Here on my blog I shared a podcast I recorded with Rym and Scott of the Geeknights podcast. In it we talk about the Jesus Myth Hypothesis, which looks at the character of Jesus as portrayed in the Bible, and questions whether it is based on a real, historical figure.
I got an interesting comment from a listener, which you can read in full here.
I emailed Endre a response, but I thought I’d share it here too…
Thanks for listening to my rambling podcasts. The Geeknights one was especially jumbled because I hadn’t actually planned to go into any specific details, and instead we just had a conversation.
“I recently listened to your Geeknights podcast about the historicity of the bible. It is a bit jumbled, and a great deal of it I donâ€™t have any issue with, but I think I would recommend you to reconsider your position on the historicity of Jesus (as a historical person, not a magical saviour that can turn water into wine).”
I think I made it quite clear in the podcast that I’m not convinced either way about the historicity of Jesus. If pushed, I would say he probably didn’t exist, but it’s always a question of probabilities, right? And my main point that is even if the very first story of Jesus, however far back you can take it, was based on a real person, there is no evidence at all that all anything we know about the “character” of Jesus could apply to him at all. The things he said? To me it looks like collections of sayings from the various sects and philosophies of the first century. The things he did? Well, either he did miraculous things, or he did nothing. And if miracles don’t exist, he was nothing but a faker or magician. Or, more likely, the stories told about other characters were applied to him.
So at the root of all the made up stories (which isn’t a pejorative accusation, by the way) what do we have? Some guy, who probably didn’t do anything credited to Jesus, and probably didn’t say anything credited to Jesus. What is the point of even valuing him at that point?
Also, you say:
“My main problem with this issue is that if the stringency and hyper-critical evaluation of sources in examining the historicity of Jesus was to be applied broadly to ancient history, we would pretty much wipe it out as a field of study â€“ our sources on a lot of the ancient world are extremely sparse.”
Here I completely disagree, but in a subtle two-fold way.
First, I think that every claim and story and character should be looked at in a hyper-critical way. And, if it seems there isn’t enough evidence to support their existence without any doubt, what should we do? We should doubt. Doubt is good. Especially with sparse sources. Some characters are more probable more truly historic (Socrates) and some are less probable (Hercules). As a quick side note, I see Jesus much more in the vein of Hercules than Socrates.
And I have good reason to doubt EVERY source, and EVERY claim. You know why? Every time a newspaper reporter has written about me, they have made three or four major mistakes. And every time I ever read any newspaper story about a subject or incident I know a lot about, I see loads of mistakes. So everything I read in the media is through a lens of doubt, because just because I don’t know enough to know WHAT the reporter is getting wrong, I know they are getting SOMETHING wrong.
Also, back in 2001 I created a character on a newgroup called rec.juggling. I think it took just 12 posts under the name of Nigel J. Green, and he was one of the most famous and controversial characters in the online juggling community. At the British Juggling Convention in the spring of 2001, I had Nigel Green write that he would be there, but only during the day as he was staying with a friend in Cardiff (the city where the convention was held). During and after the convention, I heard many people talking about him, and some said they saw someone that was probably him.
Even after I exposed the entire hoax, Nigel Green kept popping up in other situations. And now, 10 years later, in every show I do I talk about “My first juggling teacher when I was a young boy, who was much better than me at juggling at the time, called Nigel Green.” That means every year thousands of people hear about Nigel Green, and they have no reason to presume I’m lying. Why should they? I use the name Nigel Green because the real name of my first juggling teacher was Daniel Cock, and I don’t want to say Cock on stage.
Second, I don’t think holding every element of ancient history to critical evaluation would wipe it out as a field of study. In fact, I think the opposite. Or at least, I think that tracing the ideas and elements and memes of the stories about the characters is just as important and interesting as the historical figures themselves.
As I hinted before, the true Jesus, if he really existed, was probably way more boring than the Jesus we know and understand today. But what I find so fascinating about history is how we’ve come to have the Jesus we know today.
Because the conflicting reports in the gospels doesn’t mean we know less about Jesus, it instead means we know more about the different religions and sects and philosophies and movements of the first and second century. Just using the gospels we can track different formulations of divinity, and see the modes of thought as they developed. Each of the Gospels comments on the others, either directly or by talking about the kind of people who would later compile other gospels.
So we give up Jesus, but we gain people like Polykarp, Simon Magus, James the Just, John the Baptist, Marcione, and so many others. It’s the same with the old testament writings too. We give up pretty much everything before about 700 BC, but we gain new understanding about the true people and religions that developed in Canaan in that time.
And it’s the same with Nigel Green. We give up some guy who bullied other jugglers online, and we gain a new understanding about the story of online and real-life juggling subcultures.
