Did Jesus Exist? Yes and No

I have come to the following conclusion: Scholarship devoted to the question of the historicity of Jesus, while not a total waste of time, could be better spent gardening.

In this essay, however, I will focus on why it is not a total waste of time.

What seemed to be an endlessly fascinating question in the nineteenth century among a few Dutch and German radical theologians (given a splash of new life by re-discoverers of the radical tradition, such as G A Wells, in the twentieth) now bears the scent and traces of Victorian wallpaper.

Van Eysinga

Theologians in the “mainstream academic tradition” have always been reluctant to touch the subject because, after all, seminaries do not exist, nor for that matter departments of religious studies, to teach courses in the Christ Myth. For that reason, if the topic is given syllabus space at all it is given insufficient space and treated as the opposite of where sober, objective scholarly inquiry will take you in New Testament studies.

It sometimes, but not often or generally enough, occurs to my colleagues that much of what passes for real scholarship is equally slipshod, constructed on equivalently shaky and speculative premises and serviced by theories so artificial (Q, for example) that (to quote myself in the introduction to George Wells’s The Jesus Legend) it can make the theory that Jesus never existed a welcome relief from the noise of new ideas.

I umpired what was (as far as I know) the only direct conversation between George Wells and Morton Smith (Jesus the Magician, 1978) in 1985, in Ann Arbor Michigan. On that occasion, Smith said naughtily that “the only thing Professor Wells and I have in common is that we each hold a theory that the other regards as absurd.” So much for “real templates.” Especially ones that ask us to accept that “everything we have previously learned is wrong.” Not even the Novum Organum asks us to believe in that kind of paradigm shift. As for myself, the only thing I have in common with both those who want to argue the myth theory as a provable hypothesis and those who believe the gospels provide good evidence for the life of Jesus is that we are probably all wrong.

Arthur Drews

I accept that most of what we have learned about Jesus is “wrong” in one sense or another. Almost all of what the churches have taught about him–the christology that undergirds the doctrines of the Christian traditions, for example–is wrong at a literal level. It has to be because it is based on doctrines derived from a naive supernaturalist reading of sacred texts whose critical assessment had not even been contemplated before the eighteenth century.

But so too, the critical assessment is wrong, because it has been motivated by a belief that by removing the husks of dogmatic accretion–a process initiated by Luther’s liberal scholastic predecessors, in fact–a level of actuality would eventually be reached. There would be an assured minimum of truth (often assumed by the end of the 19th century to be primarily ethical rather than Christological, as doctrines like ascension and virgin birth were sent to the attic) which some historians on both the Catholic modernist and Protestant side thought would be unassailable.

It never happened of course, and the great conclusion to the whole enterprise after notable false stops in the twentieth century was the Jesus Seminar. It was never clear to me how a methodology with its roots tangled in a kind of cloddish German academic hubris (husk, husk, husk, sort and sift) could come to a salutary end. And it didn’t, unless we can assume that giving birth to a Jesus who said nothing for certain and might have said anything at all is a “result.”


I admit to being a bit prickly on the subject, having finally concluded that the sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus. Some of my reasons for saying so are laid out in a series of essays included in the anthology Sources of the Jesus Tradition, coming out in August. The main argument for Jesus-agnosticism is being developed in a more ambitious study, The Jesus Prospect, for which watch this and other spaces. (The prologue on method will be ready later in 2010.)

But before all of that, let me say a few words about why I believe Christianity benefits from discussions like this, and especially from Jesus-agnosticism (as opposed to Jesus-loving and Jesus-denying scholarship)–without ever having formally to acknowledge them.

For just over four years of my academic life I have taught in predominantly Muslim universities. Both were highly selective places, the sort of institutions contrived to train “tomorrow’s leaders,” highly aware and critical of the dangers of madrasah education, more than willing to make judicious room for the comparative study of religion. But secular approaches to the Quran were not high on the agenda of either place. Even in “liberal” circles in the Islamic world there is an enclosure for religion which is to be treated respectfully, or ignored, but not questioned extensively.

American University of Beirut, Main Gate, blt 1866

The question of the historicity of Jesus does not arise naturally in Islam–or I should say among believers–any more than the “question” of Muhammad naturally arises. The status of Jesus in Islam is assured not because he is the star of the New Testament but because as Issa he is a a revered figure in Islam. He is not the unique prophet. He is not the way, truth and life. People do not “get” to Allah through him. But he is sui generis. That is, he is an indispensable rung in a ladder that leads to God through the Prophet who is unique: Muhammad.

Myth-theorists, to the extent they pay attention to other religions, tend to regard Muslim belief with the same defensive disdain one often associates with Christian fundamentalists’ view of Islam: Islam is later, derivative, probably bogus (they reason); Muslim rejection of what the prior tradition specifies about Jesus, fatally injures their own contingent tradition. –As Jesus goes, so goes Muhammad. Revelation is whole cloth, not patchwork, and it is often more annoying than interesting to Christians (and some secularists) that Islam seems to be a sequel to the Bible with a slightly revised cast of characters and substantially revised course of events.

Isa in Turkish Islamic art

Needless (I hope) to comment that western views of the sort described above are ignorant. Jesus’ “role” in Muslim teaching does not depend on any Christian beliefs about Jesus but on the Quranic incorporation of Jesus. The status of Jesus in Islam is contingent on Islam, not Christian teaching about Jesus. Muhammad ur-rasul Allah: The Prophet is the seal (guarantor) of the prophets and at the absolute center of a religious cosmos–which nevertheless includes satellites like Jesus, David, and Abraham in orbit around him.

“Say, ‘I am only a man like yourselves; (but) I have received the revelation that your God is only One God. So let him,
who hopes to meet his Lord, do good deeds, and let him join
no one in the worship of his Lord!’ [Surah Al-Kahf 18 :lll).

Interestingly, however, this apparent protest of humility actually enhances the prophet’s stature. He’s an earthen vessel, but all the more credible because he bears human testimony to the miraculous and to the reality of a personal encounter with the divine will. More than the scholars of Islam, the sufis and mystics would preserve this belief.

To the extent this encounter is reflected in prior religious traditions, Muhammad is more a prophet like Moses on Sinai than a water-walking miracle-worker like Jesus. Maybe this signals a continuity of desert tradition largely missing in the artifice of Christianity, but the Quran is far more Torah than Gospel. The directness of the dialogue between Allah and the Recorder, Muhammad himself, is the directness of the instructions of Yahweh to Moses. True, in Islamic tradition Muhammad is sometimes credited with miracles, like splitting the moon (a gloss of Surah 54.1-2). But “orthodox” Islam in its sectarian complexity does not tie itself to these supernatural occurrences: the final miracle of Islam is the Quran itself and the place of Muhammad in its promulgation. What he said, did, and taught (and there are plenty of hadith projects in departments of Islamic theology devoted to just that question) are of secondary consequence. It is vital that he existed because without that the divine will would never have been known in an authentic form and the correction of existing inauthentic forms, like the biblical tradition, would never have taken place.

