Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (11)

I frequently point out the fact that Paul doesn't say anything about Jesus being a recently deceased, miracle working rabbi.  Conservative Christians usually claim that this is a matter of little consequence. "It's assumed" they will say, or "Paul was writing epistles, not gospels."  Despite this feigned indifference, I find that apologists want very badly to use Paul to corroborate the gospels.  I recently ran across this from Tim Keller:
Paul's letters, written just fifteen years to twenty-five years after the death of Jesus's, provide an outline of all the events of Jesus's life found in the gospels--his miracles, claims, crucifixion, and resurrection.  This means that the Biblical accounts of Jesus's life were circulating within the lifetime of hundreds of who had been present at the events of his ministry.  
The Reason for God p. 101.

I guess that Keller gives himself some wiggle room by only claiming that Paul "provides an outline," rather than asserting that Paul corroborates that Jesus was a miracle worker or that he made "claims."   Without having Paul on board, the apologist has to deal with the possibility that the Biblical accounts weren't circulating earlier than forty to sixty years after the events.  That leaves aside the question of how long it took for the gospels to get into general circulation after they were composes.  If we were to go by unambiguous external references to the gospels, we would find it hard to establish that the stories of Jesus as a miracle working rabbi were circulating much earlier than a century after the events.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why I Am Not a New Atheist

Most insects are pests, but we know that their eradication would disrupt the eco-systems that sustain us, and ultimately make the world uninhabitable.

Similarly, religion may be noxious, but perhaps, for all we know, a world without religion would be a much worse place than it is today.

A resolution seems to require a prediction about the future that is beyond our powers - we cannot compute all the relevant variables involved in an alteration as dramatic as the final departure of religion from human life.
Would the world really be better without religion? by Tamas Pataki

Monday, August 23, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (10)

The issue that continues to feed my doubts about the existence of the historical Jesus is the failure of the earliest Christian writings to substantiate any of things that we are supposed to be able to know about him.

Historian E.P. Sanders asserts that the following facts about Jesus' public career are "almost beyond dispute":

  1. He was born around 4 B.C.E.
  2. He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth;
  3. He was baptized by John the Baptist;
  4. He called disciples;
  5. He taught in the town and villages and countryside of Galilee;
  6. He preached "the kingdom of God";
  7. Around the year 30 C.E. he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
  8. He created a disturbance in the temple area;
  9. He had a final meal with his disciples;
  10. He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities;
  11. He was executed on the orders of Pontius Pilate.
    The Historical Figure of Jesus pp. 10-11.

    Of the facts pertaining to Jesus' public career, almost none of them can be confirmed by our earliest sources; mostly the genuine Pauline epistles, but including almost all the epistles other than the Pastorals and 2 Peter.
    1. The early epistles don't indicate where or when Jesus was born;
    2. They say nothing about where he lived;
    3. They never mention John the Baptist;
    4. They say nothing about Jesus having disciples;
    5. They say nothing about Jesus having a teaching ministry;
    6. They do not claim that he said anything during his life about the kingdom of God;
    7. They don't say he went to Jerusalem;
    8. There is nothing about a disturbance in the temple;
    9. Paul says that Jesus instituted a Eucharistic meal, but he doesn't say anything about disciples being in attendance and Paul attributes his knowledge of it to revelation;
    10. There is nothing about an arrest or interrogation;
    11. The earliest writings don't mention Pilate.
    All this leaves me wondering whether Paul would have recognized the itinerant preacher described by Mark as the man he preached about being exalted after his death.  He might have, but I don't think that there is anything in Paul's writings to compel that conclusion.  It seems clear that Paul didn't think there was anything about Jesus' life on earth that was necessary to understand the meaning of his resurrection.  Perhaps he thought that Jesus lived his life in such obscurity that nothing could be known about him prior to his crucifixion.

    I recently had a chance to raise some of these issues with Dr. James McGrath of Butler University when he returned to one of his favorite topics with a post titled "Why Can't Mythicists Be More Like Creationists?"   Normally when he posts on this topic, he draws comments from a swarm of belligerent mythicists and I am lucky if I can get him to address more than one or two of the questions that interest me.  For some reason, however, the only one of the usual suspects who showed up was Steven Carr and he was rather subdued.  As a result, I was able to engage Dr. McGrath in a fairly extended dialogue.  I enjoyed the exchange, however, Dr. McGrath didn't really give me any reason to think that historicists have really engaged the issues.

    I was particularly struck by one (or two) of the questions that McGrath put to me:

    Vinny, please explain to me why, in your view, it is illegitimate to allow a Gospel and a no longer extant source written within a few decades of Paul's letters to complement the information we have in them. In your view, why is the universal consensus in all early Christian literature that Peter and others were followers of Jesus during his public activity to be excluded from consideration as potentially historically accurate?

    I think the legitimacy of allowing the gospels to complement the early writings depends on the question being asked.  If the question is, "Do the earliest writings corroborate the gospels?" then we can't simply allow the gospels to complement the epistles because that assumes the answer rather than determining it. The only way to answer the question is by examining the epistles to determine what information in them corroborates information found in the gospels.  

    Moreover, if it legitimate to allow one source to complement another, why isn't it legitimate to allow them to stand separately?  Is it wrong to allow Paul to have his own distinctive voice about the significance of Jesus' sojourn on earth without insisting that his writing be harmonized with someone else's narrative?  Should we insist that Paul's Jesus is a recently deceased miracle working Rabbi if Paul never says so?

    Sunday, August 8, 2010


    Periodically, I see someone brag about having read the entire Bible cover-to-cover multiple times. I'm never quite sure whether this is really something to brag about, but it is handy thing to throw out in an argument when someone questions your knowledge. Unfortunately, I have never had the discipline to wade through the entire Old Testament and sometimes I run across passages in the New Testament that I had never noticed before.

    It can be embarrassing to find that I don't know the New Testament as well as I thought I did, but it can be delightful as well. Finding some new oddity is sort of like running across an episode of Gilligan's Island that you've never seen before. For example, until yesterday, I never realized that Jesus performed coin tricks.

    When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said, "Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?" He said, "Yes." And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?" When Peter said, "From strangers," Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are exempt. "However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me." Matthew 17:24-27
    I'm surprised this passage isn't cited regularly as proof of the historicity of the gospels.  I am hard pressed to answer the standard apologetic question, "Why would anybody make that up?"

    On the same theme, here's a little sacrilege from South Park:

    Thursday, August 5, 2010

    No Matter How Cynical You Get . . . .

    . . . it's almost impossible to keep up.

    The Democrats are unable to pass a bill to provide health care for 911 first responders because they want to pay for it by closing a tax loophole.

    The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    I Give Up - 9/11 Responders Bill
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