Does the evidence for Jesus just not add up? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
So as Christmas time comes again, you can expect that the crazy and bizarre will come because what better way to celebrate Christmas than to go after Christianity? And of course, you have to pick the view that is the weakest and most obscure and present that as if it was a new idea that is gaining serious traction in the academy when really, it quite frankly isn’t. The hypothesis under question has never been taken seriously in the academy. But then on the internet, everything is different. You can say whatever you want and be taken as an authority just because you have a blog or a web site.
So what hypothesis is this? Why it’s that Jesus never even existed. Who is putting it out? Raphael Lataster. Does that name sound familiar? It should. I reviewed his book about a year ago on this blog and found it severely lacking. David Marshall also reviewed it and has suggested that it is the worst atheist book ever. J.P. Holding’s review has a part one and a part two. But go to the Society of Biblical Literature and is anyone talking about Lataster? Nope. Nor is there any mention of his hero Richard Carrier.
But now there’s an article Lataster is writing and unfortunately, for too many who do not know how to do history, the case can sound persuasive. So let’s look at it. For all interested, the article itself can be found here. If you think I’m misrepresenting Lataster, feel free to check.
So let’s dive in.
Did a man called Jesus of Nazareth walk the earth? Discussions over whether the figure known as the “Historical Jesus” actually existed primarily reflect disagreements among atheists. Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved.
Now I did point out in my book review that Lataster too quickly assumes the Christ of Faith and the Christ of History cannot be the same person. Maybe they aren’t, but shouldn’t we study the question before we actually decide on it. Lataster says the Christ of Faith is implausible? On what grounds? Because He walks on water. Only if miracles cannot happen. Has Lataster shown that or has he just assumed it? It’s the latter. Even in his book he could have at least tried to cite Hume as if that would have been some sort of argument. He doesn’t. Instead the Lataster of faith is too dismissive of the Christ of faith.
Fortunately, Lataster has already drawn a line in the sand as well. if you’re a believer, don’t get involved. Let’s see how this works. “Let’s discuss whether there is a god or not, but atheist philosophers need not get involved.” How far would it go? Unfortunately, in the world of scholarship as it really is done, scholars all have to act by the same rules. If you want to make an argument, you have to provide the data for it. It doesn’t matter what your worldview is. You make your case before your fellow peers who could hold a contrary position. They might not agree, but they will decide if you have made a real argument for your position.
Perhaps the problem is Lataster just isn’t familiar with how the world of scholarship works.
For what it’s worth, my stance is bias is too often used as an excuse. It is data that matters and data does not know bias. It is in the interpretation that you can start to see the bias. Yet bias can also make one want to be more careful to present the truth. A final point on this topic to make is the one once made by N.T. Wright. You might have a biased scorekeeper reporting the score at a football game, but that doesn’t mean he won’t tell you the right score.
Numerous secular scholars have presented their own versions of the so-called “Historical Jesus” – and most of them are, as biblical scholar J.D. Crossan puts it, “an academic embarrassment.” From Crossan’s view of Jesus as the wise sage, to Robert Eisenman’s Jesus the revolutionary, and Bart Ehrman’s apocalyptic prophet, about the only thing New Testament scholars seem to agree on is Jesus’ historical existence. But can even that be questioned?
While there is disagreement, there is also material here that is simply false. There is much besides his existence that is agreed upon by NT scholars. His crucifixion for instance is universally accepted. Also scholars are largely in agreement that Jesus had a connection with John the Baptist and had twelve disciples and that after his crucifixion his disciples claimed to see him alive again. He was a teacher who spoke in parables and many will even tell you he was at least viewed as a great healer.
The first problem we encounter when trying to discover more about the Historical Jesus is the lack of early sources. The earliest sources only reference the clearly fictional Christ of Faith. These early sources, compiled decades after the alleged events, all stem from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity – which gives us reason to question them. The authors of the Gospels fail to name themselves, describe their qualifications, or show any criticism with their foundational sources – which they also fail to identify. Filled with mythical and non-historical information, and heavily edited over time, the Gospels certainly should not convince critics to trust even the more mundane claims made therein.
It’s hard to think of a paragraph with more misinformation in it than this one. Let’s consider this. A lack of historical resources. The books of the NT can all be dated to within the first century. That means we have 27 writings with varying degrees of information about the historical Jesus. Lataster wishes to dismiss them saying the reference the clearly fictional Christ of faith, which is of course the presupposition of the Lataster of faith. Even still, scholars do not use this as a reason to dismiss them. Some legendary material or embellishment does not mean the historical core has been entirely destroyed. In fact, it’s quite bizarre to think that within a few decades in the ancient world, the entire history would have been overturned.
