Have you found Jesus?

If only the search for Jesus was accompanied by Rockapella...So, I recently got this comment from Heng on my post about a different stupid Christian film, Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ.

Lee Strobel has been a born again Christian since 1981, so any attempt to masquerade as a skeptic is an obvious farce. But what interests me about your blog Tom, is why you believe Jesus existed. You aren’t the only skeptic or atheist to (Dawkins is another), but on what evidence is this based on? There are no contemporary references to Jesus, and outside of the Bible, which we know to be unreliable anyway, there is very scant record of him at all. This for a guy who was famous (even if you discount all miracles). No one who met him bothered to write anything down at the time? Did they run out of ink or feathers?

I was going to respond to it in the comments, but my response would have been really long, and it’s good post fodder. So, why do I believe in Jesus?

Well, the short answer is that I don’t. That’s also an inaccurate answer. Jesus is a fairly complicated question.

If we’re talking about the Jesus of the Bible–a god-man who traveled around performing miracles, healing people, and killing innocent fig trees, until his death (but he got better)–then I absolutely disbelieve that. That’s an incredibly extraordinary claim, and it would take incredibly extraordinary evidence to justify belief in that.

And then there’s the problem of all the contradictions, both internal and external, in the Biblical account of Jesus. The Gospels can’t seem to agree on even the broad details, including where and when he was born. The massacre of infants under Herod almost certainly didn’t happen; we have fairly detailed biographies of Herod’s life, written by his critics, and yet no one mentions a campaign to slaughter babies. The various actions of Pilate and the Pharisees seem to be at odds with reality, from what I understand, as well.

But a historical Jesus? The idea that there was an itinerant preacher in the first century who got a bunch of Jewish followers to believe that he was the Messiah, well, that’s not such an extraordinary claim. In fact, it’s a downright ordinary claim. We know that such preachers and cults were fairly common at the time. We know from both the past and the present how easy it is for cults to develop, especially as off-shoots of established religions (FLDS, anyone?). It wouldn’t take much evidence for me to believe that there was a Jesus.

And what about that evidence? Well, it’s a good thing that it wouldn’t take much, because there isn’t much. Josephus, as we all know, is garbage. What little there is on Jesus is almost certainly forged. What’s left is more about the Christians and what they believed, not what actually happened. And even that was written at least a century after the events it purportedly chronicles. The Gospels are no better, with their vague, obviously-slanted stories, written decades after the fact. That pretty much leaves some of the Pauline epistles, which really don’t talk much about Jesus at all. In fact, about the best evidence anyone has for the existence of Jesus is that Paul casually mentions meeting James, Jesus’s brother, in Galatians. Here’s the relevant passage, from Galatians 1:16-19:

1:16 To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:
1:17 Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.
1:18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.
1:19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.

This throwaway casual reference of meeting his alleged relative is about as good as it gets for proving that Jesus really existed. The Pauline epistles aren’t quite contemporary–Wikipedia puts the date of authorship somewhere between 49 and 58 C.E.–but that’s about as close as it gets for sources that mention Jesus.

But is that enough to justify believing in the guy? It’s certainly possible that Paul is lying, or had been lied to, and that’s something to consider. It’s also possible that he met up with the brother of Jesus. Which side of that question I tended to believe was the subject of a lot of personal consideration a few months back, after Bart Ehrman was interviewed on Reginald Finley’s “Infidel Guy” podcast.

Up until then, I’d been listening for months to Robert M. Price’s “Bible Geek” shows, which Reggie also had a hand in making. Bob’s a very knowledgeable guy about a great many things, and despite my initial skepticism at the conclusions of “The God Who Wasn’t There,” he had me passively convinced that Jesus was a purely mythical construction. If I’d thought about it hard, or if I’d been asked, I would have expressed my skeptical position; but I pretty much accepted everything Bob said.

I was psyched when I saw that Ehrman was going to be on IG, since I’d absolutely loved “Misquoting Jesus,” enough that I bought two more of his books (which I still haven’t gotten around to reading). Bart’s the one who brought up the quote in Galatians, which I’d never heard about before. I paused the podcast halfway through his argument with Reggie, and didn’t pick it up again for weeks.

My initial inclination was that Ehrman was wrong, and I was disappointed that I’d thought so highly of him. Thinking a little more critically about the situation, however, led me to recall why I thought so highly of him (because he’s clearly the type of person who knows the evidence and follows it), and why I had come to accept Price’s assessment of the situation (he was the only scholar I was exposed to). I think Ehrman was a little casual in dismissing the credibility of the Jesus Myth proponents, but I was equally cavalier in accepting uncritically their position.

At the very least, that bit in Galatians amounts to an anomaly which deserves further examination, and would be explained in any good theory about Jesus’s existence. I think the most parsimonious explanation, in this case, is that Paul wrote accurately, and met James, who claimed to be the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of a moderately apocalyptic Jewish messianic cult. That, I think requires the fewest unexplained quantities.

I think, beyond that, the story is wildly exaggerated, that much (if not all) of what is attributed to Jesus was probably not done or said by him, that he clearly wasn’t as important at the time as his followers would have liked to believe (hence his exclusion from the contemporary records–his followers, after all, would have been almost universally illiterate, and who else would have cared to mention him?), and that the whole tale is (clearly) written to conform to a commonplace hero archetype and common messianic prophecies.

That seems to be the most likely chain of events, but I’m certainly willing to entertain other hypotheses and evidence. It’s not so much that I believe he existed, that I actually spend any effort on positive belief, but I accept the “Jesus existed” hypothesis as, from my perspective, the one which best satisfies Occam’s Razor. I accept the claim of Jesus’s existence, based on its utter ordinariness and the (scant, circumstantial) evidence to support it. If better evidence or a better hypothesis rolls along, I’ll accept that instead. And as far as I see, none of this lends any credibility to the Christian account of things.

I really wish there were some decent evidence one way or another; either way, I think it would actually make things less complicated.

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