17 Dec 2017

The Superlative Jesus, Part 2

All Posts, Religious 22 Comments

In last Sunday’s post I quoted this challenge:

“Why should we place Christ at the top and summit of the human race? Was he kinder, more forgiving, more self-sacrificing than Buddha? Was he wiser, did he meet death with more perfect calmness, than Socrates? Was he more patient, more charitable, than Epictetus? Was he a greater philosopher, a deeper thinker, than Epicurus? In what respect was he the superior of Zoroaster? Was he gentler than Lao-tsze, more universal than Confucius? Were his ideas of human rights and duties superior to those of Zeno? Did he express grander truths than Cicero? Was his mind subtler than Spinoza’s? Was his brain equal to Kepler’s or Newton’s? Was he grander in death – a sublimer martyr than Bruno? Was he in intelligence, in the force and beauty of expression, in breadth and scope of thought, in wealth of illustration, in aptness of comparison, in knowledge of the human brain and heart, of all passions, hopes and fears, the equal of Shakespeare, the greatest of the human race?”Robert Ingersoll

In the last post, I took on Ingersoll’s implication that Buddha was more forgiving and self-sacrificing than Jesus. I argued that he wasn’t, simply because Jesus’ mercy and in particular self-sacrifice is just about the most you could logically imagine of a person.

Keshav (who by the way is an extraordinary guy–look at his comments on this Gene Callahan blog post) helped me out by explaining why Ingersoll presumably thought Buddha could hold his own in this respect. Here’s Keshav summarizing:

1. Buddha was opposed to the animal sacrifices that Hindus were doing at the time, and once when he saw an animal about to be killed in an animal sacrifice, he asked to be killed in its place.
2. Buddha was originally a prince who lived a sheltered life in the palace, but once he went out and saw the suffering associated with birth, death, disease, and old age, he gave up all royal luxuries and went in search of a cure for all the world’s suffering.
3. He joined a Jain monastery whose focus was self-mortification, in the hope that inflicting great pain upon himself might lead him to achieve a realization of how to end the world’s suffering.
4. He sat under a tree giving up food, water, etc. and meditated, in the hope of achieving a realization of how to end the world’s suffering.
5. He asked that all the sins of not only mankind but all living beings accrue to him instead.
6. Buddha believed he’d found the end to suffering, and he could have just adopted the solution for himself and ended all of his suffering, but he decided to forgo his happiness for the sake of alleviating the suffering of others.
7. Once he was walking through a forest when he met a robber who said “I’ve come to take all your belongings.” He said “OK, take them.” Then the robber said “No, but I’m also going to cut off your little finger, because I make a garland out of the little fingers of all my victims.” Buddha said “OK, take it.” The robber said “No, you don’t understand, I’m not just going to take your little finger, I’m going to take your life.” Buddha said, “OK, take it.”
8. Once someone gave Buddha poisoned pork. Buddha accepted it with equanimity and ate it. He immediately fell violently ill, but he told his disciples to tell the person who gave it to him that the pork was excellent and that he would achieve great rewards in the afterlife for serving the last meal of Buddha. Buddha died shortly thereafter.

In a related vein, RPLong said this:

Buddha is said to have attained Nirvana, which is basically analogous to the kind of total universal comprehension you were talking about in your previous post, Bob. In a manner of speaking, Buddha went to the Buddhist equivalent of Christian heaven. Note that some Buddhist monks of ages past have committed ritual suicide when they believed they had achieved this. Instead, Gautama Buddha spent the rest of his life traveling around and teaching people despite knowing that they would never fully understand.

He gave up heaven, in a way, to share his knowledge with the world. That’s an enormous sacrifice. Now, you could argue that it wasn’t as big a sacrifice because it didn’t involve torture and crucifixion, but is that really the standard we want to set for self-sacrifice? It only really counts if it’s physically painful? I don’t think so.

OK, so these are great anecdotes. I don’t want to come off like I’m saying, “Pshaw, Jesus is the only wise and self-sacrificing person.”

