth century, is said to be preserved at Pisa, in Italy. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06374b.htm

      I bring this up only to show that, though Gamaliel is recognized as historical, there is tradition of this high ranking Jew being baptized by none other than Peter and John along with Nicodemus! Certainly this would have caused quite a stir among the Jews and would have caused a blip on the historical radar. It seems there is a tendency in church history for fact and fiction to become intertwined.

      One thing I can say for sure is that Christian history is replete with layer upon layer of mystery and fantastic claims. There could very well have been a historical Jesus, but I wonder if anyone from those days would recognize the one in the Gospels we have today.

      I'll check back in and update on the progress on the forum.

      Thanks for your time.

  17. Nathan

    Brian posted another comment that appears to have gone AWOL. Here it is…

    Hey Andrew, I can appreciate not wanting to take on another task. :) I just didn't think I can give your arguments the attention they deserve right now. There is a lot of material to read before I address your points and I know some at the forum are more readily up to date than I am on these topics. I shall go ahead and post your points there and if you want I can link the thread here so you can see where it goes.

    I was hoping that the Gamaliel challenge was a cheeky device, but I've been proven wrong before when I have assumed something was not a serious argument.

    Since you brought it up though, I did a little looking and found something interesting about Gamaliel here-

    "At an early date, ecclesiastical tradition has supposed that Gamaliel embraced the Christian Faith, and remained a member of the Sanhedrin for the purpose of helping secretly his fellow-Christians (cf. Recognitions of Clement, I, lxv, lxvi). According to Photius, he was baptized by St. Peter and St. John, together with his son and with Nicodemus. His body, miraculously discovered in the fifth century, is said to be preserved at Pisa, in Italy. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06374b.htm

    I bring this up only to show that, though Gamaliel is recognized as historical, there is tradition of this high ranking Jew being baptized by none other than Peter and John along with Nicodemus! Certainly this would have caused quite a stir among the Jews and would have caused a blip on the historical radar. It seems there is a tendency in church history for fact and fiction to become intertwined.

    One thing I can say for sure is that Christian history is replete with layer upon layer of mystery and fantastic claims. There could very well have been a historical Jesus, but I wonder if anyone from those days would recognize the one in the Gospels we have today.

    I'll check back in and update on the progress on the forum.

    Thanks for your time.

  18. Andrew

    "I bring this up only to show that, though Gamaliel is recognized as historical, there is tradition of this high ranking Jew being baptized by none other than Peter and John along with Nicodemus! Certainly this would have caused quite a stir among the Jews and would have caused a blip on the historical radar. It seems there is a tendency in church history for fact and fiction to become intertwined.

    One thing I can say for sure is that Christian history is replete with layer upon layer of mystery and fantastic claims. There could very well have been a historical Jesus, but I wonder if anyone from those days would recognize the one in the Gospels we have today."

    But I think what you seem to want to do is throw out the baby with the bathwater – for despite whatever (apparently) spurious traditions some might attest to about Gamaliel, his existence is accepted. Likewise with Jesus, it seems to me that those who wish to deny his resurrection take one step too far in questioning his existence, when it is simply far too well attested, despite what our preconceptions might make of the claims of miracles.

  19. David

    Brian>> How would we fit someone doing theology into the role of a historical writer?

    When they're writing about the event where God stepped into history. Then theology would not be a human invention, but the faithful (eyewitness!) recounting of what was said by God.

    I don't deny of course, that there are all sorts of 'theologisings' (Christian and otherwise) that have been done in the name of history that do dreadful damage to the history. It’s no great revelation to say that! But I don't make a blanket assumption (like Ehrman) that anytime someone's doing theology it means they're being dishonest in their history — that seems rather to weave your conclusion into your presupposition.

    Ehrman is a powerful writer, but I find him most disappointing in his analysis of the aim of the NT writers. There is no internal indication whatsoever that the writers themselves thought that their 'topic' was their own secondary reflections on Jesus. Unless you brings the conclusion with you from the beginning, I cannot see how can find it there. They are preoccupied with Jesus himself. It's very hard to see how _they_ thought they were writing about a Jesus they were 'imagining'. They were either honestly mistaken in their historical descriptions, or they were faithfully proclaiming what they had seen. The patronising nonsense that they were engaging in mythical thinking of one kind or another does violence to the documents we have (notwithstanding their textual history!). Ehrman's reductionism misses that character of the documents altogether.

    Ehrman’s position is in many ways a reincarnation of Bultmann’s demythologisation crusade earlier last century — but under the rubric of textual criticism. Karl Barth wrote extensively against Bultmann, and I still find his arguments persuasive. (See e.g. CD IV.1, §59, esp p. 162) in repudiating Bultmann's 'demythologisation' crusade, of which Ehrman is (it would seem) a latter day incarnation.

