Archive for the ‘Critical Thinking’ category

The Great “Did Jesus Exist” Challenge, part 2

March 25, 2012

part 1


Well … Bart’s comments on the historicity of the gospels strikes me as a bit strange. He says outright that the only reason that some people don’t consider the gospels to be historical is because they are “in the Bible”. Really. “.. the Gospels of the New Testament are separated from all other pieces of historical evidence and given a different kind of treatment because they happen to be found in the Bible”. And, with this statement he immediately pegs his opponents as reactionary wackos without actually discussing their arguments. As far as I’ve ever seen, the gospels aren’t considered history because they are the miracle filled story of god walking around on earth. And nobody seems to reject the Epistles as being historical documents, even though they are in the Bible, since the, you know, the central characters are human beings. So, the accusation doesn’t really seem to hold up. Bart’s stance on this almost seems to be a hold over from fundamentalism (that atheists just reject “the Bible” and have no real reason to not believe in gods).

How to interpret the gospels seems to be a key aspects of the Christ Myth theory, from what I’ve seen. And Bart doesn’t even really discuss the issue. He just pushes it aside, then moves right on along. That’s a bit disappointing for me, because modern scholars method of digging out the “kernel of truth’ in a story filled with miracles is one of the things I’ve always wondered about. Without an actual method, what can they use other than an outright rejection of the supernatural? Even the Apocalyptic prophet model Bart accepts of Jesus is supernatural in some sense, since the knowledge of the coming end was gained through supernatural means. And passages that do not contain miracles might be told simply as a narrative bridge, to teach a moral lesson, or simply explain an event or opinion held by the church.

I’m not saying that a method of finding a plausible scenario from miraculous stories isn’t available, just that Bart doesn’t mention one. Using models of New Religious Movements developed by anthropologists and sociologists attained through empirical observation, we can see that many movements have indeed sprang up because of apocalypticism in one form or another, usually breaking off from a pre-existing religion. They can either die out when ‘the end’ doesn’t happen, or they can re-double their proselytizing and survive. But, unless Bart actually mentions this, it’s hard to know if that’s what he’s using, or if he’s other critical methods. Or, just repeating things he’s heard other scholars say with no idea as to the reason.

He does describe the typical issues with language in some Biblical sayings, that some, because of the words and sentence structure that they use, seem to have originated in Aramaic, while others seem to have originated in Greek. That’s neat, but it really only shows that the sayings in Q and the gospels where gathered from a multitude of sources, not that a guy named Jesus said them on a hill top. Bart seems to imply that it’s proof positive that the gospels began as an oral history.

All in all, I’m finding the book disappointing. The Christ Myth theory is interesting, even if I don’t ultimately accept it, and Bart seems to glance past the issues that it brings up, rather than actually discussing them. It appears as if Bart’s got a bunch of prepared speeches and he constructed this book by pasting them together. The letters of Papias and Ignatius are probably the most convincing pieces of early evidence,but there’s only a couple of pages devoted to them, with not actual discussion of how strange the Ignatius story is.

I’m not sure if this book will work for most people or not. I don’t think it will convince any real Mythicists (those that have actually studied the issues). But, some people take the mere existence of a debunking book as being proof, whether it does the job or not.

The Great “Did Jesus Exist” Challenge

March 20, 2012

As of Tuesday, two historians (well, one historian, one Jesus scholar) are releasing books on the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth (i.e., though he probably wasn’t a magic man or son of god, was there some dude named “Joshua” walking around Galilee whose followers gave rise to the Christian religon).

Bart Erhman says there was: Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

Richard Carrier says “not likely”, but you’ll never prove it with modern historical methods cause they’re fallacious: Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

Oh, the fun I’ll have. I have both in from of me, and I intend to read them both through. I’ll start with Bart’s book since it’s a bit shorter (and also available as an e-book (Carrier’s will be released in electronic form at a later date)).

On a glance.

Did Jesus Exist? Proving History
Purpose: Prove existence of Jesus as a man, though still deny everything any Christian cares about. Examine the methods used in Historical Jesus studies, and suggest a new statistical one (Bayes’s Theorem)
Methodology: Bart doesn’t seem to actually discuss method. Appears to be a lot of “scholars agree”. The book is one long discussion on method, and proposeses a new statistical one to replace illogical ones.
Evidence: Bible passages  Evidence for standing will be given in follow up book

I’ll have to lay down Stephen Pinkers 1,000 page tome on violence for a bit to get through these. Should be fun.

One first glance, Carrier’s book looks far more interesting, simply because mere assertions, in and of themselves, tell us nothing. Even if they are right. We need to know the reasoning behind the assertion to determine it’s merit. This isn’t a knock on Bart. His books are pretty damn good, I own quite a few, and he’s probably the best interpreter of Jesus studies for the general public that doesn’t get religious or venture out into crazy unsupported assertion territory.

This will probably be my last foray into any sort of Biblical studies cause, well, it gets old. And I probably wouldn’t even be interested in either book except for Carrier’s examination of historical methodology, which I have always felt were wanting since I looked into History as a possible major in college.

I’m pretty angnostic on the Jesus: Man or Myth issue, since I’m not a super-naturalist. Knowing there was an historical L. Ron Hubbard doesn’t make Scientology appealing, after all. Jesus is more ancient, though, which give the question a more mystical appeal, rightly or not. And the Jesus myth theory that holds the most weight (that of Earl Doherty) touches on some real neat ancient mythology, which makes it fun.

Before reading the books, my intuitive feeling is that there probably was a historical Jesus. Not because of any actual evidence presented to me, all of which have seemed pretty weak. But, because new religious movements, as we currently understand them, are, for the most part, started and lead by a single charismatic individual: L Ron Hubbard, David Koresh, Joseph Smith, etc. Once begun, the actual survival of these groups then rely upon the 2nd generation. A leader that can take the reins and continue the movement once the original leader passes: a David Miscavige, Brigham Young, etc. Which, I suppose, is where Paul comes in for Christianity. So, yeah, a historical Jesus just fits the model I think most likely, even if there turns out to be no evidence for him.


Well, Bart isn’t writing to convince mythacists; he’s a bit demeaning and will probably drive them even more strongly to their position. He’s rightfully abusive to Acharia S and Freke and Gandy’s The Jesus Mysteries, both of which are full of errors (which he summarizes and bullet points) and based on conspiracy theories and supposition.

Dan Barker Sums Up Christianity

December 13, 2011

It all makes so much sense now.

Why Are There Still Chimpanzees?

August 1, 2011

A silly question, but it deserves an answered (if it’s being asked honestly).

The 5 Minute Philosopher On Miracles

June 20, 2011

From Massimo’s Pigliucci’s 5 Minute Philosopher series: