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Sunday, March 25, 2012

There Was No Historical Jesus?

The atheists over at Bob Murphy's blog have made the case that there never was any such historical personage named "Jesus of Nazareth."

I think they have a point: I suspect that the doctrines we today call Christianity were actually developed by a fellow named "Rusty of Zurishaddai." But the gospellers knew they could never get people to follow a guy named "Rusty," so they claimed these doctrines were originated by Jesus.

26 comments:

  1. According to a certain writer in that thread, neither Jesus nor the apostles existed. Yet he doesn't so much as attempt to provide an alternative account of Christianity's origin that explains the data we have.

    Does anyone reading this want to make that attempt?

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    1. Huff, this is easy: a bunch of priests, having established a large Christian Church and gained a vested interest in duping people into believing in them so they could get money, therefore had to make up a bunch of stories to go along with the religion they had created.

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    2. This answer is sarcasm, right Gene?

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    3. Yes indeed, Warren.

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    4. Although I thought of it more as parody.

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    5. Just making sure- sarcasm and parody doesn't always translate over the internet. Now that I know its a parody I do agree, but I wanted to be sure I was reading it right and wasn't going to have to make an indignant comment.

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  2. The problems with establishing the existence of a historical Jesus are the following.

    1. Yeshua ben Yusuf of Nasarea is the man with whom we are concerned. One problem. In Galilea, Yeshua and Yusuf were passing common names, and no matter how many historical records we dig up, we might never exhaust the list of Yeshua ben Yusufs of Nasarea. How do we establish which one was which?

    2. Execution for apostasy or messianism was common in Judea. Claims of messianism are surprisingly common in desert regions and in tribal cultures. Get this. According to the Talmud, there are TWO OTHER documented Yeshua ben Yusufs, who were both executed for apostasy. One Yeshua was a rich businessman and a powerful politician who attempted to use messianism to leverage his power, which does not sound like the one we know. So many many different apostates WITH THE SAME NAME!

    These problems do not disprove the existence YBY of Nasarea, but they pose serious problems in proving his existence.

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    1. Yes, but Prateek, obviously *someone* came up with these doctrines. Does it really matter so much if we have his name right? Does our appreciation of Hamlet depend on knowing whether it was really Shakespeare who wrote them, or just someone else with the same name?

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    2. Good evening, Prateek.

      First, I am not sure why person x having the same name as person y having the same name as person z disproves the existence of person x.

      For instance, in a recent blog post, Dr. Callahan quotes John Gray. Is this the John Gray who is the philosopher or the John Gray who wrote "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." One of the John Grays said the quote, and that's really all that matters for the purposes of Dr. Callahan's posting.

      Second, surely the New Testament writers were aware of the "problem," although I really do not think that they thought of this as a problem. Many people want to read the biblical text and apply some type of 21st century analysis to it. This is ill-founded.

      The biblical writers were writing for readers of that day. Anything else would be foolish. It would be like assuming that Dr. Callahan is writing for the readers of this blog 1000 years from now. That just does not comport with common sense.

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  3. Gene:

    "Does it really matter so much if we have his name right?"

    I think it does matter. In the case of Hamlet, surely the value of a work of literature would not be diminished just because we discover it had a different author. But Christianity holds that its author (Jesus) is God. If it turns out that the source of fundamental Christian doctrine was actually (1) a person other than "Jesus"; or (2) multiple people, that means the doctrines are man-made and therefore flawed, or at least potentially open to criticism and improvement. To be sure, it could still contain a great deal of truth and wisdom, but even atheists recognize that religious literature can contain much truth and wisdom. The point is that Christians would not be able to claim that the Bible is divinely authored and therefore infallible, inerrant, etc.

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  4. Gene:

    "Does it really matter so much if we have his name right?"

    I think it does matter. In the case of Hamlet, surely the value of a work of literature would not be diminished just because we discover it had a different author. But Christianity holds that its author (Jesus) is God. If it turns out that the source of fundamental Christian doctrine was actually (1) a person other than "Jesus"; or (2) multiple people, that means the doctrine is man-made and therefore flawed, or at least potentially open to criticism and improvement.

    To be sure, the Bible could still contain a great deal of truth and wisdom in it even if "Jesus" never existed, but even atheists recognize that religious literature can contain much truth and wisdom. The point is that Christians would not be able to claim that the Bible is divinely authored and therefore infallible, inerrant, etc.

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    1. Mike:

      1) I don't think any Christian thinks Jesus authored the Gospels!

      2) If it was "Rusty" instead of "Jesus," all other things being equal, that would just mean that we are essentially calling Marlowe Shakespeare, or something similar.

      3) No one doubts that a group of people were involved: the Hebrew prophets, Paul, and more. But fundamental innovations are rarely cooked up in a committee, are they?

      4) I personally think the Bible was divinely inspired, but the inspiration passed through fallible humans. I believe a lot of Christians think the same.

      5) "even atheists recognize that religious literature can contain much truth and wisdom"

      Yes, *some* atheists do!

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  5. Just wanted to add one more observation, if I may:

    As a Jew (formerly religious; not so much anymore), I'm not used to encountering people like you who are both very religious AND relatively unconcerned about the historical accuracy of their religious text. The religion I grew up with was almost entirely dependent on historicity. Basically, observant Jews believe that the national revelation at Mount Sinai (and other biblical miracles) actually occurred as described. In fact, that and our oral national "history" (purported to be transmitted orally in an unbroken chain from one generation to the next) is the foundation of the faith. At least it is most often presented as such.

    I vaguely recall you once debating with Bob Murphy on this subject. He also believed that the events in Exodus historically occurred more or less as described in the Bible, whereas you were fairly adamant that they did not. I find your posts in history and the historical method to be very interesting. I wish I were a little more historically literate -- not only in terms of substantive knowledge of ancient history, but also in terms of methodology and first principles. That way, I could do a little bit better of a job at responding to people who ask how I could "deny" my own people's "history." :)

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    1. Mike, did you ever read Maimonides? His view is, if I recall correctly, much the same as Gene's in this respect and he's a pretty important historical figure in Judaism even if he isn't as widely read as he ought to be. His view, as I understand it (also vastly simplified), was essentially that if science disagreed with the scripture than the scripture needed to be reinterpreted. Or take Augustine.. This is not to argue that this is correct because "these important guys said it" or anything, but the view has existed for some time among people who were quite religious. Whether that makes them "unconcerned" also seems a bit questionable. It would seem to me that to take any such view on the scripture in relation to history and scientific evidence shows definite concern about it!

      Out of curiosity, pending your willingness to answer of course, were you raised reformed or towards the more orthodox end of Judaism?

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    2. Hi Warren. I had an orthodox upbringing, for the most part. I went to orthodox Jewish day schools as a kid, so I have very little knowledge of reform or conservative Judaism.

      I have read Maimonides, and I agree with his dictum that one should accept the truth from whatever source it may come. The thing is, Maimonides also believed with absolute faith that

      1) the Torah is God's word;

      2) it was received by Moses, who was the greatest of all prophets.

      (take a look at his famous thirteen principles.)

      This is pretty much the core of Judaism, and the basis for everything else. Therefore, while Maimonides was willing to interpret certain passages as metaphor, myth, or allegory, I do not think his approach would have extended to the Sinai miracle itself. Assuming that modern biblical history renders a literal reading of the Exodus story impossible or extremely improbable, I am not sure how he would respond to that scholarship if he were alive today. But it would pose a very serious problem.

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    3. Hi Warren. I had an orthodox upbringing, for the most part. I went to orthodox Jewish day schools as a kid, so I have very little knowledge of reform or conservative Judaism.

      I have read Maimonides, and I agree with his dictum that one should accept the truth from whatever source it may come. The thing is, Maimonides also believed with absolute faith that

      1) the Torah is God's word;

      2) it was received by Moses, who was the greatest of all prophets.

      (take a look at his famous thirteen principles.)

