Wednesday, February 29, 2012

De-Meming

I'm an atheist. I'm not sure whether Jesus existed. And I'm not even one of those atheists who believes that there is a lot of merit in Jesus' teachings, whoever actually came up with them, if you leave out the supernatural stuff, as was Thomas Jefferson, as you can see in the Jefferson Bible. I think that when you leave out the supernatural stuff you're left with a lot of thoroughly unrealistic stuff. I can't claim to have achieved this insight by myself. Friedrich Nietzsche pointed it out to me in his book Der Antichrist. (That title sure looks like The Antichrist, doesn't it? And that's how it's usually translated in English translations of the book. But it's actually not quite that simple. This is a very good example of how sometimes exact translation is impossible. The thing is, the German word for Christ is Christus. And Christ is the German word for Christian. And so in addition to the good fun of referring to the scary beast with the mark of 666, apart from any silly belief in the supernatural, the title of Nietzsche's book also definitely means anti-Christian, the opposite of a Christian, in one's outlook on life here on Earth as it is actually lived by people.) He also provided a very neat metaphor for the reason obvious things sometimes need to be pointed out to people: see Die Froehliche Wissenschaft, aphorism 108.

Having said all that: as regular readers of this blog know, I'm often at odds with other atheists in discussions about Christianity. I find those who insist that Jesus never existed as unconvincing as those who insist that He did, and for very similar reasons. No, that doesn't go far enough: it bothers me MORE when atheists make sloppy historical mistakes, because they claim to be the more rational ones, who have freed themselves from grave mental errors. If you're going to claim that sort of thing, then I say, live up to it, and do your homework before you try to tell anyone what's what concerning this or that historical topic.

They say, these ignorant atheists, that it's very strange that there are no official records of Jesus' execution. It's not strange at all, for several reasons. One: however many official records of legal proceedings the Romans kept -- and I don't know how many -- very few have survived to our day. Most of the written records we have are not of an official nature, but are either letters, or books written for a popular audience. Most of the writing of an official nature which has come down to us is not in the form of parchment or papyrus manuscripts, but inscriptions in stone and now and then a word or two stamped onto coins. And then there are a few surviving manuscripts, very few, containing laws, with now and then a reference to a legal proceeding.

That's strike one for the thesis that it's just awful darn strange that we don't have any Roman records of Jesus. Strike two: until the mid-20th century the only known near-contemporary mentions of Pontius Pilate, the governor of the entire province of Judea, said to have been the man who condemned Jesus to death, were in the New Testament, Philo, Josephus, and then just a passing mention in Tacitus, which embarrassingly for the mythicists, only occurs in a passage about Christians in Rome were tortured and killed by Nero. In the 20th century an inscription bearing his name was unearthed, presumed to have been made on his own orders, bringing us to a grand total of exactly one known contemporary Roman record of the governor of the entire province -- and it's somehow strange that we don't have an official record of a wandering preaching with all of twelve count 'em twelve followers, said to have been condemned to crucifixion by that governor?

Strike three is that crucifixion, reserved by the Romans for those people they considered to be of the lowest classes, was intended to obliterate a person, both in his body, which was left on the cross to rot away -- if Jesus' body really was taken off of the cross nearly-intact and entombed, it would have meant that someone had gotten permission for an extraordinary exception to the rule -- and in his memory, which they also meant to obliterate. Let's compare the case of Spartacus, who led an army of thousands. Official records of his existence? That's right -- none. Contemporary accounts? Other than one mention in a letter by Cicero, bupkus. More than a century passes after his death before Roman historians see fit to include an account of his life and death in their works. And he terrorized a third of the Italian peninsula for two years.

So no, the volume and dates of non-Christian ancient Roman mentions of Jesus are not suspiciously small and late. Not at all. What is suspicious is the volume of clearly fictional material in the main sources for Jesus, the Gospels, which are close enough to 100% fiction that it's reasonable to ask whether they are not actually 100% fiction. But it's unreasonable to state flatly that it's certain that there never was a Jesus who said unrealistic things like turn the other cheek and give everything you have to the poor, who became annoying to the Sanhedrin and Pilate. What's unreasonable is to state that at this point the evidence is conclusive, either for or against Jesus' historical existence. It's unreasonable because it tends to shut down further inquiry into the question. As the great German historian Golo Mann pointed out, it is the duty of the historian often to point out: Here, we don't know what happened. coulda been this, coulda been that, coulda been sumpin' else. We don't know. (Thomas Mann's son, Golo Mann was. An extraordinary prose stylist like his dad. Yes, Golo is an unusual name. Actually it's a childhood nickname. Golo Mann's given name was actually Angelus Gottfried Thomas Mann. Yeah. And for the 90 years of his life, for the majority of which he was a PhD and a professor, an extremely serious man who made students and colleagues tremble with the force of his acumen, everyone continued to call him Golo, the nickname his doting family called him by when he was a toddler who couldn't say "Angelus Gottfried Thomas." That's really something. I think it's really something anyway.)

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