John W. Loftus has been receiving rave reviews for his acceptance of a historical Jesus, and this is a bit of a puzzle to me. You can find his blog post on the matter HERE.
I know fellow bloggers here at DC may disagree with me, perhaps even Biblical scholar Hector Avalos. But let me very briefly outline the case for the historical person of the man Jesus. Even though I think the Christian faith is delusional, I think a man named Jesus existed who inspired people in the first century who is best seen as an apocalyptic doomsday prophet.
There certainly are a lot of modern scholars, including Richard Carrier, Robert Price, and Thomas L. Thompson, all with very good credentials, who put forth very good arguments against a historical Jesus. I have nothing to add to their arguments. History is not my primary interest. Good critical thinking is what I try to encourage in all disciplines, and this is where I think John is falling short. I do not intend to argue for the a-historicity of Jesus. Instead, I feel there is far too little justification to make the positive claim that Jesus either certainly did exist or very probably did exist.
I think pure historical studies cannot prove whether Jesus actually existed or not. That something happened in the historical past doesn’t mean we can show that it did. That something did not happen in historical past does not mean we can show that it didn’t. You’ll have to read my chapter on “The Poor Evidence of Historical Evidence” to know why I think this, where I argue that if God revealed himself in the historical past he chose a poor medium and a poor era to do so. Historical studies are fraught with difficulties. Even Christian scholar Richard Bauckham acknowledges in his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that “Historical work, by its very nature, is always putting two and two together and making five—or twelve or seventeen.” (p. 93)
The very fact that several scholars have reasonably concluded Jesus probably never existed is proof that historical studies is a slender reed to hang one’s faith on. Historians disagree over a great deal, even over mundane things. Christian, your faith is based upon so many conclusions about history, including whether Jesus even existed at all, that with each question the probability of your faith diminishes. Why don’t you admit this fact and then turn around and say something like this: “I am willing to stake my whole life on the basis of a probability from historical investigations. It’s probable that my conclusions on a whole host of historical issues are true by, say ____% (insert the probability).” [51% 55% 60% ???].
I know John is being loose with his terminology, but I don’t like the use of the word “faith” in this context. Hanging a belief on probability is not faith in the theological sense because probability is math, and math is based on deduction. While I agree that Christianity has very low probabilities on which to rest belief, I hardly see this as a valid analog to the argument over a historical Jesus. How do you even begin to discuss the difference between a supernatural claim and a matter of science? Yes, I am invoking science in the question of Jesus’ historicity. The most compelling of all historical evidence is scientific, not literary. That is, if you have twenty stories of an African man who did such and such at a certain time, and you uncover the actual remains of the man, and DNA testing reveals him to be Asian, the only reasonable conclusion is that the stories were in error or were fabricated. Evidence of historicity is weighted, and archaeology trumps literature.
I’ve read the relevant passages in Tacitus (64 AD), Pliny (112 AD), Suetonious (49 AD), Rabbi Eliezer (post 70 AD), the Benediction Twelve (post 70 AD), Josephus (post 70 AD). I’ve read the Christian inscription in Pompeii, too (79 AD). I understand the debates about them. But consider the majority scholarly consensus about the two-source theory of synoptic gospel tradition (Q and Mark) that predate the Gospels, and that we have early creeds inside Paul’s writings (I Cor. 8:6; 12:3; 15:3-4; Galatians 4:4-5; I Tim. 3:16) that predate his letters. Consider also the close connection between the New Testament era with the early church fathers like John the elder, Polycarp, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and others. We have to date these texts, no doubt, and many of them are indeed late, and some were forgeries. But they still offer some kind of early testimony to the historicity of a man called Jesus. Even a tradition is based on something. I just don’t see why we must discount the various independent writers of the New Testament itself on the historicity of Jesus. Why, for instance, should we not believe anything at all in the New Testament unless there is independent confirmation from outside sources?