The Annunciation in Islamic Context

Odd, then, that the historicity of Jesus should be of any concern at all in relation to a person whose humanity, in the letters of Paul and in the gospels (to a lesser extent, perhaps) is of no consequence to the core tradition. The battle of the post-New Testament period in the early Church, as Harnack recognized, was not to define the divinity of Jesus but to defend his humanity.

What’s usually missed in the discussion of the war between right and wrong believers before 325 is that both camps agreed on the essentials: whatever else Jesus was, “human” doesn’t do justice to it. The bitterness of battle, and the cheer-leading that has gone on for the victors ever since, leads us away from the fact that even the pro-humanity orthodox camp did not leave us with an historical figure but with a luminescent god-man whose finger perpetually points to his own breast as the source and explanation for his mission to earth.

Mission to earth? Yesterday’s gnosticism is today’s science fiction. It is all too easy to fall into gnosticism or science fiction when we examine such images in the writings, art, and liturgy of the church. Especially if we also see religion, more generally, as a species of superstition–resurrections and ascensions into heaven as undiagnosed instances of mass obsessional disorder.

Women at the Tomb

But to discover elements of the fantastic in religions like Christianity and Islam, vestiges of thought-processes that fail our requirements for modernity, is not the same as “demonstrating” that religion is fantasy.

Love, fear, joy, pleasure, mother-love, and compassion equally have their origins in emotion and human evolution and are nonetheless “real” in daily life–indeed, shape daily life–constantly expressing themselves in thought and action. Religion consolidates these aspects of existence in a way that simple curiosity and information does not. It roots them not in the self but in something external, like God, or incarnates them in messengers like Jesus and metaphors like sin, forgiveness and redemption. That is what is going on in the New Testament, not an episode of To Tell the Truth.

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

For this reason–starting with a certain lack of profundity—it is difficult not to find the musings of (many) myth-theorists frankly ridiculous. The early church found the historical Jesus all but unnecessary: that is the story. They found his humanity necessary as a theological premise, because they could not quite grasp the concept of disembodied divinity. Besides, a god without humanity could scarcely be expected to comprehend human suffering, or desire to do anything about it. History did not require Jesus; emotion did. It required as well the incredible and fantastic aspects of his personality. History required Muhammad and the non-divinity of Muhammad for other reasons. That is why the two traditions are different.

I say could not “quite grasp” the idea of a disincarnated divinity because some of the Christian fathers flirted with Neoplatonism–Clement of Alexandria, for example–and they were saved by a pragmatic hair from being gnostics themselves, as I think–if we are being honest and not pedantic–the author of the Gospel of John was.
The writer’s tortured theological prologue is our best evidence of the philosophical dilemma confronting some early christian communities.

Clement of Alexandria

But the true (non-Christian) Neoplatonists like Porphyry despised Christianity because, they said, a disembodied divinity is the only form divinity takes. To reach the far-distant god of a Plotinus you need not just a little water, a few words to a confessor and a healthy appreciation for the Eucharist but a very big invisible ladder and the annihilation of all fleshly encumbrances.

Stuck with the Bible, the gospel, a growing body of doctrine, necessitated by struggles with heretics, and the religious demands of a growing community–a lot of weight to carry–Christianity could not very easily take the turn toward disembodied and denatured divinity. If, for the pagans, the resurrection of the flesh was a nauseating idea, for the Christians it became a useful absurdity and the prelude to two millennia of “paradoxical” theology. The earliest shapers of Islamic thought were scarcely seduced by ingenious verbal strategies for mixing and mingling the human and divine: Muhammad therefore stayed vigorously human.

If, as I think, the church was largely successful in subduing the humanity of Jesus while insisting as a strictly dogmatic matter that he was both fully human and fully divine (historical and unhistorical, as in John 1.1-15?), why still bother to ask about whether he “really” existed. Shouldn’t the question really be who or what existed? It is not the same as asking whether Muhammad existed since nothing but one kind of reality has ever been claimed for him, and that is historical.

My defense of debates and discussion of the historical Jesus is not based on any confidence that something new is going to be discovered, or some persuasive “template” found that will decide for us a question that the early Christian obviously regarded as irrelevant. Still less is it based on some notion that the Church will retract the doctrine of the trinity or the hypostatic union, clearing the way for an impartial investigation into the life of Jesus. That is already possible, and as always before the journey gets us to the front door of the Church. Nothing has been more depressing than the search for the Jesus of history, and nothing more hollow than the shouts of scholars who have claimed to find him. Except the shouts of scholars who claim there is nothing to find.

Not that the shapers of the Jesus tradition, whatever their real names were, should have the final say, but they did draw the map and bury the treasure. We are the victims of their indifference to the question.

The really good news is that to the extent we don’t know who Jesus was or even whether he was, Christianity is spared the awful theological and religious certitude that drives Islam to do sometimes outrageous and violent things in defense of that certainty, the totalizing imperative that all religions in their history have struggled to keep in the cave.

The incredibility of the divine and the uncertainty of the human is a potent defense against a totalizing imperative, an inadvertent safeguard created by the extravagance of early doctrine. The vulnerability of Christianity is a vulnerability created by critical examination of its sacred writings–the legacy of its scholars, including its religious scholars, its secular scholars, and even scholars whose speculation outruns caution and evidence. It was Christian scholarship that first put Christianity at risk. Islamic scholarship has played no equivalent role in relation to Islam.

In the end, Jesus and Muhammad are more unalike than alike. If both are unique, they are unique in different ways and not because either’s claim to invulnerable authority can be treated as true or false on the basis of evidence.

Because of accidental but real historical circumstances, inquiry has invulnerated the Christian tradition in a way that has yet to happen, and may never happen, in Islam. If it does happen, it will not be because the west compels it, or because science requires it or because secularism requires it. Islam is not in retreat from the forces of reason. It will certainly not happen because some absurd theorists, mainly western, under-informed and under-equipped, and working on western assumptions, claim that (like Jesus?) Muhammad never existed.

But that is a subject for another time…

60 thoughts on “Did Jesus Exist? Yes and No

  1. Once a fundamentalist, always a fundamentalist. Why are they always so full of vile hatred? I’m agnostic, always been agnostic, but I believe in lots of things, on and off. Some things just have more rational support. And then I realise I’m wrong about something, I change my mind, believe a little differently – but I’m still agnostic. Thank God…

  2. “Historical J…..”!?!

