Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (8)

When discussing the historical Jesus, I am often accused of “speculating” by someone who claims to be basing their conclusions on “the evidence we have.” It seems to me, however, that the fact that a theory is based on the evidence we have does not necessarily make it any better than any other theory. The theory must also be supported by the evidence we have.

Suppose for example, that I wanted an explanation for why Tom Cruise became a Scientologist that goes beyond the fact that he is batshit crazy. I would need information about his background, his education, his prior religious experience. I would want information about his emotional makeup, his fears, his anxiety, and his narcissism. I would want detailed information about his exposure to Scientology and the process by which he became a member. I would want the analysis of experts in the field of psychology. Even then, given the complexity of the human psyche, I would never think that any conclusion I drew would be much more than provisional.

Suppose, however, that the only pieces of evidence I had were a VHS tape of Top Gun and a copy of Dianetics. I suppose I could attempt to develop a psychological profile of Cruise based on his body language and the way he seemed to respond to the emotional changes that his character went through. Then I could look through Dianetics for elements that fit my psychological profile of Cruise. Any conclusion I reached could be said to be based on the evidence we have, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would claim that is was supported by the evidence we have.

Many Christian apologists claim that the reality of the resurrection is the best historical explanation for certain “minimal facts” which are usually deemed to include the conversion of James the brother of Jesus and the conversion of Paul. We know nothing about how or why James came to believe in his brother and very little about what was going through Paul’s head. We don’t have the kind of information we need in order to answer our questions.

The same problem holds true when it comes to group dynamics. Suppose I wanted to explain why the members of the People’s Temple followed Jim Jones to Guyana and drank the grape Kool-Aid. I would want the same kind of psychological information on all the Temple's members that I would want to explain any individual conversion, but I would also want all sorts of information about the group dynamics that influenced the members after they converted. I would want the analysis of experts in both psychology and sociology.

As I noted in my last post, historicists criticize the mythicists for failing to explain how and why so many first century Jews came to accept that a crucified criminal was the Messiah. Unfortunately we know next to nothing about how the early church grew and spread. We have some general knowledge of the expectations that Jews had concerning the Messiah in the first century, but little knowledge about the specific individuals who first preached a crucified Messiah. We also have no information about the specific individuals who first accepted that preaching or the dynamics of the first communities. It seems rather silly to suppose that our understanding of how the Christian religious movement spread is actually enhanced by positing a few general facts about a particular crucified criminal.


  1. It seems to me that your your distinction between evidence that serves as a base for beliefs and evidence that supports beliefs is akin to what some people mean when they discuss weak vs. strong evidence for beliefs. It may not be the case that that theists have no evidence for their beliefs, but my view is that their evidence is weak and does not stand up well to scrutiny.

    My initial thought is that I like your distinction, but I'm still thinking about which model works best for me, base/support or weak/strong.

  2. I think that I am trying to get at a different point, but maybe it really is the same thing. I would be happy for your feedback.

    If I look at a tombstone, I can tell that a person died, but I cannot tell why they died from the dates. I might be able to eliminate a few causes based on the age at death and I might know something about wars or catastrophic events or epidemics that were going on during the year of death. By and large, however, the tombstone doesn’t give me the kind of information I need to diagnose the cause of death.

    By the same token, Mark and Galatians may be evidence that James had been a skeptic at one point and subsequently came to believe in Jesus (although I would argue that the evidence is very weak), but they don’t tell me anything about him or his conversion that would enable me to form an opinion as to why he converted.

  3. Although I agree with 96.4|% of what you say, I would prefer that you not refer to Hey-zeus as a "criminal." Chances are, he was a good man who got a bum rap, perhaps for a fit of passion.