I’m not going to read your sources, as I’ve no intention of delving into online discussion forums. I already know all the problems with the Christ Myth Hypothesis. I have problems with it myself. But I have problems with the wholesale acceptance of him as “probably historical” and then letting that frame any debate from then on. I want people to be honest about this. I don’t have a dog in the fight, you know. I’ve not written books about the subject arguing either way, nor am I religious, nor do I have anything against people with religious beliefs.
I hope you don’t mind such a response to your blog comment! Thanks for letting me clarify my position.
Pardon the unsolicited comments, but I encountered your sci-fi reviews via Itunes and happened upon your blog.
I must say, as an educator, I find myself interjecting my own commentary into situations when asked and (more often than not) when my opinion isn’t requested. I live and work in Arizona, in a fairly conservative part of the Grand Canyon State. I’m certainly not complaining, as they are nothing if not excellent neighbors.
Unfortunately, I have far more often than I want to, had to make my opinions known on evolution; namely that it’s science and no matter the words used to disguise it (“creationism,” “Intelligent design,” etc.) the alternatives are religious in nature and not suitable for discussions in science classrooms.
So I have to admit I find it strange that someone of your stance would be so, pardon the term, adamant against the historicity of Jesus. And please understand, in suggesting that you’re not “convinced either way about the historicity of Jesus” is to deliberately brush aside the historical research that has been done on this topic.
I bring this up as I have a friend who is pursuing her PhD in Religious Studies (she also has a bachelors in history from Johns Hopkins). Her response when I asked her about this issue (this conversation took place last year when I visited her and her family over the summer) was “Jesus-mythers are to history what creationists are to evolution. Most of the people who support the theory are not trained historians and have little to no knowledge of history as a discipline.” She is quite protective of her field, and dislikes being dismissed as someone who simply “reads and copies” what other people wrote.
For make no mistake about it, history is a discipline. One with standards, a methodology, peer review, etc. For the vast majority of historians, the issue of whether or not Jesus existed is something that can only charitably be called a “fringe” element of the discipline, akin to what anti-Stratfordians are to English departments.
We live in a world in which people deny Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays, and far more distastefully, the genocide of the Third Reich. There are people who will simply dismiss the evidence no matter what is presented before them. Their motives are best left to psychiatrists to pick over, but considering the “doubt” that exists for the aforementioned issues, not to mention many others, I don’t understand why you feel atheists “give away” the historicity of Jesus as though this was something that historians don’t agree on. The sayings of Jesus, who he “really” was, those are issues to consider. It’s like the Galileo Trial: It undeniably happened, but what happened exactly remains a mystery.
When you write, “Jesus, however far back you can take it, was based on a real person, there is no evidence at all that all anything we know about the ‘character’ of Jesus could apply to him at all.” That is an issue that scholars have debated and the authenticity the Gospels in the details are still being discussed by scholars. But to say, “Jesus” wasn’t an historical figure is another claim entirely.
In the nineteenth century, there was a concerted effort, mainly from drifting Protestant academics and French liberals, to demonstrate that the New Testament was written no earlier than the second century, and thus had no historical value as a contemporary record. This attempt, always suspect in view of the writings of Papias, Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons who lived before that time and frequently quote scripture in their texts, broke down completely when papyrus fragments proving the earlier existence of the Gospel of John were discovered, and twice over upon the evidence of the archaeologist William Mitchell Ramsay, who, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, proved that the author of Luke and Acts had lived in the first century and could not have lived in any other, because his works are full of references to contemporary realities that often changed in a matter of years, and eyewitness descriptions of actual fact. After Ramsay, a series of similar discoveries were also made about John. Neither Luke nor John can possibly have written after about 90 AD, that is, outside living memory. The historian G.W.Bowersock, in his study Fiction as History, has since added an important consideration. He has given us strong reason to believe that the stories of the New Testament, including the Crucifixion, were widely known and an important cultural influence on later Roman literature, hence the title. He traces this influence back and finds that it appears, suddenly and with no precedent, at the court of Nero in the work of Petronius Arbiter. Nero was the Emperor to whom Paul was said to have appealed against a death sentence.
To cite two, of many, expert opinions on the matter:
Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina with a PhD from Princeton has said, “I don’t think there is any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus. There are a lot of people who want to write sensational books and make a lot of money, who say Jesus didn’t exist…I’m not saying this as a believer; I’m not a believer. But as an historian, you can’t just dismiss it and say, ‘I don’t know,’ you have to look at the evidence.”
F.E. Peters, also a Princeton alum (and professor at NYU) with a focus on Middle Eastern History offers, “The evidence for Jesus, however tainted it might be in its judgments, is more plentiful than for any of [his] contemporaries, even the most famous.”
Sorry this got a bit long and thank you for reading if you’re gotten this far. But glib analysis of complex issues (which is the kindest way I can describe Christ mythology) urged me to put in my two cents. And please, don’t take my word for it: Investigate all sides of the issue for yourself.