    The persons using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

    While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
    Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and (“spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

    There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: http://www.netzarim.co.il (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with “30-99 C.E.”).
    Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

    Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

    What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period… in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

    To all Christians: The question is, now that you’ve been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?

  3. If, as you say, the sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus, then why your prickliness or depression (if I understand you correctly) over attempts to explain Christian origins apart from a historical Jesus?

    This strikes me as a bit like the agnostic who is as offended with atheism as he is with fundamentalist belief, blanketing atheism under the charge of being “just as fundamentalist” as the other. Just because some atheists may be dogmatic and irrational in their views doesn’t mean all are. Just because some Jesus mythicists may be more dogmatic than informed and reasonable doesn’t mean all are.

    On the one hand you seem to me to be painting all positions except your own agnosticism in black.

    But on the other hand you seem to be saying that those who assume the historicity of Jesus are tolerable (despite the impossibility of a verdict from the sources) while those who take the other side and assume nonhistoricity are not tolerable.

    There seems some inconsistency here.

    Another example of this inconsistency, as it appears to me, is in your finding the “musings” of myth-theorists “frankly ridiculous” — apparently on the grounds that they fail to acknowledge the nature of religion or what it is. Of course religion “consolidates” human emotions and needs in certain “religious-external” ways. But what has that to do with the “musings of myth-theorists”?

    Or maybe I’m not seeing your point clearly.

    You ask whether the question should be “who” or “what” existed. But do you really mean that? What if the “what” is something that is not a single “thing” at all? That is what some mythicist “musings” attempt to explore. But you don’t appear to acknowledge that and it is not clear why. Are you still committed to some romantic view of the “great man” or “great event” big-bang counterpart of Christian origins?

    Do you really think scholarship has spared Christianity from “theological and religious certitude that drives Islam to do sometimes outrageous and violent things in defense of that certainty”? I seem to recall the same kinds of Christian hostility against blasphemous movies and plays in the 1960s and 70s that we see today among Muslims offended over cartoons. If the Muslims today are more dangerously heated than the Christians were then, one surely needs to factor in so many more variables such as the entire geo-political thing and relative status and histories of one-sided imperialism and wars etc etc etc. I don’t dispute the histories are different and Islam needs to have its Reformation or Enlightenment. But Christianity, being the religion of the masters, has the liberty to allow the State to enforce the violence that the Muslim religion lacks.

    And your own article suggests an intolerance, even a certain ignorance, of anyone stepping to the left side of “agnosticism”, as indicated with a somewhat fatuous comparison of Jesus-mythicism with an imaginary Muhammad mythicism.

    • You use adjectivals too much, often instead of evidence and real argument. Anyway, I have no idea whether my comparison is “fatuous” but “imaginary Muhammad Mythicism” shows your own ignorance of some rather serious work being done in Germany by Gerd Puin & co on the work of Christoph Luxenberg. A conference at UC Davis a few years ago brought the leading lights of this movement together. I suggest you broaden your range to see beyond the Christ myth boundaries of your inquiry..

      • Evidence and real argument? I was attempting to understand and to draw you out on your Jesus “agnosticism”. I’m hardly interested in arguing a Jesus mythicist position in response to your post.

        Yes, I do admit I am ignorant of Moslem scholarship. So what is your point, then? You spoke of “absurd theorists” in this connection, but here you seem to be saying that is some “serious work” being done in Muhammad mythicism? So I’m confused about the point you were and are making here.

        But the Moslem religion is not my background so I don’t have the same personal interest in it as I do in the exploration of Christian origins. So I will pass up your suggestion, if you don’t mind.

        I’m sorry you seem to think my query to draw you out on what you mean by Jesus agnosticism deserves such a cold response.

  4. Pingback: Muhammad mythicism and the fallacy of Jesus agnosticism « Vridar

  5. Neil, surely you are interested in the origins of any religion for which a “mythical” origin has been postulated; I am not sure I comprehend an indifference to Islam. Perhaps you’d find the following instructive:
    http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm/frm/19589/sec_id/19589 I would also be happy to say more on the components of Jesus-agnosticism, but would prefer to lay it out as a full deck when the book appears in August.

    • I have never thought of myself as a “mythicist” of any kind. I don’t see the point. What interests me is understanding origins and nature of our culture, specifically Christianity. My interest in the Moslem religion has been in activist work working with Moslem leaders to promote cultural understanding.

      The whole notion of taking a position of whether or not Jesus existed seems as pointless to me as taking one on whether Socrates existed or not. What matters is the explanation for and undestanding the bigger historical development. By taking an a priori position on that, at any level, is not the way to approach it.

    • That’s not how I understand your position when I read: “Shouldn’t the question really be who or what existed?”

      That sounds to me very a priori. The question only arises as the result of a certain (a priori) model through which you are working.

      Simply removing the name or concept “Jesus” and replacing it with a “blank entity [‘who’ or ‘what’]” is still working within the same basic model.

      • As a Humanist I view Christ as one too, a philosopher who was instructing our species (a word not in sufficient use these days to describe the human ‘race”).

        Christ was making plain that the incipient urbanization of the Med brought with it the need for a non-intrusive code of conduct.

        His teachings were buffered by the hyperbole that characterizes people like the Egyptians to this day, that was marketing then. Much like the Dawkins/Hitchens cults today, for young acolytes first learning an entry level ‘philosophy’ like atheism.

  6. “It was Christian scholarship that first put Christianity at risk. Islamic scholarship has played no equivalent role in relation to Islam.”

    Because Christianity began as Chrestianity, a religion of freedom (freedom from the unjust demiurge) and therefore even though it was changed into Christianity (a tyrannical imperial religion) that seed of freedom remained and fueled scholars to look for the truth (because they knew that Christianity was Imperial and thus an altered form of something earlier). Islam on the other hand, meaning “submission” began as and will ever remain a religion of tyranny. Christianity can be redeemed by getting back to its Chrestian (i.e. Marcionite) roots, but Islam simply has no better past to go back to.

    • See the 12 Comments to the essay The Importance of the Historical Jesus for a take on origins based largely on quotes from the works of three of our top longest standing critical historical NT scholars.

    • rey, I believe you are touching on to something which with a few clarifing historical details is quite significant to Origins.
      First, nomenclature. The term Christian is anachronistic -it was first used of Paul and Barnabus’ mission in Antioch just before 70 CE, and was never applied to the Jewish Jerusalem Jesus Movemet. The significant period of origins is 30 CE – 65 CE, the apostolic period, before the Gospels and before Christianity. For this period there were two movements: The Jerusalem Jewish Jesus Movement with the Q material, soon followed by the Christ Movement with its Pauline Christ kerygma. For more enter: The Importance of the Historical Jesus. See the folowing comment.

