bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exit? – Part 3

If Jesus did not EXIST, then Jesus did not EXIT this life by dying on a cross in Jerusalem. If Jesus did not die on a cross in Jerusalem, then Jesus did not rise from the dead. So, this question of whether Jesus existed has a direct logical connection to the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead.
If the probability that ‘Jesus existed’ is .8, then the probability that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ cannot be any higher than .8, and given that the evidence for the claim that ‘Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday’ is weak, then the probability that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ would be something significantly less than .8 (less than eight chances in ten), on this assumption.
If the probability that ‘Jesus existed’ is .5, then the probability that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ cannot be any higher than .5, and given the weakness of the evidence for the claim that ‘Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday’, the probability of ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ would be significantly less than .5 (less than five chances in ten). Clearly, the probability that one assigns to the claim ‘Jesus existed’ has a direct impact on the probability that one ought to assign to the claim ‘Jesus rose from the dead’.
Before I describe and evaluate the first argument for the existence of Jesus that Bart Ehrman puts forward in Chapter Three of his book Did Jesus Exist?, I want to take the good advice of Keith Parsons, and clarify the basic claim of those who argue in support of the existence of Jesus:
Actually, “Did Jesus Exist?” needs to be clarified. I would put it this way: “Was there a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived in the early first century, who can be identified with the ‘Jesus’ of the canonical Gospels?” To be identified with the Jesus of the Gospels, this putative Jesus would have to have SOME of the characteristics of the Biblical Jesus. If there were a “Jesus” who lived in Nazareth at the time and ran a used camel lot and never had any interest in religious matters, then this person, obviously, could not be identified with the NT Jesus.
(Comment by Keith Parsons on “Did Jesus Exit? – Part 1”)
Parsons goes on to describe three different hypotheses, beginning with a ‘Minimal Jesus Hypothesis’:
1) Was there a Jesus minimally like the NT Jesus? …I will assume that the differences (which are real) between the depiction of Jesus in the Synoptics and the John are not THAT different and that they agree on enough points to permit a general, core depiction of Jesus to be gathered from the Gospels. What I am asking, then, is whether there was someone who was to some minimal degree like the Jesus of the Gospels. Let’s say someone who was a wandering rabbi from Galilee, who attracted a following, and somehow fell afoul of the Romans and got crucified.
(Comment by Keith Parsons on “Did Jesus Exit? – Part 1”)
I have quickly reviewed Ehrman’s positive case for the existence of Jesus and found several passages that indicate that Ehrman, as I expected, does in fact argue for something similar to the ‘Minimal Jesus Hypothesis’ suggested by Parsons.
The first indication occurs in the second-to-last paragraph of the Introduction to DJE:
…a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist. He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic. But he did exist and we can say a few things, with relative certainty, about him.
(DJE, p.6, emphasis added)
The next indication that Ehrman is arguing for something like Parson’s Minimal Jesus Hypothesis occurs on the second page of Chapter One:
Despite the enormous range of opinion, there are several points on which virtually all scholars of antiquity agree. Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea.
(JDE, p.12, emphasis added)
The fact that these two indications that Ehrman is arguing for something like the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis occur in the Introduction and opening pages of Chapter One, provide significant confirmation of my suspicion that this is indeed the position Ehrman is defending. But there are further passages that confirm this understanding of Ehrman’s viewpoint:
…my claim is that once one understands more fully what the Gospels are and where they come from, they provide powerful evidence indeed that there really was a historical Jesus who lived in Roman Palestine and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
(DJE, p.70)
We have a number of surviving Gospels–I named seven… . These all attest to the existence of Jesus. Moreover, these independent witnesses corroborate many of the same basic sets of data–for example, that Jesus not only lived but that he was a Jewish teacher who was crucified by the Romans at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.
(DJE, p.92, emphasis added)
WHAT CAN WE SAY in conclusion about the evidence that supports the view that there really was a historical Jesus, a Jewish teacher who lived in Palestine as an adult in the 20s of the Common Era, crucified under Pontius Pilate sometime around the year 30?
(DJE, p.171)
UP TO THIS STAGE in our quest to see if the historical Jesus actually existed, Ihave been mounting the positive argument, showing why the evidence is overwhelming that Jesus really did live as a Jewish teacher in Palestine and was crucified at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.
(DJE, p.177)
Based on these six passages from DJE, it is clear to me that Ehrman is attempting to defend something like the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis that Parsons suggested be the focus of my inquiry.
Since Ehrman is currently the prominent NT scholar who has defended the claim that ‘Jesus existed’, I will define the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis in terms of what Ehrman has asserted in the above passages, with some slight revisions (for the sake of clarity and plausibility).
Here is my initial attempt to define the Minimal Jesus Hypothesis in keeping with Ehrman’s defense of the existence of Jesus:
There was a flesh-and-blood person…
1. who was named ‘Jesus’
2. who was a Jewish man
3. who lived in Palestine as an adult in the 20s C.E.
4. who was known to be a preacher and a teacher
5. who was crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans around 30 C.E.
6. who was crucified when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea

I have left out Ehrmans specification that Jesus was crucified “at the instigation of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem”(DJE, p.92) because that seems too controversial to include in a reasonable ‘minimal’ historical theory, which aims to be nearly certain or highly probable.
Although perhaps not as controversial, I have also excluded Ehrman’s claim that Jesus was “crucified at the direction of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate” (DJE, p.177), because this seems to me to be a somewhat questionable historical claim, one that is not necessary to include in the ‘Minimal Jesus Hypothesis’.
The above Minimal Jesus Hypothesis (hereafter: MJH) needs further clarification, but it is, I believe, a good starting point for spelling out the historical Jesus position that Ehrman is trying to defend.

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exit? – Part 2

Author: Bart D. Ehrman
Publisher: HarperCollins
Copyright: 2012.
Full Title:
Did Jesus Exist?
The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

Introduction (p.1-7)
Part I: Evidence for the Historical Jesus (p.11-174)
Chapters 1-5
Part II: The Mythicists’ Claims (p.177-264)
Chapters 6 & 7
Part III: Who Was the Historical Jesus? (p.267-339)
Chapters 8 & 9, plus a Conclusion
Bibliography (p.341-345)
Notes (p.347-361)
I will focus in on Part I: Evidence for the Historical Jesus (p.11-174). Bart’s positive case is actually presented in the Chapters 3,4, and 5 (p. 69-174). Each of these three key chapters has a conclusion that summarizes his argument in that chapter. And the conclusion to Chapter 5 gives a summary of his whole positive case for the historicity of Jesus (p.171-174). So you can get a good feel for Ehrman’s positive case by reading just a little over three pages, at the end of Chapter 5.
Bart Ehrman is a somewhat skeptical NT scholar who acknowledges that there are significant issues with the Gospels in terms of their historical accuracy and reliability. He is clearly NOT an apologist for Evangelical Christianity, and describes his own views on religion this way:
I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or Christian agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings, and my life and views of the world would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed. My beliefs would vary little.
(DJE, p.5)
I am of a similar mindset, except that I am an atheist with agnostic leanings, and I have an interest in promoting doubt and skepticism about Christianity and about belief in God.
Because Ehrman is a somewhat skeptical NT scholar, he makes a number of concessions towards the skepticism of the mythicists, before he gets into presenting his positive case in Chapter 3. So, let’s take note of some of the skeptical points that Ehrman concedes early on in the book:
The Bible is filled with a multitude of voices, and these voices are often at odds with one another, contradicting one another in minute details and in major issues involving such basic views as what God is like, who the people of God are, who Jesus is, how one can be in a right relationship with God, why there is suffering in the world, how we are to behave, and so on.
(DJE, p.36)
…there are inumerable historical problems in the New Testament…
(DJE, p.37)
To begin with, there is no hard, physical evidence for Jesus…including no archeological evidence of any kind.
(DJE, p.42)
We do not have any writings from Jesus.
(DJE, p.43)
…no Greek or Roman author from the first century mentions Jesus.
(DJE, p.43)
…we do not have a single reference to Jesus by anyone–pagan, Jew, or Christian–who was a contemporary eyewitness, who recorded things he said and did.
(DJE, p.46)
But what about the Gospels of the New Testament? Aren’t they eyewitness reports? Even though that was once widely believed about two of our Gospels, Matthew and John, it is not the view of the vast majority of critical historians today, and for good reason.
(DJE, p.46)
The authors of these books [the Gospels] were not the original followers of Jesus or probably even followers of the twelve earlthy disciples of Jesus. They were later Christians who had heard stories about Jesus as they circulated by word of mouth year after year and decade after decade and finally decided to write them down.
(DJE, p.48)
…the Gospels of the New Testament are not eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus. Neither are the Gospels outside the New Testament, of which we have over forty, either in whole or in fragments. In fact, we do not have any eyewitness report of any kind about Jesus, written in his own day.
(DJE, p.49)
In Chapter 2, Ehrman considers some non-Christian sources for the life of Jesus, and he comes up basically empty-handed.
He considers three Roman authors and draws a negative conclusion:
These three references are the only ones that survive from pagan sources within a hundred years of the traditional date of Jesus’s death (around the year 30 CE). At the end of the day, I think we can discount Suetonius as too ambiguous to be of much use. Pliny is slightly more useful in showing us that Christians by the early second century knew of Christ and worshipped him as divine. Tacitus is most useful of all, for his reference shows that high-ranking Roman officials of the early second century knew that Jesus had lived and had been executed by the governor of Judea.
(DJE, p.56)
It might sound like Ehrman thinks that Tacitus provides some significant evidence for the existence of Jesus, but this is not so, based on his comments in a previous paragraph:
…the information [from Tacitus] is not particularly helpful in establishing that there really lived a man named Jesus. How would Tacitus know what he knew? It is pretty obvious that he had heard of Jesus, but he was writing some eighty-five years after Jesus would have died, and by that time Christians were certainly telling stories of Jesus (the Gospels had been written already, for example), whether the mythicists are wrong or right. It should be clear in any event that Tacitus is basing his comment about Jesus on hearsay rather than, say, detailed historical research.
(DJE, p.56)
At the end of Chapter 2, Ehrman examines Jewish sources about Jesus, and also draws a negative conclusion. First he considers the Jewish historian Josephus:
…though both the mythicists and their opponents like to fight long and hard over the Testimonium of Josephus, in fact it is only marginally relevant to the question of whether Jesus existed.
(DJE, p.66)
Then Ehrman considers and rejects Rabbinic sources about Jesus:
These Talmudic references to Jesus were written hundreds of years after he would have lived and so are really of very little use for us in our quest. …If we want evidence to support the claim that he did in fact once exist, we therefore have to turn to other sources.
So, the non-Christian sources fail to provide any significant evidence for the existence of an historical flesh-and-blood Jesus.
If Jesus did not EXIST, then Jesus did not EXIT this life by dying on a cross. If Jesus did not die on a cross on Good Friday, then Jesus did not rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. No historical Jesus: no historical resurrection of Jesus.

