Reader Peter Nothnagle sent me the transcript of an Easter talk, “Jesus: Fact or Fiction?”, that he gave last March to a joint meeting of the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Iowa City and the Secular Humanists and the Secular Students at Iowa. I was much impressed with Peter’s success at distilling all the scholarship around the historical “Jesus” (he’s read all the relevant stuff) as well as his ability to present it in a reader (and listener) friendly manner.
Peter’s conclusion is that there is no evidence for a historical person around whom the Jesus myth accreted—something I’ve thought for a long time. But he knows a lot more than I do about this, so I’ll let you read his paper—and you should. He’s put it up at a Google Drive link given in bold below, and you can download it and print it out.
Peter wrote an introduction for me to post here; you should read this before his paper:
For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the question of who, or what, lies at the root of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. About a year ago I was asked to give a talk on the subject for a local Humanist group, and I had a great time doing a lot of research and formulating my own thoughts on the question. I see that a lot of people share my interest, since every time Jerry posts anything about it, he gets at least a hundred comments.
I shared a copy of my talk with Jerry, and he thought other readers might be interested to read it, so Jerry is kindly allowing me to link to a PDF which may be downloaded here.
The too-long, didn’t-read version: When lined up in the order in which they were composed, the accounts of the life and works of Jesus reveal that he was originally worshipped as a celestial being who never had a body, never had a ministry or disciples, and never appeared in person to anyone. Later writings brought him “down to earth” in physical form, adding increasingly fantastic story elements as time went on, in tales which were carefully set in a time and locale conveniently inaccessible to verification. While Christian writings all show signs of continual reworking as the theology evolved (an activity that continues to this day!), there are no independent accounts of Jesus or any of his supposed disciples from the entire century during which the religion supposedly began.
I conclude that the figure of Jesus was invented by one faction in a diverse religious landscape in an effort to create an “apostolic succession” of authority – “our priests were taught by priests that were taught by followers of Jesus Christ himself, in person”. But even if I’m completely wrong about that, it is undeniable that the only evidence that exists for a living, breathing, walking, talking Jesus is weak, contradictory, or simply fraudulent. Therefore no one can be justified in believing that such a person existed.
JAC: One of the things that’s always puzzled me is the rush to judgment about the historical Jesus by Biblical scholars, nearly all of whom, including Bart Ehrman, are eager to say that a historical (not a divine!) Jesus is probable, despite the woeful lack of evidence. This includes Biblical scholars who aren’t religious. It often seems that they’re being tendentious: trying to arrive at a conclusion that splits the difference between secularists and religious people, trying to offend neither group. Peter mentions this toward the end of his paper, and I wanted to give one of his quotes. But again, you’ll be greatly edified by reading his whole talk.
So much for how Christians answer the Christ-mythicists. How about secular historians? I have to say, their answers really aren’t any better! What I have seen is that time and again, their rebuttal is something like “The overwhelming majority of experts agree that Jesus was a real person.” And that’s true, most of them do say that, but why? They go on, “The evidence for a historical Jesus is so abundant that we shouldn’t even have to defend our position.” And strangely, most of them stop at that point, with that assertion. Most historians dismiss Christ-mythicism as crankery and fringe pseudohistory, but if pressed for their evidence that Jesus was a real person, we’re back to the same suspect and contradictory sources that I have already refuted in this brief talk – the gospels, the epistles, tradition, authority – in other words, they take it on faith. They also have some obscure and technical arguments like the “criterion of embarrassment” and the fact that Paul refers to the apostle James as “the brother of the Lord” – which I can get into if you want, but I assure you, I can defeat those, too, and I’m just some guy with a hobby! Also, strange as it sounds, some historians rely on sources that don’t actually exist. For example, they say that when Matthew and Luke were adding to the narrative of Mark, they might have used a collection of Jesus’ authentic sayings which has since been lost – therefore this missing document is evidence for a historical Jesus. Well, maybe, but that goes both ways, you know – I could stand here and counter their hypothetical documents with my hypothetical documents. But if I did, I would hope you wouldn’t think that I was persuasive! It really does seem bizarre to me.
We wouldn’t be having this kind of controversy over any other demigod from a distant land 2,000 years ago. Nobody obsesses over the historical Hercules, after all. Jesus gets a pass on the way history is normally done, even among most secular historians. It’s as if there’s some psychological reason why, in spite of all the accumulated evidence and clear-headed modern arguments, they still seem unable to move from “we can be certain” to “we can’t be certain” – like, they would have to admit that they and their beloved mentors might have been wrong all along. Or maybe some of them think their careers would suffer if they published something their universities’ big donors didn’t like.