Monday, April 2, 2012

HJ Agnosticism (19): A Very Silly Claim

The blogosphere is buzzing over Bart Ehrman's new book, Did Jesus Exist?:  The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.  Historicists are crowing and mythicists range from disappointed to outraged.  Unfortunately, my copy hasn't arrived yet so my ability to comment on Ehrman's arguments is limited.  From what I have seen, however, I doubt that Ehrman will push me off the fence of historical Jesus agnosticism.

There is one claim that I see repeatedly in comment threads that I can address though.  It goes like this:  "There is much more evidence Jesus existed than just about any other historical character from that period."  I hope that Ehrman doesn't make this claim in his book because it is profoundly silly.

Consider for a moment the kinds of people that you would typically find discussed in a book about the history of ancient Rome.  There would be emperors and kings and generals and senators.  There would be people whose activities had a widespread impact on prominent and literate people of their day.  They would be people who were well known to prominent and literate people of their day.  These are certainly not the only people who lived in ancient Rome, but they are the kinds of people who leave a mark in the historical record.  You are far less likely to find discussions of particular slaves or peasants unless it is someone like Spartacus who attracted the attention of the prominent and literate people of his day by leading a rebellion.

The kind of people you are least likely to find discussed are people who passed their lives unnoticed by anyone outside a relatively small group of illiterate peasants.  There can be no doubt that many such people existed, but they tend not to have left individual or unique marks in the historical record.  When it comes to such people, we tend to be limited in our knowledge to the general conditions under which they lived.  We tend to be ignorant of the specific things that particular people said and did. That's the problem with our evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus.  To the extent that historians think he existed, they think that he hung out with a group of illiterate peasants.  To the extent that he attracted any attention during his life from anyone in a position of prominence, he was just another troublemaker put to death by the Roman Empire.

When Jesus first enters the historical record, it is because--to put it crudely--his ghost appeared to someone.  The man who first puts Jesus in the record didn't know him, didn't say where or when he lived or died, and said little to nothing about what he said or did during his life.  Paul's sole concern was with the theological significance of supernatural events that occurred to Jesus after his death.  I can't think of anyone else who made that kind of initial mark in the historical record about whose existence I would be confident 

Historicists like to point out that the earliest extant writings about Jesus were composed nearer to the time he lived than those for other people about whose existence we are confident.  While its true that the earliest biographies that we have for Alexander the Great were written hundreds of years after his death, their authors tell us that the got their information from biographies that were written by Alexander's contemporaries.  Where does our earliest extant source for Jesus say that he got his information?  Divine revelation.  Where do the subsequent sources tell us they got their information?  They don't say.

Does any of this provide proof that Jesus didn't exist?  Of course not.  But it should be enough to deter those who believe he did from making glib claims about how much more convincing the evidence is than for others of that time.


  1. There was all this oral tradition floating around, and Paul writes in Galatians 1 that he saw the brother of Jesus once.

    I wonder why Paul was so keen on talking about all this voluminous oral tradition about Jesus, and yet wasn't too bothered about speaking to the brother of Jesus very often.

  2. C'mon Steve. Everyone knows that James wasn't a follower of his brother during his ministry. He was a skeptic who didn't convert until after Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to him. He wouldn't have had any information that Paul wanted.

  3. ' Paul's sole concern was with the theological significance of supernatural events that occurred to Jesus after his death.'

    So why does Paul talk about the life of Abraham, Sarah, and lots of other people?

    Was he interested in the lives of those people?

    I wonder why James became the leader of the church when he knew nothing about his brother that was of interest.

  4. James was very pious. They were very big on piety back then.

  5. Yet Paul's position and teachings was confirmed and approved of by those who DID know Jesus personally. You continue to hang your hat on the writings of his that we have, which were simply letters to people with whom he spent time and to whom he preached and taught. That every detail of what he taught and believed and knew, either through discussions with apostles or divine revelation, is not presented in those letters is a weak argument on your part. That those details were not in the letters does not in any way mean they were never discussed in person. He is addressing specific issues in the letters, not providing his entire theology in detail.

  6. MA,

    How irrational of me to base my conclusions about what Paul knew and thought on what Paul actually wrote rather than what I would like to think he knew and thought.

  7. That's not my point, and I suspect you know it. The point is that you are basing your conclusions only on his letters as if they were written in a vacuum with no history behind it, that being his prior relationship with the people receiving the letters.

    Think of it this way (which is really the only logical way):

    You've just spent time with some people and since your visit, you've heard some things regarding your visit that you feel the need to clarify. Just how much detail about the visit would you need to provide in your letters before making the clarifications about what felt was amiss? Would you really have to revisit ALL you've taught them about yourself and your life? I doubt it. You would not fell the letter with more than was necessary to address whatever concerns compelled the writing of the letter. Thus, with that in mind, no one could later make reference to anything to which the letter did not refer without making baseless assumptions, such as you are doing with Paul's letters.

    Worse, you base your conclusions on less, because you make assumptions regarding the Jesus about whom Paul discusses in the letters; is He the same Jesus of the Gospels or some such. All the while, there is the book of Acts that ties Paul to the Christ of the crucifixion and His Apostles. It speaks of him traveling to the towns to which he would later send his letters, and that he was preaching about Jesus. To base your conclusions only on his letters without regard to Acts is at best, basing them on less than what is available.

  8. MA,

    I understand that Paul has a prior relationship with the recipients of his letters (except for the Romans because that was not a church that Paul founded). I also understand that there were lots of things that Paul knew but didn't discuss in his letters. Nevertheless, my evidence for what Paul knew and his relationship with the recipients of his letters is the letters themselves. What I can claim to know is what I can reasonably infer from those letters.

    Since Paul is my earliest source, I am trying to start without assuming any connection between those and the Gospels or Acts and only then asking what connection can reasonably be inferred from Paul. One possibility that I must consider is that the stories in the Gospels and Acts were not part of Paul's tradition or his knowledge and I don't think Paul gives me enough evidence to rule that out.