Even so, if we are going to allow the supernatural, then Jesus has Buddha beat here too. According to the Bible, Jesus was literally God, a King who humbled Himself to become a poor man born in a manger in order to (be tortured to death and) save us. According to the Apostles’ Creed, after the crucifixion Jesus plunged into the depths of hell to conquer death on our behalf. So if you’re going to allow that Buddha achieved Nirvana and then walked back from it in order to share it with us, that’s fine (and cool), but it doesn’t top the Christian narrative.

Now just to clarify, for the remainder of these posts, I’m not going to invoke anything supernatural. Obviously, on its own terms, the accounts of Jesus establish that there is no greater name. But I took Ingersoll’s challenge to be directed at people like Dan, who had said (words to the effect) that the accounts of how Jesus conducted himself as a man, show him to be the greatest man who ever lived and a role model for even secular people.

Before ending this post, let me address two more things:

First, look again at what Keshav wrote about Buddha: “Once someone gave Buddha poisoned pork. Buddha accepted it with equanimity and ate it. He immediately fell violently ill, but he told his disciples to tell the person who gave it to him that the pork was excellent…”

This is a neat story, but it underscores why I rejected Buddhism and returned fully to Christianity in grad school. Recall I had been a “devout atheist,” then went through some experiences and trains of thought that made me believe in a God. However, I was wide open at first, and I started reading about Buddha. (I can’t remember if I explored Confucius.)

I could see there was a lot of wisdom in the Buddhist approach, but I finally concluded something like this: The Buddhists teach you to deal with apparent evil by telling yourself that for all you know, maybe it’s good. The Christians teach you to deal with evil by having faith that God will use it achieve good. Those sound similar but they’re actually radically different, and it’s why I decided Jesus was my leader, not Buddha.

Finally, in the comments of the first post, Capt. Parker brought up C.S. Lewis’ famous trilemma, by which Jesus was either Lord, liar, or lunatic. In other words, C.S. Lewis rejected as faux homage when people said, “Oh I am not religious, but I appreciate that Jesus was a great moral teacher.” Lewis said that if you actually study the gospel accounts–especially if you understand the basics of Judaism–then it’s clear Jesus was saying He was God. And so you can’t pick and choose his sayings in order to dodge the question, according to Lewis.

So yes, I think that’s right, but even so, the first step is to get people to agree that in terms of Jesus teaching us about human nature and how to conduct ourselves in this bewildering life, he has the key. And once you admit that, it will be harder for you to resist the implications of that, when you consider the other claims Jesus made.

22 Responses to “The Superlative Jesus, Part 2”

  1. Keshav Srinivasan says:

    Bob, thanks for the kind words. I’m glad someone appreciated my point about the Eudoxian theory of proportions and Dedekind cuts, even if Gene didn’t. (If anyone’s interested in this, check out Euclid’s Book V and marvel at how ahead of its time it is.)

    By the way, have you seen Scott Alexander’s response to C.S. Lewis’ “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument?


    I find it quite convincing. It’s possible to consider someone a “wise moral teacher” even if they are a “lunatic” in an extremely broad sense of the term.

    • Capt. J Parker says:

      Thanks for pointing us to Scott Alexanders take on Lewis’ trilemma. I had trouble following your link at first so I followed google and ended up in a loosely related SSC post here:


      where Scott Alexander says this: “Although I don’t agree with his formulation of the trilemma, it puts something that people would otherwise spend interminable hours debating without ever reaching the core of the issue – into sharp relief, so that it can be attacked or defended in its strongest form.”

      So, maybe Ingersoll’s challenge needs a response but, I think more likely Ingersoll just puts us on a path to spending interminable hours debating something without ever reaching the core of the issue.

      Note: I’m still digesting Dr. Murphy’s initial response to Ingersoll in his post. I don’t want anyone to think Iv’e concluded Dr. Murphy hasn’t provided an adequate response.

    • Craw says:

      Legend is the answer, but it’s not a mythicist answer. Legends can accrete around real people: George Washington and the apple tree for instance. There was a Jesus, he had followers, they made up stuff. It’s impossible to know much about him with 100% certainty, but we can come up with some good theories and back them with evidence. This is what critical scholarship has done.
      The one certainty is that, like you, me, Bob or Richard Speck, he wasn’t god.

      • Keshav Srinivasan says:

        Well, I do agree that the incarnation, the miracles, the atonement, and the resurrection are legends built around Jesus. But the key question is whether Jesus claimed to be God, and if so whether that means he is God, or a liar, or a lunatic. I think that if he did claim to be God, he might have been a “lunatic” in a very broad sense of the term, that would not conflict with him being a “wise moral teacher.”

        But I also think there’s a significant chance that he never claimed to be God, and that that’s another “legend” that accreted around him. He might have simply claimed to be the Jewish messiah, prophesied to restore the kingdom of Israel. Certainly the claims of divinity are less pronounced in the synoptic Gospels than they are in the Gospel of John.

        • Craw says:

          I can’t fault your hypothetical. I too think there is a very strong case that he did not claim to be god, and that the texts implying that are later emendations — legends. I think he was in fact a Jewish teacher of a particular stripe, an apocalyptic one. If that is the case the chances he taught he was god are about zero.

        • Mark says:

          There are countless books, videos, articles, etc., on the Deity of Christ available. Coincidentally, yesterday’s Answers in Genesis published another one, just in time for our discussion: The Divinity of Jesus Revealed in the New Testament. https://answersingenesis.org/jesus-christ/jesus-is-god/divinity-jesus-revealed-new-testament/ A good synopsis of the evidence for Jesus’ Deity; not just from His own statements, but from all over the New Testament.

          Jesus used the name of God (“I am” from Exodus 3:14) referring to Himself on several occasions. Believing He is God is a requirement of salvation. Jesus Himself said, “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” John 8:24

          The word ‘He’ is in italics in that verse. The reason for that is that it wasn’t in the original, but implied by it. So He is actually saying unless you believe He is God (ego eimi), you will die in your sins.

          Later in that chapter we have this account:

          “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” John 8:56-58 (Again see Exodus 3:14)

          The Jews knew exactly what He meant and in the next verse tried to stone Him. The same thing in John 10: “The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” 10:31-33

          The bottom line is that Jesus is God, and there is salvation in no other: “unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins,” and “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” John 14:6 “for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12

          People have made up all kinds of religions where they think that following a list of dos and don’ts will make them acceptable to God. You are not capable of that – God’s standard is perfection. Only the righteousness of Christ can make you acceptable, and that is a gift you cannot earn. It is freely offered by the One whose birth we celebrate next week. The One who split time in two – Immanuel, God with us. The One who “became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

        • Capt. J Parker says:

          C. S. Lewis argued against the idea that Jesus’ claims
          of being God are just legend in this way: ”What are we to do about reconciling the two contradictory phenomena? One attempt consists in saying that the man did not really say these things; but that His followers exaggerated the story, and so the legend grew up that he had said them. This is difficult because His followers were all Jews; that is, they belonged to that Nation which of all others was most convinced that there was only one God — that there could not possibly be another. It is very odd that this horrible invention about a religious leader should grow up among the one people in the whole earth least likely to make such a mistake. On the contrary we get the impression that none of His immediate followers or even of the New Testament writers embraced the doctrine at all easily.”


          I find this a very strong argument. Jesus’ early followers would never invent the idea that Jesus claimed to be God as a way of elevating the stature of Jesus the merely human moral teacher. No, with their reverence for God, inventing the idea that someone claimed to be God would be a sure fire way to demonize that person.

          • Craw says:

            Of course if you reject everything Paul said you can conclude his followers were all Jews. Interesting approach, basing Christian theology on the mendacity of Paul.

            And the gospels were not written by his immediate followers, but by followers decades later, spread out over much of the eastern Roman empire. In fact the *earliest* documents are from the (presumed liar) Paul

            You also have to ignore other gospels not selected for the NT, and the presence of various sects all with forms of a “son of god” idea.

            The whole argument is ridiculous on its face though. The early followers of Joseph Smith were all Protestants. They were dedicated to the reliability of (existing) scripture. Yet they swallowed the book of Mormon whole. This shows that Lewis’s attempt to apply a generalization that would be true of a large mass (a large mass of Jews would certainly reject claims of divinity) does not apply to every person, or small sect.

            • Capt. J Parker says:

              “The first Christians, as described in the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, were all Jews either by birth or conversion, for which the biblical term “proselyte” is used,[1]and referred to by historians as Jewish Christians. The early Gospel message was spread orally, probably in Aramaic,[2] but almost immediately also in Greek.[3] The New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles and Epistle to the Galatians record that the first Christian community was centered in Jerusalem and its leaders included Saint Peter, James, the brother of Jesus, and John the Apostle.[4]”

              Lewis statement that Jesus followers were “all Jews” is correct in all ways that matter. Early Christians and authors of the New Testament, including Paul, were Jews and they would never have made up the ideal that Jesus claimed he was God.

              Lewis also makes another argument against the idea that early Christians started out thinking Jesus was just and ordinary man though a great moral teacher. Quoting Lewis “We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met him. He produced mainly three effects — Hatred — Terror — Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.”

              The book of Mormon’s acceptance by New World protestants is not even close to being analogous to the radical reversal of doctrine that would have been required for early Christians to start thinking that inventing the clam that that someone called himself God was something positive as opposed to being a way to accuse that person of abject heresy. The most heretical thing in the book of Mormon is its negation of Matthew 16:18 where Jesus says the forces of death shall not prevail against His church. But protestants had already been struggling against that verse for several hundred years.

              • Craw says:

                First, let’s consider the cogency of Lewis’s argument even if he is right. Could *later* Christians have made up or altered the stories so that they seem to show early Jewish followers accepting Jesus as god? Yes, they could. This is undeniable right? So even if Lewis’s claim is right it doesn’t establish what he needs.

                But it isn’t right because as I pointed out, it’s just not the case that *every single person raised a Jew would insist on anything*. Which is Lewis’s argument.

                You need to be careful what you mean by early Christian too. The documents we have are from 30-70 years after Jesus died. They were written, and altered over time, by groups whose exact composition and ancestry neither you nor Lewis know.

                My point about the book of mormon is simpler than you are reading it to be. iot is simply that you cannot apply a generalization about Jews to particular sects, especially ones that are clearly fragmented from the mainstream, however defined. Can’t do it with 19th centiuy Americans, about whom we know a lot more, can’t do it with 1st century Jews who left no written account.

              • Capt. J Parker says:

                “Could *later* Christians have made up or altered the stories so that they seem to show early Jewish followers accepting Jesus as god? Yes, they could. This is undeniable right?”

                So if your postulate is Jesus in not God and never said he was and then you allow yourself to simply reject any written record that disproves your postulate because the record “could have been” altered or “could be” otherwise unreliable, how on earth can your postulate ever be falsified? By your rules you could prove Buddha was a hamster and Vishnu was an elderberry tree.

              • Craw says:

                Surely being god is a rare event, and so the burden of evidence is on those claiming to prove some guy was god. The evidence we are discussing is books written long after the guy died, and afterwards copied manually for centuries. Of course they are subject to change and legend.

                You apply these standards yourself. There are other such books about other guys you reject after all. You probably reject less extravagant claims about Mohammed, such as the flying horse story. Why?

                But aside from could have been we can prove the stories have changed. This is because we have variant manuscripts. We also have more complex evidence impossible to summarize in a blog comment. But read some serious critical scholarship for details.

              • Capt. J Parker says:

                The only claims I made were, contrary to your assertion, there is a very strong case to be made that Jesus did claim he was God and C S Lewis’ arguments on this point are good ones.

      • Mark says:

        Leave it to Craw to construct an entire paragraph of untrue statements. As a stand-alone sentence, one of them was true, but in context, every sentence in that paragraph is a lie. It’s his way.

        • Craw says:

          I’m in good company: you call St Paul a liar too!

          • Craw says:

            Oops, I see it’s CS Lewis, not you, who implies Paul is a liar. My apologies.

  2. Keshav Srinivasan says:

    Bob, you said “So yes, I think that’s right, but even so, the first step is to get people to agree that in terms of Jesus teaching us about human nature and how to conduct ourselves in this bewildering life, he has the key.” In the earlier thread I posted examples of Buddha’s actions, but it may also be good to give information about Buddha’s teachings:


    This is the Dhammapada, a core scripture of Buddhism giving a list of Buddha’s sayings. I daresay that it contain just as much practical wisdom and insight into human nature, if not more so, than the Gospels.

    (For the record, as a Hindu, I have my disagreements with Buddhism, but in many of those disagreements most Westerners would probably take the side of Buddhism.)

    • Keshav Srinivasan says:

      Let me pick out some quotes for those who don’t wish to read it:

      1. “”He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,”–in those who harbour such thoughts hatred will never cease. “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,”–in those who do not harbour such thoughts hatred will cease. For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.”
      2. “The world does not know that we must all come to an end here;–but those who know it, their quarrels cease at once.”
      3. “As rain breaks through an ill-thatched house, passion will break through an unreflecting mind. As rain does not break through a well-thatched house, passion will not break through a well-reflecting mind.”
      4. “The evil-doer suffers in this world, and he suffers in the next; he suffers in both. He suffers when he thinks of the evil he has done; he suffers more when going on the evil path. The virtuous man is happy in this world, and he is happy in the next; he is happy in both. He is happy when he thinks of the good he has done; he is still more happy when going on the good path.”
      5. “By rousing himself, by earnestness, by restraint and control, the wise man may make for himself an island which no flood can overwhelm. Fools follow after vanity, men of evil wisdom. The wise man keeps earnestness as his best jewel. Follow not after vanity, nor after the enjoyment of love and lust! He who is earnest and meditative, obtains ample joy.”
      6. “5Not the perversities of others, not their sins of commission or omission, but his own misdeeds and negligences should a sage take notice of.”
      7. “Like a beautiful flower, full of colour, but without scent, are the fine but fruitless words of him who does not act accordingly. But, like a beautiful flower, full of colour and full of scent, are the fine and fruitful words of him who acts accordingly.”
      8. “Long is the night to him who is awake; long is a mile to him who is tired; long is life to the foolish who do not know the true law.”
      9. “”These sons belong to me, and this wealth belongs to me,” with such thoughts a fool is tormented. He himself does not belong to himself; how much less sons and wealth?”
      10. “As long as the evil deed done does not bear fruit, the fool thinks it is like honey; but when it ripens, then the fool suffers grief.”
      11. “An evil deed, like newly-drawn milk, does not turn (suddenly); smouldering, like fire covered by ashes, it follows the fool. And when the evil deed, after it has become known, brings sorrow to the fool, then it destroys his bright lot, nay, it cleaves his head.”
      12. “Good people walk on whatever befall, the good do not prattle, longing for pleasure; whether touched by happiness or sorrow wise people never appear elated or depressed. If, whether for his own sake, or for the sake of others, a man wishes neither for a son, nor for wealth, nor for lordship, and if he does not wish for his own success by unfair means, then he is good, wise, and virtuous.”
      13. “If a man would hasten towards the good, he should keep his thought away from evil; if a man does what is good slothfully, his mind delights in evil.”
      14. “Even an evil-doer sees happiness as long as his evil deed has not ripened; but when his evil deed has ripened, then does the evil-doer see evil. Even a good man sees evil days, as long as his good deed has not ripened; but when his good deed has ripened, then does the good man see happy days.”
      15. “All men tremble at punishment, all men fear death; remember that you are like unto them, and do not kill, nor cause slaughter. All men tremble at punishment, all men love life; remember that thou art like unto them, and do not kill, nor cause slaughter.”
      16. “Do not speak harshly to anybody; those who are spoken to will answer thee in the same way. Angry speech is painful, blows for blows will touch thee.”
      17. “He who inflicts pain on innocent and harmless persons, will soon come to one of these ten states: he will have cruel suffering, loss, injury of the body, heavy affliction, or loss of mind, or a misfortune coming from the king, or a fearful accusation, or loss of relations, or destruction of treasures, or lightning-fire will burn his houses; and when his body is destroyed, the fool will go to hell.”
      18. “How is there laughter, how is there joy, as this world is always burning? Why do you not seek a light, ye who are surrounded by darkness?”
      19. “Let us live happily then, though we call nothing our own! We shall be like the bright gods, feeding on happiness! Victory breeds hatred, for the conquered is unhappy. He who has given up both victory and defeat, he, the contented, is happy. There is no fire like passion; there is no losing throw like hatred; there is no pain like this body; there is no happiness higher than rest.”
      20. “Let a man leave anger, let him forsake pride, let him overcome all bondage! No sufferings befall the man who is not attached to name and form, and who calls nothing his own.”
      21. “The fault of others is easily perceived, but that of oneself is difficult to perceive; a man winnows his neighbour’s faults like chaff, but his own fault he hides, as a cheat hides the bad die from the gambler. If a man looks after the faults of others, and is always inclined to be offended, his own passions will grow, and he is far from the destruction of passions.”
      22. “‘All created things perish,’ he who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way to purity. All created things are grief and pain,’ he who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way that leads to purity. ‘All forms are unreal,’ he who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way that leads to purity.”
      23. “He who, by causing pain to others, wishes to obtain pleasure for himself, he, entangled in the bonds of hatred, will never be free from hatred.”
      24. “A man is not an elect (Ariya) because he injures living creatures; because he has pity on all living creatures, therefore is a man called Ariya.”
      25. “Let no man think lightly of evil, saying in his heart, It will not come nigh unto me. Even by the falling of water-drops a water-pot is filled; the fool becomes full of evil, even if he gather it little by little. Let no man think lightly of good, saying in his heart, It will not come nigh unto me. Even by the falling of water-drops a water-pot is filled; the wise man becomes full of good, even if he gather it little by little.”

  3. RPLong says:

    Bob, thanks for the additional engagement on this point. You bring up something that I wasn’t previously aware of, even though I’ve read the New Testament a few times: The Harrowing of Hell. It’s in the Apostle’s Creed, but it’s more explicit in this passage from the gospel of Peter:

    After being made alive,[a] he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water,

    Well, you’ve got me there. In light of this, I’d rank Jesus’ sacrifice as higher than Buddha’s.

    • Keshav Srinivasan says:

      Don’t you mean the first epistle of Peter?

      • Craw says:

        Callahan would tell you that’s an epistolic answer to a gospel question.

  4. Capt. J Parker says:

    Dr. Murphy,
    I want to make sure I understand you properly. Your stated your intent is to demonstrate the primacy of Jesus as a teacher of righteous human behavior without invoking the supernatural and that you believe no invocation of the supernatural is a requirement in order to correctly address Ingersoll’s challenge. In this present comparison with Buddha you said somewhat climactically: “I could see there was a lot of wisdom in the Buddhist approach, but I finally concluded something like this: The Buddhists teach you to deal with apparent evil by telling yourself that for all you know, maybe it’s good. The Christians teach you to deal with evil by having faith that God will use it achieve good. Those sound similar but they’re actually radically different, and it’s why I decided Jesus was my leader, not Buddha.” But this argument does invoke the supernatural since it assumes the existence of God. And not a passive God either, He is one who has a purpose in mind for the tribulations we suffer in our daily existance. So, do you intend to return to a comparison of Jesus and Buddha with no reference to God? Or are the terms of the engagement against Ingersoll such that a supernatural God may be assumed but Jesus and those we compare him to must be free of any supernatural traits?

Leave a Reply