I had a nice long into-the-wee-hours chat this week with my brother, who brought his family to my house for a visit. This is my Adventist pastor brother, and the only relative with whom I discuss my atheism. We had the talk at my request--partly for the thrill of debate (I admit I hoped I could give him a few things to think about), but also because I was curious about his thoughts on some matters, as he's a very interesting Christian to speak with.

 

The reason he's so interesting is because he is so well-studied. It seems that many Christians I have a chance to talk with are Christians in name alone, or at best believe with all their hearts for flimsy reasons. My brother, though, has spent years evaluating his beliefs on a literary as well as spiritual level. He's written articles, published a book, obtained a master's in theology, spent the last ten years preaching, etc.

 

We discussed lots of topics (morality, evolution, evil, and so on) but one of the issues that stuck out for me was his belief on the historicity of Jesus Christ. Over the course of the conversation it became clear that the existence of Jesus, as written in historical documents, is a major player in my brother's worldview--specifically writings on Jesus's life, death, and resurrection.

 

I understand that no serious historian doubts that Jesus existed. That much is fairly certain. But according to my brother there are many manuscripts from many areas of the world whose facts and stories all match, all hold up to scrutiny, all telling the story of Christ. He further mentioned that certain prominent atheist authors hardly ever address this issue, dismissing miracle stories as impossible and therefore not up for consideration. He also argued that the-Bible-as-Judeo-Christian-propaganda is an unsound theory, owing to the fact that so much negative press is included in the story (if the writers were looking to convince readers, he said, why would they include all the example of Jewish failure?)

 

I was wondering if anybody has studied about the claim of a historical Christ. I'm curious as to what documents my brother's referring to--their accuracy and reputability among historians. I wonder if there are any unbiased Biblical scholars who have written about this (. . . and if unbiased Biblical scholars even exist). There's a big long Wikipedia article on the subject, but perhaps some of you have thoughts about it.

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"[We have] many manuscripts from many areas of the world whose facts and stories all match, all hold up to scrutiny, all telling the story of Christ" is a common assertion among hardcore SDAs that I have never seen verified. Ask for specific primary sources. Then ask for primary sources that are not the bible.

I have yet to hear of anything mentioning Jesus from earlier than 100+ years after the crucifixion besides the New Testament. Given life spans at the time, that means they were all written by grand or great grandchildren of people who were alive at the time. The best I usually get is a mention of the Dead Sea Scrolls which are a nonsequitur because they don't mention anything related to Jesus. Historical events that somewhat match biblical accounts don't elevate the veracity of the bible beyond "historical fiction"--like the "We Were There" books I read as a kid.

My guess is that there probably was an influential rabbi from Galilee named Jesus who was crucified, but most of the amazing stories are exaggerated or made up entirely.

Full disclosure: I lost most interest in pursuing this when I realized that Jesus' story isn't really important at all unless you first believe in the supernatural. I don't believe in the supernatural. We may not understand physics perfectly yet, but I think current knowledge is approaches very close to the asymptote of truth. The physics we have don't allow for any of the stories to have really unfolded as written outside of tricks/amazing slight of hand. Getting pulled into a debate on Jesus distracts from this more fundamental point, and psychologically tends to grant the opposite as an assumption. :/
I agree with Ben's reply. I've heard your brother's viewpoint from those who are "well read" Christians
(Evangelicals who know their bibles and have studied apologetics). It sounds like Lee Stroble's approach ("The Case for Christ").

I would recommend agnostic author and new testament scholar, Bart Ehrman ("Jesus Interrupted").

It sounds like your brother has fallen into the common trap of only reading that which confirms your biases. I can't blame him, I did the same when I was a believer and when I wanted to be a believer.

Ehrman is a prime example of a serious Biblical scholar who ascribes to the Jesus Myth Hypotheses. Other examples are Robert Price, Richard Carrier, and Hector Avalos.

I've written about it on my blog, but I did little more than a cursoury overview of the prime evidence that there was no historical Jesus, you can find those posts here, here, here, here, and here as well as a list of resources on the topic including quite a few books.

For a real brief summary, the earliest texts from the New Testament (at least the illegitimate portions) were written by Paul who seems to know nothing about Jesus prior to his crucifixion. The gospels were written much later in a style that best follows various cultural mythologies (Mathew using Midrash and Mark following the plot outline of the Illiad), the geography mentioned fits with the time they were written but not with the time they wrote about, and none of the authors claim to be eyewitnesses. Many of the events in the gospels are the kinds of things that secular histories would have included, but none did. Finally, the gospels contain nothing unique. Every miraculous event was already ascribed to some other deity in the general vicinity of Palestine by the time the gospels were written. 

In short there is absolutely no evidence to think that Jesus was any more historical than Mythras or Osiris. 

Dustin had a good list that have fairly balanced views on the subject.  There are a subset of atheists that get worked up about the existence of Jesus and will pounce on anybody who suggests that he existed.  Maybe he existed, maybe he didn't.  I suspect that there was a person or group of people that were the inspiration for the Jesus myth. 

 

I was curious about something that I had heard.  The town, Nazereth, actually may not have existed during the time that Jesus supposedly lived.  I haven't been able to chase down details and it is very difficult since most of the "archeological findings" are so biased, it is hard to take it seriously.  You pretty much have to throw out everything written by a Christian author.

Rene Salm's review of the available data from Nazareth shows that it wasn't inhabited until around 50 CE, so a little too late. As far as the general geography in the gospels go, the major cities of the region from 70 - 100 CE are mentioned, but the major cities of 1 - 40 CE go without mention.

One severly limiting factor is that from about 300 - 1500 CE any manuscripts that went against the canonical account were destroyed by the church.

I have heard of Rene's book.  I heard an interesting interview of him, I think by Robert Price.  Some of the things said about him remind me of cranks like Velikovsky or that guy who claimed he find the tomb of Jesus.  I will have to read his book to see if his case is actually stronger than reported by others who have read it.  Are there any mainstream scholars that would agree with his methods and conclusion?  I realize they are hard to find because people working in that field are apologists more than scholars. 

I haven't read his book yet, like you I just heard an interview of him. In my case it was on Chariots of Iron. I would like to pick it up and check it out, of course my training in Archaeology was based on using it as a tool for apologetics.
A FB friend was preparing for a sermon he is preaching on Jesus and the resurrection.  He made the statement that there was tons of documentation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  In the comments he was challenged on this (by the last person I would suspect.)  So the next updates were various people and quotes.  My friend was smart enough to not include Josephus (known to be a later addition)  but it was an interesting list.  Thallus talks about a period of darkness and earthquakes in Judea.  But his none of his writings survive and the reference is actually a quote of a quote of a quote.  The rest of them were mostly discussions of early Christians and their beliefs, including some Jewish Rabbi. 
I've found that the Adventist pastors I've talked to seem to rely on the writings of Josephus to support claims of the existence of Jesus. Josephus was a Jewish/Roman historian of the 1st century who was born after Jesus supposedly died. However, claims that he wrote some of the earliest documentation about Jesus, the gospel, and the early church is difficult to verify and is disputed by other historians - it seems just about as hard to pin down as the actual authorship of the books of the New Testament. In other words, nobody seems to be able to conclusively prove the existence of Jesus through objective third-party writings. My own humble opinion is that Jesus, if he did exist, was a political activist and cult figure who may have caused a stir with radical religious or political ideas but died in the end just like everybody else.
Scholars, including my theology professors at Walla Walla, are almost unanimous in the opinion that the Testimonium Flavianum is an interpolation (later addition). It doesn't flow with the passage it's found in and the writing style is not consistent with Josephus.

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