Greg (Jesus mythicist): It’s true that there are some poor cases made for [Jesus] mythicism. But there are no good cases made for the historicity of Jesus made by scholars, either. Recently, I heard a scholar that I like talking about how the later gospel authors were trying to deal with things Jesus said. But the assumption was that Mark wrote what Jesus actually said and not something invented or borrowed from another source.
I was on the fence while waiting for Ehrman to come out with “Did Jesus Exist?” The arguments threw me over to mythicism for Jesus. Ehrman’s independent Gospel sources are Mark, Q, M, L, sayings source, passion narratives, protoThomas. We have Mark. The others are constructed under the assumption that there was a real Jesus with other writings about him, so they are rather circular. Even if they exist, they may have been misattributed to Jesus. I think one of the M sources was the Epistle of James as the source for many of the things Jesus said in Matthew, so maybe part of the sayings source or Q. MacDonald says the passion narrative draws on the Homeric epics.
I went through the authentic Pauline epistles for everything Paul says about Jesus and it appears that everything Paul knew about Jesus plausibly came from somewhere in the OT. These are from the OT books Paul quotes from the most:
If Paul’s Jesus was someone he “found” in the OT, then there is no reason to think that the person Mark put in the first century was real. I often hear even atheist Bible scholars refer to “Paul’s Eucharist account” in 1 Corinthians 11 as being from Paul. Here is my argument that the passage is part of a larger interpolation: https://www.debunking-chris… It has a ten word verbatim phrase in Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24, a six word verbatim phrase in Luke 22:20 and 1 Corinthians 11:25, and each pair has different three word verbatim phrases.
Gary: I believe the evidence for the existence of Jesus is very, very weak. I’ve discussed this with Bart Ehrman, who believes in the historicity of Jesus. I asked him if it was possible that the author of Mark invented Jesus. Ehrman pointed to the fact that Mark could not have been the only source for the Jesus’ story. Why do Matthew and Luke have shared data that does not appear in Mark? Q??
Did Paul invent a Jesus character and then the Gospel authors “fleshed out” this fictional character decades later? Maybe. Did Josephus, Tacitus, and others simply repeat hearsay about the origins of Christianity? Could be.
The fact that there are no contemporary Jewish or Roman references to Jesus is strong evidence to me that the Jesus of the Gospels did not exist. If the Gospels are correct, Jesus raised more people from the dead and performed more miracles than all the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament combined. He turned Palestine on its head. But nope, no non-Christian contemporary says a peep about him.
However…as a university educated person I trust consensus expert opinion on ALL issues. To do otherwise promotes the philosophy of uneducated conspiracy theorists: each individual is the final arbiter of truth. The consensus position of historians is that Jesus existed. So I accept the existence of a first century apocalyptic preacher named Jesus as fact, even though I reject the historicity of the Jesus of the Gospels.
End of post.
17 thoughts on “Did Jesus Even Exist?”
Exactly what the Jesus of history was like will probably never be found. However the mythicist arguments are far more fantastical than the consensus view of professional historians that a Jewish leader did exist and was executed by the Romans.
That is far more likely than the speculative ideas of mythicists. Heck, as requested I read one volume of mythicism and various articles by famous mythicists such as Carrier. Just as a secular literature teacher, I was shocked at the weak reasoning, historically highly unlikely substitutions, even basic literature errors that the mythicists make.
To me it seems like the other claims that have been made–Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, the Buddha never existed, not did Muhammad or Socrates.
Of course all of these denials are possible, but it’s more likely that the Jesus of Christian religion, the Buddha of Buddhists, etc. were based upon real historical figures who have been mythologized.
Many of those proclaiming mythicism aren’t even fluent in ancient Greek, aren’t Roman historians, etc. Carrier is an exception, and he is brilliant, though his answers that replace the brief facts of the view of most historians seem fantastical in comparison.
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I agree with all of this. Having spent years studying the scriptures, first as a believer and latterly as a sceptic, I have reached the conclusion that gospel-Jesus and his adventures are almost entirely invented. Most reputable scholars are of the same view, seeing his story as a literary realisation of Old Testament episodes and other sources.
The legends may well be based on a real person but he is buried under such an accretion of myth that resurrecting him is all but impossible.
All the same, I’m left with the nagging question: if he was so remarkable in his own right why did his subsequent followers, particularly his biographers, feel the need to make up so much about him?
