Apparently you can't do polls on here.... but

Do any of you think that Jesus actually existed? What do category do you fall into?

A. Believed he existed, claims are false

B. Believed he existed, claims are exaggerated

C. Don't believe he existed

D. Believe he existed, claims are true (sorry had to leave the idiot category open)

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Hi Jo,

Basically, what you have here is five maybe's. Ok, fine. I'll add another maybe: aliens came down from the sky, brainwashed all of Palestine with gamma rays. That's a possibility too.

The thing is, simply giving us possibilities doesn't cut it. What you need to do is provide evidence that this is a better explanation than the one I and other have been proposing. Without evidence, all you have is five giant maybe's to go along with all the rest of the worthless maybe's we can come up.

So I'll repeat my question. These are things that I think we can know about the historical Jesus almost certainly:
- he was born in Nazareth
- he was a faith healer and preacher (most likely an apocalyptic one)
- he caused a disturbance in the temple at Passover
- he was crucified as a rebel by the Romans
- he was baptised by John the Baptist
- he said at least some of the sayings recorded in the Q document
- he had a brother called James
This is a strong framework for a historical Jesus. If you agree with all these facts, then you believe in a historical Jesus. If you don't, then now is the time to actually challenge any of those; because they are well attested in the evidence, and the case that they are simply the result of an amalgamation quite simply relies on far more assumptions.
Break out the champagne - Matt and I agree on something! - How about we drop the suppositions, look at the evidence critically, estimate how much we can reasonably expect, and then compare to what we have?

And that has been my goal all along. Invite discussion. Compare and contrast. How did this person come to that conclusion and why was the other hypothesis dismissed? Keep the door of conventional wisdom open to critical inquiry instead of slamming it shut in the face of anyone who dares inquire.

I spent the day yesterday running this thread and my subsequent seed of a dissertation thesis past a few university professors. Part of it, the part that involves the mud wrestling that has dominated this thread has not to do with the topic itself, but how it's presented, who is presenting it, and the questions raised by that. Put this specific biblical Jesus vs historical Jesus issue on the back burner for a moment. In any field of science/research/study...

- A question is raised. (What does this ancient widget do?)
- Hypotheses get bounced around (It looks like it could do A, or B, or C. Or something we haven't thought of yet or that future discoveries could shed light on)
- Hypotheses become theories and get tested (A, B, and C are all plausible, but 'A' is looking to most of us like the most likely candidate)
- Theory A becomes the pack leader. (Yay! 3 cheers for theory A and all who helped develop it!)
- People sell their books and documentaries using awesome theory A as the current given.

Then comes the mudslinging bit...

- Amidst all the rock stars selling their books and reputations on the now given of theory A, someone in the back of the room says, "Hang on, theory A still isn't the only one that fits. Hypotheses B and C were kind of intriguing. Surely there's something to be learned from..."

- "Hogwash!" Say the rock stars, (who now have books and a reputation to defend). "How dare you bring up B and C when clearly everyone who matters (to us) agrees with us. Just look how many of us agree with each other (and seriously don't want to write a new book telling our adoring fans that someone other than us might have a valid point). "We have the truth and no one else does! Stop looking over there, look here, here I say! Here and nowhere else!"

The problem: To quote one of my professors from his lecture yesterday, "Conventional wisdom is a very powerful tool but it can also stunt our understanding." We get so hung up on popular theory A as the current given that we blind ourselves to the fact that there were, and still are, theories B and C which weren't as simple or elegant but were, are still very much within the realms of possibility. By refusing to keep our options open, we stunt ourselves.

Again quoting yesterday's professor, "The big breakthroughs usually starte out as someone's crackpot theory that challenged conventional wisdom. By coloring outside the lines once in a while."

Bringing it back to the presentation style found in this thread... I did spend day before yesterday slogging back through all 90 pages. I see a few folks here - Matt VDB being the very tall king of this mountain - who are very articulate, very charismatic, very passionate in their defense of conventional wisdom, have obviously put a great deal of study hours into the subject. Matt, I really wish you would come to the states and go to work for the Democratic party, for they are in dire need of a good pitchman.

But I also, in all that passion from Matt, only found one paraphrased quote from a source (but no chapter/page number) and one book recommendation (no chapter/page, just this-is-a-good-book). And the quote didn't really have to do with the evidence but ironically was a warning not to get so rigid in our thinking that we start rewriting history to the exclusion of other possible avenues.

Granted, I give only a few links/citations myself. Because most of my arguments are not that the evidence we have doesn't exist, but that it isn't conclusive. Where's the connection between X and Y? What is the basis of the altruism of this emperor or that preacher when, by their very nature, emperors and preachers have a reputation for spinning the story to further their own agenda, even unconsciously so? We have seen in our own time how a talking head like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin can completely skew the hardest, most fact-checkable facts trusting that their adoring fans would rather believe them than the facts. What exactly makes us think that talking heads in 1st century CE were any less good at or capable of this?

