Reflecting on the Jesus Question

“What Have I Changed My Mind On?” I was asked by my Christian interlocutor when I stated that I have in fact researched the topic of the historicity of Jesus. It’s a great question in general. One I probably haven’t reflected on in a while. It can be enlightening and something that I urge anyone who values intellectual honesty to do. However, I don’t think the answer I have is quite what he was expecting.

I had long since rejected the biblical stories of miracles and the divinity of Jesus. However, for years I just took it for granted that a historical person named Jesus was the actual person being referenced in the Bible and his life was chronicled in the New Testament. But when I started actually looking into it, I quickly found that the New Testament itself has some real problems that simply couldn’t be ignored if I was to remain intellectually honest[1]. And these challenges were fully exposed when I began reading the work done by mythicists[2]. The works of Richard Carrier, Robert Price, and Earl Doherty provided convincing scholarly arguments to the mythicist position. When I cross-referenced these arguments with the work published by theologians and Christian historians, I found that the evidence for a historical Jesus is much weaker than I had ever considered. It became glaringly apparent that many of these Christian Scholars were simply writing in there own religious beliefs wherever these difficulties were found. They simply glossed over many of them as not being difficulties at all. Ignoring that from a historical standpoint, these issues are actually quite devastating to their particular reading of the history[3]. Given all this, I began to realize that the mythicist position has real credibility to it.

Another obvious problem I found was that most of the prominent biblical scholars are already believers in the divine Jesus and how this belief can be clearly seen to taint their investigations into the historical Jesus. Religious and supernatural language can often be found peppered throughout their work and miracles and/or the divinity of Jesus are commonly invoked to mask the dubiousness of their conclusions drawn. Not surprisingly, this goes largely ignored by christian readership. Such a grandiose presupposition (that Jesus is their God in human form) can’t help but to impose upon the very method by which they build their hypothesis. Historian Richard Carrier points out a number of these flaws in the methods used by these mainstream scholars[4]. These are methods that are not permitted (or at least not held as very credible) in other historical investigations, least not if the historian wants to remain credible as a historian[5]. Much like in other fields in science, the bias towards their deeply held religious convictions couldn’t be more obvious. An easy way to spot these biases is to read some of their investigations of other religions. Needless To Say, you won’t find any even-handedness in method there.

We can hear the bias (and profound ignorance) echoed in the rhetoric of the average Christian. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that “the resurrection is the best attested fact in history” or “there’s more evidence for Jesus than for Julius Caesar” and nothing offered to support it. It’s simply just not taught that there is very strong evidence pointing to the gospels[6], and several of Paul’s letters, being forgeries. Or that many of these accounts were written well after the events supposedly took place. That there is evidence of scribal error, omissions, redactions, and not to mention a lack of contemporary outside (non-biblical) sources. While the majority of biblical scholars don’t much contest this, the general public seems oblivious. I too, was unknowingly influenced by such obscurantist rhetoric and misinformation. I grew up believing that the historicity of Jesus was a foregone conclusion and NO scholar disputed it (which in hindsight should’ve been a red flag). So I was quite surprised to find that there were, in fact, even prominent theologians that not only doubted the evidence for a historical Jesus, but actually argued against such a claim. Take theologian and philosopher Albert Schweitzer for example. He is one of several prominent christian scholars that argues that the quest for the historical Jesus is hopeless[7]. His work on this topic is never mentioned by these mainstream apologetic historians and go largely unknown in the Christian community.