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For the same reason that the Greeks, Romans, ancient Asians, ancient British, etc. mythologized ancient leaders. Heck, even Americans have done this with leaders of several hundred years ago. No, Ameeicans don’t have their leaders of the past walking on water, but most of the popular myths about those Americans of the past are already getting mythologized by the 20th century! Give it hundreds of years and the same thing would happen.
If one was to go for mythicism it would indeed be best to say either that Paul invented the story or that he retells a story invented by another or that none of the Pauline letters are authentic (Robert Price’s position). The tack of Carrier, to accept the Pauline letters and try to read them as talking of a Jesus in another realm requires too many contorted readings. I think scholars have rather more reasons than you allow for accepting historicity. Tim O’Neill at History for Atheists is worth reading on this particularly on the second Josephan reference to “James the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ” which almost all scholars accept as authentic.
However I missed the class at University telling us to accept majority scholarly opinion in other subjects at every point and I think it’s a false dichotomy to say it’s either than or letting people believe anything. I know I’m repeating myself but conspiracy theorists emphatically do not weigh the evidence for themselves. If you have tried arguing with one you should know that. They don’t even consider evidence contrary to their case. A person who applies the scientific method and weighs all the evidence won’t come to those conclusions. As I say there is a third way based on reading the arguments from the best respected scholars on each side of the arguments, in a field in which there actually is an argument between scholars of repute. Now in cases one might find one can’t follow the arguments, for example the mathematics of Hawking. In that case one does have to go with the majority. But in many fields, including my own if people read economists who write plain English I think a lay person educated in the scientific method is competent to form judgements after reading say both JK Galbraith and Milton Friedman on the history of money.
Also is it your opinion Wittgenstein should have refrained from challenging all existing philosophers by writing the Tractatus? He didn’t even have an undergraduate degree at the time! We would surely be intellectually poorer it he had had any modesty.
Most university educated people accept majority expert opinion on all issues about which they are not experts. That is a fact. You can choose another view if you wish.
I don’t dispute your claim, it sounds plausible, but I’m interested in your basis for making it. Is there some survey of graduates showing this? Or is it taught as a principle in Universities in your country? Btw I don’t expect you to dig out a survey. If you tell me you have seen survey evidence that’s enough for me. Ditto if you tell that’s the position of most graduates you know. I’ve never thought to ask people, so I have no basis for assessment.
Here is a good article which explains how people should evaluate scientific claims. I suggest that most educated people use this same criteria for other fields of knowledge. If you are a doctor, judge, engineer, etc. your education teaches you to respect consensus expert opinion.
“Scientific information must go through a number of processes to ensure that it is reliable. Openness, critical debate and peer review drive research forward. Science is self-correcting. Interpretations of research data are modified and refined as new knowledge emerges. Research builds on knowledge built up over decades, if not centuries.
Scientific knowledge is our best current understanding of things. It is not anyone’s opinion or personal experience, but the result of a systematic process. It can change as new research findings and understanding develops. That’s why researched science is worth more than opinions!”
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Thanks for that. Genuinely. I’d actually agree with everything there. I see where you infer the claim that we should go with the consensus or majority (“is there a strong consensus, if not what do the majority say) and if this is indeed what the author means I don’t actually disagree as regards hard sciences (the subject in view) as it is really difficult to assess scientific claims without a scientific background. I wouldn’t attempt to do so. It’s also true in economics if one is dealing with equations (although I think a mathematician would have a good chance of understanding). I just don’t see soft sciences like biblical criticism (or even economic claims in plain English) as being equivalent here. But maybe as you say that marks me out from most other educated people.
What I do dispute is that the cranks that rightly horrify you are actually weighing the evidence for themselves or following the alternative principles I outlined. Their hallmark is to blithely dismiss all contrary evidence as the product of a conspiracy and embrace claims that are easily disproven. So for example I assert again there is not one Young Earth creationist who has come to their position by weighing the evidence and the “best” arguments from each side (the good arguments of course are all on one side). Every single one I believe is driven by a preexisting belief in biblical inerrancy. And though your principle would dispose of Young Earth Creationism I think it’s a paper sword as there’s no chance of the cranks accepting it. Also I believe my alternative (reading the best acknowledged scholars on both sides, weighing their arguments and looking for discomfirmation of any provisional thesis we form) would dispose of YEC just as effectively. Because, as I say no one following that method would conclude the earth is 6,000 years old or flat or the centre of our planetary system. Indeed those conclusions aren’t even an option in my scheme because there is no reputable scholar in the relevant fields (even if their are dissenters with relevant qualifications) who would argue for such conclusions. There’s no actual debate. What I’m thinking of is cases where there is actual debate eg (in economics) is inflation ultimately solely driven by the money supply. I’m convinced if I sent you the best arguments on both sides in plain English and you dispassionately weighed them you would be able to form a reasonable judgment. I do acknowledge however that your judgement wouldn’t be entitled to be accorded any weight by others (assuming you aren’t an economist).