bookmark_borderDid Jesus Exit? – Part 1

Let me lay my prejudices out on the table, before I get into the pros and cons about Bart Ehrman’s case for Jesus being an actual historical person.
My current opinion is that it is very likely that Jesus existed, but I don’t think that anything about Jesus is certain, so I would allow for about one chance in ten that Jesus was NOT a real person.
I am a skeptic about the claim that “Jesus rose from the dead”, so although my current opinion favors an historical Jesus, I have an interest in the correctness of the view that Jesus is a mythical, i.e. non-historical, person. If there was no Jesus of Nazareth, then there was no resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. So, if a good case can be made for Jesus being a myth, that helps my case against the resurrection.
If Jesus did not EXIST, then Jesus did not EXIT this life by dying on a cross in Jerusalem on Good Friday. If Jesus did not EXIT this life, then Jesus did not rise from the dead.
On the other hand, if a good case can be made for the view that Jesus was a real hisorical person, that impacts my skeptical case against the resurrection of Jesus. However, there are many good reasons to doubt the basic historical claims that are used in support of the resurrection, so I don’t really need to have a strong case for the view that Jesus is a myth.
If in  his book Did Jesus Exist? Bart Ehrman makes a strong case for Jesus being an historical person, then my opinion might change, but only slightly.  Perhaps, I would be willing to bump up the probability that Jesus was a real person from .90 to .95, but I doubt that even a strong case would change my probability estimate that much. A probability of .9 seems fairly high for a ‘fact’ about ancient history, even for a basic assumption such as the existence of Jesus.
On the other hand, if I find out that Bart’s case is as weak as the mythicists claim it to be, and if I find that one of the leading mythicists makes a strong case for Jesus being non-historical, then my opinion would go the opposite direction. There is a lot more room heading downward from a probability of .9. So, I might revise the probabilty down to .8 or .7 or .6 or .5 or .4, etc., depending on how weak Ehrman’s case is and on the strength of the best mythicist case.
I have read some of what Earl Doherty and G.A. Wells and Richard Carrier have said on this topic (not yet familiar with Robert Price’s stuff), so I doubt that a closer examination will move me to the complete opposite position (.1 probability that Jesus existed and .9 probability that Jesus is a myth). So, barring an unlikely radical shift in my thinking, I expect that a careful examination of this issue will leave me somewhere between a probability of .9 that Jesus is historical (my current view) and a probability of .3 that Jesus is historical.
In general, anyone who claims to be confident that the probability that Jesus existed is greater than .9 (on the historical Jesus side) or less than .1 (on the mythicist side) will lose credibility as an historical thinker in my view.
Given that I am a skeptic and have firmly rejected Christianity for a variety of reasons, I have an interest in the correctness of the mythicist point of view. But my current opinion is that Jesus was probably an historical person. So, those are my main prejudices on this issue, and since they point in opposite directions, I believe that I am open to giving serious consideration to the arguments and cases both for and against the view that Jesus was an historical person.
Since the main disputants in this issue talk about who has appropriate credentials and who does not, I should lay out my own credentials, or lack of them. I am not an historian. I am not an NT scholar. I don’t know Greek or Latin or Hebrew or Aramaic. My educational background is in philosophy, with a focus on ethics, philosophy of religion, and critical thinking. Like the issue of the resurrection, I see the issue of the historical Jesus as an interdisciplinary issue, so philosophy has a role to play here, as it does with the resurrection issue. Critical thinking is relevant to any issue whatsoever.