But is this enough to cast the credibility of a historical Jesus into doubt? I think so. However, this brings me to the most significant issue that I have changed my mind on, and that is that the question simply isn’t that important of one. Not in regards to the claims of Christianity. Historically speaking, it’s not really a particularly interesting question, either. Let me explain…
First off, we can demarcate between a historical Jesus and a divine Jesus that performed miracles and such. The parts that ARE entirely myth are those stories of a divine Jesus (for reasons other than just the criteria we use for a historical, human Jesus). These dubious claims can be refuted wholly apart from a historical Jesus. So could there have been a person at that time claiming religious divinity, or claiming to be acting on behalf of the divine, that people found believable enough to follow? Sure, I don’t find that to be particularly controversial or all that improbable. We have countless accounts of such people doing that very thing, even today! Are there some stories in the Bible that are a reference this same person? Maybe, maybe not. We may never have conclusive evidence of this. But if we are to honestly engage in such an investigation, we must also consider that many of the stories in the Bible could be embellishments of what may have taken place. Perhaps to give Christianity a foothold? Seems plausible. Could many of these embellishments be borrowed from other myths? Of course. Given the evidence, this line of thinking seems highly likely. Or could many of these stories justifiably be complete fabrications with no connection to a single person? Absolutely!

The question is, without being weighed down by the baggage of the “divine”, where does this leave the historical Jesus? Well, it seems that when stripped of the exaggerations and embellishments of what very well could be references to a historical person in the character of Jesus, then we’re left with a quite unremarkable figure. Just one of many such figures in antiquity. The true “power”, influence, and interest surrounding Christianity is in the myths and propaganda of Jesus and not in the historical living human that people came to know as Jesus. Without the myths of the miraculous, then there’s just not much to talk about. I, like many, used to think that the existence of a historical Jesus was somehow one step closer to “proving” the existence of a divine Jesus and this was one step closer to proving God exists and to verifying Christianity. I came to realize that that is not the case. Jesus, a human, the son of a carpenter, a preacher and prophet from the ancient times, is not the what Christianity is built upon. Jesus, the son and lamb of God, 1/3rd of the trinity, the crucified and resurrected savior, is the foundation of Christianity. The existence of a historical Jesus has no bearing on the existence of the Divine Jesus of the Christian faith. It does not take us one step closer in any way to the existence of a god anymore than the existence of a historical Muhammad brings us any closer to existence of Allah and vindicating the miracle claims found in the Quran.

– Rich

Notes:

[1] I think it is uncontroversial to state it as philosophy professor Matthew McCormick does. He writes “…we have learned that a well-justified conclusion must be based upon a wide, objective aggregation of evidence followed by a balanced evaluation that adequately explores possible counter-evidence, alternative hypotheses, an error checking.” and then goes on to correctly point out that the process whereby the Jesus story was recorded and transmitted to us failed miserably on these criteria. The religious goal of fostering belief is at odds with the epistemological goal of believing only those conclusions that are justified by the evidence.” Atheism and the Case Against Christ, Matthew S. McCormick, p12.

[2] (Broadly)Those who argue there is not enough evidence to support a historical Jesus and posit that it is more likely that the whole story is a myth and no such person existed.

[3] In his book, Jesus is Dead, Robert Price systematically dismantles several of the most influential of modern biblical Scholars, such as N. T. Wright, William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, et al. Taking apart their arguments with surgical precision.

[4] Why I Think Jesus Didn’t Exist: A Historian Explains the Evidence That Changed His Mind – Richard Carrier
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwUZOZN-9dc

[5] Here Robert Price details the Historical Method and why these popular apologists, theologians, and Christian biblical Scholars are mistaken and why we can’t honestly reach the same conclusions they do.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITq6Cv-R8JM

[6] It is important to point out that the gospel authors we not historians, they were writing to serve their theological motives
The Case Against Christianity, Michael Martin – p38

[7] The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer
*It must be noted that Schweitzer challenges the secular view and the traditional Christian view.

Advertisements

Out of Context

Elisha-water-miracle-and-bear-attack

 

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”- Mark Twain

 

It can often seem like a mugs game to bring the bible into question during discussions with Christians. It never fails that when I post a verse from scripture that I think supports my argument, I’m immediately charged with taking that verse out of context. The arguments that ensue tend to deteriorate quickly and often frustratingly run in circles. When giving a critical analysis of Christianity in general, the religious faithful are quick to accuse me (and all atheists) of not doing my homework. But this is especially the case when I dare to tread on holy ground, which is the bible itself. It’s as if they assume I was never a Christian (which I was), never read the bible (which I have), and am just being exposed to it for the first time (which I haven’t). The general consensus among Christians seems to be that merely being a non-Christian automatically disqualifies one out of hand from accurately citing the holy book. This careless, outright dismissal proves to be little more than a dodge and it doesn’t excuse the believer from demonstrating this supposed misrepresentation.  