We certainly don’t have to discount anyone out of hand, but what we must do is consider the weight of their testimony against their potential for having reliable information and their motivation for accurately relaying the information they had. In the case of Jesus, many historians seem to get hung up on the fact that there are a lot of relatively early sources mentioning Jesus. What they seem to miss is that there are only two significant sources within the first several decades of Jesus alleged existence — Paul and the author of the Gospel, whether Mark or some lost “Q” document.
Furthermore, what Jesus may have did and said seems to correspond to the Jewishness of that era as best as we can tell. E.P. Sanders in his book, The Historical Figure of Jesus, even thinks there was nothing strange about his message that would’ve gotten him killed by the Jewish authorites (he argues instead that the Romans were the sole actors). He argued that “the level of disagreement and arguments falls well inside the parameter of debate that were accepted in Jesus’ time.” (p. 216). He adds, “If Jesus disagreed with other interpreters over details, the disputes were no more substantial than were disputes between the Jewish parties and even within each party.” (p. 225).
So? I hardly think it surprising that a fictional writer would attempt to create a believable character. This is not evidence for historicity. It is not evidence for anything, since there is an equally plausible explanation for both fiction and non-fiction. If anything, there’s less reason to believe it’s factual since most of the gospel resembles fiction much more than fact.
I could be wrong. But here is why I think I’m right. Passionate cult-like religious groups are always started by a cult figure, not an author, and not a committee. It’s always a single charismatic leader that gathers passionate religious people together. So who is the most likely candidate for starting the Jesus cult? Jesus himself is, although Paul certainly was the man most responsible for spreading what he believed about his story. And even though Paul never met Jesus and only had a vision of him on the Damascus Road (Acts 26:19), his testimony is that there were already Christians whom he was persecuting in Palestine in the first century.
But you are wrong. Passionate cult-like groups are not always started by a cult figure. L Ron Hubbard? Author.
I think if we look at the New Testament texts it’s clear Jesus was an apocalyptic doomsday prophet who’s message, like that of John the Baptist before him, is for people to “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Is it really clear? How is it so obvious that this was a real man and not a fiction set in contemporary times? It only seems obvious if we presuppose the conclusion. Otherwise, we’re just guessing. Let’s not forget that a clever author could easily make use of the messianic expectations of his audience. Also remember that even in 20th century America, thousands were fooled by a radio broadcast into believing that aliens were invading earth. It’s not so implausible to think that in a time far, far before radio, an author could fool a few hundred people with a cleverly written story. Also remember that War of the Worlds was not originally intended as a giant hoax. It was just a made up story. After it was written, it developed a life of its own, so to speak. We must remember that the author’s intent is not necessarily relevant when we consider the historical ramifications of his work.
That Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet has been the dominant Christian view since the time of Albert Schweitzer and given a robust defense recently by Christian scholar Dale Allison in his book, Jesus of Nazareth. For an excellent overall treatment of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet see Bart D. Ehrman’s book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
It’s also been the dominant Christian view since the time of Albert Schweitzer that God exists and watches us when we masturbate. Is that also true? I’m aware that all of these scholars have big books on the historicity of Jesus, but have there not been consensus opinions before that have been fundamentally flawed? I’m speaking of methodology and critical thinking here, not consensus. I have not yet read a reasonable treatise that compels me to disregard the paucity of contemporary evidence coupled with the unreliability of the closest “witnesses.”
So even though historical studies are fraught with some serious problems, I think the evidence is that an apocalyptic prophet named Jesus developed a cult-like following in Palestine in the first century. I cannot be sure about this though, from a mere historical investigation of the evidence. I could be wrong. But that’s what I think.
Fire away now, on both sides. I stand in the middle.
I hate to say it, John, but your arguments (in this blog, at least) don’t hold water. I’m happy to admit that I have not read much else of yours, so perhaps you are simply not making this particular argument well, but none of what you have said here passes muster as proof of anything other than a lack of proof.