Friday, January 3, 2014

Advocatus Atheist and the historical Jesus

Over at AdvocatusAtheist, well-read author Tristan Vick constructed a post regarding, what he believes to be, the complete lack of evidence for the historical Jesus. This post was actually a response to yours truly regarding a comment I left on a previous post of the same subject, whereby I left a quote from New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman regarding the abundance of evidence we have for Jesus. What follows is my response to Tristan’s post, and I will quote him piecemeal and object to what I disagree with. Tristan begins:

When you say that Jesus was a real historical figure, what evidence would you be speaking of exactly?

You see, we have stories of about [sic] a Jesus in the Gospels but we also have stories about a Jesus in the Koran. And there are even tales of a Jesus as far as south as India.
 This is a fair question, yet I believe it is a question that is answered in the vein of common sense: the evidence that bests attests to the existence of Jesus (or any historical figure) is the evidence that is far less removed from his life. That is to say, the Gospels and the letters of Paul are closest to the time when Jesus lived and they claim to derive from those who were closest to Jesus, whereas the Koran, written around five hundred years after Jesus lived, shows absolutely no continuity with the line of Jesus tradition and is too far removed to have any historically significant bearing on said tradition.

This is pure common sense utilized when dealing with historiography. In order to best deduce the historical validity of a person or event, a historian wants the sources that are far less removed from them. To quote Bart Ehrman, historians “prefer to have sources that are relatively near the date of the person or event that they are describing.” 

Now, which early sources give us the best chance of deducing historical facts regarding Jesus? Well we have the writings of Paul dated from 49 to around 62 CE (that is, only 16 to 29 years removed). Then we have the Gospels of Mark (70 CE), Matthew and Luke (80-90 CE), Q material which Matthew and Luke shared, and John (90-95). Just from these writings alone we have six, that is, six sources that attest to the existence of Jesus. To quote Bart Ehrman:

For a historian these provide a wealth of materials to work with, quite unusual for accounts of anyone, literally anyone, from the ancient world[…] If historians prefer lots of witnesses that corroborate one another’s claims without showing evidence of collaboration, we have that in relative abundance in the written sources that attest to the existence of the historical Jesus. [Note that Ehrman understands that the Gospels have collaborated in many aspects. He claims: even if some of these sources are dependent on one another in some passages—for example, Matthew and Luke on Mark—they are completely independent in others, and to that extent they are independent witnesses.]
Not only do we have an abundance of sources (and there are more), but these sources are relatively early (see below as well for substantiation of this claim). But, the question isn’t just regarding the fact of existing sources but, rather the nature of these sources. Let Tristan articulate:

What is the evidence that constitutes that any *one of these is based off a real historical figure?

Citing the Bible disqualifies the evidence, not only because it would be circular, but because the Bible is untrustworthy when it comes to historical records of antiquity.

Tristan then delves into giving a few examples where the Gospels have mistakes.

First, let me deal with Tristin’s charge of circularity. The Bible is not a book that was delivered already intact. Rather, it is a collection of pieces of historiography, poetry, philosophy, myth, legend, and apocalyptic literature. The Bible is an anthology, and was only put together as a single book years after the writings were written. So, to deduce the historicity of many things in the Bible we must look at the Biblical evidence. This is what historians do. In order to deduce the existence of Caesar Augustus, we must look at the writings of Plutarch. It would be unreasonable to say, “Hey, you can’t use Plutarch to deduce the historicity of Augustus, because Plutarch already assumes he’s historical!” Similarly, documents in the Bible claim to record the life of a Galilean preacher named Jesus. It is unhistorical to claim that we can’t use the very the sources that attest to his existence. To quote Ehrman, “The fact that [the Christian’s] books later became documents of faith has no bearing on the question of whether the books can still be used for historical purposes. To dismiss the gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly.”
Now, let us turn to Tristan’s charges of untrustworthiness. He seems to be conflating occasional unreliability with untrustworthiness. There is, in fact, a difference, and scholar Robert Miller explains it:

All critical scholars agree that the gospels contain both historically reliable material based on memories about Jesus, and historically unreliable material based on his followers’ interpretations of his life, death, and teaching.
The gospels are not only either completely trustworthy or completely untrustworthy; this is a false dichotomy. Rather, there are varying degrees of reliability, and the gospels contain both reliable material and unreliable material. The unreliable material no doubt stems from the theological lenses that Jesus was interpreted through. Yet these types of biases are not original to the gospels alone. As scholar James D.G. Dunn states, “[f]ew if any historical sources regarding figures or significant events of the past are unbiased or completely objective.”

Scholars have long recognized that the gospels are not perfect or faultless pieces of historiography. Yet, they do believe that the gospels all give an overall picture of Jesus that we can be relatively certain of, and it is this overall picture that scholars look for. Critical scholar Dale Allison articulates my point:

When we look back upon our encounters with others, our most vivid and reliable memories are often not precise but general.[…] [C]ertain themes and motifs and rhetorical strategies are consistently attested over a wide range of material. The point is that it is these themes and motifs and rhetorical strategies, if it is anywhere, that we are likely to have an accurate memory.
Therefore, while there might be discrepancies regarding minute details of Jesus life (e.g. what day or hour he was crucified), the overall picture of Jesus’ life is rock solid (e.g. he was in fact crucified). In fact, we can make a list of facts about Jesus’ life that virtually all sources agree on:

·         He had a failed ministry in Nazareth

·         He was baptized by John the Baptist

·         His parents were Mary and Joseph

·         He had a brother named James (even Josephus corroborates this)

·         He had a ministry in Galilee

·         He had a group of followers

·         He welcomed and conversed with those seen as “sinners”

·         He was seen a wonder worker and miracle performer

·         He engaged in frequent disagreements with the Pharisees and religious leaders of his time

·         He frequently preached to groups of people

·         He vigorously preached the coming of the Kingdom of God

·         He made a final trip to Jerusalem

·         He made a scene in the Temple

·         He ate a last meal with his followers

·         He was betrayed by one of his followers

·         He was handed over to the religious leaders

·         He was sentenced to crucifixion by Pontius Pilate

·         He died by crucifixion

Notice that all our sources (including Paul) agree on these details. Such an abundance of convergence is a goldmine for historians, especially since Jesus was not an aristocrat or any type of higher-up, but was rather a simple Galilean preacher who gained a following. It is simply ridiculous, in my eyes and the eyes of most historians, to claim that the above facts have no reality in an early First Century person named Jesus. Once again, do the sources contain discrepancies? Yes. But discrepancies are expected from sources that most likely originate from oral tradition. Moreover, we see these kinds of errors all around the writings of antiquity.

Let’s look at an example. In 64 A.D. a fire broke out in Rome and lasted for six and a half days. After the fire subsided about seventy percent of Rome was left in ruins. This event is known as the famous Burning of Rome. This fire was recorded by Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, all of whom were not eye-witnesses to the event, as it was completely recorded. (And the mythicists complain there should be an abundance of contemporary evidence for a Galilean preacher, yet even a huge event such as the Burning of Rome does not have any contemporary literary corroboration!) Stories circulated around Rome regarding where Nero was during this whole disaster and what his involvement was; and all are contradictory. Cassius Dio claimed that Nero sent thugs to set the fire. Tacitus claims that Nero watched Rome burn while playing his fiddle miles away in Antium. Suetonius says little regarding the origin of the fire, but seems to half-heartedly implicate Nero.

