Please stop saying Jesus never existed…

 I sometimes hear other atheists making the claim that Jesus never even existed, and that everything written about Jesus in the New Testament (not just the miracle claims, but even Jesus’ basic existence) is a complete fabrication. But not only is this almost certainly incorrect, and almost completely irrelevant (does it really matter if Jesus is 100% mythical/legendary, as opposed to 99%?), it’s ultimately counterproductive and even self-defeating to the atheist position.

By making an affirmative claim for Jesus’ non-existence, it voluntarily and unnecessarily shifts the burden of proof to the atheist, and even worse, sets the bar unnecessarily high (about as high as it can possibly go) for the position that the atheist is trying to support. Instead of the Christian trying to prove a position which is virtually (if not completely) impossible to prove, suddenly the atheist finds himself arguing for a position which is extremely difficult (although probably not impossible) to prove.

Consider that even Robert M. Price, Professor of Biblical Criticism and perhaps the most well-known advocate for the “mythical Jesus” theory, never actually makes the affirmative claim that Jesus did not exist; instead, he simply argues that the evidence for Jesus is so flimsy, and that so many aspects of the Jesus story share characteristics with other mythological stories, that we have no way of ever knowing if there was ever a “historical Jesus” to begin with.

But perhaps the biggest problem of claiming Jesus never existed is that, ironically, the strongest arguments for Jesus’ existence are also arguments against his divinity. And by taking up the position of absolute Jesus mythicism, you forego (or at least weaken) the opportunity to point out some of the most glaring problems in the entire Bible—particularly those which cast most doubt about Jesus’ status as the Messiah, as recorded in the Bible itself.

For example:

-The Old Testament prophecies said the Messiah would be named Emmanuel, not Jesus. If Jesus were a complete fabrication, there would have been no need to name him Jesus instead of just calling him Emmanuel.

Call me Jesus.

-According to the New Testament, Jesus was unable to perform miracles in his hometown (other than faith healing, which as we all know does not require any supernatural abilities to perform), and he avoided Nazareth during his ministry despite visiting several of the towns surrounding it. The Bible makes clear that those in his hometown (i.e. those who knew Jesus as he grew up, well before he rose to prominence) were skeptical of his abilities. Obviously this would make any objective observer wonder: Just what was it that made them so skeptical of him? What was it that they knew about him growing up that others did not? And why would such skepticism affect his ability to perform miracles–IF they were truly authentic? This is clearly not a detail of Jesus’ life that his followers would willingly fabricate, so the fact that it came to be recorded in the Gospel of Mark suggests that it was a legitimate historical detail about Jesus–one which was sufficiently well-known that it managed to be passed down and come to eventually be recorded in the Bible, even though it actually casts serious doubt on his divinity.

               I suck in my hometown.

-According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus was raised in Nazareth but born in Bethlehem; however the two gospels give completely different (yet equally convoluted, implausible, and ahistorical) reasons for why this occurred. In Luke, we have the familiar story of the Census, which required Joseph to report back to the home of his ancestors (Bethlehem) since he supposedly descended from King David centuries if not millennia prior (I could spend all day talking about the absurdities of this story, so I’ll just link to this article which does a good job of addressing most of them). On the other hand the Gospel of Matthew makes no reference to the census whatsoever, and gives an even more fantastical account of Mary and Joseph fleeing Nazareth to avoid the “massacre of the innocents” (whereby all young male children in the entire town were systematically exterminated in order to eliminate the future King of the Jews based on ancient prophecy). As before, if Jesus never existed there would have been no need to develop not just one, but two clearly fabricated accounts in order to reconcile the reality of his actual birthplace (Nazareth) with the prophesized birthplace of the Messiah (Bethlehem). Had the character of Jesus been pure fiction they could have simply said he was from Bethlehem.

Further reading:
The Christ Conundrum: The Skeptic’s Guide to Jesus by Andrew Carruth
Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman
The Historical Jesus by Bart Ehrman (MP3 lecture series)

Photo by Termin8er (Creative Commons)

The “Historical Records” for Jesus?

I had a friend recently ask me, “Where does one go to find the historical records that can be used to make a case for or against the scriptures?”