      This is pretty much the core of Judaism, and the basis for everything else. Therefore, while Maimonides was willing to interpret certain passages as metaphor, myth, or allegory, I do not think his approach would have extended to the Sinai miracle itself. Assuming that modern biblical history renders a literal reading of the Exodus story impossible or extremely improbable, I am not sure how he would respond to that scholarship if he were alive today. But it would pose a very serious problem.

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    4. Mike,

      I largely agree with what you've written (I.E. the parts about how there are definitely some things that would definitely cause his view problems if I follow), but I'm not arguing for Maimonides views on this issue at all. I'm just claiming that something outwardly similar to the less strict style of scripture interpretation Gene seems to like doesn't appear to lack any significant historical precedent. There being more philisophical representations of scripture was something my parents, one a lapsed Catholic (among other things) and the other a reformed Jew that stopped believing years ago, still taught me this in what was a largely secular household. Upon re-reading I don't think you specifically denied any of the significant precedent stuff, but if you did my comment stands. Fair enough?

      Your right on the thirteen principles and to reveal my vast inexperience on these matters (that I hope to rectify soon) I've only read the thirteen principles and several parts of The Guide for the Confused for a class.

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    5. No Warren, I certainly was not trying to deny that there is precedent for interpreting scripture in a manner consistent with secular knowledge. My point was that, from the perspective of Judaism, this approach has a logical stopping point: the miracle at Sinai. One can't be an observant Jew if one interprets that particular biblical account as a mere allegory or myth, because, unlike all of the other stories in the Bible, the literal truth of this event is what forms the basis for all of the other beliefs. Therefore, if modern history casts doubt on the Bible's account of what happened in Exodus -- and I am no expert, but I believe that it does -- then this poses a serious problem for even Maimonides. I.e., if God Himself didn't literally give us the law, then why should we follow it? (Especially when much of it doesn't seem to make sense!)

      I imagine there are similar problems for Christians, but the problems seem less obvious because Christianity places a greater emphasis on faith and does not purport to rely on "evidence" (supposed national "testimony") quite as much as Judaism tends to do.

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    6. No Warren, I certainly was not trying to deny that there is precedent for interpreting scripture in a manner consistent with secular knowledge. My point was that, from the perspective of Judaism, this approach has a logical stopping point: the miracle at Sinai. One can't be an observant Jew if one interprets that particular biblical account as a mere allegory or myth, because, unlike all of the other stories in the Bible, the literal truth of this event is what forms the basis for all of the other beliefs. Therefore, if modern history casts doubt on the Bible's account of what happened in Exodus -- and I am no expert, but I believe that it does -- then this poses a serious problem for even Maimonides. I.e., if God Himself didn't literally give us the law, then why should we follow it? (Especially when much of it doesn't seem to make sense!)

      I imagine there are similar problems for Christians, but the problems seem less obvious because Christianity places a greater emphasis on faith and does not purport to rely on "evidence" (supposed national "testimony") quite as much as Judaism tends to do.

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  6. "I don't think any Christian thinks Jesus authored the Gospels!"

    Right. I guess I wasn't so clear, sorry. I know that Christians don't believe that Jesus wrote the Gospels himself. However, they certainly do believe that Jesus is God. To the extent the Gospels quote Jesus, therefore, the Gospels (at least the quoted portions of them) would have to be considered the inerrant word of God, no? At least they would be based upon the direct teachings of God. Whereas if the character of "Jesus" did not actually exist, or if it was based on some other guy who was not actually God, then this basic foundation would no longer exist.

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  7. There is one thing about divine inspiration.

    Among all these Semitic desert tribes, claims of prophecies, messianism, divine revelations, and holy missions were passing common. The list of apostates executed in Judea for claiming to be messiahs is near endless. And it's not just Judea. Among Arab tribes too.

    There is a reason that we have the well documented disease called the Jerusalem Syndrome, which causes certain visitors to Israel to experience delusions of grandeur. People go there, drink the water, and start thinking they are messiahs.