    Me>> …ask yourself whether it might be possible that the gospel writers are doing both theology and history — and that this is actually legitimate. Or, conversely, ask yourself, Why do I think theology and history are mutually incompatible disciplines?

    Brian>> These are interesting questions

    So, why not answer them? It seems you are far more interested in eroding a Christian position than defending your alternative. The original post asserted (without defending) an orthodox position, and we have patiently answered the many questions you have asked and given, I think, an adequate defence. As Andrew observed at the end of a recent comment, though, you still have a mythological reading of the gospels with little more than circumstantial and ancillary evidence to go on. Lots about why Eusebius is unreliable, Josephus' bizarre miracles, ‘ecclesiastical tradition’ etc etc etc, but precious little extant giving us anything contemporary to Jesus. (BTW, the miracles of Jesus are almost always a restoration of the created order, rather than a violation of it — that's the key difference. They 'fit' the world.)

    I wonder how long this would go on for? I imagine a long time. Any time we answer a question adequately you just move on to something else. Shall we keep this merry dance going for a year? More?

    The problem is that skepticism will always be able to erode faith by just persistently asking for greater certainty, greater evidence and proof. But the skeptic himself doesn’t follow those rules — nor anyone else for that matter! In this discussion you have presented all sorts of historical data, but as far as I can see none of it has amounted to anything even vaguely approaching an airtight argument for the kind of Jesus you suggest we should adopt.

    I am genuinely (not satirically!) sorry that you lost your faith, but I think your reasons for doing so were mistaken. My guess is you have surrendered to the (formidable) intellectual currents of the last 250 years of Western thought. And so the gospels are just 'unbelievable' for you, not just for simple objective historical reasons but for ‘believability‘ — philosophical, credulity — reasons. The obstacle to belief in Jesus is not evidence — Jesus himself said that even if a man should rise from the dead people would not be persuaded to believe!

    Like I said in the original post — I have a choice: do I listen to what the atheist (or skeptic) says about the bible, or what the bible says about the skeptic? If I swallow the assumptions of skepticism, then I'll reject everything. But if Jesus is the Son of God, then his analysis of skeptics is apposite — incredibly clever (made in the image of God!) but whose cleverness has created despairing unbelief founded not on reality but on a world proudly made in their own intellectual image.

    I have appreciated your circumspection in your comments. From the very start it’s set a tone that’s allowed us to have a quite engaging and stimulating discussion without accusation and scorn. Thanks for that.

    Dave.

  20. Brian

    Hey David, I thought I'd drop by and link the thread that I told Andrew I was going to start. If anyone would like to participate and address the points that have been made so far they are welcome to here- http://www.freeratio.org/showthread.php?t=278496

    Just register and join the discussion.

    One thing you said above really stands out to me,

    "The problem is that skepticism will always be able to erode faith by just persistently asking for greater certainty, greater evidence and proof. But the skeptic himself doesn’t follow those rules — nor anyone else for that matter! In this discussion you have presented all sorts of historical data, but as far as I can see none of it has amounted to anything even vaguely approaching an airtight argument for the kind of Jesus you suggest we should adopt."

    Skepticism holds claims up and assesses how well they are substantiated by the evidence, and for you to claim that no one follows those "rules" is strange. I would venture that you apply skepticism to all kinds of claims made by various groups.

    Were someone to come to this blog and say that the evidence for Mormonism is vast and that you should convert at once, I'm sure Christians here would ask them to provide evidence to support their claims. The same goes for any claims made concerning religions or paranormal phenomena. Skepticism is part and parcel of the market place of ideas.

    You complain that I didn't offer you an airtight version of Jesus to replace the one you currently hold, but I was asking you to support your claim about the gospels. I don't have to offer you an alternative to question your claims, just as you probably wouldn't feel compelled to offer an alternative to a Muslims claims concerning Allah and Muhammad. If the evidence is shown not to support the claim why is that a problem for the believer? There are plenty of examples of people who hold onto beliefs in many things in spite of poor evidence for them.

    You could adjust your claim to say, "I believe the gospels were written by eyewitnesses" just as the Catholic Church claims the primacy of Matthew's gospel in spite of all the evidence that supports Mark as a source for Matthew's writings.

    You say if you accept the skeptics appraisal of the Bible you would have to reject it, but isn't it more realistic to say you would just have to take those things on faith which were not born out by evidence? I know many Christians who don't think Moses wrote the Pentateuch, but they still use it as an integral part of their faith in creation by God.

    You said, "The obstacle to belief in Jesus is not evidence — Jesus himself said that even if a man should rise from the dead people would not be persuaded to believe!"