I explained to him, in as respectful a way as possible, that the simple and honest answer is that you don’t go anywhere because there are none. Certainly not when it comes to the New Testament and anything remotely relating to the supposed life (or resurrection) of Jesus, and certainly not when it comes to the most significant stories of the entire Old Testament. There is simply no contemporaneous historical or archaeological evidence whatsoever to back up any of those stories in any meaningful way.

When it comes to Jesus, the unaminous consensus among historians and Biblical scholars is that there is literally not a single existing document or shred of archaeological evidence from the lifetime of Jesus which makes any reference to Jesus whatsoever. And that includes the Bible itself.

The writings of Paul, the very earliest of the New Testament books and literally the earliest written documents of any kind which reference Jesus, were not written until at least a decade after Jesus died (and, incidentally, Paul’s writings did not include any details whatsoever of Jesus’ life, made no mention of when/where he lived, said nothing about anything Jesus did during his lifetime, and said nothing about how/when/where the crucifixion took place).

The Gospels of the New Testament (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), the very earliest written documents of any kind which actually contain any details of Jesus’ life, were not written until several decades after Paul’s writings and thus decades after Jesus’ death.

You have to go all the way to 93 AD (at least 60 years after Jesus’ death) to find the first historical reference to Jesus from a legitimate historical source, in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus; unfortunately that reference has been severely tampered with if not entirely fabricated (i.e. added to the historical text decades later). And that one reference is the only reference to Jesus’ existence from a historical source in the entire 1st century.

You have to go well into the 2nd century to find the earliest undisputed historical references to Jesus, and even those are more references to the beliefs of the early Christians than to the actual figure of Jesus (and even if they did attest to the historical validity of Jesus, they were written so long after Jesus’ lifetime that none could have possibly been written by actual witnesses).

Incidentally it’s worth noting that there were several other messiahs and so-called “Christs” around the time of Jesus, and several of them did manage to make their way into the historical records. There were also several historians during the lifetime of Jesus who kept detailed historical records of events throughout the region, yet none of them made any reference whatsoever to Jesus. One of them, Philo, even lived in the same region (if not city) where the most significant events of the New Testament allegedly took place.

Per John E. Remsberg, in The Christ:

“Philo was born before the beginning of the Christian era, and lived until long after the reputed death of Christ. He wrote an account of the Jews covering the entire time that Christ is said to have existed on earth. He was living in or near Jerusalem when Christ’s miraculous birth and the Herodian massacre occurred. He was there when Christ made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He was there when the crucifixion with its attendant earthquake, supernatural darkness, and resurrection of the dead took place — when Christ himself rose from the dead, and in the presence of many witnesses ascended into heaven. These marvelous events which must have filled the world with amazement, had they really occurred, were unknown to him. It was Philo who developed the doctrine of the Logos, or Word, and although this Word incarnate dwelt in that very land and in the presence of multitudes revealed himself and demonstrated his divine powers, Philo saw it not.”

Now to be clear, I’m not saying any of this to make the case that Jesus did NOT exist; the writings of the New Testament certainly constitute enough evidence to affirm Jesus’ basic existence, and (as I’ll be discussing further with my next post) some of the strongest evidence that Jesus existed is also evidence against his supposed divinity.

However, with the state of the evidence for Jesus’ mere existence being as it is, it certainly draws into question ANY claims regarding his life, and shows how absurd it is to believe that the evidence in any way supports the miraculous and supernatural claims regarding him.

Further Reading:
The Case Against The Case For Christ by Robert M. Price
Godless by Dan Barker
Challenging the Verdict by Earl Doherty

A Christian’s Take on Biblical Misconceptions

I’ve found that some of the most effective (and in some cases, harshest) critiques of Christianity actually come from other Christians (search YouTube for Frank Schaeffer and you’ll see what I mean), and this recent article by retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong is a perfect example of that.

Of course the most extreme conservative fundamentalists will just dismiss his arguments out of hand (they probably don’t consider Episcopalians to be “real” Christians anyway), but sometimes it takes being called-out by a member of the “in-group” to realize where one’s beliefs–like those held by fundamentalist evangelicals–have gone horribly awry.

Some excerpts:

“First, people assume the Bible accurately reflects history. That is absolutely not so, and every biblical scholar recognizes it.”

“Jesus of Nazareth, according to our best research, lived between the years 4 B.C. and A.D. 30. Yet all of the gospels were written between the years 70 to 100 A.D., or 40 to 70 years after his crucifixion, and they were written in Greek, a language that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke or were able to write.”

