Friday, January 3, 2014

Addressing a Friendly Christian's Comment

I recently received a comment from Steve Jake, a Christian blogger who writes the aptly titled blog The Christian Agnostic, who responded to my previous screencap / response to an apologist which, in turn, I decided to screencap and respond to.

My response is as follows:

Steve, thanks for your comments. They are much appreciated. But I have a few questions and points that you may find worth considering.

When you say that Jesus was a real historical figure, what evidence would you be speaking of exactly?

You see, we have stories of about a Jesus in the Gospels but we also have stories about a Jesus in the Koran. And there are even tales of a Jesus as far south as India.

What is the evidence that constitutes that any *one of these is based off a real historical figure?

Citing the Bible disqualifies the evidence, not only because it would be circular, but because the Bible is untrustworthy when it comes to historical records of antiquity. It hints at certain key events which would be known to the general public, sure, but beyond that all the details seem to be demonstrably inaccurate.

Botched geography, an incorrect consensus date for a non-existing consensus told to have been issued by one ruler but actually issued by a different one from a different time period than mentioned. Solar eclipses that never happened. On and on the list goes.

Also, just because someone can point back to the fact that Jesus is attested in the Bible doesn't mean that *their Jesus is any more historically valid than any other. Just because a Muslim can say, hey, Jesus was this fellow in the Bible and since Christians believe he's the real deal, that's good enough for us--this doesn't make the Jesus of the Koran any more or less historical. 

Just because Christians *believe Jesus existed and there are stories of Jesus making a pilgrimage to India doesn't mean that because Hindus can claim that the Christian Jesus visited them toward the end of the first century that their tales are any less fabulous, does it? What about Joseph Smith's idea of Jesus visiting North America in the early 18th century? After all, if Jesus was a real historical figure *AND the genuine Son of God ... anything is possible, right?

So what of the Jesus of the Gospels? The Gospels are also stories, are they not? If not, and they are historical documents, why don't they read like other historical documents of the day? Why do they disagree on historical claims about Jesus? Why don't we know who the authors were? Why did they write in Coptic Greek and not Hebrew of Aramaic? On and on it goes.

Let me ask you this, do you think Jesus was a *real historical figure because he, according to Christians (only Christians, mind you), talked with other actual historical figures such as John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate? Both Robin Hood and King Arthur talked with real historical kings, does this make them more than mere legends? If so, how?

How does a person in a story talking to a known historical figure qualify that person as historical when there is absolutely no extemporaneous evidence for Jesus outside of Christian tradition?

How telling is it that there is relatively no assumption for a "historical" Jesus existing prior to the third and fourth century? And when it is required, for theological reasons, it points to the Christian tradition which presupposes it instead of, well, the historical facts about the man himself.

At least with Socrates we have mention of him in Xenophone and a handful of others who criticized him, so we have independent sources outside of Plato's narratives to suggest Socrates was probably real. At least, we have no reason to doubt it.

With Jesus, we have zero independent outside attestation of his existence, and all outside mention of him merely states that there were Christians that believed and worshiped such a figure, much as we have mention of that there were those cultists who believed and worshiped Dionysus. That doesn't tell us much than what others purportedly believed.

That doesn't prove Dionysus was a real historical figure as well, does it? And Odysseus fought at the War of Troy, which historians think may have been a real war, but that doesn't mean that Odysseus was a real historical figure, does it?

But, in addition to this obstacle of not having the evidence required to confirm any ties to genuine history, we do have many reasons to doubt the existence of Jesus beyond the historical unreliability of the New Testament texts.

One, his persona finds its place in an ancient document that is not written in the historical tradition of the time, but rather written in a literary form popular to those of that era.

More than this, it seems most of the Jesus stories are simply retellings--or reformulations--of many of the Old Testament patriarchs. So much so that they parallel each other in plot, structure, and form. A Midrashim of sorts.

Beyond this is the way in which the specific Gospel stories themselves are constructed. Where, for example, the Gospel of Mark makes use of reversals and mirrored events, a literary trick to make Jesus a stoic sage rather than a messianic figure, the Gospel of John on the other hand is acknowledged by many to likely be a Gnostic text, or at least have Gnostic influences, which is no small matter when you pause to realize that Gnostic Christians believed in a *Celestial Jesus, not a corporeal or historical one.

And all this is merely scratching the surface of the many *types of Jesus  archetypes we can find present in Christian tradition. To say they were all the same divine/historical figure is simply to conflate, combine, and formulate a Jesus based on the desire to harmonize all the discrepant versions of Jesus we already have. But that isn't being honest with the types of Jesus we can purse out of the texts, all the while noting their distinct differences and wishing for something more tangible than mere stories *about him.

There are many figures from antiquity who beat Jesus out in terms of the verity of their individiual historicity. Even Spartacus has more independent attestation, from various accounts, than Jesus does. My own example of Queen Cleopatra and the meticulous details to which here life and death were documented. You can name me practically any Greek philosopher from antiquity and we can probably say that these people were better attested than the Jesus of Christianity.

That's no slight problem, I think you'll find. At the end of the day, the claim that Jesus was a well attested figure just doesn't pass scrutiny. 

The problem, as I see it, is you have Christians who claim Jesus was real, and that he existed, but then cannot discern any real historical information for him that hasn't already been presupposed for him. So, in effect, you have Christians citing Christianity as the main reason they believe in the historicity of Jesus Christ. That is rather circular reasoning, wouldn't you agree?

And that's all the consensus of Biblical scholars have on Jesus. All they can point to is the tradition of taking for granted the dearth of evidence required to tie Jesus to history in the way we have come to expect of real historical figures.

And of course, when we don't have data for such figures, they typically go the way of legend and myth, because it's not pertinent to anyone's faith that they be quote, unquote, "historical" in the first place. Nobody loses anything, for example, if we find out tomorrow that Socrates really was just a made up character in Plato's dialogues. But Christians who need Christ as their spiritual redeemer risk to lose everything by admitting the same.

Which is why the search for the historical Jesus continues long after most rational people would have considered him among the likes of Robin Hood, King Arthur, or Odysseus. Christians are invested in making Jesus Christ real, even if he never was.

If not for this quirk, I am sure his legend would rest happily in the pages of antiquity, with no worry about whether or not he ever was real in the way Alexander the Great was real.

Of course, I could be wrong. But given what we know, I have to ask myself, what is the more likely scenario? That a virgin born God-child came to Earth, like so many before him, but for the strange occurrence that this one was somehow different ... for this one, unlike all the Osirises and Apolloniuses and Mythras, well, this one just so happened to be real. Or, that he is a legend like all the rest.

Like I said, I *could be wrong. But then that brings us back to my initial question, does it not?

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist