Sunday, October 5, 2014

Why I Have Doubts About Jesus' Existence

Don't expect to be blown away here: I'm an amateur, a layman. But after I've repeatedly said that I think the people who are convinced that Jesus existed are closed-minded about the subject, and have nothing much to offer except appeal to authority, saying that the matter is settled because the experts say it's settled, and that they settled it decades ago -- which they didn't. Look at the work of Biblical scholars from decades ago, and it'll be very familiar: they say that the matter was settled some time before, and not much else -- and that the only mythicist worth reading is G A Wells,

many of my readers may be growing impatient and muttering to themselves, "Oh yeah? Well why should we even listen to you on the subject, Mr Monkey? You ain't wrote none a them dang Mythissuh... Mythooss... Jesus-Didn't-Exist books yrself. What makes you opinions so cotton-pickin special?"

Nothing makes my opinions about the subject so cotton-pickin' special. Yes, I took down Michael Paulkovich, here, and here, and here, but anybody with a BA in Classics from a good college could've done that. That was EASY. Yes, I can see closed-mindedness and a lock-step rejection of speculation about Jesus' existence on the part of the academic experts, but it's easy to spot that too. It seems that millions of people have noticed it. It sticks out like a thumb with a compound fracture which has been ignored for days and has flies and gangrene on it.

I and all of the aforementioned BA's -- and of course, all of those Biblical scholars -- know how sparse the written record from Judea and Galilee in the 1st century is. Really, the only crucial records about Jesus, the only things available to study in order to form your opinion about whether he was a man or just a character in a story, are the books of the New Testament. Everything else is secondary. Of course, that might change completely today or tomorrow if something is dug up which significantly adds to our knowledge. And something like that could be dug up at any time. Or archaeologists might keep digging for thousands of years, if we haven't heated or polluted ourselves to death by then or blown ourselves up, and never find anything which changes the picture. In the meantime, when we talk about the historical Jesus, we're talking about the New Testament.

Everything else often referred to as primary materials in the case of the historical Jesus: Josephus, Tacitus,

Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, has to do with Christians, and is every bit as easily explainable with Christians who were Christians because they had heard a story about Jesus as with Christians who had seen Jesus in the flesh. Actually, the material in Pliny is much more explainable with people who'd only heard stories about Jesus, because if they'd seen him they would have had to be very old when Pliny met them.

And yes, the authors of the New Testament would have had to be pretty old if they'd seen Jesus, except Paul, who only saw him in a vision (we'll get back to that vision), but that's not a serious reason to discount the New Testament accounts. Eyewitness accounts could've been handed down for a generation or two, and/or there could be older texts, now missing, from which the Gospels were made.

So. My objection to assuming with no question that Jesus existed, or to taking the word of experts who tell us that this case has been closed for a long time, has nothing to do with the number of authors who give us information about Jesus. On the contrary: the number of authors in the New Testament writing about Jesus is impressively high. For someone from that time and place it's extra-special super-dooper impressively high. My objection also has nothing to do with the dates when the New Testament texts were written. Again, on the contrary: when we're talking about someone from Galilee 2000 years ago, who may have been completely illiterate along with most of his friends (most, not all: tax collectors like Matthew had to be able to read and write), the collection of texts in the New Testament was amassed impressively early.

My objection to believing without question that Jesus existed is, I believe, the same that millions of other people have had, people who unlike you and me have never heard of Tacitus or Josephus or Q and have no idea when the New Testament texts are believed to have been written. My objection has to do neither with the amount nor with the date of the earliest writings about Jesus but with the quality of those writings.

It's a shockingly obvious objection, that's why it occurred to me decades ago, before I was full-grown, before I had heard of Josephus or Tecitus, that's why I share it with millions of others past and present, it's the elephant in the room in which all those Biblical scholars keep straight-facedly assuring us that there is no elephant and that crap does not keep accumulating in huge piles: it's the proportion of the obviously-mythological in the story of Jesus: the Immaculate Conception, the census of the Empire which never was, the star of Bethlehem, the Magi, the Massacre of the Innocents and the flight to Egypt, walking on water, water into wine, multiplying loaves and fishes, healing lepers, madmen, a blind man, raising Lazarus from the dead and then rising from the dead himself.

In a story in which so much was obviously made up and the dates don't fit more firmly-established history, how is it at all unreasonable to ask if the man's very existence is more than one more fictional detail of the story?