    If this is the case, then the whole venture of apologetics seems like a colossal waste of time. Our Mormon apologist could make the same argument to your refusal to accept his evidence. It is all about the "burning in the bosom" when you get right down to it if evidence is moot.

    I appreciate you taking the time to converse and I am glad that we were both able to gain insights from the exchange. I would like to continue further, but I wonder where we could go when evidence is considered secondary to faith?

    I am glad to have had the chance to talk with you and the others who have contributed. :)

    1. Andrew

      Thanks for the link. Some interesting responses.
      Somewhat amusing one about Richard Carrier writing a book about it from the perspective of a historian – as if it has never been done before?!

      You might like this quote by the late, prolific classicist Michael Grant CBE:

      "…if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. … To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory. It has 'again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars.' In recent years, 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus' or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary."
      Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian's Review, pp. 199–200. 1977

      1. Brian

        Hey Andrew, I'm glad you found the responses interesting, however, with no one there pleading the case for eyewitnesses, the thread has effectively died.

        Interesting quote. I checked our local libraries for copies of his book but neither has one. Do you know what Grant proposed we could know about Jesus based on the gospels? I notice Grant was writing thirty two years ago, I wonder if there has been new material discovered since then that has changed the debate any?

    1. Brian

      Do you have any examples of these new materials? I'd like to see how they make the case for the HJ stronger.

      Thanks.

      1. Brian

        Oh, I asked how those on the forum felt about the Grant quote and one person linked Earl Doherty's response to it. I thought you might be interested in looking at it. http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/rfset28.htm#Warw

        He references an interesting quote from Grant on how we ought to consider the gospels in light of their inclusions of fantastic miracle stories. It seems he recognized that those who penned the gospels were not as concerned with delineating fact from useful fiction as Western thinkers are likely to do.

        At what point do you make the leap of recognizing a HJ to believing all the miraculous claims made about him by the gospel writers?

        David seems to argue it isn't really a matter of evidence that can convince the skeptic but some moral flaw. Do you think evidence is really enough or is it more an esoteric thing?

        Thanks.

  21. Andrew

    Well I know of no discoveries that shed any doubt on Jesus' existence – that is, there are a yet, no extant competing accounts, which is a sign of historicity.
    There have been several archaeological finds which corroborate details in the Gospels – such as the Ossuary of Caiaphas and the 'Pilate Inscription'. While of course, this doesn't prove anything, it does give us confidence that the gospel writers were trying to be accurate and write history as at least Luke claims to be doing. These are just two examples of more recent discoveries and are by no means the only corroborating archaeological finds we have.

    >>"one person linked Earl Doherty's response to it."

    Thanks for that. He writes:

    "Grant seems not to take into account that methods applying to non-religious figures in history are not the same as those we need to apply to religious figures who are witnessed to only by religious writings like the Gospels and not by general historical writings."

    Sorry, but that's not only not true (Jesus is not only attested by 'religious' writings), but an unwarranted case of shifting the goalposts. I don't think historical literature can be so easily divided between sacred and secular as he wants.

    he also writes: "Grant was writing before the era (since around 1980) when it has been increasingly recognized by critical New Testament scholarship that there is little if anything that is reliably identifiable as historical in the Gospels"

    Again, simply not true. Habermas' reasearch has shown that since 1970 the overwhelming majority of scholars who study this subject accept at least 11 historical 'facts', gleaned from the NT documents.

    There is a rather telling sentence on Doherty's Wiki page: "Although Doherty's treatment of the issue has made no impact on scholarly debate, his views have received considerable attention on the internet."

    Can I suggest, with all respect, that perhaps you should read more than just the radical fringe of scholarship?

    >>"David seems to argue it isn't really a matter of evidence that can convince the skeptic but some moral flaw. Do you think evidence is really enough or is it more an esoteric thing?"

    I think there is very often a case of a sceptic not wanting to believe, and thus, the desire to grasp at radical, unsupported views of an extreme minority over and above the vast majority mainstream view. So in that sense, I agree with Dave that sometimes it's not about evidence, but a commitment to pre-existing beliefs.

    >>"At what point do you make the leap of recognizing a HJ to believing all the miraculous claims made about him by the gospel writers?"

    For me that comes from the historical resurrection. There are about a dozen 'facts' accepted by the majority of scholars, and the best explanation for those facts (that is, the explanation with the most power, scope and least ad hoc) is that Jesus was raised from the dead. And if this is so, then why not anything else?

    1. Brian

      Hey Andrew, it took some time but I have a continuation of our discussion ready, I have to break it up because of the size. Sorry it got so cumbersome.