But we won’t agree, you have already said you will go with the majority of educated people but I’m free to differ. So here we stand etc. I’m grateful for your time and effort in engaging.
“What I’m thinking of is cases where there is actual debate eg (in economics) is inflation ultimately solely driven by the money supply.”
As the article discusses, there are times when the experts are divided. When the experts are divided, most educated people do one of two things:
I personally do not have the time (nor the interest) to investigate the causes of inflation. If there is a large majority expert opinion on this issue, I would simply accept that majority expert opinion, and move on.
And the same is true of other issues where the experts are divided. If the experts are evenly or nearly evenly divided, I will withhold judgement. If there is a large majority opinion, and a small minority opinion, I will go with the large majority opinion.
When it comes to Biblical scholarship, I accept majority expert opinion on all issues with two caveats:
I disregard the scholarhsip of any scholar who has signed a Statement of Faith/Belief, promising not to publish or promote any positions which contradict his institution, denomination, or employer.
I disregard the scholarship of any scholar who believes that a ghost/spirit lives inside him (or her), communicating in an inaudible form of communication, telling him (or her) that Jesus really was resurrected from the dead.
As would I in any field I haven’t read up on in detail or where I can’t follow the arguments. I think our difference is quite slight.
I’m no “university educated person,” but I would accept that an individual named Yeshua probably lived and died some 2,000+ years ago. As to the activities and qualities assigned to him by others? Ummm. No so much.
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“I trust consensus expert opinion on ALL issues.”
For any consensus within science, I agree, but religious scholars have a strong motivation to lie. In my mind, there is an asterisk next to any consensus on a supernatural matter where the majority of scholars weighing in are religious.
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I guess we need to define the word “expert”.
Is a witch doctor an “expert” on the supernatural? Is a shaman a medical expert? I think even Christians will agree: No, in both instances.
So when I say “expert”, I am not referring to anyone who claims to be an expert. I am referring to someone who has an advanced degree in a field of study which respects and follows the Scientific Method, the most reliable method of discerning truth in human history. So what about fields of study that do not involve science? I think we then must look at the methodology used by that particular group of “experts”. Are their conclusions based on good logic and do they use standard procedures for evaluating evidence? For instance, in NT studies: Does the researcher examine the texts of the Christian New Testament using the same standards used for examining other ancient texts or does he allow his belief in divine inspiration to affect his or her judgment about the texts? And again, I would exclude the “expert” opinion of any “expert” who has signed a Statement of Faith or believes that a ghost inside him guides his scholarship.
“Is a witch doctor an “expert” on the supernatural? Is a shaman a medical expert? I think even Christians will agree: No, in both instances.”
But then the reverse is also true. The witch doctor would say the Christian is no expert.
“So when I say “expert”, I am not referring to anyone who claims to be an expert. I am referring to someone who has an advanced degree in a field of study which respects and follows the Scientific Method, the most reliable method of discerning truth in human history.”
In that case, I agree. Someone like Wm. Lane Craig has a doctorate in theology, but that field doesn’t follow the scientific method (or follow the evidence in an unbiased fashion). I’m happy to see WLC removed from the “expert” category.
I personally would only consider a theologian (or a witch doctor) an expert of that particular religion’s beliefs. So if I wanted to know what most Presbyterians believe about passages in the Bible that discuss “the elect”, I would consult a Presbyterian theologian. If however, I want to know the consensus expert opinion regarding the authorship and/or dating of the Gospels or the Pauline epistles, I would not consult a theologian. I would consult the consensus opinion of New Testament scholars. But I would exclude any NT scholar who:
1.) allows the alleged divine inspiration of a text to affect his views on authorship and dating.
2.) has signed a statement of faith.
3.) believes that the ghost of Jesus lives in his heart, telling him what is true and what is false.
Good NT scholars use the same techniques to determine authorship and dating of the Christian NT texts as they do all other ancient texts. A scholar who uses a different methodology is not someone I would trust.
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