Monday, November 3, 2008

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.

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