      Andrew>>”Well I know of no discoveries that shed any doubt on Jesus' existence – that is, there are a yet, no extant competing accounts, which is a sign of historicity.”

      Having no competing accounts could also be a sign of their destruction for all we know, or possibly there were so many competing cults at the time that no one felt compelled to try and refute them all. There seem to be other possible reason why no one had found a competing account from that time frame.

      Andrew>>>There have been several archaeological finds which corroborate details in the Gospels – such as the Ossuary of Caiaphas and the 'Pilate Inscription'. While of course, this doesn't prove anything, it does give us confidence that the gospel writers were trying to be accurate and write history as at least Luke claims to be doing. These are just two examples of more recent discoveries and are by no means the only corroborating archaeological finds we have. “

      You say that, since the gospels have references to persons or places in first century Palestine this is evidence that they are trying to be accurate in writing history.

      The historian Grant that you quoted seems to bring into question the historical intentions of the gospel writers here, (I’ve edited it to save word space)

      To (the ancient Jew), the natural and supernatural spheres……were one and inseparable and equally real,…….this extra-logical, extra-historical dimension could be expressed only……by means of metaphor and imagery. ……And these considerations were particularly relevant to Palestine, ‘where words have never been regarded as necessarily a reflection of fact’…….stories were used as freely as we use metaphors—a world in which…..prosaic truth or untruth often seem to be beside the point…
      …The rabbi embodies his lesson in a story, whether parable or allegory or seeming historical narrative; and the last thing he and his disciples would think of is to ask whether the selected persons, events and circumstances which so vividly suggest the doctrine are in themselves real or fictitious.
      …..To make the story the first consideration, and the doctrine it was intended to convey an afterthought ….is to reverse the Jewish order of thinking, and to do unconscious injustice to the authors of many edifying narratives of antiquity.

      Andrew>>>”Thanks for that. He writes:

      "Grant seems not to take into account that methods applying to non-religious figures in history are not the same as those we need to apply to religious figures who are witnessed to only by religious writings like the Gospels and not by general historical writings."

      Sorry, but that's not only not true (Jesus is not only attested by 'religious' writings), but an unwarranted case of shifting the goalposts. I don't think historical literature can be so easily divided between sacred and secular as he wants.”

      But if what Grant says above is true, then don’t we have to take this into account when appraising the gospels as historical sources?

      Once again I would go back to Josephus and his claims about the sword shaped star, the eastern gate opening of its own accord, thirty minutes of light emanating from the alter and the holy house, and the heifer giving birth to a lamb in the temple. When we approach this historians accounts, do we accept them as literal events since there are no extant competing claims and he is deemed a pretty reliable historian in many matters?

      As far as Jesus being attested to by non-religious writings, I am guessing you are speaking of Josephus? Don’t most reputable scholars consider his blurb about Jesus to have been tampered with? I think it is strange that Josephus didn’t have a lot more to say about Jesus with him raising people from the dead and corpses coming out of their graves to visit Jerusalem as per Matthew and darkness across the land, etc. He writes a lot of detail about other figures in a lot more detail that didn’t do anything near as spectacular as Jesus of Nazareth. It seems strange that he didn’t have loads to say about someone who spent three years doing miracles and butting heads with the Jewish leaders of the day and cleansing the temple twice.

      1. Brian

        Andrew>>>he also writes: "Grant was writing before the era (since around 1980) when it has been increasingly recognized by critical New Testament scholarship that there is little if anything that is reliably identifiable as historical in the Gospels"

        Again, simply not true. Habermas' reasearch has shown that since 1970 the overwhelming majority of scholars who study this subject accept at least 11 historical 'facts', gleaned from the NT documents.

        There is a rather telling sentence on Doherty's Wiki page: "Although Doherty's treatment of the issue has made no impact on scholarly debate, his views have received considerable attention on the internet."

        Can I suggest, with all respect, that perhaps you should read more than just the radical fringe of scholarship? “

        What are these 11 historical facts? I would be interested to see if Grant accepts them as historical as well, maybe when you get his book you could post them here.

        You shouldn’t assume that I just read “the radical fringe of scholarship”. I asked someone about Grant’s quote and they suggested Doherty’s response. Doherty’s comment, combined with the Grant quote he cites (quoted above) seems to raise a valid point as far as how reliable of historians the gospel writers were attempting to be. From what I have read of Doherty, he raises some pretty good arguments. Calling him “fringe” doesn’t deal with his arguments.

        Andrew>>>”I think there is very often a case of a sceptic not wanting to believe, and thus, the desire to grasp at radical, unsupported views of an extreme minority over and above the vast majority mainstream view. So in that sense, I agree with Dave that sometimes it's not about evidence, but a commitment to pre-existing beliefs. “

        I disagree with you here. I have read the testimonies of many skeptics who were formally Christians, and a common theme I have seen was a reluctant loss of a faith they had held very dear. So, their “pre-existing” beliefs were those of faith before the questioning began, they were not skeptics from the start, but became skeptical later on.

        Perhaps this subsequent skepticism was because the usual route to Christian faith is not the end result of the weighing of evidence, but is often an appeal to emotion or guilt? Later on the person delves into the arguments and concludes the case was over sold with certainties (like claims of eyewitness gospel accounts) and things fall apart from there. Claims of inerrancy seem to wreck a lot of former believer’s faith as well when they start to take a closer look at things.

        That said, I think Christianity does require one to put faith at the helm and appeals to evidence are best made when belief is already present. Agnosticism isn’t a good selling point for any religion intent on making converts, so we often see claims made that look bolder than the evidence can bear out. In the end though, Christians usually reason that those who don’t find the arguments compelling as being in secret rebellion.

        1. Andrew

          >>"What are these 11 historical facts?"

          Habermas describes his research here: http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/J_Study_Hist
          and elaborates on the results here: http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/criswell_the
          These are the 11-12 (what he calls) 'minimal facts':

          "These are a minimum number of facts agreed upon by almost all critical scholars who study this topic, whatever their school of thought. From this summary, at least eleven separate facts can be considered to be knowable history (while another is additionally recognized by many): (1) Jesus died due to crucifixion and (2) was buried afterwards. (3) Jesus' death caused the disciples to experience despair and lose hope, believing that their master was dead. (4) Although not as widely accepted, many scholars acknowledge several weighty arguments which indicate that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered to be empty just a few days later.

          Almost all critical scholars further agree that (5) the disciples had real experiences which they thought were literal appearances of the risen Jesus. Due to these experiences, (6) the disciples were transformed from timid and troubled doubters afraid to identify themselves with Jesus to bold preachers of his death and resurrection who were more than willing to die for their faith in him. (7) This message was the center of preaching in the earliest church and (8) was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, the same city where Jesus had recently died and had been buried.

          As a direct result of this preaching, (9) the church was born, (10) featuring Sunday as the special day of worship. (11) James, a brother of Jesus who had been a skeptic, was converted when he believed that he saw the resurrected Jesus. (12) A few years later, Paul was also converted to the Christian faith by an experience which he, likewise, thought was an appearance of the risen Jesus.

          Such facts are crucial in terms of our contemporary investigation of Jesus' resurrection. With the possible exception of the empty tomb, the great majority of critical scholars who study this subject agree that these are the minimal historical facts surrounding this event. As such, any conclusions concerning the historicity of the resurrection should at least properly account for them."

        2. Andrew

          >>"You shouldn’t assume that I just read “the radical fringe of scholarship” … From what I have read of Doherty, he raises some pretty good arguments. Calling him “fringe” doesn’t deal with his arguments."

          True, I shouldn't assume that. My bad. But I do believe I have dealt with arguments of Doherty which you've posted here. And it is true that he is on the fringe of scholarship. When a layman like me comes along, the consensus and authority of scholarship is important – of course it doesn't make something right or true, but we should have confidence in such conclusions. And the burden of argument (I intentionally do not use the term 'proof' in this context) I think lies with those who would go against scholarly consensus.

          >>"I have read the testimonies of many skeptics who were formally Christians, and a common theme I have seen was a reluctant loss of a faith they had held very dear. So, their “pre-existing” beliefs were those of faith before the questioning began, they were not skeptics from the start, but became skeptical later on.">

          And no doubt, many of the Christians reading this could cite the opposite.

          >>"That said, I think Christianity does require one to put faith at the helm and appeals to evidence are best made when belief is already present."

          I think the dichotomy between faith and evidence is an entirely false one propogated by the so-called New Atheist writers. That's a whole different subject however.

      2. Andrew

        Hi Brian, thanks for your replies.

        >>"Having no competing accounts could also be a sign of their destruction for all we know, or possibly there were so many competing cults at the time that no one felt compelled to try and refute them all. There seem to be other possible reason why no one had found a competing account from that time frame."

        Saying they might have been destroyed is an argument from silence, and one could conceivably argue against anything in history on the grounds that the competing account has been lost – which is why it's a fallacy! Your second suggestion also fails, in that we do have extant a reference to one attempt to refute the resurrection claim (the one in Matthew that the disciples stole the body). While no serious scholar would hold to the idea that disciple stole the body (the Jewish apologetic was rather weak!) the reference actually corroborates for us a number of things, such as the empty tomb and the guard at the tomb. But specifically here what it does is contradict your suggestion that no one was bothered to counter the Christian claim.
        But perhaps most importantly, my original argument stands because quite simply, lack of competing account is a normal historical criteria for authenticity used by historians all the time. This is particularly so if the story were legendary – we would expect to find various lines of development, but we don't.

        >>"You say that, since the gospels have references to persons or places in first century Palestine this is evidence that they are trying to be accurate in writing history."

        More than that they have references – they are very accurate in their references, and yes, I think this corroborates the intention that the gospel writers seem to have in retelling factual history.

        >>"The historian Grant that you quoted seems to bring into question the historical intentions of the gospel writers here"

        Well, quite simply, I think Grant is wrong in this thinking, and it is in direct opposition to attitude the texts themselves exhibit.

        >>"But if what Grant says above is true, then don’t we have to take this into account when appraising the gospels as historical sources?"

        Well I don't think what he says is true! I think he is quite clearly imposing a view onto the texts which they do not seem to take.

        >>"Once again I would go back to Josephus and his claims about the sword shaped star, the eastern gate opening of its own accord, thirty minutes of light emanating from the alter and the holy house, and the heifer giving birth to a lamb in the temple. When we approach this historians accounts, do we accept them as literal events since there are no extant competing claims and he is deemed a pretty reliable historian in many matters?"

        Do we throw out everything he writes? No, we do not, and so too, we have no right to dismiss the NT documents completely as unhistorical because we may not like some of what they say.
        Of course, Jesus' existence, his death, burial etc. are not miraculous – they cannot be compared to lamb-bearing cows. Your example here only serves to undermine what it seems you want to do!

        1. Andrew

          >>"The historian Grant that you quoted seems to bring into question the historical intentions of the gospel writers here" "

          One last thought on Grant – I think it is his assumption that they're not doing history that is outdated. As far as I'm aware, most scholars who deal with the subject would hold to the idea that they gospel writers were attempting to be historically accurate.
          Paul's very arguments about the resurrection and it's meaning, for him hinge on its historicity.

  22. Brian

    Andrew>>>"At what point do you make the leap of recognizing a HJ to believing all the miraculous claims made about him by the gospel writers?"

    For me that comes from the historical resurrection. There are about a dozen 'facts' accepted by the majority of scholars, and the best explanation for those facts (that is, the explanation with the most power, scope and least ad hoc) is that Jesus was raised from the dead. And if this is so, then why not anything else?”

    With all these “facts”, it is surprising that many historians don’t find them convincing and convert. You make many claims that the “majority of scholars” accept these things, but even a cursory look at the numerous books on these subjects seems to indicate that there are a lot of different interpretations of the “facts” among believers, not to mention skeptics.

    I suppose if one grants that a story of an empty tomb means someone did rise from the dead, all the other fantastic claims are just footnotes. The world I inhabit shows no sign that invisible forces are active in the world and that people don’t come back from the dead or heal blindness or cast demons into swine. My day to day life bears out the view that the world appears to operate without need to appeal to unseen forces meddling in things.

    The least ad hoc explanation to me is that people claimed Jesus rose from the dead to keep their hopes alive. People believe all kinds of weird things every day. Jehovah’s Witnesses believed Jesus would return in 1914 and when he didn’t show up as claimed, it became a return only seen with “spiritual eyes”. They didn’t let failed expectations derail their beliefs; they just morphed them to fit into a new paradigm.

    Some Palestinian Jew named Jesus could have been crucified for irking the religious leaders of that time and had followers who saw him as the messiah who would crush Rome and usher in a kingdom of peace. Once he was killed and their hopes looked crushed, they could have done what so many others have done and morphed their beliefs to accommodate the new “facts”. Mark ends with women scared to even speak to anyone, as time passed the story gets more details to reflect this new resurrected Jesus “reality”. You need “spiritual eyes” to see how all has come to pass just as it was predicted. Death wasn’t the end, it was just the beginning. Sure, Jesus said he would return before all his listeners would die off, but he didn’t mean soon like we normally use the word soon. No, he meant in a couple thousand years which is mere days in God’s timing. No failure here, just a need for “spiritual eyes” to see what was “really” meant. Every failure can be rationalized away.

    The simplest explanation to me, when given a choice between a magical resurrection and a human embellishment to prop up a failing belief seems to be the second one. If people can believe things like Mormonism and Russelism, it appears that human reason can be molded to accept all sorts of strange things.

    I’ve enjoyed our discussion and thanks for taking time to read and reply as time permits you to.

    1. Andrew

      >>"As far as Jesus being attested to by non-religious writings, I am guessing you are speaking of Josephus? Don’t most reputable scholars consider his blurb about Jesus to have been tampered with?"