  7. ‘I admit to being a bit prickly on the subject, having finally concluded that the sources we possess do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus.’

    Is it not astonishing that we can look at the earliest Christian sources and conclude that the early Christian sources do not establish the conditions for a verdict on the historicity of Jesus?

    Is this because very early Christians would write entire books without any reference to what their Lord and Saviour had taught them?

  8. Pingback: How Jesus has been re-imaged through the ages to fit different historical needs « Vridar

  9. Pingback: Did Jesus Exist? Yes and No (via The New Oxonian) « The New Oxonian

  10. Many years ago, as a student at a Presbyterian liberal arts college, I was required to take at least one course in religion. I choose “Old Testament History.” It’s been so long now that I can only remember two things about the course. The first was that our instructor (a Presbyterian minister) required us to source our papers with a least one Jewish Scholar, one Christian Scholar, and one archeologist. Hey, fair and balanced before that was even fashionable!

    But, more heavily embedded in my memory, is my recollection of sitting in that class on a Friday afternoon in late November, The girl sitting next to me put down her spiffy new Japanese transistor radio to announce that president Kennedy had been shot in Dallas and was dead. Upon hearing this news, Dr. whatever-his-name-was, allowed as how we would first finish the class and then worry about the recently departed leader of the free world afterwards. There are priorities after all.

    As to this Jesus guy/myth, it would be difficult these days to structure a single class or two for “New Testament History,” given the massive amount of scholarship that has emerged over the last 50 years. Indeed, there are colleges that are devoted entirely to that subject. On the other hand, a course such as “The Jesus Meme,” or “Jesus and Other Sun Gods,” might be doable.

    In any case, the man and woman in the pew could probably care less. The church is like a parallel universe where belief is transformed into reality and where ghosts have a felt presence. Critical thinking and intellectual curiosity are supposed to be checked at the door.

    • Herb writ: “In any case, the man and woman in the pew could probably care less. The church is like a parallel universe where belief is transformed into reality and where ghosts have a felt presence. Critical thinking and intellectual curiosity are supposed to be checked at the door.”

      All true, so what then is happening? Why are they doing that? Does our species have some drive to integrate itself with the Cosmos, no matter how distant that goal?

      I accept that this abnegation is the attitude of atheists – fair enough – but they are representing themselves as Humanists, which is not tolerable.

      A true Humanist feels that religious belief is private, like your sexual orientation or finances. A Humanist has an inclusive sensibility for our species, planet and lives. That carries with it both opportunity and responsibility, these are steered at the personal level by his/her education, training and courage.

      Classical Greek Humanism that needs no modern allele.

      It serves no purpose to set any of these categories against each other, just for the sake of intellectual social climbing, esp. atheists claiming Humanism.

      • dwightjones says, “A true Humanist feels that religious belief is private, like your sexual orientation or finances. A Humanist has an inclusive sensibility for our species, planet and lives. That carries with it both opportunity and responsibility, these are steered at the personal level by his/her education, training and courage.”

        This strikes me as one of those damnable Humeian is/ought problems. As I’ve said many times before, the Humanists have been taken over by the “new” atheists such that the are now little more than atheists in a cheap tuxedo wearing a pair of brown shoes. Their ill-conceived and intellectually dishonest (to me anyway) “Consider Humanism” campaign is an embarrassment to those of us who all ourselves Humanists. I could go on but the host of this blog has already done a masterful job of giving the Atheists/Humanists a well deserved lashing in his recent “Cleopas the Atheist” piece of December 21st.

        The point being, I don’t know what a “true Humanist” is or ought to be. Their use of ridicule, insult, condescension, and self-righteousness as the weapons of choice in the battle for the hearts and minds of the religionists is as offensive as it is unnecessary.

        That said, there are times when we need to speak out. For example, according to a new Gallop poll released Tuesday, December 21st, asking about human evolution, Gallop reports that, “Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, while 16%, up slightly from years past, believe humans developed over millions of years, without God’s involvement.” That 16% is consistent with related polls showing that 16% of American adults are not religious. But, then, there’s that pesky damn 84%!

        And that makes my point. I won’t go as far as agreeing with Christopher Hitchens that religion poisons everything, but after 150 years of Darwinism, the Scoops trial, the Dover case, and the protestations of biology teachers, the fact that more than 8 out of 10 Americans still believe humans are impelled by a supernatural force is a formidable testament to the power of wishful thinking. I don’t blame the schools; blind faith that promises a happy ending trumps the impersonal outcomes of reason every time.

        But such rampant ignorance and its impact on society needs to be confronted. I think it was Steven Jay Gould who said, “without evolution there is no biology.” The creationists and the intelligent designers are dangerously wrong. Therefore, as a Humanist, I am compelled to interrupt the churchgoers privacy, and announce that such dogma is damaging to their mental health and intellectual growth. When denial and uncritical belief results in a separation from reality, then, yes, there seems to be some kind of phase transition into a world not unlike the Wonderland of Alice. Call it a parallel universe. Call it that.

        But, I have no ax to grind, no tolerance meter; I fancy myself a simple observer. While you seem to be comfortable in your understanding of what a “true Humanist” is, I’m still not there. And my protests, like yours, have gone nowhere.

        Anyway, I may just curl up with a good read by George Orwell. I’m thinking, “Animal Farm.”

  11. A golden oldie, Dr. Hoffmann. Over the past few months I’ve looked into the positions of various Christ Myths and I think now I can move on. I don’t think it offers a better alternative to the idea of Jesus being a guy who inspired the Christian movement

    Ironically the main thing against the Jesus myth is a lack of evidence. This is ironic because the main evidence promoted for the idea is that there is no evidence for Jesus’ existence, and there are no “facts” to support the idea of a real historical Jesus. But there is even less for a mythical Jesus. In all the gospels uncovered and condemned in the works of early heresy hunters, none conforms to a Jesus Myth. Am I missing something? If it were the foundational idea of Christianity, doesn’t it seem likely that it would have survived longer? There is simply no solid evidence that anyone ever held a Jesus Myth like idea until modern times.

    I don’t buy into the idea that a myth is the default position for people thought to have existed in antiquity. It isn’t like Jesus was crucified by King Midas in the fabled City of Brass. There is no reason to assume a mythic origin for this person, so I don’t find it logical at all that we should think there is an elaborate myth behind Paul’s preaching just because there is no proof of Jesus’ existence. Given the circumstance, I don’t expect proof. It would be different of the gospels claimed Jesus came leading an army of Persians to destroy Jerusalem. Should we also assume a myth to explain any one whose historical existence cannot be proven? that’s a lot of myths.

