Historicity Big and Small: How Historians Try to Rescue Jesus (by Richard Carrier)
May01

Historicity Big and Small: How Historians Try to Rescue Jesus (by Richard Carrier)

  When the question of the historicity of Jesus comes up in an honest professional context, we are not asking whether the Gospel Jesus existed. All non-fundamentalist scholars agree that that Jesus never did exist. Christian apologetics is pseudo-history. No different than defending Atlantis. Or Moroni. Or women descending from Adam’s rib. No. We aren’t interested in that.   By Richard Carrier   When it comes to Jesus, just as with anyone else, real history is about trying to figure out what, if anything, we can really know about the man depicted in the New Testament (his actual life and teachings), through untold layers of distortion and mythmaking; and what, if anything, we can know about his role in starting the Christian movement that spread after his death. Consequently, I will here disregard fundamentalists and apologists as having no honest part in this debate, any more than they do on evolution or cosmology or anything else they cannot be honest about even to themselves. Here I will summarize the best arguments for historicity and the logic behind the best case for it. And this only means mundane historicity; not the Gospel Jesus, but the Jesus of honest mainstream scholarship. I am most interested in finding out if I have left any good arguments out. So please add more in comments, if any you think remain that aren’t ridiculous and can be taken seriously by mainstream experts. Likewise if you think the logic of any argument I do present can be better formulated. The Honest Framework Of the experts who remain to be counted, two things are agreed by both sides of the debate: (1) we don’t really know how much of early Christianity actually comes from a historical Jesus (there are only diverse, contradictory, and unresolved opinions about this in the scholarly community); and (2) the cosmo-theological Jesus of the Epistles (wherein Jesus is a godman who lives in and speaks from heaven) and the mytho-heroic Jesus of the Gospels (where Jesus is more or less the central character in a set of parables about how each author believes good Christians should conduct themselves, made to issue statements supporting views the author wants his readers to regard as authoritative) is far more shibboleth than actual founder. And that remains the most likely fact of the matter no matter how historical this Jesus actually is; and regardless of what if anything he may have actually done to get the religion started. In its broadest sense, a shibboleth is a characteristic cultural touchstone by which insiders distinguish themselves from outsiders. Jesus was constructed by different authors (both inside and outside the canon) to represent their own (or their community’s) ideal of...

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The Gospel of Mark As A Greek Tragedy (by Tim Claason)
Mar03

The Gospel of Mark As A Greek Tragedy (by Tim Claason)

  It has been observed since the mid-20th century that the earliest Synoptic Gospel, Mark, follows the framework of Greco-Roman tragedy.  The first attention I can find paid to this topic was in 1977, in Bilezikian’s The Liberated Gospel and some 24 years earlier in the same author’s doctoral dissertation. The pattern is quite clear: sparse dialog, frequent scene changes, narration, passion.  I recommend Ken Humphreys’ Youtube video on this topic as an introduction. Picture this:  you are a late 1st or early 2nd century mystery cult member.  The mystery to which you belong, the Christian mystery, is more compatible with your worldview than other mysteries; those other mysteries (and their Demigods) lack the personal touch your mystery touts.  You regularly meet with other members of your local mystery community, and you are aware of,  by name or reputation, prominent members of surrounding communities. Many Christians are slaves…maybe you are too.  The drudgery of life is interrupted by your daily morning routine of worshiping toward the sun.  Amplifying your woes, if you’re caught, you’ll either be whipped, imprisoned or killed. Then the news comes!  The most famous proprietor of this mystery — the man who saunters around the Eastern Roman empire sharing the Good News, with sheer disregard for his own tremendous risk — is coming to your town, in Bythnia in Roman Asia, the geographic space known today as central Turkey. This regional celebrity has developed his system well:  he goes from town-to-town, with props, wardrobe changes, and a crew of about a half dozen others.  In this sense, the celebrity is borrowing a well-developed trope within the mystery schools.  Dramatic depictions were common in the mysteries. His most notable compatriot is an unexpectedly high-ranking woman in the mystery who simultaneously identifies as the archetypal mother and wife.  She goes by multiple names, including Helen and Mary. The charismatic leader makes curious claims, such as remembering previous lives and experiences in higher realms (Against Heresies i.25.1, i.25.4, Galatians 4:19).  He claims to have been born under odd circumstances, a miscarriage  (1 Corinthians 15:7-8).  He also claims to possess a special spirit (1 Corinthians 2:12) which gives him amplified power of proselytization.  He usually brings a several-hundred word letter addressed to members of the community.  At some point during his stay, with his band of co-conspirators (and some local community involvement), he enacts a dramatic depiction which culminates in the crucifixion of one of the featured players – not him, though. There is a feature in the play that did not translate to canonical paper.  To the audience members, the point could not be clearer. A little past the midpoint of the play (Mark 9:35-40), one of...

