13 Aug 2018

Was Jesus Just a Myth?

Religious 21 Comments

I meant to post this Sunday but I am traveling…

In a recent potpourri post, Scott Alexander says:

Gwern reviews On The Historicity Of Jesus. Short version: the prose is annoying, but the case that Jesus was completely mythical (as opposed to a real teacher whose deeds were exaggerated) is more plausible than generally supposed. Please read the review before commenting about this topic.

I was all excited to sink my teeth into an articulate, well-researched challenge to my worldview. But see for yourself. Literally the only actual claim in the review that I can even evaluate was this one involving Paul:

Combined with the old observations about the extensive euhemerism of mystery cult figures (along with more documented recent examples of religions emerging & retroactively historicizing their ‘founders’), complete with detailed sober historical biographies of demigods we know never existed in any way, the almost total absence of any mention of Gospel events inside Paul’s (heavily-edited) letters despite extensive opportunities for allusions while instead talking about Jesus and his martyrdom by demonic “archons” in ways highly suspiciously consistent with a celestial Jesus (with the best mention being the very vague “brother of the lord” which would be good if Christianity hadn’t made a fetish of family tropes and titles and used those sorts of terms quite indiscriminately)

(In the quotation above, I’ve included the beginning of the sentence just to give a flavor of the review.)

So like I said, that was literally the one claim that I could even parse, and understand how it was a challenge to the historicity of Jesus. The only problem is, Paul says stuff like this (from 1 Corinthians 15):

Now I would remind you, brothers,[a] of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

The Resurrection of the Dead

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope[b] in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

So I think it’s fair to say that Paul does the exact opposite of what the book reviewer claims. He refers to gospel events, and in fact bases the Christian faith itself on the historical fact that Jesus died and rose again.

I realize I have a dog in this fight, but I am astonished that Scott Alexander pointed his readers to such a nonsensical book review on a rather important topic. I am happy to hear pushback on this.

21 Responses to “Was Jesus Just a Myth?”

  1. Harold says:

    I am glad to have learned a new word – euhemerism.

    He is fond of the long sentence. ” I am a little dismayed to note that while I didn’t put too much stock in mythicism before reading it, and I still hate Carrier’s writing style* and totally unnecessary invocations of Bayesian statistics, Carrier answers most of my questions by finding antecedents for the apparently novel & historical aspects of Christianity and many parallels for mythicism along with many oddities which are inconsistent with a simple historicism, so I do now think “we might have reason to doubt”.

    He seems far from convinced, but more inclined to the plausibility of the mythological explanation.

    • Andrew says:

      Wow you’re right about the long sentences. I just did a Ctrl+F for the period character on that review. There are two consecutive long blocks of text that at first glance appear to be paragraphs. But upon further inspection, both of those “paragraphs” contain a single period at the end. That is some impressive run-on sentencing.

      • Harold says:

        Wow, they are even longer than I realised. A quick check of readability of the whole review gave the following:
        Flesch Reading Ease score: 3.5 (text scale)
        Flesch Reading Ease scored your text: very difficult to read.

        Gunning Fog: 28.2 (text scale)
        Gunning Fog scored your text: EXTREMELY difficult to read.

        The average sentence length for U.S. high school and adult readers is between 13-16 words. Your average sentence length is 53.

        Nobody says everything has to be easy, but this seems to be making things difficult for no obvious purpose.

  2. Mark says:

    Bob –

    A great topic. Obviously there are tons of books, videos, articles, etc., that address this subject. I’ll pass on a few of things.

    First, if the Bible IS the word of God, we don’t need anything beyond the Bible to know that Jesus exists. (Present tense, not past.)

    However, second, see this page from James Patrick Holding’s website, tektonics.org: http://www.tektonics.org/jesusexisthub.php where he documents Jesus existence from secular sources.

    Third, I have emailed you a copy of Greg Koukl’s talk on the subject, Jesus: Man or Myth? Greg is the Founder and President of Stand to Reason (str.org) The attachment is safe – I promise. (some overlap between Holding’s material and Greg’s talk, but it’s still worth listening to)

    • Keshav Srinivasan says:

      Mark, how would you prove that the Bible is the word of God without relying on the existence of Jesus?

      • Mark says:

        Why would I attempt that? Jesus is God in human flesh. I take His word on anything over your silly hypothetical.

        Additionally, before Jesus was born, what we now call the OT claimed (almost) countless times to be the word of God. Jesus confirmed that.

        And if there was a way to “prove” the Bible is the word of God, whatever that was would be a higher authority than the Bible itself. Nothing like that exists.

        • Keshav Srinivasan says:

          I was responding to your statement “First, if the Bible IS the word of God, we don’t need anything beyond the Bible to know that Jesus exists.” So if you know the existence of Jesus based on the Bible being the word of God, how do you know the Bible is the word of God?

          • Mark says:

            Many reasons. Google that question and you’ll find a ton of them.

  3. Jan says:

    Silly question : would that be a problem if Jesus was not a historical person, i.e. not accepted as such by the majority of atheists? Why should you, a Christian, care?

    • Andrew says:

      That’s not what historical person means.

    • Capt. J Parker says:

      Christians believe they should spread the word of God. Rebutting the claim that no one named Jesus of Nazareth ever actually existed is part of fulfilling that mission.

  4. Andrew says:

    It feels like one would need to read the book to appreciate the review. I would guess that Scott only linked to it because his name is mentioned in the text of the review.

    That being said, this part seemed potentially worthy of a response (depending on the source(s), which would require reading the book):

    . . . various anomalies like early traditions which thought Jesus was martyred a century before Pontius Pilate under Alexander Jannaeus, or by Herod, or during the reign of Claudius (bizarre mistakes if they had any access to the Gospels, since the Gospels contradict each other to a much smaller degree about the timings, but the dates here are being calculated by symbolic/theological means like in the Book of Daniel).

    There isn’t a whole lot to the review. Gwern isn’t really explaining and expanding on the points that he found relevant. It’s more of a laundry list of things that he found to be of note. So I personally would say that the review is shallow, rather than nonsensical.

  5. Capt. J Parker says:

    Dr. Murphy said: “I am astonished that Scott Alexander pointed his readers to such a nonsensical book review on a rather important topic. I am happy to hear pushback on this.”

    Isn’t it simply Scott Alexander and Gwern have formed a mutual admiration society?

    From Gwern: “Carrier assembles a surprising amount of evidence that a figure like Jesus the Christ could organically emerge out of existing Greco-Roman and Jewish theology and imaginative pesher (as exemplified by groups like Qumran or the various Gnostics or, to be a little cheeky, Scott Alexander’s Unsong), ”

    Terrific rebuttal by the way.

  6. TSB says:

    The bible IS the word of god is the worst form of special pleading. OF COURSE if it were that would settle things, but you actually have to prove that make some presuppositional assumption to make your case.

  7. Andrew says:

    . . . but you actually have to prove that . . .

    Says who?

    • Harold says:

      Says who?
      The rules of logic, I think. You don’t have to make that case at, but if you do want to make that case then you need some other proof to avoid circular reasoning.

      The case being that the bible is the word of god and we know this because it says so in the bible.

      • Andrew says:

        Most things that you believe are not based on sound reasoning and sufficient evidence. Oftentimes the evidence is insufficient to soundly justify a position but you have to take a position anyway. The claim that the Bible is a work of fiction is one such position.

        But even if one felt that he had sufficient personal knowledge to fully justify his belief in the Truth of the Bible, which I do, why does he “actually have to prove that” to a determined doubter?

        the bible is the word of god and we know this because it says so in the bible.

        This is the personal blog of economist Robert P. Murphy and I know this because it says so at the top of the page.


        • Harold says:

          “why does he “actually have to prove that” to a determined doubter?”

          He doesn’t have to do that at all. Nobody is under any obligation to persuade anyone of anything.

          However, if he did want to prove it to a determined doubter then using the bible would be insufficient to do so.

          I think people believe because, as you say they feel they have sufficient personal knowledge to justify their belief in the truth of their religion. A lot if this will be from personal experience. I don’t think anyone has been persuaded by logical proofs of that truth and seeking such a thing is probably pointless.

  8. Matjaž Horvat says:

    I’m not surprised at all. Based on some other things I’ve read by Scott, the guy’s far from reliable.

  9. Craw says:

    I do get tired of this stuff. The mythicists always appeal to ignorance. Here is a useful site https://historyforatheists.com/

    Occam > SlateStarCodex : No Jesus cult CE 0, lots of Jesus cult groups CE 40. Easiest explanation is there was some guy Jesus circa CE 25.

  10. Benjamin Cole says:

    I recently watched a fascinating show on the Shroud of Turin, which seems to lay out a solid argument that the carbon dating was done on a part of the Shroud that was anomalous. Along with much other evidence, I think this suggests Jesus was a historical figure.

    Was he divine? That is a matter of faith, and I have no desire to challenge anyone’s faith. In fact I admire people who have faith, and American Christians often seem to be the nicest people anywhere.

    You can lose your wallet in a lot of places, but getting it back is unlikely unless you lose it in a church.

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