Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Academics Haven't Convinced Me That Jesus Existed. With Very Few Exceptions, They Haven't Convinced Me That They've Really Begun To Investigate The Matter

Here we go again, round and round and round, getting all worked up, getting nowhere. Isn't it all just perfectly dreadful.

Historicists, people who believe that Jesus of Nazareth existed, including many atheists who don't believe any of the New Testament stories of supernatural things, often correctly point out that the great majority of academics are historicists. And they often correctly point out that most of the mythicists, the people who have doubts about Jesus' existence, are amateurs, and often do a spectacularly poor job of making the case that it's less than certain that Jesus existed. To be clear: mythicists don't merely doubt the supernatural stories about Jesus. They (we) are not convinced that those stories are even based on a real person, named Jesus, who came from Nazareth. We figure: so much of the New Testament is clearly legend, the existence of Jesus might be just one more legendary detail -- a rather small detail when one considers the proportional of legend in the New Testament.

I agree that there are a lot of zany mythicists. I've criticized some of them so harshly in this blog that some of them, apparently having stopped reading before the end of one post or another, have assumed that I am an historicist, or even a very devout Christian. So, for the billionth time and the 2nd time in this post: I'm an atheist and I'm not convinced that Jesus existed.

Yes, I've criticized some mythicists very harshly. I've also pointed out that the fact that some of them argue the mythicist case very poorly says nothing at all about the soundness or unsoundness of the case itself, the soundness or unsoundness of the position: it is not certain that Jesus existed.

There must be a term in formal logic for this sort of fallacy: the fact that A argues the case for 1 poorly does not say anything about the soundness or unsoundness of 1. Whatever logicians would call this fallacy, it's the primary argument of the historians.

Surprisingly, historicists who are also academic specialists in Biblical studies very often assert that the evidence for Jesus' existence is more extensive and solid than the evidence for the existence of Socrates or Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. Surprisingly, because it's so obviously wrong: we have writings from 3 of Socrates' contemporaries, compared to 0 for Jesus. Besides Caesar's own writings we have those of his contemporaries Cicero and Sallust. We have likenesses of Socrates and Caesar and Alexander in the form of sculptures which were obviously based on real people. We know what each of them looked like. Not so with Jesus. And in the case of Caesar and Alexander there's the little detail of them having been the leaders of huge armies and huge states, which means that huge numbers of people would have had to have been silent about them being fictional.

And you know what? Just like the historicists pointing out unsound mythicist arguments doesn't prove that Jesus existed, my pointing out unsound historicist arguments doesn't prove he didn't exist. Far and wide here, no one is proving anything one way or another about whether Jesus existed.

Still, the fact that the academic consensus that Jesus existed is so solid impresses many people. And the consensus shouldn't just be dismissed. However, it is not quite proper to compare mythicists, people who challenge that consensus, to global warming deniers and Holocaust deniers, people who oppose the consensus of climatologists and historians of the 20th century respectively, as Bart Ehrman has done, because Biblical studies is not exactly the same as climatology and 20th century history. Biblical studies is problematic, as scholars say when they suspect that some nonsense may be afoot, screwing up the work of serious people. Biblical studies is not always distinguishable from theology: sometimes a person whom everyone would think of as a Biblical scholar has diplomas which say that his or specialty is theology, and sometimes a theologian has diplomas which say that he or she is a Biblical scholar. There is a certain amount of overlap.

And theology is certainly not at all like 20th century history or climatology. It simply isn't, and if you want to insist that it is, I have nothing to say to you about it. Instead, I'm trying to communicate with serious people here.

Christians theologians are the people who made the Dark Ages dark, who wiped out pagan religions, who tortured and killed fellow Christians for not being the proper sort of Christians and not believing the correct things about the way the world was. They imprisoned Roger Bacon, over academic differences. They killed people for saying that they believed Copernicus' theories. They threatened to torture Galileo, and kept him under house arrest for the last several years of his life. All over academic differences. They condemned Darwin's theories when they were new, although by that time, the mid-19th century, they were no longer allowed to torture and kill the people who disagreed with them. They were slow to come around concerning 20th- and 21stcentury physics. They're still interfering with stem-cell research.

I'm not claiming that present-day theologians want to torture and kill people who disagree with them. (Not all of them.) I also don't deny that, although they're very opposed to even discussing the question of whether or not Jesus existed, most of them presently do acknowledge that Adam and Eve and Noah and Abraham are mythical figures. Most of them. Many have even stopped arguing altogether for the existence of Moses.

But they haven't led the way in academic consensus, they've never been cutting edge and they're still not.

That's the theologians, though. Not the Biblical scholars, the very ones who have dismantled our belief in the literal truth of the earlier stories in the Bible, the very ones who've shown us that Bible, supposedly the inalterable word of God, has indeed gone through some revisions over the course of centuries.

Except that you can't always tell who's one and who's the other, who's a theologian and who's a Biblical scholar, and who's partly both. Except that sometimes it seems that the theology still corrupts almost every single scholar in the field. Times such as when people try to discuss Jesus' historicity, and the scholars almost all insist that that already has been thoroughly studied, and that Jesus' historicity has been solidly proven. And even more so when many of them go even farther than that and needlessly insult people for thinking that there could be any doubt, for merely wanting to discuss the question. I get a really unpleasant sense of being in the presence of traditionally-Christian, Medieval attitudes at such times.

Nobody's proven anything here. The academics haven't proven that Jesus existed. Not to me, anyway. Not yet. I certainly haven't proven that Jesus was made up by St Paul or someone else. But maybe, just possibly, I've gotten one or two people to begin to wonder whether the academic Biblical scholars sometimes cease to behave like 21st-century academics in fields like meteorology or chemistry or 20th-century history or physics or Classical studies or math, and begin to get a little Medieval, when the question of the Historical Jesus is brought up.


  1. Reading your blog I always wonder whether it would make any difference to your view on Christian Religion, if you knew for a fact that "Jesus" existed - would that make you a theist? Because the historicity of Jesus from Nazareth would not necessarily make him the son of "God".
    I personally ( and " I know that I know nothing " ) tend to believe him a real person, a very inspirational one in the way of maybe Gandhi or M.Luther King, who "preached" peace and love and understanding - values that found fertile ground in a world of "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth". The perfect figure to weave legends around.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      If I were 100% certain that Jesus existed, no, that would not turn me into a theist. For me the question of Jesus' existence is an historical question and not a theological one. In fact, I only became interested in the topic of the historical Jesus because it overlaps a little bit with the topics of Classical Greek and Latin literature and the history of the Roman Empire, in which I was already interested. For example: say the word "Oxyrhynchus," and the only thing that many people think about is the great abundance of Biblical and other Christian manuscripts found at Oxyrhynchus. I'd already been interested in Oxyrhynchus for some time before I met those people, because a great abundance of Classical manuscripts, and everyday writings of great historical interest such as personal letters and legal documents, have been found there as well.