Saturday, 16 August 2014

Jesus was invented in 1983

N.B.: since I am not a crank who believes that the earth is hollow or that absent tin foil on my head the CIA can hear my thoughts please be assured that what follows is written with my tongue quite solidly in my cheek, in order to show why it is that disbelieve in Jesus's existence is intellectually on par with the aforementioned absurdities. It does so through reductio ad absurdum, a wonderful rhetorical device with a splendid pedigree. Now, without further ado...

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Jesus never existed and that the gospels are myths. Now, among the four canonical gospels is one attributed to a man named Luke. Presumably if Jesus is a myth then Luke is too, but we can nonetheless suppose that somebody actually wrote this gospel. Now, there is also another text out there called "The Acts of the Apostles," that purports to be the sequel to the aforementioned gospel by a possibly existent author. Now, whether it was written by the same person or not it seems reasonable to suppose that if the first volume consists but of myth that the second includes little to no history. Yet that volume constitutes our earliest account of Paul's life; indeed, all other accounts of Paul's life are largely dependent on this one. Thus it seems quite likely that if the hero of the first volume, viz. Jesus, was a myth, then the hero of the second volume, viz. Paul, is also a myth.

Now, you might object: but we have letters from Paul! Well, perhaps they are all forgeries, written to sustain the fiction that is Acts. Same with the reference to Paul that is found in 2 Peter 3:15-16. You might object: but we have people referring to Paul in the second century. Well, perhaps those are forgeries too. After all, much of the material that we have from the second century is actually found in manuscripts that date from centuries later; and even if they come from the second century perhaps they are simply part of the deception. Maybe none of those people who cite Paul themselves existed! You don't know; you weren't there. So all we're left with are a few manuscripts dating to the second century that mention a guy named Jesus; a few others that mention a guy named Paul. All told, not enough to affirm their existence.

Yet we don't even have that. What we have are some papyrologists claiming that they have found manuscripts dating from the second century in which Paul is mentioned. How do I know that they are qualified to speak on the matter? And even if they are, how do I know that they aren't in on the conspiracy also? I cannot check for myself after all, I lack access and qualification. I have but their word for it. And I'm such a cautious fellow that I cannot but doubt their testimony on the matter. So really all we have is some twentieth-century scholars, who might have vested interests in establishing the existence of Jesus and Paul, telling us that they have some second-century material that mentions these two figures. And really, I've never met most of these scholars, so I don't even know if they exist. And even if I met them, really I'd have but met people claiming to be these scholars. How could I ever verify that their claims are true and good?

Indeed, how do I know that belief in Jesus or Paul existed before the 20th century? Sure, I read in history books that it was recurrent through history. But those books were written quite recently. They claim to be based upon scholarship, but those scholars might be fictions. They claim to be based upon historical documents but those might be lies. I've not seen most of these documents, after all. I really have no direct experience of belief in Jesus's existence before attending Sunday School in the 1980s. So really I can't be sure that such belief existed before that time. You might tell me that you have memories of such belief from before that but how do I know I can trust you on the matter? Or that you even exist?

Thus do I conclude that no one believed in the existence of Jesus prior to 1983, and that in fact Jesus belief predates Return of the Jedi by just a few months.

Now, let me remove my tongue from my cheek. What I'm done here is intentionally mimic Richard Whatele, who used this sort of radical skepticism to prove that one could not be sure of Napoleon's existence...and this whilst Napoleon was yet alive! Of course Whateley's tongue was in his cheek, because obviously Napoleon existed. But in the process he advances a biting critique: if a line of historical reasoning leads to the conclusion that the greatest news maker of the day never existed then perhaps it is better considered a line of historical unreasoning.

In the end, as with most other conspiracy theories, I'm left wondering: what possible motive would anyone have had for making up Jesus or Paul or the modern New Testament papyrologist? Yes, perhaps with sufficient sophistry I can show how it is logically possible that these figures never existed. But have I given a convincing explanation for why anyone went about this effort? Why bother? Who, in the late first or early second century would have thought it was a great idea to make up Jesus or Paul, if these were not an invention of the 20th century?

8 comments:

  1. Not all mythicists engage in extreme skepticism in order to sustain their beliefs. Richard Carrier's latest book, "On the Historicity of Jesus" (Sheffield Phoenix, 2014) makes the case without proposing that Paul's letters are inauthentic. In fact, everything he puts forward in support of his hypothesis he cites evidence for.

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    1. Well, sure, there is diversity among Jesus-deniers. That goes without saying. And of course I never said that Jesus-deniers also deny Paul's existence. What I said is that any operative procedure that leads to the judgment that Jesus did not exist would, if applied to the cognate study of the historical Paul, render it somewhat difficult to judge that Paul either existed or wrote the letters attributed to him. Either this is recognized and insofar as one's argument is predicated upon Paul writing certain texts and thus also upon his existence one either does the work of showing that Paul existed and wrote the letter(s) in question using the same procedure as one adopts in assessing Jesus' existence or else one fails to be consistent in one's historical operations. I am suggesting further that the hermeneutic of suspicion required to sustain Jesus-denial will make Paul-denial a virtual certainty. And note of course that suspicion and skepticism are hardly exclusive of the positive citation of evidence.

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    2. The obvious response point is that there are relevant differences between Paul and Jesus. For instance: so far as we can tell it was not common practice in the first and second centuries for church leaders to be *invented*. On the other hand, it is certainly the case that legendary sons of god and divine men were invented, and invented more commonly than they actually existed. Moreover, mythicists like myself (and Carrier, and Price) would also make a positive argument to the effect that the content of numerous early Christian documents (including Paul's letters) are *better* explained by the hypothesis that Jesus was a myth than that he was historical. This can't be said about the hypothesis that Paul was a myth.