    There are anomalies that are difficult for many theories of the origin of Christianity (the lack, though not a total lack, of gospel material in the epistles has been frequently mentioned by myth supporters) and could be used as evidence for a Christ myth, but that is a small bit of evidence and far to little to justify the confidence Jesus myth supporters have in their hypothesis. Are any scholars you know of really afraid the whole façade of Historical Jesus Studies going to collapse once people take a rational look at the claims of Jesus Myth supporters? I think instead, it is your position that is scarier. The we know very little about the early days of Christianity. We certainly don’t know of a Jesus myth, nor much of anything else. The creed like blurb Josephus gives could pretty much sum up our sure historical knowledge of Jesus. A man from Galilee, crucified by Pilate, believed to be resurrected by his followers.

    • Herb writ” I don’t blame the schools; blind faith that promises a happy ending trumps the impersonal outcomes of reason every time.”

      I blame the philosophers. What have the Philosophy departments produced since the Wittgenstein farce? The British analytic tradition brought sherry and recorder parties to Universities in lieu of ideas, for the past century. Such gross effeteness has resulted in:

      “…such rampant ignorance and its impact on society needs to be confronted…The creationists and the intelligent designers are dangerously wrong. Therefore, as a Humanist, I am compelled to interrupt the churchgoers privacy, and announce that such dogma is damaging to their mental health and intellectual growth.”

      Must you? As a Humanist you are fully entitled to ignore the US as of no import anymore compared to Indian Humanists or emerging Chinese thought. Same for the BHA hijackers, whoa are brownshirts for the NSS.

      As I maintain, there are no ideas there, their day has passed, they are dangerous to themselves only and self-punishing; and if you persist in giving them a sounding board, you become part of the problem.

      Boycott atheism as beneath you…find a vision for our own kind.

      • Why couldn’t a humanist believe that there is intelligent design? Obviously a humanist wouldn’t be out there fighting tooth and nail to convince people of it or trying to twist science to support it. But if it was a personal belief, would that disqualify him from being a humanist? What if one believed that God had indeed made mankind and had put within him the common sense that ought to eventually lead him to understand that he should live morally and treat his fellow man respectfully? Must a humanist of necessity be an atheist? It certainly is not the case historically. Wasn’t Erasmus of Rotterdam one of the first humanists?

      • “Boycott atheism as beneath you…find a vision for our own kind.”

        I missed that comment before. Nevermind what I said above then I guess.

      • dwightjones says, “Boycott atheism as beneath you…find a vision for our own kind.”

        That comment triggered a memory of something I read once in one of the Hindu Upanishads, specifically, the Chandogya Upanishad, which was supposedly written between the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. There is a dialogue where the master Sanatkumara instructs a student named Narada about how to find bliss, starting with the infinite:

        Sanatkumara: “The infinite is bliss. There is no bliss in anything finite. Only the Infinite is bliss. One must desire to understand the Infinite.”

        Narada: “Venerable Sir, I desire to understand the Infinite.”

        Sanatkumara: “Where one sees nothing else, hears nothing else, understands nothing else—that is the Infinite. Where one sees something else, hears something else, understands something else—that is the finite. The Infinite is immortal, the finite mortal.”

        Narada: “Venerable Sir, in what does the Infinite find Its support?”

        Sanatkumara: “In its own greatness—or not even in greatness. Here on earth people describe cows and horses, elephants and gold, slaves and wives, fields and houses, as ‘greatness.’ I do not mean this, for in such cases one thing finds its support in another. But what I say is:

        That infinite, indeed, is below. It is above. It is behind. It is before. It is to the south. It is to the north. The Infinite, indeed, is all this.”

        Narada: “[And] the Infinite with reference to the Self?:

        Sanatkumara: “The Self indeed, is below. It is above. It is behind. It is before. It is to the south. It is to the north. The Self, indeed, is all this.

        “Verily, he who sees this, reflects on this and understands this delights in the Self, sports with the Self, rejoices in the Self, revels in the Self. Even while living in the body he becomes a self-ruler. He wields unlimited freedom in all the worlds.

        ‘‘But those who think differently from this have others for their rulers. They live in perishable worlds. They have no freedom in all the worlds.”

  12. Here is my assessment of Humanism via my Wikipedia contribution:

    Inclusive Humanism
    Humanism increasingly designates an inclusive sensibility for our species, planet and lives. While retaining the definition of the IHEU with regard to the life stance of the individual, inclusive Humanism enlarges its constituency within homo sapiens to consider Man’s broadening powers and obligations.
    This accepting viewpoint recalls Renaissance Humanism in that it presumes an advocacy role for Humanists towards species governance, and this proactive stance is charged with a commensurate responsibility surpassing that of individual Humanism. It identifies pollution, militarism, nationalism, sexism, poverty and corruption as being persistent and addressable human character issues incompatible with the interests of our species. It asserts that human governance must be unified and is inclusionary in that it does not exclude any person by reason of their collateral beliefs or personal religion alone. As such it can be said to be a container for undeclared Humanism, instilling a species credo to complement the personal tenets of individuals.
    It contrasts with contemporary American and British Humanism, which tend to be centered on religion to the extent that “Humanism” in these societies is too often being equated with simple atheism, especially by novitiates. This over-identification with a singular non-belief is now seen to be an unwarranted truncation of one of Humanity’s most valuable and promising intellectual traditions, possibly damping out Humanism’s wider and deserving adoption.

  13. Responding to my comment of December 22, rjosephhoffmann says, “Brilliant; you should expand it into a blog and let me put it up.”

    First, thanks so much for the compliment. Coming from you, I feel truly honored.

    Second, as to your offer to set me up with a blog, I nervously accept. However, I’m clueless as to finding my way around the blogosphere, so I await further instructions.

  14. @mikelioso
    “The creed like blurb Josephus gives could pretty much sum up our sure historical knowledge of Jesus. A man from Galilee, crucified by Pilate, believed to be resurrected by his followers.”
    Have you considered the notion of interpellation?

    • @Demonax,
      Yes I have. My reason for making the statement wasn’t to say that the passage is what assures us of those facts about Jesus but that is sums up what is sure about Jesus.

      My personal thought is any passage in any manuscript may be a an interpolation or scribal error. I don’t find it very fruitful to speculate on what might have been written. I can only deal with what has been. With that in mind I have to hold a modicum of doubt for any particular word or phrase in an ancient work. I don’t like to drop material though unless I have good reason.