Next we are told they are written decades after the events. Okay. The problem? Much of what Tacitus and Josephus wrote about was also decades later. Scholars don’t see that as a problem. Hannibal who nearly conquered the Roman Empire has the first major account of him being written decades later by Polybius. From Hannibal’s own lifetime, we have only a scrap that mentions him. That’s it. A guy who nearly conquered the Roman Empire and he gets a scrap. Yet somehow, we’re supposed to think that a crucified Messiah who would have been seen by the outside world as a flash in the pan phony baloney would be talked about the world over? The ancient world would have dismissed the “Christ of Faith” just as quickly as Lataster has.
But let’s make the case even more interesting. Lataster has a great adoration of Carrier. Carrier has replied to the claim that there’s more evidence for the resurrection than Caesar crossing the Rubicon (Which I am not defending here) by saying the great scholars of the age talked about Caesar crossing the Rubicon. As I said in an earlier post when dealing with that idea:
Here we find Suetonius was born in 71 A.D. At the start, this puts us at 120 years+. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Suetonius waits until he’s 30 to begin writing. That would mean this reliable account is 150+ years later.
He was born in 95 A.D. That puts us at 144 years+. Let’s suppose he waited until the age of 30, and it’s more likely he waited until later. If we give 30, then that means he wrote 174+ years later.
Cassius Dio? He was born in 164. This puts at at 213 years+. He started writing the Roman Histories at the earliest in 211. That puts us at 260 years+.
Someone had said something about the accounts of the resurrection being two to three centuries later….
But strangely enough, Cassius Dio two to three centuries later is okay.
Plutarch would be the earliest being born in 46 A.D., but this puts us at 95 years+ and if he waits till thirty, well that’s 125 years+.
That means not ONE of these sources could have talked to an eyewitness of the event. Not one of them was a contemporary of Caesar either. Not one of them would have been a firsthand account.
And yet they’re all accepted.
But the biggest problem with all of this is that Lataster is reading a modern culture onto the text. In the modern world, you don’t wait until later to write something. You do it immediately. Memory is not as trusted a tool. In the Biblical society, the written word is not as trusted and the oral tradition is more reliable and more trusted way of communicating. Lataster could have been benefited by reading a work such as The Lost World of Scripture or hearing my interview with one of the co-authors, Brent Sandy. Unfortunately, he probably won’t because both of the authors are Christians so yeah, we can just dismiss them.
Next all of these come from Christian authors eager to promote Christianity, so we can dismiss them. Perhaps we should dismiss the writings about the rabbis since they were written by their disciples to promote them. Perhaps we should dismiss Plato’s writings about Socrates since he was a disciple eager to promote Socrates. Perhaps today we should dismiss holocaust museums by Jews who have a bias obviously eager to avoid another holocaust.
Or perhaps we should remember that in the ancient world, like today, everyone wrote to promote something and bias was in fact viewed as something important. No one wanted to read something without passion. Would it work if I just dismissed Lataster because he’s an atheist and therefore he clearly has a bias against any idea that would be associated with religion? No. Data is still data. Arguments are still arguments.
As for the Gospels not naming themselves or their qualifications or failing to show any criticism with their foundational sources, this also is not really a problem. Many authors in the ancient world wrote books anonymously and their authorship was identified by others. Just saying “anonymous” does not work. Upon what grounds does Lataster dismiss the testimony of the early church fathers and the internal arguments given for authorship. Also, E.P. Sanders has pointed out that the authors would remain anonymous due to their desire to focus the attention on the life of Jesus rather than saying what they were writing was “Their version of the life of Jesus.”
And as for interaction with sources, Lataster is assuming it would be done as it would be today. Richard Bauckham has made the case in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that the authors used various methods to identify their sources. He argues that as the tradition goes through the Gospels, names are not added but dropped and that a named figure can normally be seen as a source, with obvious exceptions like Judas Iscariot. Generally, if a character that is not Jesus or one of the twelve is mentioned, this person could likely have been a source. Just look later in the other Gospels to see.
As for filled with mythical and non-historical information, well that could be said, but it would be nice to see an argument rather than just an assertion.
And as for heavily edited over time, has he read nothing of textual criticism? The Gospels have been copied, but they have not been so edited over time that we don’t know what the originals said. Very little of that is debated. This is the kind of objection that gets tossed around commonly, but it won’t find scholarly support.