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History of Mythicism: Dupuis and Volney (by Rene Salm)
Nov25

History of Mythicism: Dupuis and Volney (by Rene Salm)

History of Mythicism: The French school of biblical rationalism Dupuis and Volney (by Rene Salm)   Charles-Francois Dupuis (1742-1809) Man of letters, scientist and politician. Born in the Oise region, Dupuis was the son of a school teacher of modest means. His talents were precocious, particularly in geometry, which brought the lad to the attention of the Duc de la Rochefoucauld. Dupuis was granted a scholarship to the college of Harcourt, eventually received a diploma in theology and, in 1766, was appointed professor at the college of Lisieux in Paris. Dupuis was a polymath. He studied law in his spare time and passed the bar in 1770, abandoning theology. In 1778 he invented a proto-telegraph allowing him to communicate with a friend in the neighboring village. Astronomy was another of his interests. Dupuis’ knowledge of mythology led him to propose that the ancient divinities were none other than constellations, the names of gods being those of planets whose vicissitudes were simply movements in the heavens anciently expressed in metaphorical language. Frederick the Great became aware of Dupuis and wished to appoint him to the chair of literature at the University of Berlin, but the monarch’s death in 1786 intervened. Dupuis became professor of Latin elocution in 1787, a member of the Académie in 1788, and of the Institut de France in 1795. In 1792 Dupuis published l’Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Religion universelle (“The origin of all religious worship”), which has been called “a veritable breviary of philosophical atheism.” The author sought to find the unity of religions in astronomical observations common to Egyptians, Greeks, and even Chinese. He considered Christianity to be “a fable with the same foundation as all the other solar religions.” For Dupuis, Christianity has “the character of the sun god, adored among all people under a plethora of names and with differing attributes.” In the French revolution Dupuis fled Paris for Évreux. He returned, however, and played a political role as delegate from the Seine-et-Oise. He was in the Convention as well as the Council of Five Hundred and distinguished himself by his moderation. He refused a post as Senator in order to dedicate himself to studies. In 1806, Dupuis was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. In 1806 Dupuis wrote his Mémoire explicatif du Zodiaque de Tentyra in which he sought to show that this particular zodiac coincided with an equinoctal point in the sign of Virgo, explaining the religion of fifteen thousand years ago. Dupuis died of a purulent fever at the age of 67. Constantin-François Volney (1757-1820) Philosopher, historian, orientalist, atheist, and politician. He was born at Craon, Anjou (today Mayenne) of...

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How to Successfully Argue Jesus Existed (by Richard Carrier)
Oct18

How to Successfully Argue Jesus Existed (by Richard Carrier)

  In conjunction with my Critical Thinking course this month, and in light of a number of casual debates I’ve been in lately, I’ve drawn up this twelve step advice, which actually applies to all arguments for any conclusions in any subject whatever. But I’ll use defending the historicity of Jesus as the key example. The first rule is pretty obvious… By Dr. Richard Carrier   1. Tell the truth. I wish I didn’t have to say that. But it’s apparently necessary to put this front and center, as the most important step. Don’t make things up. Don’t make claims you haven’t checked are true. Don’t make false statements about what any opponent has or hasn’t argued. The truth should not have to be defended with lies. That you are lying, calls into question the truth of what you are defending. And your motives for defending it. And yet this has happened repeatedly in the historicity debate. Actual sitting professors have lied about the evidence and lied about their mistakes in addressing the evidence (examples include Bart Ehrman, e.g. this lie and this lieand this lie, and James McGrath, e.g. this lie, and all these lies). Amateurs and Christian apologists are even more prone to doing this. Which also means, you need to be on your guard against this. Sadly, you can’t even trust high-profile professors these days. Fact-check everyone. 2. Consensus is a weak argument. If a peer reviewed study challenges the consensus, citing the consensus against it is literally a fallacy of circular argument. You need to explain why the consensus is correct and the challenge not sufficient to overturn it. “That it’s the consensus” does not answer that. And yet answering that is difficult in a field awash with strong religious biases and no coherent methodology for adjudicating what’s true. False analogies, like Holocaust and Global Warming and Evolution denial, only make you look dishonest, or totally ignorant of the actual problem in the case of Jesus, for whom nowhere remotely near as much evidence exists as exists for those other things. But more importantly, for all of those things, we can explain why the consensus is right and the challenge to it wrong. And it is only because we can do that, that “it’s the consensus” works as an argument in those cases. So it won’t work in any other case, if you can’t do that. So do it. A more apt analogy is Moses and the Patriarchs: consensus once held they existed; the mainstream consensus now, is that they didn’t, or that their existence is sufficiently doubtful we can’t affirm they did exist with any honest confidence. If the consensus was wrong about them, it can be...