      There is good reason to believe it has been modified. that is partly due to the implausibility of Josephus believing Jesus is Christ, and evidence that at this point there are known textual variants. I don’t have an issue with there being some sort of mention of Jesus at that point, what it is though, can’t be said for sure. Either way the passage is no silver bullet ensuring Jesus existed, only that people at the time of Josephus believed this and he thought it worthwhile to pass it along, perhaps to explain the origin of an odd cult.

  15. Pingback: Did Jesus Exist? Yes and No (via The New Oxonian) « The New Oxonian

  16. The religion industry’s purpose is to promote an interest in Christianity. Demonstrating that the myth that a Jesus existed was fiction, would pretty much close them down. So, you generally see the religion industry not only wanting to avoid discussions that the myth of Jesus is not historical, but to crush anyone from spreading that scuttle butt.

    BTW… My interest is the study of early Christianity, especially the now moving into the patristics period. If that is something that anyone else is interested in, I would be happy to hear from you by email.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

  17. Reblogged this on The New Oxonian and commented:

    While equally hard on mythicism and credulity in this 2010 post, I adopted a position that some readers called :Jesus agnosticism’; a more appropriate label would have been “Jesus Fatigue”. I now would argue, qua the Jesus Process, that the historical existence of Jesus is the only reasonable postulate based on the material we now possess; but for reasons I will discuss in further essays, I do not believe that this postulate has been adequately articulated by recent defenders of historicity. A recent attempt by a well-known NT scholar is exceptionally disappointing and not an adequate rejoinder to the routinely absurd ideas of the Jesus-deniers. For that reason, like it or not, I have had to abandon my indifference and get back into the fight–on the side of the son of man.

    • I agree. On the side of the son of man. I think I have a little mythtic fatigue though. It’s that boredom from repetition and regurgitation that is perpetually dished up and dumped on the mythtic plate. And for goodness sake leave Schweitzer alone to rest in peace. I have no Jesus fatigue. I just want to get back into positive research and clearer articulation… a fresh start. I also need to spend a little extra time soon in my new garden beside the sea, perhaps Wairoa, not to far from the lake shores of Waikaremoana. I have fruvegies to sew.

      • Oh dear: @ Reycacobs: No, The fatigue comes from fighting against people (like you?) who don’t know evidence if it bit them but would prefer to believe in their private mythologies. You seem to belong to the Debunking School of Christian Origins. Nothing is easier: call all evidence tainted, late, irrelevant, interpolated or extraneous. Good grief mate: we can deny the legitimacy of Barack Obama that way: some are trying!

      • I see I have make comments re this post after it was first published in 2010. Given the more recent comments, however, I feel compelled to throw in another 2 cents; one or both of which you may or may not want to throw back at me.

        Now, I am not a biblical scholar, a seminary professor, a Christian preacher, a Middle Eastern archeologist, or a Jesus freak. In point of fact, I am a non-theist. In other words, I don’t have a horse in this race; e.g., a minimal bias.

        As I understand it, the effort to understand Jesus as man or myth is about separating the messenger from the message. Further, it has apparently fallen to the historicists to confirm or deny the existence of the messenger. Trouble is, history may have been altered – by outright fraud, or by wishful thinking, or by mistranslations, or by other means. But human nature being what it is, no historicist worth his or her Roman calendar is going to throw his or her research under the bus very easily. Ergo, the big debate.

        I also think it unlikely that any general agreement will ever be reached over this issue. Too much disputable evidence, too many egos. To me, though, it’s the message and not the messenger that’s important. We don’t really need to know if there was a real guy named Homer, or King Arthur, or Robin Hood, or even, believe it or not, Shakespeare, to appreciate their greater or lesser influence on Western Civilization.

        So, whether the attributions go to Jesus of Nazareth or Apollonius of Tyana, the evidence would never be admissible in court, and no jury worth their free parking spaces could ever reach a fair verdict due to the overwhelming doubt surrounding this case. Indeed, this case is more about psychology than historicity, IMHO.

      • I have to concur with you, Herb.

        Because I view Christ as a humanist teacher instructing the species on the new urban morality – regardless of whether or not he held a heavenly bus pass – I simply ask atheist people if they agree with that.

        It’s fun to watch atheists then consider, even defend him, each a Pontius Pilate within their ambivalence.

      • This is all why I believe that it is essential for the Jesus Process to examine material and methods afresh, and articulate with greater clarity arguments and evidence for historicity.

      • “Because I view Christ as a humanist teacher instructing the species on the new urban morality” (Dwight Jones)

        The problem is of course that although you are right, then historicists will come back with something cheesy like “well, then you’re not considering all the evidence! The gospel of John says Jesus claimed to be God! The gospel of Luke says he claimed he wants everyone who will not make him their heavenly king put to death!” These guys wouldn’t know relevant evidence versus obvious made up crap if it hit them upside the head and knocked them out. If there was a real Jesus, clearly he was as you put it “a humanist teacher instructing the species on the new urban morality” — but the church threw in all this “I am God and you will believe in me or burn crap” to make a monopolistic religion out of the guy. And the historicists because they are tied to defending his historicity they are tied ultimately to defending also every dumb little addition the church made to the gospels.

        That is, I’ve yet to find a historicists who didn’t credit some oddball saying clearly made up by the church as being authentic. They always end up claiming that Jesus really called himself “Son of Man” for example. Reading through Schweitzer’s “The Quest of the Historical Jesus” and then though the modern works you find that everyone makes too big of a deal of this idea that Jesus called himself “Son of Man.” The key to understanding the historical Jesus, they will say, is his identifying himself with the Son of Man from the prophecy in Daniel.

        Uh, hello! The church made up the “Son of Man” crap on the basis of a misinterpretation of Daniel that turns “I saw one LIKE A son of man” into “I saw THE Son of Man”, turning that into an ecclesiastical messianic title, and putting it in Jesus’ mouth. In every saying where the gospels have Jesus say “The Son of Man…” I GUARANTEE he just said “I” expect after “Man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath was made for man” for after that when he says “Therefore even the son of man is Lord of the Sabbath” he is using the phrase as in Ezekiel to mean a human being, i.e. “therefore any and every human being is Lord of the Sabbath.”


      • @reyjacobs: For pure eloquence, finality and depth of insight, I think it would be impossible to improve on your comment:

        Uh, hello! The church made up the “Son of Man” crap on the basis of a misinterpretation of Daniel that turns “I saw one LIKE A son of man” into “I saw THE Son of Man”, turning that into an ecclesiastical messianic title, and putting it in Jesus’ mouth.