      I see one of your fellow forum writers has said "Please ask for an itemised list of the abundance of evidence for Jesus of Nazareth external of the NT and the Church writers." which is of course a fallacious and unwarranted bias against the NT texts – the classic case of shifting the goal-posts. It is like excluding Caesar's own writings from having a say on his history. The NT documents alone are more than sufficient to establish the historicity of Jesus. But as it happens there are other non-canonical sources. (He also disparages the Church Fathers', which is again unwarranted and fallacious). So to Josephus first. You've questioned it, and our commentator on the forum has already argued that "The list will come back blank or with forged passages found in Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3 and 20.9.1. ".
      The first reference 18.63-64, perhaps the more famous one, is almost certainly altered. That is no reason to throw it out entirely. The second reference in 20.9 is almost certainly authentic, and considered by most scholars (though not surprising not by our Jesus Seminar friends Doherty and Wells) to be so. If this is so, then it's more than likely that the earlier reference said something about Jesus. At any rate, even with the second reference, it's clear that Joseph says something about Jesus. http://publicchristianity.org/Videos/josephus.htm
      But the list is longer than Josephus: Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, Mara bar Sarapion, Thallus, Lucian, Celsus (though known only through Origen's rebuttal) there's also the speculative Acts of Pilate, as well as the Jewish records of the Talmud. See J.P. Holding's treatment of the secular sources: http://www.tektonics.org/jesusexisthub.html

      >>"I think it is strange that Josephus didn’t have a lot more to say about Jesus with him raising people from the dead and corpses coming out of their graves to visit Jerusalem as per Matthew and darkness across the land, etc."

      Perhaps you would have simply then written him off as a tainted religious source?
      I don't think we can suppose what Josephus might have done, we can only deal with what we have, as incomplete as it may be. That is history for you. On the other hand, I think it's perfectly reasonable that Josephus wouldn't have taken too much interested in him.

      I think it's fairly obvious that in order to maintain the Christ-myth position, one has to discredit a vast amount of textual evidence, and the attempt to do so merely betrays a prejudice and desire to discredit the material.

    2. Andrew

      >>"With all these “facts”, it is surprising that many historians don’t find them convincing and convert. "

      How do you know they don't? Of course, if people hold to prior assumptions of things like philosophical naturalism (as it appears you do) then it is not surprising at all. N.T. Wright recalls his Oxford professor after reading his 'really big book' on the resurrection as saying that the arguments are really great, but he simply chooses to believe there must be another explanation.

      >>"
      I suppose if one grants that a story of an empty tomb means someone did rise from the dead, all the other fantastic claims are just footnotes."

      That's a very simplistic and non-comprehensive description of the argument btw. I don't think anyone is arguing that an empty tomb alone means Jesus must have risen from the dead!

      >>"The world I inhabit shows no sign that invisible forces are active in the world and that people don’t come back from the dead or heal blindness or cast demons into swine. My day to day life bears out the view that the world appears to operate without need to appeal to unseen forces meddling in things."

      This is simply the 'I've never seen it' argument, which fails because, well, you don't know everything. The Indigenous tribes of the Kimberly would by that logic deny the existence of snow.
      It's also worth noting that no one is claiming that coming back from the dead is 'normal' or that Jesus 'naturally' rose from the dead. We're not talking about the normal day-to-day operation of the world, from which you seem to gleam your argument. We are talking unique, unusual, supernatural events, and as yet, no one has managed to prove that the supernatural doesn't exist (demonstrate the universe is causally closed) – so we must assume when investigating these claims that it might be possible that it does (note – we do not need to assume that the supernatural does exist, only that it might.)

      1. Andrew

        >>"With all these “facts”, it is surprising that many historians don’t find them convincing and convert."

        Perhaps it does explain why the overwhelm majority of scholars accept the historicity of Jesus.

    3. Andrew

      >>"The least ad hoc explanation to me is that people claimed Jesus rose from the dead to keep their hopes alive. People believe all kinds of weird things every day.

      This fails to account for the claims of physical resurrection – it fails to account for the alleged appearances (and if you were to say it was hallucinations, which is a poor explanation anyway, it becomes ad hoc).

      >>"Once he was killed and their hopes looked crushed, they could have done what so many others have done and morphed their beliefs to accommodate the new “facts”."

      This just doesn't square with the facts. We know of several other would-be messiahs who were also executed around that time (give or take a few decades) and in every other case the followers abandoned belief in that guy and found a new messiah – often the brother. They knew that a dead messiah was no messiah at all. The claim of resurrection that the disciples made was totally foreign to their culture. A person believing something they hope will happen (e.g. your JW example) is very different from someone believing they had experienced something and were willing to die for that belief.

