Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
Reader Feedback and Authorís Response
Set 20: March 2002

Jeremy writes:

   Love your web site - very exciting and intelligent work. Thank you!

John writes:

   Thank you for an amazing website. You are doing a great service for many people.

Bob writes:

   Your book is great. Itís nice to learn that Iím not alone in the world. Being in rural Kentucky it can be dangerous to express skepticism, at least socially dangerous, if not engendering the outright hatred of some loving christians.

Koji writes:

   I would say that your work reflects one of the five most rewarding and pivotal books I have ever read.

Robert writes:

   Just want to say that your stuff kicks ass. Iíve read The Jesus Puzzle, and your commentary on Strobelís book [Challenging the Verdict], and found them fascinating. I deconverted about 2 years ago after 20 years as a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian, and have been reading everything I can get my hands on. You rate up there with Dan Barker and [Robert] Ingersoll.
   There are some traces of brainwashing that still need to be dealt with, but the lionís share is behind me now. This stuff runs deep, like a cancer, and doesnít die easily. The best cure is guys like you who tell it like it is. Thanks. Keep up the good work.

Andrew writes:

   I have read your excellent book. Congratulations on an unsurpassed work of study.

Lowell writes:

   I am writing to thank you for the book, The Jesus Puzzle. I found it on Amazon before I heard of your web site. You put a spin on this subject matter and opened my eyes to something profoundly non-obvious: that the Epistles arenít talking about the same Jesus that the Gospels are. It is so obvious now that you pointed it out.
   I am currently reading your novel [on the web site] on the same subject and am enjoying it greatly. Like your fictional character Kevin, I grew up in a very religious family but the religion gene did not seem to pass down to me. I am respectful of my family, despite the fact that they live in an entirely different world than I do. I appreciated your professional tone in your book. One of the things that amused me most was how your protagonist began to pester his girlfriend with this stuff. I had the same desire to talk about my own research with my wife, who very patiently listened to it until I decided to give her respite.
   Thank you for reading this, and for your great book!

Susan writes:

   I've been reading your novel, and I must say that I was a bit taken aback in a story about biblical research and the struggle against creation science with all the rather graphic love scenes. They're quite effective. Did you ever consider writing Harlequin romances?

Dean writes:

   I received my copy of Challenging the Verdict and have read through portions and just had to write. The size of the book is just right, at first I thought it might be a large book, but this size one can take with them without any problem, Today, with long lines everywhere when traveling, this is the right size book! What I read already, the style is great, the format great, the type is just right. Trying to pick things apart but am having trouble doing that, maybe because the contents keep the eye glued to the message at hand. I wanted to pass along my congratulations on a job well done on this new book and hope for more books from you in the future.
   I have spread the word about your book The Jesus Puzzle, and there is quite a list of people who have purchased it. Will spread the word now about Challenging the Verdict.

Guy writes:

   I love reading the letters from the zealots, they are humorous. Your responses in the letters section keep bringing me back, thank you for the good work.
   I always found it bizarre how many "holy" people look forward to "judgement day" just so the non-believer will roast. Isnít that like really anti-christian??? [ED: I assume Guy is using irony here.]

Rich writes:

   May God have mercy on you. The Christian faith is just that, faith. None the less, historically, the life of Jesus Christ is better documented, studied, and proven to have occurred than your own life. [ED: Perhaps Iíd better start worrying about whether I exist or not.] Something evil has influenced you in your life and is still at work in you. I will pray for you even though I think it is a waste of time.

Robert writes:

   I will pray for the salvation of your soul thru Jesus Christ the Son of God. I feel sorry for you, my friend, for one day every knee shall bow (including yours).

Dennis writes:

   You spend all of your time and effort trying to disprove this truth. What are you trying to gain by taking others down with you (literally)? You think you have it all figured out.
   Sooner or later, you will know who is greater!!!!!  I hope you realize sooner.

Rev. Cliff writes:

   [Following a long quotation from Paulís Epistle to the Romans:] May you come to know the truth, and may it set you free from the blindness of the wisdom of man.