“…miracles do not get attached to the memory of Jesus story until the eighth decade. The miraculous birth of Jesus is a ninth-decade addition; the story of Jesus ascending into heaven is a 10th-decade narrative. In the first gospel, Mark, the risen Christ appears physically to no one, but by the time we come to the last gospel, John, Thomas is invited to feel the nail prints in Christ’s hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.”

“The Bible exhorts slaves to be obedient to their masters and wives to be obedient to their husbands. Over the centuries, texts like these, taken from the Bible and interpreted literally, have been used as powerful and evil weapons to support killing prejudices and to justify the cruelest kind of inhumanity.”

The Three Biggest Biblical Misconceptions

BTW, Spong is also the most well known proponent (and perhaps the originator) of the idea that the Apostle Paul–the only writer of the New Testament to condemn homesexuality–may himself have been a repressed gay man.

So you think we live in a “broken” world…

Christians love to describe our world–the same world they presumably believe their God has provided for us–as “broken”, “fallen”, or some other such hyperbolically spiteful adjective. And yet that world–specifically the world we live in right now, in the year 2012–happens to be, by virtually any objective metric, the best world that humans have ever lived in throughout the entirety of our existence. By an enormous margin.

And not only is our current world superior to that of any historical period for the obvious reasons–unprecedented advances in science, technology, and medicine–but also in terms of education, standards of living, life expectancy, human rights, and lack of violence (from both crime and war).

The odds of a person being killed in a violent death today are a fraction of what they were just a century ago, and a miniscule fraction of what they were just a few centuries ago. Since Medieval times the odds of being murdered in England, for example, have plummeted by a factor of 50 times (Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” discusses countless more examples).

Even here in the US, which saw a rise in crime after the 50’s (and a huge spike in the late 80’s, largely due to crack cocaine), crime rates–particularly violent crime rates–have plummeted to levels that we haven’t seen in 30+ years, and have continued to decline even throughout the recession (the first time that has ever occurred in U.S. history).

The fact that someone would be privileged enough to live in this day and age (a privilege that less than 1% of all humans who have ever lived have been fortunate enough to claim) and yet have the gall to label our world “broken” is absolutely astonishing.

Insanity or Linsanity?

My brain’s tribalistic, in-group vs out-group instincts that have been ingrained as a result of our paleolithic evolutionary past are having a hard time deciding if I should root for this guy for being the first Asian-American NBA player (and the player–of any race–with the most points in his first four career starts in NBA history), or root against him for being a Tebow-esque Christian. So far the racial instincts are overriding the religious ones.

Linsanity continues…

The Bible: Lost in Transliteration…

Welcome to the Bible, where translation matters.

I was looking into whether Paul (essentially the “inventor” of Christianity) ever actually claimed Jesus was God (the general consensus of biblical scholars seems to be that he did not), and I came across this passage which is apparently often used as evidence that he did.

First the NIV (New International Version) translation:

“Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised!”

But behold… the alternate translations:

“Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is over all. God be forever praised!”

“Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah. God who is over all be forever praised!”

Just slight tweaks to the punctuation, and one moment Jesus is God, the next moment he’s not (reminds me of the old joke about the panda who eats shoots and leaves).

Anyway I sent this over to the writer of the Pagan Preacher blog for his take, and received this great response:

The translation quoted here is the NIV, which is notorious for making “tweaks” in the translation that buttress evangelical theology. It’s often done in subtle ways so that the casual reader will not notice. (Until very recently the NIV was the single most preferred translation in evangelical churches.) In my opinon the more sturdy standard translation is the old Revised Standard Version, and in the RSV they do not translate Romans 9:5 as referring to Christ’s divinity. I went back and looked at the Greek and it is indeed a thorny passage to translate, which is par for the course for Paul’s prose. As you probably know, in the Greek manuscripts there were no punctuation marks, capitalization, or word divisions at all. And that makes accurate translation an even more difficult task. If one were looking for places where Paul talks about Jesus’ Godly status, probably the most compelling would be Philippians 2:6 “…though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…” However, saying that Jesus was in the “form” of God, doesn’t exactly say that he WAS God. And that’s why it took the Christian movement the better part of three centuries to come to an “orthodox” consensus on the exact nature of Jesus’ divinity.