The methods traditionally used to tease out rare nuggets of truth from the Gospels are dubious. The criterion of embarrassment says that if a section would be embarrassing for the author, it is more likely authentic. Unfortunately, given the diverse nature of Christianity and Judaism back then (things have not changed all that much), and the anonymity of the authors, it is impossible to determine what truly would be embarrassing or counter-intuitive, let alone if that might not serve some evangelistic purpose.
It is? No. Not really. All we need to do is study the work of the context group of scholars. Perhaps we could use some resources like The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament, or Honor, Patronage, Kinship, Purity, or Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, Just like he is with the Christ of Faith, the Lataster of Faith is too quick to dismiss a claim that he disagrees with. (and let’s seriously hope that he himself did not link to wikipedia to explain the criterion of embarrassment, though I fear he did.)
The criterion of Aramaic context is similarly unhelpful. Jesus and his closest followers were surely not the only Aramaic-speakers in first-century Judea. The criterion of multiple independent attestation can also hardly be used properly here, given that the sources clearly are not independent.
As for the Aramaic context, again, he is too quick. Did others in Judea speak Aramaic? Sure. How does that help explain that being used by those writing to people in the Greco-Roman World? Now if he does think any Gospel was written by a person from first century Judea, shouldn’t we trust they would have known if this Jesus fellow had never even existed, especially since as scholars agree so much with today, the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies.
For multiple attestation, again the Lataster of Faith simply throws out an assertion and that’s it. They are clearly not independent? Says who? What’s the argument? Show it. Why is it that we are often told the Gospels are dependent on each other and then told that they hopelessly contradict? Why do we talk about the synoptic problem at all? Could it be that similarities in the Gospels could actually be because, oh I don’t know, I mean it’s a bizarre idea and all I’m sure, but could it just possibly be they are all about a real historical person that walked the Earth as NT scholars agree?
Paul’s Epistles, written earlier than the Gospels, give us no reason to dogmatically declare Jesus must have existed. Avoiding Jesus’ earthly events and teachings, even when the latter could have bolstered his own claims, Paul only describes his “Heavenly Jesus.” Even when discussing what appear to be the resurrection and the last supper, his only stated sources are his direct revelations from the Lord, and his indirect revelations from the Old Testament. In fact, Paul actually rules out human sources (see Galatians 1:11-12).
The silence of Paul naturally has to be played. So supposedly some mention of Jesus could have greatly bolstered Paul’s claims at times. When are these times? Can he tell us? Or are we just to trust the Lataster of faith? Paul only describes a Heavenly Jesus? Okay.
The Jesus who was crucified on the Passover by the Jews. He was born of a woman and under the law, and descended from David. He instituted a meal with his followers on the night of his crucifixion and was buried and was claimed to be seen alive again after a resurrection. Of course, Lataster would say these are all about a heavenly Jesus which is interesting since we have arguments from silence yet if we follow that criteria, where do we see mention of this heavenly realm where all these events took place or of a heavenly Jesus? Lataster would want to say that Paul rules out human sources, but this is the mistaken idea that gospel must necessarily mean “knowledge of the life of Jesus.” It doesn’t. It also refers to the truth that Jesus is the risen Messiah. Paul had that made clear to him on the Damascus road experience. He is saying he was not persuaded of Christianity by humans but by God Himself. In fact, in the passage in Galatians, Paul is really comparing himself to Jeremiah regularly with a divine call.
Also important are the sources we don’t have. There are no existing eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus. All we have are later descriptions of Jesus’ life events by non-eyewitnesses, most of whom are obviously biased. Little can be gleaned from the few non-Biblical and non-Christian sources, with only Roman scholar Josephus and historian Tacitus having any reasonable claim to be writing about Jesus within 100 years of his life. And even those sparse accounts are shrouded in controversy, with disagreements over what parts have obviously been changed by Christian scribes (the manuscripts were preserved by Christians), the fact that both these authors were born after Jesus died (they would thus have probably received this information from Christians), and the oddity that centuries go by before Christian apologists start referencing them.
With the claim about contemporary and eyewitness sources, we have already mentioned this earlier. Tacitus and Josephus wrote about many events they were not eyewitnesses or contemporary to, and yet this has not been a problem of historians. It’s a made-up criteria of Christ-mythers. To say we have no eyewitnesses, Lataster will need to interact with works like those of Bauckham’s cited earlier. We can expect he won’t because, hey, this is Christian scholarship. As for Tacitus and Josephus being shrouded in controversy, it is only over what is being talked about but not that there is doubt over Jesus’s existence.