The point is that even though these well-known historians disagree on the minor details, they converge on the major details, and this exactly how historiography functioned in antiquity. So, for Tristian to claim that the gospels cannot be valid simply because they diverge at certain points and get some things wrong is simply poor historical investigation. Tristan continues:

So what of the Jesus of the Gospels? The Gospels are also stories, are they not? If not, and they are historical documents, why don’t they read like other historical documents of the day?
I maintain that Tristan is simply ignorant of modern scholarship regarding the nature of the gospels. Most scholars, even critical scholars agree that the gospels are of the form of ancient Roman biographies. The gospels seem to be written in the form of narrative because these gospels were to be read aloud for an audience. Now, of course these writings were written with theological biases, but they still attempt to give objective accounts of Jesus’ life—in fact, that’s their whole reason for writing! Moreover, scholars take the introduction of Luke to be a perfect example of a biographical and historical introduction. Tristian continues:

How telling is it that there is relatively no assumption for a ‘historical’ Jesus existing prior to the third and fourth century?
This comment truly baffles me. All gospels assume Jesus was a historical person, that’s why they’re writing about him. In fact, they’re writing about him to tell others his story—their primary goal was evangelization. How does this not assume historicity? Moreover, Paul assumes many things about Jesus that converge with the gospels. Paul says that Jesus was crucified (1 Cor 1:23, Gal 3:1), that he was a descendant of David (Rom 1:3), that he was born under the law and born of a woman (Gal 4:4), that he did not please himself (Rom 15:3), that he had a brother named James (Gal 1:19), that his mission was to show the truthfulness of God (Rom 15:8),  and describes the last supper with Jesus (1 Cor 2: 22-24). How can anyone claim that Jesus was not assumed to be historical? Tristan continues:

At least with Socrates we have mention of him in Xenophone and a handful of others who criticized him, so we have independent sources outside of Plato’s narratives to suggest Socrates was probably real.
Tristan is correct here that the existence of Socrates is very well documented. Yet, this does nothing to argue against the historicity of Jesus. Jesus is still very well attested—we saw the sources above, and there are many more. In fact Jesus is better attested, or at least comparably attested, than some well-known figures of Rome. Take the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE) who was the founder of the Roman Empire. You would think that the sources for Augustus were miles above that of Jesus. Yet, the only contemporary evidence we contain for Augustus is a funerary inscription. The next sources of his life come from Tacitus’ Annals (116 CE), Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars (121 CE), and Plutarch’s Lives of Roman Emperors (96 – 98CE). Of these Plutarch is the earliest. This means that, aside from the funerary inscription, the first literary source of Augustus’ life came a whole 82 years after he lived! Now, the fact that Augustus was a Roman emperor (can you get any higher than that?) and has comparable attestation of his existence with that of Jesus is remarkable.  The point is that we would expect Socrates, Augustus, and Cleopatra to be much better attested than Jesus. These people are philosophers (who were very famous), Emperors and Queens. Yet, Jesus, a little nobody from the slums of Galilee, has evidence for his existence that is at least comparable to the others. Here’s Tristan:
With Jesus, we have zero independent outside attestation of his existence.
By outside Tristan means outside of Christian tradition, yet we’ve seen that attestation does not have to be outside of Christian tradition to be reliable. In fact, who is most likely to discuss, report, elaborate upon and attest to a historical figure than those that are partial and loyal to such a figure? The fact that Jews loyal to Jesus wrote the gospels and letters does not mean they cannot be giving historically reliable information. Does it mean that their attestation might be colored by tendentiousness? Sure, but that doesn’t mean we need to throw them out due to such aspects. Once again, Bart Ehrman: The problem, of course, is that most sources are biased: if they didn’t have any feelings about the subject matter, they wouldn’t be talking about it.

Yet, mythicists rarely tend to ask the question of why Jesus has no contemporary outside attestation. Well first of all, many writings from antiquity are lost to us. Heck, Tacitus, one of the greatest Roman historians, wrote the Annals which originally consisted of 16 volumes. Yet, we currently only possess half of these volumes and our earliest manuscripts of them come from the ninth century! The fact is that many writings from antiquity unfortunately never made their way down to us. Second, who exactly would we expect to record Jesus? Jesus, remember, stayed in Galilee for his ministry, and Galilee was the home of pious Jews. So which historians would we expect to be in Galilee that would be around to report the Jesus movement? Furthermore, it should be remembered that the Jesus movement was not the only movement in Judea. There were tons of messianic and apocalyptic movements happening in Judea, and it makes sense that none would see the need to bother to record one more seeming fringe cult. As John Meier notes, “Jesus was a marginal Jew leading a marginal movement in a marginal province of a vast Roman Empire.” Tristan continues:

[I]t seems most of the Jesus stories are simply retellings—or reformulations—of many Old Testament patriarchs. So much so that they parallel each other in plot, structure, and form. A Midrashim of sorts.
Tristan has picked up this hypothesis from Robert Price. I myself have read Price’s books and find them to be rife with errors and sloppy scholarship. Nevertheless, it is true that many stories in the gospels resemble stories in the OT. And Tristan is correct to label these midrash. Yet, I’m afraid Tristian seems to be ignorant of what exactly midrash is. Midrash is a literary technique that is well known to scholars because the Second Temple Qumran exegetes constantly employed them. Here’s a description of midrash from scholar Paul Eddy:

[Jewish exegetes] tended to use midrashic techniques to correlate current historical events, or anticipated future events, with Old Testament texts as a means of bringing out the perceived Biblical significance of those events[…]we find it far more likely that the midrashic techniques we find in the Gospels are used to interpret events that had taken place in history than that they represent fabricated events[.]
Therefore, we see that midrash was used to interpret historical events in light of the OT, and was not used, with the aid of the OT, to fabricate events. So, the fact that the gospels employ midrashic techniques actually argues for the opposite thesis Tristan is pushing; that is, the use of midrash in the gospels demonstrates that most of these stories were based in fact and were only subsequently formulated to mirror OT narratives. Tristan continues:

And all this is merely scratching the surface of the many *types of Jesus archetypes we can find present in Christian tradition. To say they were all the same divine/historical figure is simply to conflate, combine, and formulate a Jesus based on the desire to harmonize all the discrepant versions of Jesus we already have.
There are many responses here. First, it is the job of the historian, when given discrepant accounts, to try to find areas of convergence and agreement. The act of attempted harmonization is necessary in historical investigation. And scholars find tons of areas of convergence with regards to the Jesus tradition, just see the above points. There is no major problem of harmonization here.

Second, we know that the areas where the portraits of Jesus diverge is most likely due to the theological interpretation that the authors utilized. This is expected and is recognized by scholars. But, most scholars don’t believe that the theological biases embedded in the accounts of the Jesus tradition are so bad that we cannot recover the objective history behind it. And to claim that this is the case is question begging.

Third, let it be known that any and every historical account is subjective. History comes to us through human mediums and human mediums, by nature, record events through their own interpretations. Therefore, any biography of a person is not identical with that person. A biography of Abraham Lincoln is not going to give you an objective glance into Lincoln. You are only receiving interpretations of Lincoln’s life. That being said, no single report of Jesus is identical with Jesus himself, but every single account is a portrait that has been painted through the eyes of a subjective observer. Thus, we expect four accounts of Jesus’ life to paint four different pictures; this is just the nature of written mediums.


Well, I’m exhausted, aren’t you? I maintain that we have seen no good evidence for denying the existence of Jesus. I’m sure Tristan can produce much more cogent arguments and was simply producing off-the-cuff questions. Yet, his arguments are the kind that most mythicists bring forth and I felt the need to object to them. Mythicism, I will remind you, is a fringe position. It is not a position held by the majority of scholars, even critical scholars, and hopefully we have seen why. Now, this is not to insinuate that since a large group of people believe X, therefore X is true (argument ad populum). But, it must be remembered that these individuals are experts in their field, and if the experts have a hard time adhering to the Jesus Myth Thesis, then perhaps there is good reason for that—and I maintain that I have demonstrated why there is good reason to deny such a hypothesis.

I thank Tristan for his response and thank him for participating in this discussion with me.

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