Furthermore, though I’m not a scholar, Bart Ehrman is an NT scholar, Robert Price is an NT scholar, Richard Carrier is an historian, and Earl Doherty clearly knows a ton of facts and arguments on this issue. So, we have a lot of knowledge and expertise in the writings of these people to draw upon.
If Ehrman makes a mistake in asserting some historical fact, one of the well-informed mythicists will likely point that error out. If one of the mythicists makes a claim or assumption that is questionable from the point of view of NT scholarship, Ehrman will likely point that out. They are all capable of pointing out errors of logic and reasoning in each others arguments, so there is lots of help there from these experts.
Finally, Jesus is not the property of NT scholars nor of historians. The issue of whether Jesus is the divine Son of God belongs to every thinking person, at least every thinking person in the West, where Christianity has been the dominant religion for many centuries.
The issue of whether Jesus rose from the dead thus belongs to every thinking person, as does the issue of whether Jesus existed. If Jesus did not EXIST, then Jesus did not EXIT this life on the cross, and did not rise from the dead, and thus was not the divine Son of God.
I have been assuming here that ‘If Jesus was not an historical person, then Jesus did not exist’. But it occurs to me that, strictly speaking, this assumption is not true. Perhaps this is hair-splitting, but what appears to be hair-splitting often leads to a significant conceptual point, so I’m going to briefly consider this objection…
One way in which it could be true that Jesus was NOT an historical person but was instead a mythical person, is if Jesus were the product of visions or hallucinations. Both Paul and Peter, the great original evangelists of Christianity, experienced ‘visions’ according to the NT.
Also, Gospel scholars take seriously the possibility that some of the sayings of Jesus were generated as prophecy: early Christian believers having ecstatic experiences that they took to be experiences of Jesus or the Holy Spirit resulted in utterances of wisdom that were taken to be the words of Christ from heaven. Such prophetic messages from Christ could have been later interpreted to be words spoken by the historical Jesus. If some of the sayings of Jesus were produced this way, then it is at least theoretically possible that ALL of the sayings (and doings) of Jesus were produced by means of visions and prophecy.
If the Gospel stories about the historical Jesus originated in visions and prophecy from early Christians, this could explain why we have the Gospel accounts of Jesus, when Jesus was not an actual historical person. In this case Jesus would literally be a myth, in that the term ‘myth’ is most properly used of stories of alleged experiences of angels, spririts, and gods.
In this case, though, it is still possible that Jesus existed. If God or angels or spirits are only manifested to humans through visions and prophecy, it is still possible that God exists, that angels exist, or that spirits exist.
We skeptics are not likely to be persuaded by the “evidence” of visions and prophecy. We skeptics are likely to take such experiences to be hallucinations or purely subjective experiences with no supernatural cause or object behind them.
But, if someone claims to have had a vision of Jesus, it is at least theoretically possible that the vision was veridical and that there was a Jesus who existed and was the object or cause of that experience. In this case, there would be no historical (flesh-and-blood) Jesus of Nazareth, but there would be an actual Jesus, an existing Jesus, a supernatural Jesus or Christ who resides in heaven.
However, if the Gospels are mostly or entirely the product of visions and prophecy, and not the product of people interacting with a flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth, then the Gospels are myths in both senses of this word. The Gospels would be about a heavenly Jesus/Christ rather than an earthly flesh-and-blood Jesus, and the Gospels would NOT be historical but rather fictional, at least when read as biography. They would be fictional biographies filled with false historical claims, and the project of Christian Apologetics would be dead.

bookmark_borderRobert M. Price on Westboro Atheists

For the April issue of Zarathustra Speaks, Robert M. Price has published a well-written essay describing what he calls “Westboro Atheists.” I agree with pretty much everything he writes, especially this:

This is why I cringe every time I hear about the latest attempts of the Freedom from Religion Foundation to scour every expression of faith from the public square.

He then goes on to write this:

Just today I dropped by Town Hall to pay my utility bill, under the wire, I might add, and I was disappointed to find the place closed in observance of Good Friday. But my instinct was not to get on the phone with the ACLU and to start legal proceedings. I believe that the FFRF and like-minded zealots are operating from a basic confusion. They see as a church-state issue what I believe is better understood as a culture-state issue. For local government to allow a manger scene on public property or to allow crosses to adorn veterans’ graves is in no way tantamount to a legal establishment of religion, though making churches tax-exempt probably is. Posting “Thou shalt have no other gods besides me” in public schools is.

That’s an interesting way of looking at things, which I hadn’t considered before. Of course, it’s possible that something can be both a church-state issue and a culture-state issue. In fact, it seems to me that that is the case. But there are church-state issues and then there are church-state issues. Do I think having God on U.S. coins is a church-state issues? Yes. Do I think it would be better if the coins dropped the reference to God? Yes. Do I think it’s a battle worth fighting? Not really; litigating God on coins strikes me as the church-state equivalent of a police officer giving out a speeding ticket to a driver for going 0.5 mph–half of one mph–over the posted speed limit. To put it bluntly, that strikes me as a bit anal retentive.