Josephus has the most controversy and it’s hard to think of a better article on Josephus than that written by James Hannam. For Tacitus, there is not nearly that level of controversy. It would have been nice if Lataster could have named some scholars who are doubtful of the reliability of these passages. As for apologists not referencing them, why would they need to? None of their opponents were arguing that Jesus never existed. Celsus even accepted that Jesus did miracles. He just said he did them by dark arts learned in Egypt. What good would it do in debates to show a reference that simply argued for the existence of Jesus when no one was debating that?
Agnosticism over the matter is already seemingly appropriate, and support for this position comes from independent historian Richard Carrier’s recent defense of another theory — namely, that the belief in Jesus started as the belief in a purely celestial being (who was killed by demons in an upper realm), who became historicized over time. To summarize Carrier’s 800-page tome, this theory and the traditional theory – that Jesus was a historical figure who became mythicized over time – both align well with the Gospels, which are later mixtures of obvious myth and what at least sounds historical.
Remember boys and girls, when you’re an atheist writing on the NT on the internet, it is essential that you cite Richard Carrier. Well, who can blame him? After all, look at what we know about Carrier!
Richard Carrier is a world-renowned author and speaker. As a professional historian, published philosopher, and prominent defender of the American freethought movement, Dr. Carrier has appeared across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., and on American television and London radio, defending sound historical methods and the ethical worldview of secular naturalism.
Wow. A world-renowned author and speaker! Why who wouldn’t want to pay attention? How do we know that this description is accurate? What reason do we have? It comes from Richard Carrier himself. As for his book, I’ve read it and found it extremely lacking as he gives the sound of one-hand clapping and like the Lataster of Faith, too quickly dismisses those he disagrees with. Expect a fuller review in the future after I go through the footnotes with a fine-tooth comb. What I have observed with mythicists is that they are often unreliable in their use of sources. Of course, we could question that Richard Carrier even exists. I mean, surely if he’s such a well-acclaimed figure some university by now would have scooped him up and had him teaching. Awfully suspicious….
Getting back to Lataster:
The Pauline Epistles, however, overwhelmingly support the “celestial Jesus” theory, particularly with the passage indicating that demons killed Jesus, and would not have done so if they knew who he was (see: 1 Corinthians 2:6-10). Humans – the murderers according to the Gospels – of course would still have killed Jesus, knowing full well that his death results in their salvation, and the defeat of the evil spirits.
So what does the passage say? It says the rulers of this age. Does it say demons? No. It just says rulers. Now could the word used refer to demonic powers? Sure, but Lataster’s argument here is weak. How often are we told that an omnipotent God could have devised another way? Perhaps there was one then if the Jews had accepted the offer of Jesus, but let’s look at the main argument.
For one thing, when Paul speaks of archons (The word translated as rulers) he normally adds a predicate if they are non-corporeal, such as of the air or something of that sort. Second, look at chapters 1 and 2 of 1 Corinthians. You find a consistent focus on earthly activity. Why should we think that there has been a sudden switch to a heavenly event? It’s a popular theory of Doherty and Carrier, but it just hasn’t caught on with scholars. There’s a reason for that.
So what do the mainstream (and non-Christian) scholars say about all this? Surprisingly very little – of substance anyway. Only Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey have thoroughly attempted to prove Jesus’ historical existence in recent times. Their most decisive point? The Gospels can generally be trusted – after we ignore the many, many bits that are untrustworthy – because of the hypothetical (i.e. non-existent) sources behind them. Who produced these hypothetical sources? When? What did they say? Were they reliable? Were they intended to be accurate historical portrayals, enlightening allegories, or entertaining fictions?
Yes. They don’t say much, for the same reason many evolutionary scientists don’t say much about young-earth creationism, or that geologists don’t say much about flat-earth theories, or that astronomers don’t say much about geocentrism, or that Hitler historians don’t say much about the holocaust never happening. They don’t because it’s viewed as a crank theory. If they even mention it, that will give it some sort of credibility. Any writing is done out of a reluctance because the idea is so annoying.
Ehrman and Casey can’t tell you – and neither can any New Testament scholar. Given the poor state of the existing sources, and the atrocious methods used by mainstream Biblical historians, the matter will likely never be resolved. In sum, there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence – if not to think it outright improbable.
It’s nice to know that Lataster has already assured us we don’t need to look at the scholarship. I happen to disagree and think that yes, Ehrman and Casey can tell us. In fact, the world of NT scholarship as a huge, huge majority has already told us. Christ-mythers meanwhile are just a group trying to make a lot of noise but just not getting the attention they want from the academy. Until they come up with decent arguments, they shouldn’t.