Response to Rev. Cliff et al.:

"The Blindness of the Wisdom of Man"

If we are to believe Rev. Cliff, our intellect, our rational faculties, our understanding of the world through science and reason, painfully achieved and perilously nurtured through eons of evolution and centuries of history, is to be tossed onto the scrap heap, repudiated, demeaned and unloved. The scorning of our own acquired wisdom as some sort of curse we need to be free of, the light of knowledge rejected as "blindness," has condemned us to dark ages in the past, and if the Rev. Cliff has his way, will continue to do so.

"To shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts as folly." 1 Corinthians 1:27. "God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish." 1 Corinthians 1:20Ö

In my novel, The Jesus Puzzle: A Novel About the Greatest Question of Our Time [published on this web site], one of the main characters, a charismatic attorney engaged in opposing an attempted insinuation of "creation science" into the classrooms of the nation, makes the following comment during a woodland hike with a group of colleagues, prompted by someoneís ironic quoting of those 1 Corinthians verses:

   "Paul is saying that one cannot arrive at knowledge of God through empirical evidence and rationality. Such things are the Ďwisdom of the world.í Godís plan was to establish an avenue to himself that could be followed only through folly, as Paul readily admits. What a stroke of genius! Remove yourself and your convictions entirely from the realm of reason. Take pride in your ignorance. Set your own standard and reject all others. When rational minds call you to task for your illogicality, your lack of evidence, youíve already embraced it all! Youíve consigned the rational world to outer darknessówith Godís blessing to boot! God, according to Paul, has set up faith in an irrational doctrine as the only avenue to salvation. Those who do not repudiate science, logic and painfully acquired human wisdom to embrace such folly shall perish everlastingly. And where did Paul get all this? From his own mystical experiencesówhich we are being asked to rank right up there beside the scientific method!" One can only shudder at the divine mentality which has supposedly established the system envisioned by Paul, and the Rev. Cliff. Rather, the salvation we need is from such "wisdom" as this.

Pam writes:

   Several kids in our youth group believe magic is good, after all look how nice Harry Potter is. In fact, it must have been magic the way God created everything. I need a little help with this line of thinking. Iíve pointed out John 1 and Galatians 5. They canít get past that magic can be good, even though Iíve pointed out Satan is presented as an angel of light (pleasing to the eye, but deadly to the soul). Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Response to Pam:

Magic, Harry Potter, and Satan

Pam might start by pointing out that Satan does not exist, that he is a superstitious idea left over from a more primitive time. That there are no such things as devils and angels, witches and magic, and no doubt gods as well. This ought to go a long way toward making children, and adults, adopt a little more rational attitude toward the world.

The more irrationalities one rejects, the easier it is to get rid of the rest of them.

Esa writes:

   I have read many books about Jesus to find out if there ever was one. The only rational conclusion is: there never existed a man named Jesus, and as you have shown, the New Testament is the strongest evidence to prove it.
   I have wondered some profound questions for a long time: If it really was Godís original plan to save mankind by sending Jesus, His Son, to earth, who saves the millions of people who lived and died before Him? Who saves the millions of people who have lived since and are still living without knowing anything about him? Who saves the millions of people who canít believe without doubt? If it was God who gave us the ability to think, are we not free to use it? If we are, is it a merciful God who condemns us to the everlasting fire of hell for using it? If we are not, why give it to us?

Linden writes:

   Your book ought to be mandatory reading for all Christian fundamentalists. However, it has been my experience that it is next to impossible to get them to read anything that challenges their beliefs. They do feel that you should read their material and accept it without question. I know, because I am married to a fundamentalist.
   I will be recommending your book to all of my friends.

Tomas writes:

   Iíve been an avid reader of your web site, your book, and some of the books that you review, since I first discovered your web site several years ago. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give you a 712.
   Your research and conclusions are well ahead of your time, but it kills me every time I read you to think how much ignorance is out there regarding these issues. I am not naïve enough so as to think that people would change their minds just like that or even develop a more critical view about their faiths because they read about this in a popular magazine or they see it on TV, but at least I would love to see what you present in your web site reaching mainstream mass media. This would at least counteract all the bunches and bunches of highly biased pseudo-scientific information that channels like the History Channel and others pour into peopleís minds every now and then. I must say that recently I have seen programs that presented somehow controversial material about early Christianity, but nothing compared with what scholars like yourself can argue.
   I just hope that one day, in a few hundreds or thousands of years, mankind will not be harnessed and anchored anymore by myths invented in times of ignorance and superstition and that perhaps had a purpose back then, but definitely not today.

Gregg writes:

   Tonight I was watching a PBS program called "The Roman Empire in the First Century." It was very good...until, of course, they started talking about a certain fictional character from Nazareth. Suddenly they were quoting the Gospels as if they were history texts, and earnest scholars were holding forth on how Jesusí radical message rocked the foundations of the Empire.
   I mean, there was no effort whatsoever to distinguish this portion of the program from the well-documented history that preceded and followed it. The events of Jesusí life were presented just as matter-of-factly as the events in the lives of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. Did Joseph return to his hometown for the Census of Augustus? Yup. Did Jesus become a carpenter like his father? Yup. Was he baptized in the River Jordan? Yup. Did he attract audiences of thousands? Yup. Did he say everything attributed to him? Yup. Not a word was breathed about the contradictory nature of the Gospel accounts, the fact that the events they portray are attested to nowhere else, etc.
   I did note that none of the historians who had been discussing Augustus, Tiberius, etc. were given an opportunity to talk about Jesus. For that segment, they went with a New Testament scholar and a professor of Christian history, both of whom, I believe, were from seminaries or theological schools or Christian universities. Neither one appeared particularly objective. What had been a pretty good documentary turned, "in the twinkling of an eye," to a travesty. I was literally smacking my forehead in dismay.

Response to Gregg:

A PBS "Travesty"

Greggís observations on this PBS program have put in a nutshell the sorry stateófrom a scientific and historical point of viewóof the field of New Testament research. First of all, the media in general are afraid to rock the boat, and usually shy away from airing anything which would subject Christian Ďhistoryí and doctrine to the same rigorous examination that other fields of research enjoy. Second, the scholarly "authorities" appealed to are almost exclusively from the field of religious study, not history per se. The vast majority of New Testament scholars have always brought confessional interests to their work, and as a consequence cannot be relied upon to reach objective and scientifically-based conclusions.

This situation makes a special travesty of the "appeal to authority" argument which is always thrown at the mythicist position, that the "great majority" of biblical scholars accept the historicity of Jesus. Of course they do. But when the most obvious contradictions and improbabilities in the Christian record are simply passed over as though they do not exist, accepted without question, as was clear to Gregg in this PBS program, we know we are witnessing not unbiased historical research, but special pleading in support of traditional religious beliefs.

I marvel that it occurred to no one in the production stage of that program to wonder if there was a firm historical record of the census under Augustus; there isnít, and the whole idea is fraught with those contradictions and improbabilities. Or to consider why the epistolary record outside the Gospels makes no mention of Jesusí baptism in the Jordan, or the figure of John the Baptist. Or to wonder how Jesus could have walked the length and breadth of Palestine, attracting huge multitudes, working reputedly fabulous miracles, preaching "radical" and subversive ideas (that the rich would be brought down and the poor exalted, for example), when the entire picture of first century of Palestinian history, as revealed by Josephus, indicates that public agitators of this nature were invariably seized by the Romans at their earliest notice and summarily dispatched, usually with a slaughter of followers. Not only does Jesus seem to have gone on without hindrance for some time, no commentators of the period record the person or activities of this man who was "rocking the foundations of the Empire."

I would urge Gregg, or anyone like him, to write to stations like PBS when they witness a "travesty" like this, and complain about the failure of rational thought and objective comment. We deserve better.

Derrick writes:

   I canít believe what Iím reading. It sounds like Atheism. Beware of those who add to or take away from the WORD OF GOD! Isnít it miraculous that the Word of God himself has lasted throughout the centuries? Ask forgiveness and He is just to forgive you of your sins.

Response to Derrick:

Hearing the Divine Word

The word of Zeus, among both Greeks and Romans, lasted some two thousand years. The word of Amon-Re was Ďmiraculouslyí preserved among the Egyptians for three millennia. Yet neither of these gods is believed now to ever have existed. There are a host of deities who have enjoyed long and fervent followings (including many other savior gods very like Jesus during the late Empire) who are rejected by modern Christians. Atheism is simply the rejection of one more god than most believers already reject. If everyone else, no matter how strong the conviction of their beliefs, can be dismissed as mistaken, it follows that oneís own religious beliefs are also subject to the same possibility of error.

Atheism is not simply the rejection of traditional belief in supernatural entities. The Ďvoidí so frightening to some people is filled with positive beliefs in the value of human evolution and its accomplishments and potential. Life lived on the basis of a demonstrable reality and a pride in our own developed wisdom and intelligence can be immensely more satisfying than one lived by faith in the undemonstrable and the irrational, counting on some pie-in-the-sky utopia after death. Division among peoples, alienation from our own natures, ignorance and superstition, the fear of vengeful gods and horrendous eternal fates, not to mention the scorning and neglect of the life and world we do know existóthese things are a huge price to pay for holding on to such wishful thinking, one lacking in any reasonable and scientific foundation.

As children, we are prey to many fears of the unknown and the uncomprehended. When we grow up, understanding helps us to abandon those fears. "Atheism" and the outlook it entails is one sign of that acquired maturity.

Robert writes:

   I have found your views entirely unconvincing. Although I am a Christian and have a certain bias, I am also well educated in history. I must note that much of this [my web site] reads as almost a text-book for how to write revisionist history. Attack the generally accepted theory, question the validity of the documentation contrary to your thesis, and reinterpret the meanings of the documentary evidence with incontrovertible validity. In my studies, I have usually found that the longer the re-interpretation takes to express, the more likely this new thesis is flawed. No doubt this is why your explanation of the "Gospel of Paul" is so lengthy. This is a fairly standard technique used by 20th century historians, yet very rarely with such vigor.
   What I raise particular objection to, however, is your online challenge of the authors listed in "The Case for Christ." Your critics rightly objected to your use of a "cross-examination" format in your discussion of these works. To defend yourself you issued this challenge, with the ridiculous expectation that these scholars automatically read your web site. Bruce Metzger is an old man, who I doubt (I could be wrong) goes web-surfing to see what kind of criticisms are out there regarding his works. This challenge to them is disingenuous and borderline insulting. If you cared to hear their views, contact them directly or possibly try to arrange a meeting with some or all of them.
   I do appreciate your providing an email address to voice criticism. As one who continues to seek the truth with as open a mind as possible, I hope you will do the same.

Response to Robert:

Historical Revisionism and Making Challenges

The term "historical revisionism" is often used with a derogatory meaning, as though the practice can only be dishonest (it was tainted by its misuse under communism). But Robertís description reveals it simply for what it is: revising history, advocating revision of traditional views. History undergoes revision all the time, especially of ancient and pre-historic periods. So do established dogmas and received wisdom, in any field of study. This is how evolution of the human intellect proceeds, how we gain greater understanding of the universe and our own development. We make progress in these areas precisely by Ďattackingí generally accepted theories, by questioning the validity of our past observations, our analysis of the documentary and archaeological record, and reinterpreting the meaning of that evidence. Without such things, weíd still be in the Stone Age.

I also question Robertís view that the longer a new theory takes to expound, the more likely it is to be false. Occamís Razor, often appealed to in this sort of context, is a principle more attractive in theory than in practice. Historical research, especially where the genesis and evolution of ideas and movements is concerned, has always shown that such things are complex rather than simple, multi-faceted rather than monolithic. The simplistic nature of traditional views of Christian origins, as reflected in literalist attitudes toward the Gospel story, almost guarantee that this simplicity is itself erroneous. When it is compared with the mythology of other religions, that guarantee is virtually assured.

Thus the "Gospel of Paul" (as Robert calls it) does indeed require a complex explanation, if only because the detritus from two millennia of misinterpreting the early Christian record must be cleared away. Then we need to apply an understanding of the philosophies and religious expressions of the time to show how Christianity grew out of those foundations. If this is "a fairly standard technique used by 20thcentury historians," it has some standing, and poses a threat only to those who have a personal interest in upholding the pre-revisionist state of affairs.

As for my critique of Lee Strobelís The Case for Christ, I have argued elsewhere (as have several supportive reviewers on that the format I adopted, styling the book as a courtroom cross-examination of Strobelís interviewed scholars, is a literary device, and as such is entirely legitimate, even if it might be unrealistic from a real-life point of view. Once again, their literalism has gotten the better of the literalists. Several negative reviewers on Amazon complained that my format in Challenging the Verdict gave Strobelís scholars no chance to respond. (As if any book could offer such a thing, regardless of the format.) Well, my "online challenge" was an honest attempt to offer them a forum in which they could respond to my Ďcross-examination,í although I quite realistically expected no takers, and have received none. (In view of that silence, I will be removing the offer before long.) Of course, those same reviewers have implied that paying any attention to my critique would be beneath such scholars and that in any case they would have no difficulty in "burying" my criticisms. Quite characteristically, these reviewers want it both ways.

While I donít expect someone like Bruce Metzger, or perhaps any of them, to be web surfers, I have no doubt that Challenging the Verdict, in both its website and book versions, has been called to the attention of several of Lee Strobelís interviewees, and no doubt of Lee Strobel himself. My name and book are currently mentioned in several reviews attached to The Case for Christ on Amazon. I know for a fact that Gregory Boyd was personally invited to respond, as was William Lane Craig to my book, The Jesus Puzzle. Both have remained silent. If any of them find as much fault with my format or the counter arguments I have put forward as people like Robert do, there is nothing to prevent them from answering my cross-examination. They can accept my offer of an unmoderated forum, or they can do so in their own forums. In this and other fields where controversy is present, it is quite reasonable to expect that responding to challenges against oneís views is done through publication, either in books or on the Net, as I myself have done. Robert is being disingenuous himself, as well as naïve, in suggesting that anything would come of trying to make personal contact with these scholars and inviting myself to some kind of meeting to discuss their views with them.

The only "insult" involved in this whole affair is the one to the reader, in Lee Strobelís claim to present a Ďscientificí and reasoned case for the complete reliability of the Gospel accounts and associated traditions, a "tough-minded quest for the truth," and for those non-evangelical scholars who have a reasonable claim to respect, such as Bruce Metzger, to have gone along with it.

Colin writes:

   I have a question about the observance of the Law. St. Paulís letters are quite clear about the Law. Jesus has abolished it by his death. Q seems less sure. It even says that Jesus hasnít come to abolish the Law...and whoever teaches anyone to disobey any commandment is condemned...not one jot or tittle shall pass from the Law until ALL is fulfilled.
   How could the Galilee Traditionís views on the Law be reconciled with those of the Jerusalem Tradition? Or is it all much more complicated?

Response to Colin:

Jesus and the Law

More complicated, yet basically much simpler. Letís first establish the fact that the first century period was one of concern for reform, on many fronts. Reforms to society and class differences, reforms to the Temple cult and its animal sacrifice, reforms to the relevance and applicability of the Mosaic Law, both among Jews and among gentiles attached to Judaism. All of it in a period rife with political unrest and apocalyptic expectation about the arrival of the Kingdom of God, expected shortly. Thus "observance of the Law" was an issue common to many groups and settings, and it is a mistake to assume that they were necessarily all connected.

Thus the concern over whether the Law should be retained, modified or discarded was one aspect of the Q communityís reform stance, as reflected in Matthew and to a lesser extent in Luke. Those Gospels (along with Mark), and the Q document they used, show a nitty-gritty attention to issues relating to the Law, such as the observance of the Sabbath, and the question of dietary rules and circumcision. When the Q document evolved over time to include a perceived historical founder and teacher, such teachings were attributed to that figure. The essence of the evolved Q was the anchoring of the communityís teachings and practices in an idealized founder, who at the same time was identified with the apocalyptic Son of Man the community preached and had originally expected only at the End-time.

When we turn to Paul, we also find a concern over the continued applicability of the Law, but there are essential differences from the Galilean teaching traditionóand no demonstrable connection between the two. They are different expressions of a common underlying focus in the first century. Paul shows none of the ambiguity of the Galilean Tradition. For him, the Law is chucked, pure and simple. With the arrival of "faith" (not of Christ himself: see Galatians 3:23-25) in the present time, the Lawís period of usefulness is over. His is a much more mystical approach. Christís death has abolished the Law, a death that has also reunified a sundered universe and brought Jew and gentile together. Colossians 2:15 has Christ (or God, depending on how one reads it grammatically) nailing the Law to the cross and triumphing over the evil spirit powers, a scene hardly envisioned as literal or taking place on earth.

Consider the fundamental differences between those two Traditions. Q has nothing to say about the death of Jesus, let alone the role of any such death in relation to the Law. (Q, in fact, gives no soteriological role to Jesus at all.) Paul has nothing to say about any teachings of Jesus on the critical question of the Lawís expiration, and his death scenario is never related to earthly history. These positions, these Traditions, are worlds apart, with nothing to connect them. If Qís attribution to a founding Jesus of teachings on the Law and its details, like circumcision and dietary laws or the applicability of the Law in general, had any basis in reality, it is impossible to consider that Paul would either be unaware of such things on a subject of so great importance to him, or that he would fail to address them. And if an extensive preaching movement (covering Galilee and Syria) like that seen in Q, spanning several decades in the first century, had been coexistent with the Pauline type of faith and both were dependent on the same historical figure, it is equally impossible that Q and its communities (also reflected in the Didache and the Gospel of Thomas) would show no knowledge of or interest in the death and reputed resurrection of its own native son and founder.

Gary writes:

   I came across your site some time ago and read many of your articles which are quite excellent. I find one of the most remarkable objections to the story of the great drama in Jerusalem to be Clementís praising the God-approved work of the high priest (and by implication all his successors!) down in Jerusalem [1 Clement 41] - as if the whole drama involving Jesus, Annas and Caiaphas had never happened. He even decrees that if anyone does anything "contrary" to the will of the high priest he should suffer the penalty of death.

Response to Gary:

1 Clement: A Blameless High Priest

This type of "silence" as observed by Gary is a good example of silences which are more than that. By expressing oneself in a manner like this, a writer betrays the absence of knowledge that we would have every right to expect should have been present in his mind and prevented him from expressing himself the way he does. Another good example is Paulís statement in Romans 13:3-4: "Rulers hold no terrors to those who do rightÖIf you wish not to fear the authorities, then do what is good and you will have their approval, for they are Godís agents working for your good." It is inconceivable that Paul could have made such a statement if he had any knowledge of an innocent Jesus who had been tried and executed by the Roman authorities with the connivance of the Jewish elders.

Joshua writes:

   I noticed that in roughly half of your interpretations of verses you used the New English Bible. In what little research of it Iíve done, it seems that Christians dislike the translation of it. Iím assuming because it didnít paint as good a picture as others. How would you defend the NEB as a "legitimate" translation of the New Testament?

Response to Joshua:

The New English Bible Translation

I donít know that I would defend any translation of the New Testament as entirely "legitimate." They are all guilty of transferring Gospel associations into the epistles, and that includes the New English Bible. The latter shows many blatant cases of this sort, such as in Hebrews 2:3, "For this deliverance was first announced through the lips of the Lord himself," where no reference to lips, or indeed to a Jesus on earth, is to be found in the Greek; or 1 John 4:21, where "And indeed this command comes to us from Christ himself" is gratuitous, since no attribution to Christ exists in the original, and only God appears in the preceding verses. But that is part of the NEBís attempt to render some of the more obscure passages in understandable language, and I find that it often gets to the meaning of such passages where other translations skim over them in more literal fashion.

John writes:

   I find your arguments to be quite compelling, rational, logical, in good order, well conceived - but lacking in real positive proof and clearly prejudiced because of your self-proclaimed atheism and critical attitude regarding Christianity. Your atheism, as I see it, is where you start with your inquiry before anything else. And that is interesting because Jesus has always been an interpreted figure in accordance to peopleís own prejudices - so it would make sense that to an atheist Jesus never existed at all. In other words, you are not being as "objective" as you claim. Rather, you take "negative evidence" ó meaning the silence regarding the historical figure in the epistles and particularly the letters of Paul ó and come to the conclusion that Jesus never walked the earth.
   The most "objective" statement that could be made regarding the historicity of Jesus is that we simply donít have enough evidence from the time Jesus was supposedly on earth to say. First Century Christianity was an obscure sect that began in a backwater region of the Roman Empire within an obscure Mediterranean religion. Paulís "stellar" Jesus can be seen as the product of a man with apocalyptic aspirations and visions who is looking forward to the coming kingdom and NOT backwards in some sentimental sort of way. Paul doesn't strike me as a sentimental sort of figure at all who would go looking for the place where "his Lord" died ó rather heís a man transformed or might even have been mentally unstable.