 

It’s confusing at times to know exactly what is meant by “taking it out of context”. Take the story of Elisha’s journey from 2 Kings[1] for example. It’s hard to imagine how a passage stating that God sent two bears to massacre forty two children in gruesome fashion for mocking Elisha’s baldness could be taken out of context. Not to mention how nonchalantly this terrible event is treated and how casually the story moves on. It was as if the children getting torn apart was a mere bump in the road. As if it was hardly worth mentioning. What else are we to interpret from this? In what other context could this be taken? It can hardly be disputed what those words say here. According to the story, either God sent bears to maul forty two children or not. Any extraneous interpretation the Christian wishes to read into this doesn’t do much to make the story less vile and horrific. When Christians offer a different “interpretation” to this story, what they are doing is offering more than the words say. Whatever addendum is made, however many excuses are made, the context is pretty clear. When confronted with the merciless brutality of a passage like this, they often instead focus their attention on finding a way to establish some moral meaning behind it, which ultimately proves to be too big a boulder to push in this case, or they argue that it was badly mistranslated.  

 

Translation is a tricky bit of maneuvering that seems to be the preferred tactic for the more indefensible passages found within the bible, as it is for the passage referenced above.[2] While I don’t doubt that there are occasional mistranslations interspersed throughout the bible, scholars and historians still debate over this very topic, we can hardly say that this alters the context as currently presented in such a significant way as to warrant disregarding entire passages on a whim simply for the purpose of recreating them to appear more acceptable or reasonable. Nor does it account for all the versions of the bible circulating today that translate these passages in a very similar way. Lest the Christian wishes the conversation to regress to the very origins of the bible. At which point it may be the case that we ought to disregard the entire bible altogether. This, of course, would leave the Christian at quite the disadvantage and hardly seems to be their intention. So instead of conceding the bible, many shamelessly commit themselves to an act of intellectual dishonesty and create their own “translation”. And in doing so, they in effect become the ones taking verses out of context, and in the most disingenuous manner, I might add. Tailoring the bible this way is not only indecorous of the Christian, but also immoral. The attempt to hide the horrific nature of this passage, and many others like it, by assuming translational errors ultimately can’t salvage the bible from failing to uphold what we would consider to be the most basic of humanities and common sense. Furthermore, what the Christian fails to realize is that this “lost in translation” argument creates far more problems for the believer than for the skeptic. The biggest one being that they have effectively stripped their bible of any practical reliability, and along with it, any argument for biblical inerrancy.

 

As I stated earlier, being a non-Christian seemingly disqualifies one from accurately referencing the bible. Maybe the problem is in how “accurately” or “correctly” is applied here. Historical implications aside for a moment, the meaning here appears to be supernatural. The Christian often claims that the only way to truly understand the bible is to believe in God, because they believe the bible is the word of God. So, according to the Christian, it stands to reason that if one doesn’t believe in God, then one won’t be able to interpret the bible correctly. Along with the obvious objection of circular reasoning, as well as being a thinly disguised attempt at unfalsifiability, it fails for another very big reason. One that I see as being the most difficult problem for the Christian to overcome. This is the problem of the many various denominations of Christianity. They all believe and interpret the bible differently in some key areas. All claiming the same justification from God. To put this into perspective, just think about how many millions and millions of people claim, and have claimed, that the bible is the word of God. And how millions and millions of these same professed believers disagree with other believers, who are just as sincere, on some significant points. The thing they all have in common is they all claim God assures them they are right. They also have the same explanation as to why the others are wrong. To try to account for every interpretation that is accepted as truth by the vast number of denominations would be far too exhaustive and it isn’t the non-Christians responsibility to do so. My business isn’t to sort out all these doctrinal disputes. It’s as if skeptics (atheists especially) are being saddled with the burden of needing to know every interpretation of every denomination just to even mention the bible in any critical manner. And when we fail to satisfy this imposed burden, the charge of misinterpretation and atheistic bias is assumed justified. But then this would mean the individual believer must also know all the varying interpretations as well. For the believer to be excused this, then they must concede that their own claim to “biblical truth” could not have been from the the same exhaustive search that they hold the non-christian to and either accept that it isn’t necessary or admit they could be wrong. All these problems the believer is now faced with not only render their original objection moot, it sheds light on the shear volume of inconsistencies contained within the bible, and as we see, thus further expounding the Christians own problems…

