Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Responding to Trent Horn’s “Four Reasons Why I Believe in Jesus”

In his recent article “Four Reasons I Think Jesus Really Existed,” the American theologian/apologist Trent Horn listed four reasons why he believes in Jesus in response to the mythicist movement which claims Jesus never existed. He also proudly made mention of the fact that these four reasons needn’t rely on the Gospel account for their defense. Well, we should hope not, since that would merely make his defense predicated on the logical fallacy of circular reasoning. 

His four evidences are: 4. It is the mainstream position in academia [that there was a historical Jesus]; 3. Jesus’ existence is confirmed by extra-Biblical sources; 2. The Early Church Fathers don’t describe the mythicist heresy; 1. St. Paul knew the disciples of Jesus.

I will address all four points as briefly as possible.

Regarding #4.

It is the mainstream position of most Biblical scholars. But since most Biblical scholars are Christian anyway, there is no big surprise here. But I think it is as the mythicist Robert M. Price, a man with not one—but two—PhDs in religion (theology and NT criticism), answered this very question in his book The Crhist-Myth Theory and Its Problems, when he stated, “"If we appeal instead to "received opinion" or "the consensus {30} of scholars," we are merely abdicating our own responsibility, as well as committing the fallacy of Appeal to the Majority."

Also, the appeal to authority isn’t in itself a proof for the existence of the historical Jesus. It is merely that, an appeal to authority. And the authority can still be mistaken, which is why Price’s warning that we should perhaps reconsider a position that has been widely held exclusively by people who were already predisposed to hold such a position to begin with, isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Regarding #3.
Actually, no it’s not.

I’ve written in detail on this subject, so I won’t rehash everything. But briefly. We have nothing written about Jesus by anyone who knew him while he was alive. All the Gospels are pseudepigrapha, meaning that they were falsely attributed to authors who didn’t actually know the historical Jesus, should he have existed. Moreover, the authors get basic historical details wrong: e.g., Luke’s incorrect census information, for starters, different authors giving Pontius Pilate different titles, oops!, different and discrepant endings to the same story, not at all fiction, wildly different accounts of the resurrection event, did I read that right... zombies? 

Not only this, but there is a basic lack of geographical information, so much so that it is clear that the authors were not familiar with the geography of the region. The times it takes from any of the NT characters to go anywhere happens practically overnight. Sepphoris isn’t even mentioned even though Jesus would have had to pass through the capitol every time he went home to Galilee, or to Jericho, and back to Jerusalem again. Speaking of missing towns, there isn’t any archaeological evidence that Nazareth even existed in Jesus’ day (see Rene Salm’s work: The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus).

The only possible near *contemporary authors who could have written about Jesus were Josephus Flavius, Philo of Alexandria, and Tacitus. Philo makes no mention of Jesus. None. At all.

Josephus’ comments about Christians is primarily in regard to their beliefs in a messiah, and mentions as much in his Antiquities. The problem is, however, the part that mentions Jesus Christ is a demonstrable interpolation.

A brief comment on why modern historians tend to discount the reference to Jesus Christ in Josephus. Two things to keep in mind:

1) Josephus was a Jewish historian writing in the first century (circa 37-70 C.E.), and so he would have never referred to an Ascetic Jewish Prophet who had died leaving prophecy unfulfilled as the Messiah, let alone a *divine prophet, and so he could not have referred to Jesus as the Christ. No orthodox Jew of antiquity believed Jesus was the chosen messiah, nor would any Jew have considered Christ to be divine—in any sense of the word—since the Jews continued to hold the covenant with Yahweh believing him to be the one true God. As such, Josephus would *not have called the Jewish messiah by the Greek "Christos." As Christ's divinity would have been seen as blasphemous to any first century Jew—but not to later Christians—it's a strong bet that this Christos business is a later Christian theological consideration. Josephus' utilization of the Greek “Christos” and not the Hebrew "messiah," at the time of his writing, seems to be out of place, and thus a likely denotes a later addition.