Response to John:

Bias in New Testament Research / Was Judea or Christianity "obscure"?

There is almost no one studying in this field who does not have some kind of Ďbiasí one way or another. The defender of Jesusí historicity is more often than not someone who has confessional interests at stake, and this has been the tradition in the field of New Testament studies, including academic circles. On the other hand, it is self-evident that only a "non-believer" could come to the conclusion that Jesus did not exist. "Atheism" is not a starting point, but a mindset which makes possible a confessionally unbiased investigation of the question. However, an atheist is quite capable of believing that Jesus existed (and many do), but not accepting that he was divine or that he had anything more than one manís message.

Consequently, the observer is left to evaluate the arguments made on both sides to come to his or her own conclusionóor rather, to decide on a balance of probability. In this field, we donít expect "proof" in the mathematical or laboratory science sense. It doesnít matter what my background is, or my personal belief stance. If my arguments are good and reflect the evidence, then Iíve achieved my purpose. Itís for the reader to decide, based (hopefully) on a neutral appraisal of the validity and force of those arguments, and backed by an investigation of the record oneself, to see if my presentation of the evidence is accurate.

In such a case, my being an atheist, or critical of religion because I am also a rationalist, should not have any bearing on the matter, and ideally should create no a priori prejudice against my arguments. The tone of Johnís letter suggests that it does, which may keep him from fully appreciating or properly evaluating the conclusions they have to offer.

My overall argument is based on much more than the simple "negative" silences in the bulk of the record. (Even negative silences can, in some circumstances, be very powerful; it is not true that there is never any force or validity to the argument from silence.) But many of those "silences" are also positive in nature, in that they describe the movement and the object of its worship in terms which allow no room or interpretation for an historical Jesus in recent history. Comparisons with contemporary philosophy and religious expression also play an important part, as do other aspects of the picture.

I also question Johnís evaluation of Christianity as an obscure sect in a backwater region of the Empire within an obscure Mediterranean religion. Judea stood at the most crucial crossroads of the Middle East and was in the spotlight for most of the first century; and the Jews were anything but obscure to the Romans, being present in every major city and province of the empire. They certainly came to the attention of Claudius in the 40s, leading to their expulsion en masse from Rome, (though for reasons that are obscure, since Suetoniusí oft-cited reference to Ďagitation under Chrestusí could have several interpretations). And if the Gospels and Acts accounts have any historical value at all, the movement could hardly have escaped the notice which the silence of the record gives it.

As for Johnís scenario surrounding Paul, it is not feasible, as I maintain that Paul could not base such a cosmic personal faith on any man, much less preach him around the empire, while ignoring every aspect of that manís identity, career and personality. In any case, the argument is moot, because it is more than Paul, it is every other non-Gospel writer of the first century who is similarly silent, and similarly describes the cultís Christ Jesus in those ways. It is not feasible to attribute Paulís alleged idiosyncrasies to a dozen different writers over three quarters of a century and across half the empire.

Bill writes:

   I was wondering how you were able to totally discount the shroud of Turin, the one with the picture portrait image of a perfectly proportioned young crucified man with the wounds as recorded in the gospels? How can you pretend that it is somebody else?

Response to Bill:

The Shroud of Turin

And Iím wondering how Bill can believe without question that the shroud of Turin is genuine in the face of all the scientific testing which indicates that itís a 13th century forgery. The depiction on the shroud is not "someone else." It was deliberately fabricated to represent itself as Jesusí burial shroud. Relics purporting to belong to Jesus, from pieces of the "true cross" to the spear that pierced his side to the plaque from the crucifixion beam, such things were created and often Ďunearthedí to inspire congregations and crusaders, to best neighboring communities in the enviable possession of the most valuable relics.

One of the most peculiar, and telling, aspects of the relic business is that it failed to begin before the 4th century. There is not a word in any Christian document of the first couple of hundred years about any artifact associated with Jesus.