~ Rich

 

[1] 2 Kings 2:23-24 (NIV) 23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

 

[2] Apologists frequently attempt to re-invent this passage as if Elisha was being attacked by a mob of young men. In it’s original Hebrew, while the word na’ar (boy or youth) could mean “young man”, it is paired with the qualifier katan which means “little” or “small”. Translating literally as “small boys”. And they are telling him to “go on up, baldhead” or “get out of here, baldy” and Elisha turned around to curse them. This indicates that they were behind him and taunting him, not blocking his path or threatening him.

 

 

“There’s a difference between a homosexual and a Christian.”

pride

Pittsburgh Pridefest is one of my absolute FAVORITE events of the year.Typically I will kick the day off by marching with out local chapter of COR and CFI and then see where the day takes me…since I am 8.5 months pregnant I decided it was too much heat, too much walking and (apparently) just not safe. I almost always end up fighting with the religious protesters, trying to get them to leave everyone alone and move on their way… that seems to have backfired on a 19 y.o girl who was arrested, and assaulted by the arresting officer during a confrontation with the protesters… This video was released several hours after the assault occurred.  http://www.wtae.com/news/woman-arrested-during-pittsburgh-pridefest/26510854#!ZPG8D You hear the main protester comment that someone is about to be arrested and then you see a young woman being pulled, grabbed by the hair and punched in the stomach. My first thought was that, if she went a bit too far with them I understand the officer breaking it up, I even understand her being arrested…it is easy to become frustrated with people who only want to agitate and belittle a crowd of joyful individuals.  Others kept saying that we don’t know what happened and in one interview the officer stated that he was being physically attacked by her and that was why he threw her to the side to stop the fight… I always assumed that our police were trained to take down an individual in a humane manner. We put trust in them to use their best judgement to keep us safe… but when you grab a girl by the hair and punch her in the stomach multiple times you are out of line… plain and simple.

Last night the full video was released on our local news website. You will see the officer standing by along side the protesters, you will hear the girl argue against the protester, you will hear him yelling about pedophiles and the evil of homosexuality (including the statement “that’s what happens when you let homosexuals in the church” to explain child molesting priests ), all while she is overcome with emotion at the hand of this hate speech. After that it quickly escalates to the assault from the other video, no prior attack being shown. http://m.wpxi.com/videos/news/raw-full-video-officer-attendee-encounter-at/vCfBYf/

I love my city, it always seems that our citizens are accepting of just about everyone… that is why events like PRIDE, Anthrocon, and even the PA Atheist/Humanist conference can typically go on without a problem. What was sited as one of the most successful Pridefests our city has seen ended with this unfortunate ordeal… and what was the instigator? Religion. This  problem came about because bigoted, close minded, angry people felt the need to shove their beliefs onto others. They are not able to promote their views in a productive way and so coming down and disrespecting others seems to be their bread and butter. I hope that they are proud of themselves. On the video we hear that “there is a difference between a homosexual and a Christian”… well this is the only truthful statement I have ever heard from those men. Our LGBTQ brothers & sisters do not go out seeking to promote hate… they don’t stalk churches in hopes of hurting those that believe in Christ and the ones that believe in God themselves still stand by the church hoping that good is at the root of the evil that is promoted. Thankfully men like the ones on the street corner are not the majority, hopefully the Christians will join together to show us that this is not how they want to be represented and that  there is indeed a difference between a Christian and a bigot as well.