The answers Matt and a few others here have given me is a whole lot of because-the-rock-star-scholars-say-so. Because we have the truth and no one else does. Not one single book-edition-chapter-page number where that rock-star scholar gives us the rock-solid proof that x+y=z. That and a whole lot of insults. How silly of you to ask little girl. The notion that a preacher might have a personal agenda? That a religious zealot could mix up the facts in the midst of their zeal? Why it's as silly a notion as saying space aliens did it! Run away and play with your other uneducated friends.

Sorry Matt et al, but all the ego, insults and name-dropping in the world still hasn't convinced me that the notion of a preacher spinning the story to make it pop better to his audience is so far fetched. Or that the notion of a storyteller getting some part of the story wrong is so hard to believe. That Glenn Beck can get away with this shite in the information age, but Paul and whomever told the story to him, and whomever told the story to that person, and whomever told the story to that person, can't.

+++++++++

So to that end. I still maintain that yes, the name 'Jesus' in the canon (and non-canon) scriptures almost certainly traces back to a real, flesh-and-blood Jesus somewhere back in history. And I also maintain that the vulnerability of canon scripture to distortion, spin and embellishment is so great that we do ourselves a gross disservice to maintain that real, flesh-and-blood inspiration can absolutely, therefore be found in the sayings, deeds, and message of the canon bible.

In other words, when people ask the question, "Is there a historical Jesus upon whom the canon bible is based?" Yes, most likely. But that doesn't prove what if anything beyond the name itself has survived the wash-rinse-repeat spin cycle. Something might have, but it's misleading to assume we can know if or what that something-that-survived is. It gives Theists (and Atheists) the thumbs up to reconstruct 'historical Jesus' in their own preferred image. If one is looking for historical Jesus in terms of originator of this passage or that parable, Paul is a better candidate for historical Jesus than historical Jesus is.

Or not.

The avenues of inquiry are, and should remain, open for interpretation.
Oops, sorry - meant to put Matt's quote in italics: How about we drop the suppositions, look at the evidence critically, estimate how much we can reasonably expect, and then compare to what we have?
Hi Jo,

I appreciate the change of tone.
Obviously I agree with most of the first part of the post, considering the methodology of science and the epistemological points you bring up. That said, I sort of resent the idea that you imply that the idea that Jesus existed is "conventional wisdom". That's certainly true for the general public, but not for scholars. As I think I pointed out before, the historicity of Jesus was seriously challenged. In the nineteenth century, the beginning of serious Biblical analysis. At a certain point, Mythicism was very much in vogue among secular scholars (like Bauer and Strauss, or Renan - the original source behind the Mithraism-Christianity parallels).
Any serious scholar who has teached or read about the history of Biblical analysis, is aware of these discussions, the arguments that were proposed, and the reasons why they were unconvincing. So the half serious comparison between current scholarship and the "rock stars" who are dismissive of other views, really doesn't work (even though I know you were only half serious): I can assure you that every Biblical scholar knows everything I do about this subject, and much more.
Yet they still find it unconvincing (except for a few, like Robert Price) and merrily go on using critical analysis to try to find things we can know about the historical Jesus. And it's not because of tradition or anything either: tradition often gets overthrown in Biblical analysis. Yet the rejection of Jesus Mythicism isn't...
So I'm sorry, but you will have to deal with the fact that the people with most knowledge about this subject, line up almost uniformly on the side of the historical framework that I've outlined.

As for my lack of citations, I'm happy to give sources and such if you wish (though I won't be sitting here typing over entire books of - say - Vermes); the reason that I haven't done so yet is because - as you say - that's usually not the way public forums work. I haven't seen any post on this forum that contained footnotes or detailed references to the scholarly literature on any subject. What usually happens is, someone proposes something (for example the so-called parallels between Osiris and Jesus), then I come in and explain why that idea doesn't work and why the parallels are unconvincing and how the stories of Osiris have perhaps been misrepresented. Now, I don't give sources for the real stories about Osiris (even though I could) simply because we're on a forum. But if someone were to challenge me on that, I'd happily give sources for it. It's just that people have usually figured out that I know what I'm talking about by then ;)

Anyway, cosy stuff aside, it seems to me that we need to zero in on specific aspects of the discussion. So let's return to a post you made yesterday:

"The largest religion on Earth claims its god walked on Earth as a man, yet there is a glaring, conspicuous lack of evidence for this founder outside the religion's texts themselves. Save for vague passing references that came after the cult began and could just as easily have been parroting popular opinion. Sounds like a claim worth investigating to me."

As I said, this is a statement worth investigating indeed (and one that hasn't been touched on yet). This is obviously a central thesis of the Myther thesis: that there is not enough extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus, apart from the controversial mentions in Josephus and Tacitus. I don't actually think it matters because I would be willing (and I think able) to make a case for a historical Jesus just from the gospels themselves. But extra-Biblical attestations are still very powerful evidence, so I propose we investigate their validity.
The paragraph above is only small and so I have to read into it and see if I can guess your position, but I'm assuming that it's pretty much the same as I've read elsewhere. Basically it comes down to three parts:
(i) From the statement "there is a conspicuous lack of evidence for the founder", I deduce that you think that even if the passages in Tacitus and Josephus were genuine, we should expect more than that. Right now, you find the availabe evidence "conspicuous"
(ii) Josephus and Tacitus could have been parroting public opinion (i.e. they are not be trusted as reliable attestations of Jesus)
(iii) you imply that we only get references "after the cult began" implying that you want contemporary evidence for the evidence to be compelling enough

So: not enough evidence, not contemporary, and probably/likely based on public opinion. Would that be fair summation of your position on Tacitus and Josephus? I know I'm reading into it rather heavily, but I have secret pyshic powers so I think that I'm close.
I don't spend my time trying to prove or disprove the existence of a human Jesus as the inspiration behind Christianity. It is very unlikely that any new material will turn up, proving or disproving his existence. The available material is very well studied and remains inconclusive. The only thing achieved by trying to prove the existence of a real Jesus is to rationalize an otherwise irrational story. As an anti-theist atheist, I find highlighting the irrational basis of the Jesus story more useful in debunking Christianity, rather than arguing with theists on their terms.
The only thing achieved by trying to prove the existence of a real Jesus is to rationalize an otherwise irrational story. As an anti-theist atheist, I find highlighting the irrational basis of the Jesus story more useful in debunking Christianity, rather than arguing with theists on their terms.

Extremely well put and my 'crusade' exactly. I think however I need to work on the arguing-with-theists-on-their-terms bit. ;-)
It's no less rational than the Bar Kochba story, which no historian rejects. And the sources are far more reliable than Diana's historian du jour Berossus, none of whose work we even have, except for citations from second and third hand sources in Eusebius and Josephus via Polyhistor or Posidonius. You seem to pick what you want to believe rather than what the sources bear out.
You seem to pick what you want to believe rather than what the sources bear out.

No, what I have here in front of me are two voices on the internet who present themselves as well-versed on the subject.

One of those voices openly states that hers is a minority opinion and one hypothesis of many, but a solid one, and has addressed civil comments with a fair amount of civility (key phrase: "civil comments").

The other voice presents a hypothesis as proven fact, dismissing questions about the altruism and accuracy of religious fanatics writing scripture, which as an Atheist, I am instantly skeptical of. He has shown either an inability or unwillingness to comprehend a simple forum post and respond to the post specifically, causing me to wonder what else he is unable or unwilling to comprehend. He has also expressed that only a historian can contribute anything of value to a historical topic; that people in other fields such as psychology or evolutionary biology can not contribute to the discussion. This too makes me skeptical of the voice.

As I have time between other studies and life duties, I'll continue to read up on all sides of the debate. But all things being equal, the civil, open-door, I-encourage-you-to-look-at-all-sides approach fills me with a lot more confidence than the bullying, closed-door, don't-you-dare-read-anyone-but-these-few-scholars approach.
Hi Diana,

"The available material is very well studied and remains inconclusive."

Sorry, but considering that the evidence we have for Jesus is better than the kind we have for most other preachers of the time (like the Egyptian Prophet), the material is no more inconclusive than it is for any of those other preachers: in other words, anyone without an axe to grind is happy to accept their existence.

"The only thing achieved by trying to prove the existence of a real Jesus is to rationalize an otherwise irrational story."

That might be true, but it's not what's going on here, is it? What's happening here is that many people come in here maintaining that there's enough evidence to conclude that Jesus didn't exist. That's an untenable position and one that atheists shouldn't keep.

"As an anti-theist atheist, I find highlighting the irrational basis of the Jesus story more useful in debunking Christianity, rather than arguing with theists on their terms."

Same here; and I'm sure you would agree that that's more than enough to debunk Christianity. Yet for some reason many remain ardently convinced that they have to disprove the existence of Jesus before they can be satisfied, even if that means embracing crappy scholarship.
C. There were a ton of wannabe Messiahs at the time, many being mentioned somewhere by historians alive at that exact time period. Jesus receives no mention at all. Causes trouble in the temple, said to be healing the sick, bringing people back to life, yet no mention of this anywhere. It's not the first time people created a new cult based on myths said to have happened a decade or so earlier.

As for the comment I read about the Talmud mentioning him, the first part of it, the "Mishnah," was written in 200 CE. People believed in myths rather easily back then. A lot of people today still do, even against modern science. We've gone to the moon, we have internet, and we can use DNA to put someone at the scene of the crime. But I guess that's just not as good as having an old book saying stuff is true.
It's not the first time people created a new cult based on myths said to have happened a decade or so earlier.

Speaking of which, I want you all to join my fabulous new religion. It's all based on the teachings of a farmer named Bob who lived in Greeley Colorado a decade ago. If anyone from Greeley tries to tell you there was no Bob living there, don't believe them. They're just jealous because they're still practicing the old, less awesome religion. Ask the people in Greeley who are practicing our new awesome religion; they'll be proud to claim that Bob came from their very own little burg, putting it squarely on the map.

;-)
I don't believe that Bob performed any miracles. But, there were some other guys named Robert who remind me of Bob's story. I think the real Bob was Robert Jones from Boulder. Can you prove that Bob was not Robert?

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