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Thoughts on Jesus’ Historicity

I’ve recently stepped a little out of my comfort zone and entered into a couple of discussions about whether or not there was a historical Jesus.  You can find those discussions here:
I’d like you to look at both of these after you’ve read a few of my thoughts here.  First, I’d like to state my position very clearly.  I don’t know if there was a historical Jesus.  There simply isn’t much evidence that there was, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t.
My main problem with Jesus historians like James McGrath is one of methodology.  If you read through my comments on his blog, you’ll see that for each point he tries to make about one of his proofs of Jesus, I can make one using the same information yet pointing to ahistoricity.
To put it plainly, here are my primary objections to the arguments for Jesus:
1. They invent their own criteria.
That is, you see things like the “Argument from crucifixion” or “Argument from somebody who claimed to be related 20 years later.”  When historians examine other historical figures, they have a fairly straightforward way of determining whether it’s a myth or a real person.  Jesus historians bypass this route and make up their own rules.  That bothers me a lot.  Sounds like special pleading.
2. Each argument can be flipped around.
Jesus historians will say that the sheer number of references twenty to fifty years after Jesus supposedly lived point to him being historical.  I can flip that around and say that the complete absence of any contemporary evidence during his life, and for twenty years after, point to the story being a myth.
The same is true for pretty much every argument I’ve encountered.  Jesus historians seem content to examine only one side of an argument, and when I’ve pressed them, as I did Dr. McGrath, they accuse me of not understanding history.  Particularly when dealing with people who are supposed to be educators, it seems odd that they don’t wish to educate me if that is indeed the case.
I also notice that when I’ve asked similar questions of Jesus A-historians, they’ve been eloquent and informative in explaining why they feel their position is epistemologically more plausible.  So, that leads me to the next point:
3. Jesus A-historians seem to be much calmer about their position, and actually answer my questions.
Typically, people who seem calm and have good answers, even when pressed by the opposition, tend to have better positions.  And like I said, I am not in either camp.  I don’t have enough background to make an informed authoritative statement.  All I can say is that the A-historians seem to have their shit together and their arguments seem more coherent.  (And I can make authoritative statements about the coherency of arguments.)
Finally, I’d like to make a really important point by way of analogy.  Wonder Woman is based on a real person.  Elizabeth Marston was the wife of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Marston.  He admired her sense of loyalty and honor, and was amazed by her ability to tell when other people were lying.  He created Wonder Woman with a magic lasso and an island of magical Amazon Goddesses.
Here, we must ask a very important question:  Is it fair to say that Wonder Woman was a historical figure?  She’s clearly not, even though she is based on someone who actually lived.
Ok, so to everybody who comes down hard on either the side of the Jesus debate, ask yourself what you’re really asserting?  Is it possible that there was a homeless guy who preached rebellion and got himself killed by Romans two thousand years ago?  Sure!  There was lots of that kind of thing going on in those days.
Would that two thousand year old homeless guy resemble the Jesus in the Gospels or Epistles?  Of course not.  Jesus, regardless of the origins of the myth, is just as historical as Wonder Woman.


One thought on “Thoughts on Jesus’ Historicity

  1. I thought you might be interested in this comment by Neil Godfrey:

    Historical Jesus scholars, unlike other historians, do not begin with a set of known facts. All historians will apply criteria in an effort to ascertain what might have happened in the case of complex or private facts, but only in the case of Jesus scholars do we have scholars attempting to establish simple, basic, fundamental, background, core facts by the use of criteria. I have discussed this, with particular reference to the well known book on historiography by historian G. R. Elton, and also with reference to Scot McKnight’s discussion of historiography as found (or not found) among historical Jesus scholars in my earlier 2010 post. I followed this up the next day with a post addressing a related facet of Scot McKnight’s criticisms.

    The whole criteriology exercise is thus applied in historical Jesus studies in a manner unlike its use by other historians

    A comparable figure to Jesus would be Socrates. But as far as I know, no historians use criteriology to determine what Socrates “really said” or “really did”.

    If we read Plato’s “Symposium” and applied the criterion of embarrassment, would we be safe to conclude that Socrates really did get schooled by a female philosopher? Because, you know, it might be “embarrassing” to have a female being more knowledgeable than a male. Especially the father of all modern philosophy.

    This is also a good read as well, and touches on the above.

    Even though Socrates left no writing, we have at least two independent witnesses (or genres) to his existence. Plato and the playwrite Xenophon; these two are also contemporaries. What helps their cases is that they, for the most part, present a very human Socrates.

    Jesus is never presented as a mere human being in everything we have written about him by Christians, so that’s one thing that differentiates the case between Jesus and Socrates. And I don’t think the gospels could be considered “independent” from each other. Case in point, it seems as though the Barabbas scenario was invented whole cloth by Mark, since he implicitly teaches the reader what “bar” and “abba” mean prior to the pericope. Since every other gospel has this pericope or some variation of it, it stands to reason that they are all copying off of Mark or some source that used Mark.

    So our earliest references to Jesus are Mark and Paul. A much worse case than the case for Socrates’ historicity.

    Now this doesn’t mean that Jesus most certainly didn’t exist. I would simply place the probability of his existence at a lower value than that of Socrates. If I were better at Bayesian logic I would be able to give a definitive number :). Though Richard Carrier seems to be agnostic about the historical Jesus due to Bayes Theorem.

    Posted by J. Quinton | April 19, 2011, 12:27 pm

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