    So out of these hundreds of alleged apostates, which one was telling the truth and which one was just delusional? Let's remember that all these self-appointed messiahs tend to come from the same region - illiterate desert tribals in the Levantine or the Gulf.

    I mean, you have this one messiah in the Gulf who claimed that there is no God but God. And there is another messiah who claimed he was both God and son of God simultaneously, contradicting what the other messiah said about there being only one God. They clearly don't even claim to be messiahs for the same god either.

    Who is the messiah and who is the babbling lunatic? It's unclear.

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    1. Prateek's main case seems to be that, if hundreds of people claim to be Napoleon, that is good evidence that no one is Napoleon!

      "So out of these hundreds of alleged apostates, which one was telling the truth and which one was just delusional?"

      Why don't we see whose claim stands up over time?

      "illiterate desert tribals in the Levantine or the Gulf."

      Now this is just ugly, Prateek. To call the people who wrote the Old Testament "illiterate" is dumb, and smacks of some feeling of ethnic superiority to "desert tribals."

      "They clearly don't even claim to be messiahs for the same god either."

      Again, just plain stupid. Go read some history and theology, Prateek.

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  8. There seems to be an incorrect belief that the biblical writers did not understand some of the challenges of their day.

    For instance, Prateek states that there were many people claiming to be the messiah.  This is true, and this was also recognized by the people in that day and age.

    In the book of Acts, chapter five, we find the following dialogue:

    "But when they [the Jewish leaders] heard this, they were cut to the quick and intended to kill them [the apostles].  But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time.  And he said to them. "Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men.  For some tie ago,  Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about 400 men joined with him.  But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing.  After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished and all those who followed him were scattered."

    The usual course of these things is that when the person is living, the person is able to rally a following.  When the person dies, their ideas may survive, but the person is not typically celebrated.

    In Christianity, the ideas of Jesus are still celebrated and honored, but the PERSON OF JESUS was/is more celebrated after his death than before.  This is simply unheard of.

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  9. There seems to be an incorrect belief that the biblical writers did not understand some of the challenges of their day.

    For instance, Prateek states that there were many people claiming to be the messiah.  This is true, and this was also recognized by the people in that day and age.

    In the book of Acts, chapter five, we find the following dialogue:

    "But when they [the Jewish leaders] heard this, they were cut to the quick and intended to kill them [the apostles].  But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time.  And he said to them. "Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men.  For some tie ago,  Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about 400 men joined with him.  But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing.  After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished and all those who followed him were scattered."

    The usual course of these things is that when the person is living, the person is able to rally a following.  When the person dies, their ideas may survive, but the person is not typically celebrated.

    In Christianity, the ideas of Jesus are still celebrated and honored, but the PERSON OF JESUS was/is more celebrated after his death than before.  This is simply unheard of.

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  10. I suppose my "illiterate" comment was unwarranted, but I should explain.

    For a Divine Creator to spread His message, He needs to plant that message in area from where it will spread the fastest. His message is that important after all.

    Did He plant it in China, with writing and printing press? No, he planted them among the Levantine and Gulf folk - one Mohammed, one Yeshuah. That puts a serious disadvantage here. In such circumstances, it would take hundreds of years before those religions even became mainstream. And they did take that long!

    Could a Canary Islander in the 12th century have been a valid candidate for a messiah? How would a Canary Islander spread his message?

    Anyway, I am not a theologian, but I find it hard to believe that the Trinitarian God of Christianity and the Unitarian God of Islam are one and the same. Syncretism between Islam and Christianity seems impossible. There is a serious fundamental contradiction here.

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    1. "For a Divine Creator to spread His message, He needs to plant that message in area from where it will spread the fastest."

      Well, Prateek, when you create your universe and send your messiah to it, you try things out that way, and we will see how you do in comparison.

      "Anyway, I am not a theologian, but I find it hard to believe that the Trinitarian God of Christianity and the Unitarian God of Islam are one and the same."

      Ah, the argument from incredulity. But basically, what you are saying is this: If Ptolemy says the sun goes around the earth, and Copernicus says the earth goes around the sun, then they must be talking about different suns!

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