Mark writes:

   I read your "case against" the authenticity of Jesus and found it utterly lacking and quite frankly pathetic. Youíve proven absolutely NOTHING and proof is all that is important when dealing from a purely historical perspective. Your arguments wouldnít hold up in a court of law. You have NO proof.
   Proof is needed, but you have NONE.
   Here I thought I would be reading some actual proof, but all I get is circumstantial hogwash and biased innuendo from a man with a clear-cut agenda. Yours is a tiresome propaganda piece not worth the paper itís printed on. "Well, I couldnít find Jesus mentioned in the writings of his lifetime and therefore he couldnít have existed" is your foundation. Have you seen all of the writings from Jesusí lifetime? No. Even the Roman leadership was unaware of Jesus until they were informed of his existence by the Jewish clergy of the day. Needless to say, the ancient Jews and followers of Jesus were well aware indeed. Judaism has never denied that Jesus was an actual man who walked the Earth! Moreover, if the existence of Jesus was truly a myth, Jewish scholars would have debunked the "myth" a long, long time ago, as they would have had every interest in doing so!
   Maybe you can do something more productive with your life. Then again, maybe you wonít.
   By the way, check out the laws created by atheists in the 20th century. Enough said. Approx. 100 million people were murdered by atheists (communists) in the 20th century as a result of subhuman laws created by atheists (forced labor camps, reeducation camps, mass executions of innocent people in China, the USSR, North Korea, Cambodia, imprisonment of religious people and political dissidents by the hundreds of millions, etc.). America better watch out for the rise of atheism in her midst, because the history of atheism has been one of bloodlust and tyranny. The same goes for the subhuman belief Social Darwinism.
   Itís people like you who make the world a worse place to live in.

Response to Mark:

Jesus and Darwin

This is an angry man. One defensive maneuver is to set up a standard of "proof" and declare that the opponent has not met it. I donít know what Markís standard of proof is, since he doesnít outline what he would require in order to be convinced. Clearly, I havenít met his conditions. Another maneuver is to attack the opposition personally (and also collectively), and of course Ióand non-believers in generalóget a lot of that.

His counter-arguments fail to convince me. One cannot postulate non-extant writings that could have said something about Jesus. Using that kind of argumentóand a surprising number of people try to do soóone could argue for the existence of anything. (Perhaps unicorns did exist; we just havenít found the historical documents that attest to them.) In reality, we can only go on the evidence we do have. It is also a non-starter to suggest that, while the Jews were aware of Jesusí existence, the Romans were not. Palestine was a hot spot all through the first century and a source of ongoing trouble to the Empire. The Roman presence in the area was substantial, and to think that such an occupying force could have been oblivious to a man who went about the country attracting huge crowds, performing miracles and preaching a message of societal upheaval about to take place, is ludicrous.

Jews and even Jewish scholars, from the second century on, have been in much the same position that Christians have been. The difficulty of determining that the Gospel story was in fact not history, or to interpret the true nature of early Christianity, is something that could not have been overcome until recent times and modern advances in biblical research. And until even more recently, one could sympathize with any Jewish scholarís unwillingness to investigate such an avenue and pronounce upon it.

The extent of Markís phobic fury is demonstrated by the trotting out of that overworked and hyperbolic accusation against the reputed atheists of the 20th century. I hope he is not implying that he thinks only one group of people have a monopoly on the capacity for evil. I donít need to document the sorry history of Christian religious wars and persecution, Inquisition and Crusade, slavery and the conquest of New World societies, racial prejudice and often murderous anti-Semitism, most of it based on biblical myths and justifications. But I should point out one important distinction in regard to Markís scenario. Stalin and Hitler (who never declared himself or his Nazism atheistic, and whose soldiers wore "Gott mit uns" on their uniforms), as well as other fascist dictators, did not kill and persecute in the name of atheism, but in the name of communism and other political ideologies. Theirs was not a fanaticism based on beliefs in one particular version of otherworld entities and theories of salvation. The same cannot be said for the religious side, whose evils were conducted in the name of religion.

As for "Social Darwinism," if Mark knew anything about this disreputable line of thought he would know that it has nothing to do with Darwin or evolution, and is simply a case of commandeering the name of a man who did more to reveal to the human race the true story of its genesis and nature than have all the holy books that the world has yet produced.

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