      N.T. Wright has done some very substantial scholarship on the unliklihood of the resurrection claim and belief in the historical context of C1st Palestine. See the following for distillations (his book is indeed very big)
      http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Historical_Pro
      http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Jesus_Resurrec

      >>"Mark ends with women scared to even speak to anyone"
      Embarrassing details – another indicator of authenticity! It is very unlikely that anyone fabricating a story they wanted people to believe would have included women as the first witnesses.

      >>"as time passed the story gets more details to reflect this new resurrected Jesus “reality”."

      This doesn't square with the fact that the resurrection claim was very early and didn't get changed as you suggest. Further, there simply wasn't time for any legendary tendencies to destroy the core historicity. We've moved a little from the existence of Jesus to the resurrection, but that point is valid for both!

      >>"The simplest explanation to me, when given a choice between a magical resurrection and a human embellishment to prop up a failing belief seems to be the second one."

      Well I'm certainly not arguing for a 'magical' resurrection. And do think that more careful, less sweeping and assumptive investigation shows the second option to be severely lacking in credibility.

      >>"I’ve enjoyed our discussion and thanks for taking time to read and reply as time permits you to."
      As have I. Thanks.

  23. Dave

    Sorry for my protracted absence!

    I’m also sorry you misunderstood my comments about skepticism and faith — especially since I was making a point about the limitations that skepticism places on thought. I don’t equate skepticism with examining evidence… perhaps that’s where some of the confusion has come from. This is a whole other topic, but I don't think skepticism per se gives a philosopher any advantageous edge in her examination of evidence.

    I understand it is convenient for you to set history and faith against each other, but it is an opposition which many Christians would be bemused at, and certainly not agree with. Granted, history doesn’t get you all the way, but neither is faith a violation of history. If your historical construction of the NT is correct — that it is merely a collection of mythological reflections loosely associated with a historical figure — then Christian faith is superstition rather than, well, faith! I know there are many who enter Christianity b/c of emotional manipulation… and have the same concerns for them that you do, that their foundation is perilously feeble! But then there are many also who enter Christianity by far more intellectually responsible routes, and some for whom it was the direct investigation of the actual historical claims that was the path that lead to faith.

    But, for all your many words, I don’t see how you have made the case for your construction, nor presented anywhere near enough ‘facts’ to support you position. The substance of your response to Christian’s historical claims has been to present an alternative Jesus, one which itself needs to be defended. You have many of your own rationalisations, ‘explaining away’ significant factors. And as I said earlier, most of your evidence is ancillary and circumstantial – a kind of guilt by association! Not a very strong case.

  24. Dave

    Jesus’ ministry, and the proclamation of Jesus ministry, was overwhelmingly public. It is this public nature that resists any explanation of it as a myth imagined and cherished by a small community which they kept to themselves. The ministry of Jesus, and the proclamation of Jesus, was all done among both believers and unbelievers (with the notable exception of the resurrection). You have no other way of explaining the early, rapid and massive expansion of Christianity than that the substance of the gospel message was publicly (not merely privately) proclaimed.

    If it was pure mythology to claim Jesus rose from the dead and the apostles simply claimed this ‘to keep their hopes alive’, it’s hard to understand why anyone at the time would believe it (especially those who had just killed him two months earlier!). The explosion of Christianity is just too early to be based on self-consoling myths. There’s not enough time for the myths to be developed and then gain any sort of reception in the public realm.

    It is interesting that Paul himself, in the early proclamation of the gospel, encountered the same accusation you are making against Christians today.

    “Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”
    But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.” (Acts 26:24-26)

    Not done in a corner. Your characterisation rather seems to imply the whole thing was done in a corner! Perhaps in an attempt to be kind, you try to explain why they would do this … as an attempt to console themselves. But that is completely at odds with the nature of the documents themselves. They claim to be writing about public events, events about which it is was very hard to be mistaken — either they were telling the truth, or they had more sinister motives than you at present have been willing to assign to them (and sinister motives for which they then went to their deaths!). To claim they were engaging in wishful thinking of one kind or another is, really, in the end, just patronising to the texts, and therefore historically irresponsible.

  25. Dave

    Jesus was not a historical figure of any note on the wider political landscape — and so only those who knew him personally it seems were quick to write anything about him. It may be scandalous — and to some, unbelievable — that God would work through such an obscure figure of history, but being scandalous does not make it false. It rather fits with the God you meet in the Gospel who doesn’t pay a great deal of attention to the power and wisdom of the world.

    It’s been good to debate, but I don’t think there’s much point going further. There’s plenty in the comments already for those who want to read more widely, and since it’s my post, I’m going to pull the pin on the comments. Thanks for the debate.

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