But the biggest give away is the second fact:

2) The earliest Christian writers, such as Origen and Justin the Martyr, frequently quote Josephus but often quote from an earlier version which lacks any reference to Jesus being the Christ. And since their account of Josephus is from an earlier source than the one modern Christian apologists love to quote mine from, we can reasonably be sure that the later addition of Jesus being referred to as the Christ, at the very least, suggests a Christian forgery from no earlier than the third century.

So what can we make of these facts?

Well, we can say that in the 1st century of the common era there were Christians who believed in a man named Jesus which they deemed the Christ. But all the evidence is the same in that it's all merely accounts of what Christians believed, not actual hard evidence for the historical Jesus.

It’s strange that Trent Horn ignores other possible extrabiblical evidences such as Tacitus’ comments about Christian belief in a messiah and the Babylonian Talmud, but he may simply be unaware of these examples. Even so, I’ve critiqued them elsewhere and offered sound explanation why they are untrustworthy as evidence (which you can read about here).

Regarding #2.
Basically Trent Horn dismisses all Christian heresies as false, because the Church deemed them false long ago. But TH might want to look up the meaning of heresy. It literally translates to: a difference of opinion. Never mind that the supposed heresies which were stamped out were by an Orthodox Church which came two-hundred years after the facts. Bart D. Erhman has a good book entitled Lost Christianites, and one of the things he points out is that early Christian beliefs were quite varied. There was no such thing as a “Christian heresy” in the first century of Palestine, because no orthodox Christianity had been established yet. Gnostic Christian beliefs were equal to that of Pauline Christian beliefs. It is only after a long series of events that Pauline Christianity wins the favor of the majority, and so the alternative Christian beliefs recede as they grow less influential over time. But that doesn’t mean they were in anyway “false” beliefs. They were held as equally viable as any other form of Christianity.

But I can see why TH would be quick to dismiss competing views which go against his orthodox views. Because they add the challenge of him having to defend his views against so-called “heresies” minus any evidence to prove his beliefs more or less accurate—and when it comes to the question of the historicity of Jesus—this poses a big problem. This is the real gist behind the Mythicist argument. We’re not saying that anyone view of Jesus is correct, we are merely saying that no one view can be validated, and as such, belief in one over another is simply a confirmation bias invoked by the fact that most today’s Christians adhere to the orthodox view of Christianity without ever questioning it. When confronted with the challenge to question these beliefs, many, like Trent Horn, simply dismiss them since, after all, they’re just heretical views and so don’t count.

Regarding #1.
Trent’s last argument for the existence of Jesus is that most scholars, including secular ones, agree that Paul was a real person. Since we have Paul’s letters which attest to the existence of Jesus, and the disciples, then how could we possibly be in doubt?

Well, many of Paul’s Epistles are forged. Bart D. Ehrman writes in depth on this fact in his book Forged. After all is said and done, however, very little relates back to the historical Jesus and his disciples. In fact, other than a meeting with James and Peter, there is literally nothing in Paul’s writing that attests to a historical Jesus. In fact, it does just the opposite. Paul speaks of an apparition, a visage, of Jesus which he experiences in a vivid waking dream on the road to Damascus. Such visions are not usually considered valid evidence for encounters with real historical figures of antiquity, and well, this is basically all Paul has to offer us.

Other obvious questions, like why James (the supposed brother of Jesus) never considered Jesus divine is ignored.  It’s only important to TH that Paul met James. Never mind that James the Just is a much more complicated historical figure than most Christians even realize. 

Now, if you want to know more about why the Gospel Jesus likely didn’t exist, then you might want to read my article “Literary Jesus: Ten Reasons that Show the Gospels to be Works of Fiction.”

If you’re up for some heavier ended scholarship, then you may like to read Robert M. Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man and Deconstructing Jesus, Gospel Fictions by Randal Helms, The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty, and Not the Impossible Faith by Richard Carrier. Although not an exhaustive sample of competing views, they are a good place to start if you want to begin considering the critical position with regard to the popular consensus in academia. I for one think it’s well worth your consideration.  

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist