Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Response to John Loftus Historical Jesus Blog

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'm going to quote John directly so that the reader will not have to continually refer back to his blog, but I encourage you to read his whole post before continuing on with my response.

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.

Before continuing, I should point out that the Burden of Proof is always on the positive claimant.  This is not just in history, but in everything involving the acquisition of knowledge.  It is so fundamental, in fact, that if we attempt to overturn the Burden of Proof, the necessary and inevitable result is incomprehensible nonsense and paradox.

Where a lot of people seem to get confused is in the identification of positive claims.  Many atheists claim to be "weak atheists."  That is, they see no evidence for a god, so they don't believe.  This is not, in an epistemological sense, a positive claim.  It is the absence of a positive claim.  

Think for a second about a globelrafk.  Do you believe in it?  Unless I have inadvertently made up an existing word, you do not, for you have no idea what a globelrafk might be.  Technically speaking, you are an aglobelrafkist, since you do not make the positive claim that globelrafks exist.  Through complete ignorance, you simply do not make a claim either way.

For all the potential gods we've never heard of, we are similarly atheists.  For the Christian god, or Allah, it becomes more problematic to say that we're simply not making a positive claim.  We've been presented with the evidence and rejected it.  Most atheists are not blank slates that simply have no thought of god(s).  They consistently reject specific god claims.  What we must bear in mind, however, is that in terms of the burden of proof, we are simply rejecting insufficient evidence.  We are responding to a positive claim by saying, "I'm sorry.  You have not met the burden of proof."

This can get very tedious, since the claim "You have not met the burden of proof" is a positive claim, and is subject to the same kind of scrutiny.  Even so, it's important to note that this chain of proof eventually stops somewhere, and that is the initial claim.  That is, we can argue all day about the burden of proof being met or not met, but all of those arguments hinge on the initial claim -- in the case of atheists, the claim that a god exists.  The reason I mentioned globelrafks is to illustrate the point that without an initial positive claim, the default position is disbelief.

With all that in mind, we must realize that the claim that Jesus existed is the positive claim.  We do not begin by claiming all that does not exist.  Though it certainly feels like a lot of historical figures are taken for granted as existing, from an epistemological position, the evidence is simply so overwhelming that it never occured to anyone to bother making the positive claim.

Obviously, with Jesus, this is not so because many people do question the positive claim of his existence.  The fact that there is not a consensus means that the positive claim of his existence is perceived by a great many people as not having met the burden of proof.

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)

Strictly speaking, no historical study can "prove" that anybody did or did not exist.  It's always an inductive conclusion based on the weight of the evidence.  History is more nebulous than physics because there are no immutable natural laws of historicity.

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.

The gospel hardly counts as a historical document by any stretch of the imagination.  It is riddled with magic, deities, demons, and clearly fictional events.  Many of the themes are clearly metaphorical, or would be if not for the presumption of Jesus historicity.  Twelve apostles?  Twelve tribes of Isreal?  Coincidence?  I think not.  The notion of a dying and resurrected savior was clearly not new, and recently Hellenized Jews (at least those capable of writing the first gospel) would surely have been aware of previous models from both Jewish and Classical mythology.  It is an ad hoc rationalization to suppose that the gospel was meant as anything other than a fictional story.

Paul was a cunning man who clearly enjoyed being the center of attention.  We have it from his own pen that he spent most of his time after his conversion preaching.  Let's not kid ourselves about this.  Paul's testimony fails on two levels.  First, he never claims to have met Jesus.  He had a vision.  Exactly how trustworthy are the thousands of preachers who claim to have had personal contact with Jesus in the 21st century?  I'm sorry, but just because Paul was removed from Jesus alleged existence by a couple of decades (give or take a few years, depending on your beliefs) his proclamations are no less suspect.

The fact is, our only sources that fall anywhere within the reasonable bounds of "contemporary" to Jesus are highly unreliable and certainly fail the test of motives for honesty.

Strike one against the burden of proof.

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.

Furthermore, why is Jesus the most likely candidate for starting the Jesus cult when we have the words of Paul himself stating that he was responsible for spreading the word to so many places?  Not only that, we have a good psychological profile of Paul from his own words.  He was a driven and charismatic man who thrived on being the center of attention.  This sounds an awful lot like the kind of man who could run with a fledgling religion and make it his own.  To the claim of persecuted Christians in first century Palestine, this is all well and good, but if Paul is being honest, (that's a big "if") this is evidence that there were people in first century Palestine who were following a new religion -- not evidence that the figure in the gospel was the originator of the religion.

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.

I'd like to point you to my official statement on Jesus' Historicity in this very blog.  In THIS POST, I explain why I believe that though it's certainly possible that there was some figure in history that served as inspiration for the Jesus myth, there's no compelling evidence to suggest that this figure in any way resembles the figure in the Gospel or Paul's epistles.

I disagree that there must certainly have been a single apocalyptic preacher who got himself killed.  There were tons of mystery cults floating around in first century Palestine, and there's no particular reason to believe that Christianity either did or did not revolve around a significant historical Jesus.

It may not feel particularly satisfying, but the correct position with regard to the existence of a man whose life closely resembled the gospel in any meaningful way is a shrug of the shoulders.  There simply isn't enough evidence.

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