Sunday, 13 December 2009

Arguing A Historical Jesus

As mentioned before, my lessons in Christianity among other things were largely centred around Jesus being a historical fact. A man called Jesus lived and the gospels are a historical and corroborative account of his life. The argument then follows that since the narratives are true, then it follows that the miracles are true. Thus Christ really was born of a virgin, walk on water, heal the sick, raise the dead, and in turn conquered death himself.

So in hindsight it comes at no surprise that people quibble over whether Jesus was real or not. Of course if the story were entirely made up, then that would be the easiest way to defeat Christianity. But like those positing that the fossil record is fake to dismiss evolution, such a view doesn't appear to reflect the reality of the situation. Now I take the view that the question of a historical Jesus is a meaningless one, it's asking the wrong question.

A hooded mystery
Growing up in an English-derived culture, the myth of Robin Hood should be familiar to us. This 12th century outlaw who stood up against tyranny while the noble king was off fighting for God and country (mainly God) would have been the perfect analogy. Except that this seems to be false, the myth didn't start there but was altered in the 16th century to be that tale. It's a good thing I decided to check out the Robin Hood story before launching into a very complex and false analogy which would have been based on the tale I've heard in the 20th century.

But no matter, the myth may have been altered through time but it doesn't take away from the point I wanted to make - that is the distinction between a historical figure and a legend. So lets take the Robin Hood character and ask, what does it mean for Robin Hood to be a historical figure? i.e. what can be said about the man himself that sufficiently ties the mythic narrative to the exploits of a real person?

It seems that on some accounts, it would be preferable to say that if there was someone called Robin Hood who was an outlaw, then that's sufficient to cast him as a historical figure. The real Robin Hood didn't live in the forest with his merry men, wear green, seduce the lovely maid Marion, or rally against the forces of tyranny.

The problem I see with this view is now that while the myth may be coupled with actual events, the actual events don't reflect the narrative of the myth. It's all well and good to say that there was a historical Robin Hood, but he's not at all what we expect Robin Hood to be. To highlight this further, maybe it needs to be a little more absurd. Santa Claus will do. Now there are plenty of historical stories of men giving gifts on Christmas from many different countries. Yet do we talk about the bearded figure who really should be worried that his workshop will be in danger of sinking next summer?

In other words, there seems to be an equivocation brought in between real people and the "historical" narratives as we understand them today. A real Santa doesn't mean flying reindeer, a real Robin Hood doesn't entail the merry men, and a real Jesus doesn't entail driving out the money lenders from the temple. Thus why I think it asks the wrong question whether Jesus was a historical figure. How does the legend match the historical actuality of events?

The problem of miracles
No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish. - David Hume
The above quote highlights the problem that comes with positing the miraculous. This isn't a categorical denial that miracles (in the sense of a violation of natural law) could happen, but rather at the nature of believing in such things.

So with the narrative being littered with miracles, how confident can one be that the gospels are a reliable source? Now I know some who posit that the miraculous is what shows Jesus to be what he truly is, that the implausibility actually adds to the possibility that Jesus is the real deal. So lets take that to be true for one moment. Lets say that all the miracles of the New Testament did indeed happen. So the gospel narratives are in-fact historical eyewitness accounts. How can we satisfy the problem of miracles as stated by Hume above?

This to me is where the problem lies. We weren't there to witness the events, and even if we were we wouldn't be able to safely say that what we witnessed was a violation of natural law or merely an illusion. After all we have plenty of experience with illusionists but no experiences with the violation of natural law. What we are relying on is the interpretation of individuals to what they think they saw independent of the events that actually transpired. In other words, we can see Uri Geller bending spoons but seeing the bending of spoons doesn't follow that a violation of natural law (or indeed an unknown natural phenomenon) actually took place.

So even being the most generous we could be to the accuracy of the narrative, we could not in all conscience accept the narrative to be true. We just couldn't be able to distinguish between an interpretation of events, dismiss all other possibilities that such events happened naturally, account for lying or trickery, reinterpretation, exaggeration, the fallibility of memory, etc. So while it could indeed have happened as stated, we have no good basis to believe that it happened that way.

A house of cards
Back to the question of whether the narrative matches with the actuality of events. Hopefully by now I've established the problems associated with taking the biblical Jesus as a historical Jesus. As much as it would be an easy dismissal of the concept, whether Nazarene existed in the 1st century CE or not doesn't matter so much. Neither does whether the gospels between themselves can put a consistent picture of what happened in the tomb. These are trivial points that really don't to my mind capture the issue.

Pointing to the addition of Mark 16:9-20 or the modification on Josephus' work in the 4th century to make Jesus a more historical figure really only serve to cast doubt on the untenable assumption of historical acuity of the gospel writers themselves. It doesn't satisfy the problem of anecdotal eyewitness evidence, even if those witnesses were second hand seeming a good rebuttal or that witnesses 2 and 3 plagiarised from witness 1.

At what point would a historical charismatic cult leader qualify as the man behind the legend? Does the exclusion of actual miracles still make the biblical Jesus a historical one? What if the events that took place in John involving the money lenders never happened? Or that the words attributed to him are really a collective of profundities proclaimed by a variety of holy men? If parts of the Jesus story were written to fulfil Old Testament prophecies, does it still count as being a historical Jesus?

This is why I find the question of a historical Jesus quite irrelevant. Whether there really was a man or not doesn't factor into why I don't believe. Even if there was a man behind the myth, it doesn't necessitate miracles or prescribed events. Putting a place, time, and even person onto the myth means that there is still the myth to contend with.

To me it comes down to if someone wants to believe, it's a matter of faith. If one has faith that the particular narrative is true, then no matter what inconsistencies, additions, impossibilities, etc. there's going to be no way to shake someone out of that.


atimetorend said...

The case for a mythical Jesus seems to be largely based on the fact that most of the details of his life in the gospel narratives contain or consist of elements of myth. Which reinforces your position that his existence would not altar your disbelief in the narratives.

"To me it comes down to if someone wants to believe, it's a matter of faith."

It is too bad faith doesn't get left at that then. Too often it is presented as a moral failure if one does not believe the "facts", which are then said to require faith to believe. So convoluted!

Anders Branderud said...

"Historical Jesus"?!?

Just using this contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes your Christian-blinkered agenda--dependent upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.

Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").

Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?