  18. If there was actually any smoking gun for historicity, there would be no fatigue.

    I would characterize myself as agnostic leaning towards historicity myself, but it just isn’t possible to make a dispositive case. Even the best evidence is tenuous (Tacitus, Josephus), or uninformative (Paul), or subjective and inferential (criteria of dissimilarity, “reconstructed” Aramaic, Crossan-cultural anthropology, application of the general to the specific [i.e. inferring that an individual had specific beliefs or characteristics based on broad cultural context, for instance, assuming that if X is from New York, X must be a Yankees fan. Such assumptions are made about Jesus based on a variety of factors such as his being Jewish, being Galilean being poor, etc. The assumption is that “a typical X does Y,” but no one is perfectly typical, and idiosyncrasies occur in every context]).

    In all honesty, the best we can really day is that some sort of Jesus more likely existed than not, but we can’t say anything for sure about him, and we can’t really even nail down 100% that he existed at all, or that he isn’t a composite of some sort.

    The fatigue, at the end of the day, is because the data does not exist to really resolve the question to a degree of reasonable satisfaction. Some of the evidence really is pretty questionable (especially Josephus), no single piece seems rock solid, yet a completely invented Jesus has its own host of problems as a hypothesis, and lacks a strong theory.

    • There is a smoking gun for historicity, called the New Testament; and it is signally important until you can show good cause why these documents should be set aside as forgeries or are so hopelessly irrelevant to the case that we can ignore them. The mythtics have failed to make their case except through poor analogy, assertion, and silence. That is not the way serious critical scholarship works, but then they are not serious critical scholars so the approach, reeking of amateurism and wishful thinking on the order of other conspiracy theories, is perhaps predictable. Certainly the evidence of doctrine and the existence of the church are not probative in the same way, but it is quite ludicrous to say that ancient papyrus evidence and an unbroken literary tradiiton extending from the very century in which the events are supposed to have happened can be treated this brusquely. We would pay a king’s ransom to have anything quite as detailed about Socrates beyond a few scattered references and Plato’s dialogues lionizing his teaching. Have I missed something? When did the mythics make their case?

      • “There is a smoking gun for historicity, called the New Testament;”

        Biased writings written by guys who worship someone (who may or may not have existed) as a God don’t prove his existence. If it did, then Homer’s writings would prove that Zeus and Poseidon existed. There is too much myth in the gospels to believe even 75% of them. What will you believe? The healings? the casting out of demons that speak and say “I know who you are; you are the Son of God!!!”? the conversations with Satan in the wilderness? the raisings of the dead?

        Even the most down-to-earth moments in the gospels, like Jesus denying the importance of the Sabbath tend to not work without the mythology. Jesus makes his statements against the Sabbath by miraculously healing on the Sabbath not by saying “I don’t believe in the Sabbath.” In the end, all we can be left with is some Jewish guy who taught something the priests didn’t like and got whacked for it. That could be historical, but it doesn’t have to be. And it could be historical with a mythical name put to it. Was his name really Jesus (i.e. savior?) or was it Simon? This Gnostic Simon character who goes around saying in one place he is the Father, in another he is the Son, and in another the Holy Ghost, whom the church fathers complain about, could he just be an older version of “Jesus” that they now reject? They are upset with Simon for teaching against the Law of Moses — but if Jesus really existed and got put to death by the priests, isn’t that precisely what he must have done? So perhaps Jesus was the first Gnostic and his name was Simon, perhaps not. We have no solid information on this guy, so the best we can say is maybe he existed maybe he didn’t, maybe his name was really Jesus and maybe not. Maybe he was crucified by Pontus Pilate as the gospels say, and maybe he was stoned to death like the Talmud says! We don’t know jack squat.

      • Well, first, I do not think the mythers have made their case and I think there was more likely somebody rather than nobody at the genesis of the Jerusalem Jesus sect (which I would distinguish from “Christianity,” as such), but it’s somebody that’s all but impossible to say anything definitive about him, or point to any one thing (with the arguable exception of the crucifixion) which is certain to be true. Like Jack the Ripper or the inventer of the wheel, Jesus can be inferred, but not identified. That creates space for mythers to make negative arguments against specific identifications or claims. The Gospels are akin to police sketches made not even from witnesses, but from a guy who heard from another guy what the suspect looked like.

        My personal opinion is that Jesus most likely matches the conventional, consensus outline of a Galilean preacher/healer, probably self-identified “prophet,” who was first associated with John the Baptist, attracted a following of his own, said at least some of the things attributed to him and was crucified for being involved in some kind of disturbance at the Temple.

        I can’t really prove a single one of those things, though.

    • “In all honesty, the best we can really [s]ay is that some sort of Jesus more likely existed than not, but we can’t say anything for sure about him, and we can’t really even nail down 100% that he existed at all, or that he isn’t a composite of some sort.”

      I’d agree with that. Pure mythicism that he didn’t exist at all seems hard to swallow. But the reality is that our sources for proof of his existence are so tainted with mythology that about all we can say is there was a Jewish guy whose name probably was Jesus (although even that might be mythological, perhaps his name was Simon?) and he apparently taught something that got him killed, but what that was isn’t even certain.

      • Reyjacobs,

        There’s a difference between a source being “tainted with mythology” and a source simply being mythology. We have absolutely no reason to assume that theologians imitating Jewish prophetical books like Daniel must have started out with historical interests. Ancient people had imaginations, and one of the advantages of living in that time was that a theologian’s imagination could be imprinted upon reality with far less effort than it takes today. One generation’s myth becomes the next generation’s tradition, and by the time of the gospels, tradition is struggling hard to become a secret history decoded and deciphered.

  19. @Dwight Jones

    “Because I view Christ as a humanist teacher instructing the species on the new urban morality – regardless of whether or not he held a heavenly bus pass – I simply ask atheist people if they agree with that.

    It’s fun to watch atheists then consider, even defend him, each a Pontius Pilate within their ambivalence.”

    I don’t agree with that, no, I don’t think he is presented as humanistic in the Gospels, he’s presented as an apocalypticist preaching only to Jews and does not envision a long germ new morality, but the advent of a new “reign of God” which would not be humanistic at all, but a massive slaughter of Gentiles entered in a rule by an absolute, theocratic monarch (which he may or may not have envisioned as himself).

    Whether or not “atheists” like what he taught has no bearing on whether he existed or not, so I don’t see how that should make any difference.

    Sometimes I’ve seen progressive, “liberal,” Christian pastors talking about what a great, egalitarian, pro-gay, enlightened, progressive ethicist he was in an attempt to make him more palatable to the unconverted, but this presupposes that a lack of religious belief has anything to do with finding the message personally appealing or not. It’s a kind of special pleading.