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‘Don’t take the Bible literally’ says scholar who brought to light earliest Latin analysis of the Gospels
Aug25

‘Don’t take the Bible literally’ says scholar who brought to light earliest Latin analysis of the Gospels

  The earliest Latin interpretation of the Gospels has been brought to light by a British academic – and it suggests that readers should not take the Bible literally. Lost for 1,500 years, the fourth-century commentary by African-born Italian bishop Fortunatianus of Aquileia interprets the Gospels as a series of allegories instead of a literal history.   By Olivia Rudgard, religious affairs correspondent    Dr Hugh Houghton, of the University of Birmingham, who translated the work, said it was an approach which modern Christians could learn from. The find adds weight to the idea that many early biblical scholars did not see the Bible as a history, but instead a series of coded messages which represented key elements of Christianity, he said. “There’s been an assumption that it’s a literal record of truth – a lot of the early scholars got very worried about inconsistencies between Matthew and Luke, for example. “But for people teaching the Bible in the fourth century, it’s not the literal meaning which is important, it’s how it’s read allegorically. “In contemporary Biblical scholarship a lot of the gospels are written with symbolism in mind. “They are not setting out to be literal accounts but they are set out to be symbolic.” He said that the Bible had to be “understood in the context that the authors were working in.” The approach differs from the trend of biblical literalism adopted by modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, which interprets the Bible as the literal word of God which is not open to interpretation. This has been the basis for beliefs such as the idea that the earth is 6,000 years old and that it was created in seven days. Modern archaeologists have also used the Bible to search for evidence about the life of Jesus, with mixed success. The 100-page document examines the Gospel of Matthew in great detail and also examines part of the Gospels according to Luke and John. It had been hidden for 1,500 years within an anonymous manuscript in Cologne Cathedral Library, until it was digitised by the University of Salzburg in 2012, but lay untranslated until Dr Houghton came across it. He discovered the existence of the manuscript after an Austrian colleague read about it in a local newspaper and told him about it. The work is thought to have been copied out by a scholar in around 800, more than 400 years after the original was written. Dr Houghton said the book was an “extraordinary find”. It predates better-known writings by famous scholars including St Jerome, St Ambrose and St Augustine. The biblical scholar, from the university’s institute for textual scholarship and electronic editing, has...

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History writer: Jesus probably never existed — here’s why Christianity emerged anyway
Apr15

History writer: Jesus probably never existed — here’s why Christianity emerged anyway

  With Easter coming, some people are debating whether the resurrection of Jesus really happened. Others are debating whether Jesus was even real. In ten years of writing for news and opinion sites, my most popular article about religion was one titled, “Five Reasons to Suspect Jesus Never Existed.” The article emerged from a conversation with history writer David Fitzgerald and was based on his book, Nailed. Fitzgerald holds the controversial perspective that the figure of Jesus at the heart of Christianity is historicized mythology, meaning that the original kernel was a set of ancient religious tropes or myths that got historical details added as they were told and retold by people who believed them to be real. By contrast, best-selling New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (and most secular historians and mainline Christian theologians) argue that an actual radical rabbi provided the kernel of the stories, but that accounts of his life then got overlaid with fragments of mythology drawn from Judaism and surrounding religions. In other words, they hold that the Bible stories are mythologized history. The third perspective, of course, is that held by many (though not all) Christians—that the gospel stories are gospel truth.  Outsiders can debate all they want, but Christians need to believe that Jesus was real, and defenders of the faith line up a series of proofs that they claim settle the question. Now Fitzgerald has produced a three-volume set, Jesus: Mything in Action, in which he tackles those proofs one by one and then lays out how Christianity could have emerged even in the absence of a historical Jesus. Tarico: What first made you wonder if, perhaps, Jesus never existed? Fitzgerald: It’s funny; for the first thirty-five years of my life, the very idea that there might not have been a real Jesus never occurred to me. Ironically enough, it wasn’t until I became curious to know what Jesus really said and did that I began to seriously look at our evidence for Jesus. That‘s when the doubts set in. At first, I just wanted to figure out which parts of the gospels were later legendary add-ons. Over time I became increasingly convinced that Jesus himself is a completely mythical figure of the early Christians. That led me to write Nailed. Tarico: What are a couple of the key points that took you from that first wild, trippy thought—Whoa, what if Jesus never existed?—to your current position, that he probably didn’t. Fitzgerald: Honestly, I’d put it even more strongly than that – now, I actually can’t see how there even could have been an actual Jesus. The first red flag for me was realizing just how...

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