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    3. (I think Price at least toys with the idea of Paul-mythicism though....)

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    4. It *is* really hard to see how a Jesus-denier would not end up a Paul-denier.

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  2. "On the other hand, it is certainly the case that legendary sons of god and divine men were invented, and invented more commonly than they actually existed." This statement fails to attend to three crucial facts: first, that there is a difference between Jewish and Greek religion; second, that early Christianity developed out of the former rather than the latter; third, that there is nothing comparable to Jesus-belief in early Judaism. These fact significantly vitiate your arguments. If you state that Jesus-belief came out of a non-Jewish context then how do you account for the clearly Jewish preoccupations of the New Testament writers?

    Now, that aside, let us deal with the elephant in the room. You write "so far as we can tell it was not common practice in the first and second centuries for church leaders to be *invented.*" Here are three questions about which I am unclear.

    First, how do you account for the origins of the church if not in response to Jesus' life and ministry? I.e., from whence comes this thing that did not invent its leaders (which in this formulation, which I maintain as your own, is actually problematic, as by definition if they were leaders they existed. We'll suppose an implicit qualification, namely "purported leaders")?

    Second, how do you know that these are the origins of the church?

    Third, how do you know that they did not invent their leaders?

    Before you can reasonably claim that your account is intelligible let alone more compelling than any other you will need to give satisfactory answers to each of these questions.

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  3. "This statement fails to attend to three crucial facts: first, that there is a difference between Jewish and Greek religion;"

    Of course there is. However, Christianity was born from Hellenized Jews, and shows numerous tell-tale traces of Greco-Roman influence (I will discuss this further).

    "second, that early Christianity developed out of the former rather than the latter;"

    I think there's a false dichotomy here: In other words, it is not as if we have to choose between A) The hypothesis that Christianity developed from Judaism or B) The hypothesis that Christianity developed from Greco-Roman beliefs. There is a third alternative: that Christianity developed from some of each (I'd say that Judaism was by far the most influential, but Greco-Roman ideas were a heavy secondary influence). Two scholars who have presented arguments on this behalf (that Greco-Roman influences played a rather significant secondary role in the origins of Christianity) are Dennis MacDonald (See especially 'The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark') and the magnificient new book "Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God" by M. David Litwa.

    "third, that there is nothing comparable to Jesus-belief in early Judaism."

    I think you'd have to specify what aspect of Christianity you find unique. I believe that most of the primary elements of Christianity have their roots in ancient Judaism or in ancient GrecoRoman religions, or in some plausible syncretism of the two.

    "First, how do you account for the origins of the church if not in response to Jesus' life and ministry?"

    We account for it in the same way that many other religions have begun: with purported revelations from a celestial being. Islam began with Muhammed's alleged visions and visitations from the angel Gabriel, Mormonism began with Joseph Smith claiming a meeting with the angel Moroni, and analogous phenomena exist in the modern era with UFO cults who claim to have been visited by extraterrestrials. Applying this to Christianity, the hypothesis is that Jesus was initially envisioned as almost an angelic figure ('Behold the son of man, you made him a little lower than the angels') who had been crucified (but not on earth, in the lower heavens, and not by humans, by demonic powers). Later on the gospels were written, which I think were written primarily as a sort of allegorical literature that portrayed events happening on earth that actually represented events that happened in the heavens where angels and demons resided, in addition to symbolically communicating moral and theological beliefs of various sorts.

    Does that sound barking mad? I don't blame you for thinking so : )
    However, each element of this hypothesis can be shown plausible with a careful study of ancient thought and practices, and various pieces of evidence (from Paul's letters to the book of Hebrews) are explained better, I think, by this than by the standard account. I don't hope to convince you of all of this in a blog comment. I think "On the Historicity of Jesus" is an excellent place to start for learning about mythicism, because it is there that the ideas are fully explained and supported with ancient evidence. The book was published by Sheffield-Phoenix, which I think makes it worth the while to look into, if you're open-minded about it.

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  4. "Third, how do you know that they did not invent their leaders?"

    All else being equal, we usually believe what an ancient author tells us. As such, when I read a letter that claims to be written by Paul, I would think that it is probable that he wrote it unless some type of evidence to the contrary existed. Moreover, it is very difficult to make sense of the content of those letters unless there really was somebody named Paul writing them, which I take as an obvious point to anyone who reads them.

    I suppose you would want to apply the same principle to Jesus: "All things being equal, we should believe what an ancient author tells us. An ancient author (Mark, Matthew, Luke or John) tells us Jesus existed, therefore, he did." The trouble is, I believe that not all things are equal. The gospels are so heavily loaded with symbolism and blatant fiction of various kinds that I think they are not attempting to relay facts about genuine events that they thought took place in the past (they are relaying theological beliefs as well as veiled references to cosmic events which had not happened on earth). Moreover, Jesus falls into a category called the mythic hero archetype. Most (though not all) figures who fit the mythic hero archetype were not real people. It follows that Jesus probably was not either (all things being equal). The mythic hero archetype and figures that fit it are listed here:
    http://department.monm.edu/classics/courses/clas230/MythDocuments/HeroPattern/default.htm

    Again, I don't think any of what I have presented so far is enough to be persuasive (that would require a very, very long discussion), but hopefully I've provided food for thought.

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