    • Sorry about the terrible typing and syntax above. “…entered in a rule by an absolute, theocratic monarch,” should have been “entering into a rule,” and “long germ new morality” should have been “long term new morality.”

  20. Pingback: Morning musings | The Heretical Philosopher

  21. There is a smoking gun for historicity, called the New Testament; and it is signally important until you can show good cause why these documents should be set aside as forgeries or are so hopelessly irrelevant to the case that we can ignore them.

    There is a smoking gun for the historicity of Ebion as well, called the church fathers, and it is signally important until you can show good cause why these documents should be set aside as forgeries or are so hopelessly irrelevant to the case that we can ignore them.

    Of course these arguments are not logical. Ebion almost certainly didn’t exist but it is ridiculous to call the church fathers who thought he was real forgeries. Jesus may have been real, but you need substantive evidence to establish his historicity.

    Take a tradition source such as the gospels and let’s arbitrarily discount all the outrageous material contained in them, so that we are left with plausible material, in discounting say half the text with its devils and mountains from which you can see all the world, walking on water, healing by spitting on eyes and ears, raising of the dead, and so on. There is a precedent of untrustworthy material, so let’s look at the plausible material what’s left. How can you distinguish a veracious datum from a plausible but non-veracious one when you only have the tradition from which to evaluate them? Once plausible data are absorbed into a tradition they become indistinguishable from the other plausible data in the tradition. This leaves those with ontological commitments in the quandary of having no epistemology. There is no real difference between the mythicist and the historicist other than the flavor of their ontological commitment. Both lack the ability to support themselves. We just happen to be used to the inherited ontological commitment. It’s popularity is not a sufficient criterion for its validity.

    The film Hugo has a character called George Melies, who was in fact a real human being. However, in the film he is just a character. Without external evidence for Melies, that’s all he would be. The claim that the New Testament is sufficient evidence for the historicity of Jesus is simply bankrupt. Qualitatively there is no difference between such a claim and that of the mythicist that the bible is evidence that Jesus didn’t exist.

    I can show you evidence for very many people of the era you have never heard of whose historicity can be established with little doubt at all. Consider the named monuments along the Via Appia. Each one that preserves the name of the occupant attests to the historicity of that occupant. The lists of fire fighters at Ostia Antica provide a few hundred historically attested people. All have what Jesus doesn’t have. A fairly firm historicity. And RJH offers a tradition text from which there is no epistemological support for his ontological commitment to a historical Jesus. Worrying about mythicism is ultimately a red herring. The task is to establish historicity for Jesus, not just to show that mythicists are wrong or working with insufficient means to justify their claims. I agree that they are. But it is also the case for the historicist. You have to stop wasting your time complaining about others and make a substantive case for your position. Best explanations need evidence.

    Figures we inherit from very old traditions may not be able to be shown to have existed. We can happily continue living despite not being able to say if Robin Hood or King Arthur was real or not. While I can see a wave of special pleading welling up, given–contra RJH–the lack of substantive evidence for Jesus, he doesn’t warrant the adjective “historical”, even though he may have lived. (And to be clear, by “historical”, I mean “able to be supported by substantive evidence from the past”.)

    (Let’s have no more mischief about me being Jacob. If you don’t have access to IP, use your stylistic skills.)

    • @spin: Surely you can do better than trying to compare Jesus to “Ebion”: Origen in de Princ.4.22 on the proliferation of “Christian” sects: “Being taught, then, by him that there is one Israel according to the flesh, and another according to the Spirit, when the Saviour says, I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, we do not understand these words as those do who savour of earthly things, i.e., the Ebionites, who derive the appellation of poor from their very name (for Ebion means poor in Hebrew ); but we understand that there exists a race of souls which is termed Israel, as is indicated by the interpretation of the name itself: for Israel is interpreted to mean a mind, or man seeing God. The apostle, again, makes a similar revelation respecting Jeru­salem, saying, The Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” Etc. As opposed to “Other writers, such as Tertullian (De Praescr., xxxiii; De Carne Chr., xiv, 18), Hippolytus (cfr. Pseudo-Tert., Adv. Haer., III, as reflecting Hippolytus’s lost “Syntagma”), and Epiphanius (Haeres., xxx) derive the name of the sect from a certain Ebion, its supposed founder. …But these passages are not likely to be genuine, and Ebion, otherwise unknown to history, is probably only an invention to account for the name Ebionites.” – Catholic Encyclopaedia art. “Ebionites”. The little matter of the identity of Ebion not having been settled in antiquity is not exactly apposite to the identity of Jesus having been settled before the end of the first century and the comparatively prolific sources that you continue to say are useless, though they will not disappear and your inept analogy does not explain them at all. Of course, these weak analogies used as proof are exactly what makes mythicism risible.

      • If Ebion isn’t good enough, how about Simon Magus? Are the book of Acts and the church father’s a “smoking gun” for his existence?

      • @Rey: sure, why not: and Santa Claus and anything else you want to allude to after you make your categorical error: one myth is as good as any other. What you do not tell me is how you are able to get around the gospels on the basis of these inept, anachronistic analogies, which like all mythtics you simply want to multiply.

      • Obviously your analogy (Santa Claus) is the anachronistic one. Those who wrote of Simon Magus are from the same period as those who wrote of Jesus, AND they are same individuals who determined what gospels would be kept and what gospels destroyed. So if there is any analogy that is good, it is this one. What you should have said, was, sure Simon Magus existed–he was Paul.

      • Nup: a category error is a category error–you are lumping all dubious legends together as though they are the same genus and then trying to stretch your category to encompass the gospels. Simon Magus is probably from the second century if he begins with Luke, but he thrives only in the time of Irenaeus. But that is irrelevant. Let’s try a different tack: Why do you think most critical scholars who think the gospels have a historical basis are perfectly happy to acknowledge the legendary accretions in Luke, including Simon? Less to lose, or something–else?

  22. Really great article. Jesus may have existed and he may not. I lean ever so slightly towards the former, with the gap between ‘undecided’ and ‘ever so slightly favouring historicity’ being more to do with pragmatism and personal preference not to be too closely associated with mythicism, a lot of which seems to me to necessitate more going out on a limb than the alternative.

    So, the question, ‘why does it matter whether he did or didn’t?’ or ‘why does it matter whether we decide?’ become far more interesting than the bare question of ‘actual historicity’, which any sensible and intelligent person will probably realize will always have to have inverted commas around it, bar some startling new evidence emerging.


    David (‘New atheist’ and proud of it) 🙂

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