That's it. That's all I got. And I think that's all I need. Oh, and you should see the academics do what they consider to be addressing my concerns. (My concerns and those of millions of other people, because they're such shockingly obvious concerns.) If the term "mental gymanstics" hadn't already existed, it would have to have been invented to describe the ways in which the specialists claim that the mythological elements and the discrepancies between the various Gospel stories make Jesus' existence MORE likely, not less. Talk about crap piling up...

And now, as promised, back to Paul's vision of Jesus. I think that the story of Jesus, if there never was any Jesus and it's all just story, 100% mythological and not the 98% to which the scholars are still stubbornly clinging, could have started in a number of different ways, but the most plausible explanation, to my amateur eyes, seems to be that Paul first told people about Jesus.

And that doesn't mean that I think that Paul necessarily lied. He could actually have had a vision: a dream, or a daydream or an hallucination, and believed that it was real.

Yes, if this is how Christianity started, then Paul's back story, about how he had persecuted Christians before his vision, before he had changed his name from Saul (the name of the mighty Israelite king) to Paul (which means "little guy") would be untrue, since there would have been no Christians yet for Saul/Paul to persecute. But just like Jesus' existence, Saul/Paul's persecution of Christians seems like a rather small detail compared to all the supernatural elements in the story of Jesus, and when we go from Jesus to the stories of the apostles and the martyrs, if anything, the stories become even more farfetched. Even before Christians started rewriting their own Gospels and other texts.

Or the figure of Jesus could have arisen when people were talking about John the Baptist, whose existence I don't doubt. Or it could've begun some other way. Or, yes indeed, Jesus might really have existed. MAYBE.

So, what in th wide, wide world of sports is a goin' on here? Am I just too dense to see something which is plain as can be, as exasperated Bible scholars have said to me when I've had conversations with them about all of this? Or, when those professors point to all of this evidence which I still can't see, is there no there there, as Gertrude Stein said about her home town of Oakland?

Oakland has changed a lot since Gertrude left in 1893 at the age of 19, never to return. But that's neither here nor there.


  1. I couldn’t agree more.

    Regarding Paul, I think it quite possible that he was persecuting somebody. However, it is often the case that the people who carry out religious persecutions have been stirred up by someone in power who wishes to scapegoat the victims for reasons that have little to do with what they actually believe or practice. The temple priests who held power under the Roman occupation would have found it convenient to whip up someone like Paul with whatever lies proved effective against any messianic cult that caused unrest among the peasants. I can’t see any reason to think that Paul’s targets would have been limited to the followers of one obscure messianic claimant from Galilee.

    So I think it entirely probable that Paul’s persecution would have been founded on misinformation, and things only would have gotten worse from there. Persecutors often use torture and informants to gain information and torture victims and informants would have been happy to invent any story that they thought Paul wanted to hear. I often hear it claimed that Paul would have learned about the Christians’ beliefs while he was persecuting them, but I can see no reason to think that what he learned would have matched up with what any specific group actually believed.

    So then Paul has some sort of visionary experience which he takes as confirmation of all the misinformation that he acquired from his victims. According to Galatians, he didn’t bother to seek out those he viewed as his predecessors so I can’t see any reason to think that the message he preached during those three years wasn’t primarily, if not entirely, his own creation. When he does finally sit down with James and Peter, they are faced with a charismatic, educated, violence-prone man who has been successfully spreading his message all over the region. What could be more natural than them deciding to accept Paul’s revelation?

    Like you, I don’t see any reason to take Paul’s claims about persecuting Christians at face value. The “I was the church’s worst enemy before Jesus touched me” shtick is just too convenient. Nevertheless, even if I accept that Paul was a persecutor, that wouldn’t eliminate the possibility that the gospel he preached came almost entirely out of his own head.

  2. And if Paul is made up as well, and why not, then it makes the entire story so much easier to dismiss. And let's face it so much of ''Paul's'' story is nonsense too..

  3. There is also every reason to believe that ''Paul'' is also siply a narrative construct and accepting this makes the entire narrative so much easier to understand.
    In the immortal words form the movie Life of Brian:
    ''He's making it up as he goes along!''

    1. I'm not sure I understand -- are you saying that you doubt that Paul existed? If so, I have to disagree. If you're saying that Paul made up Jesus, then I think maybe you're right.

      I also think it's possible that Jesus existed -- without any of the miracles, of course. Without the virgin birth, without the magical Star of Bethlehem, with the Resurrection, etc, etc. I think it's possible that there was a Jesus from Nazareth who said roughly what we know as the Sermon on the Mount and was killed on Pilate's orders. Not definite, as most Biblical scholars claim, but possible.