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Historicity of Jesus
Posted: 11 March 2006 05:32 AM   [ Ignore ]
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OK, this topic got going here (at least most recently?) in this thread. I thought it best to move it to another.

I’ll preface this by my repeated insistance that [i:f89847c7da]I am not a Biblical scholar, nor play one on TV[/i:f89847c7da] so this is just some rambling thoughts on more [i:f89847c7da]prima facie[/i:f89847c7da] reasons why it’s best for a secularist to just [i:f89847c7da]grant[/i:f89847c7da] Jesus’s existence, rather than persist in arguing that he didn’t exist.

Having thought more about Kenneth Humphreys’s arguments, it occurs to me that all he can hope to establish is this:  it is possible there is no single historical person who corresponds exactly with our na憊e notion of Jesus.

I see some problems with this line of argument.

I have one relevant book at home, which is Morton Smith’s book [i:f89847c7da]Jesus the Magician[/i:f89847c7da], a book we had to read years ago in a university course I took on early Christianity. Smith is professor of Ancient History at Columbia, or at least was when the book was written. His book is also [i:f89847c7da]not[/i:f89847c7da] beloved of Christians generally, since its entire aim is to show that Jesus’s importance was not so much as the Messiah, or a man of ethics, but rather as a magic-worker ... someone who could do the latter day equivalent of bending spoons.

Smith has a whole chapter on "What the Outsiders Said—Evidence Outside the Gospels". (pp. 45-67). In it he goes through a number of outside sources, in particular in the Jewish and Roman traditions, that discuss Jesus. For example, Josephus’s [i:f89847c7da]Antiquities[/i:f89847c7da], which were written in the 90s CE. Josephus does mention Jesus twice, in passing, mentioning such things as: "... the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, James was his name".
Smith then reconstructs a passage from Josephus thusly, with his interpolations in brackets:

[quote:f89847c7da]At this time [in the middle of Pilate’s governorship, about AD 30] there lived Jesus, a man [who was a sophist], if it is proper to call him a man. For he was a doer of miracles, a teacher of men who receive [impiety] with pleasure. And he led [astray] many Jews and many of the Greeks [who said that] this [fellow] was the Christ. And when, on accusation by our leading men, Pilate condemned him to the cross, those who formerly loved [him] did not cease [to do so], for [they asserted that] he appeared to them on the third day, again alive, while [pretended] prophets kept saying these and ten thousand other incredible things about him. And to the present [time] the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not disappeared. (p. 46)[/quote:f89847c7da]

Smith has many such passages in his book, from both Roman and Jewish sources ... NB, he believes that the historical Jesus is the "Jesus ben Pantera" that Humphreys mentions, since Pantera was supposed as Jesus’s historical father.

The more general point to make here is that the Romans and Jews around at that time were [i:f89847c7da]anti-Christian[/i:f89847c7da]. Christianity was seen as a cult, much like let us say Scientology is seen today. Christians were seen as a little crazy. If there were no historical Jesus to be found (or a confusion of many), one would at least suppose that the Roman and Jewish sources from around that time would call into question his very existence (since they were happy to ridicule him and use every other argument against his believers, even forcible suppression) ... But they didn’t.

I find that a very telling problem with the anti-historical-Jesus argument.

Happy to hear counterarguments ... as I said in the other thread, Jesus’s historicity isn’t of any personal import to me. Frankly, I don’t really care if he existed or not—the arguments against Christian theology are grave enough even assuming his existence is real.

But given that there is no really strong argument denying his existence, I think it’s the best argumentative strategy to [i:f89847c7da]assume[/i:f89847c7da] he existed and go from there.

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Posted: 11 March 2006 05:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Historicity of Jesus

OK, this topic got going here (at least most recently?) in this thread . I thought it best to move it to another.

I’ll preface this by my repeated insistance that I am not a Biblical scholar, nor play one on TV so this is just some rambling thoughts on more prima facie reasons why it’s best for a secularist to just grant Jesus’s existence, rather than persist in arguing that he didn’t exist.

Having thought more about Kenneth Humphreys’s arguments, it occurs to me that all he can hope to establish is this:  it is possible there is no single historical person who corresponds exactly with our na憊e notion of Jesus.

I see some problems with this line of argument.

I have one relevant book at home, which is Morton Smith’s book Jesus the Magician, a book we had to read years ago in a university course I took on early Christianity. Smith is professor of Ancient History at Columbia, or at least was when the book was written. His book is also not beloved of Christians generally, since its entire aim is to show that Jesus’s importance was not so much as the Messiah, or a man of ethics, but rather as a magic-worker ... someone who could do the latter day equivalent of bending spoons.

Smith has a whole chapter on “What the Outsiders Said—Evidence Outside the Gospels”. (pp. 45-67). In it he goes through a number of outside sources, in particular in the Jewish and Roman traditions, that discuss Jesus. For example, Josephus’s Antiquities, which were written in the 90s CE. Josephus does mention Jesus twice, in passing, mentioning such things as: “... the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, James was his name”.
Smith then reconstructs a passage from Josephus thusly, with his interpolations in brackets:

At this time [in the middle of Pilate’s governorship, about AD 30] there lived Jesus, a man [who was a sophist], if it is proper to call him a man. For he was a doer of miracles, a teacher of men who receive [impiety] with pleasure. And he led [astray] many Jews and many of the Greeks [who said that] this [fellow] was the Christ. And when, on accusation by our leading men, Pilate condemned him to the cross, those who formerly loved [him] did not cease [to do so], for [they asserted that] he appeared to them on the third day, again alive, while [pretended] prophets kept saying these and ten thousand other incredible things about him. And to the present [time] the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not disappeared. (p. 46)

Smith has many such passages in his book, from both Roman and Jewish sources ... NB, he believes that the historical Jesus is the “Jesus ben Pantera” that Humphreys mentions, since Pantera was supposed as Jesus’s historical father.

The more general point to make here is that the Romans and Jews around at that time were anti-Christian. Christianity was seen as a cult, much like let us say Scientology is seen today. Christians were seen as a little crazy. If there were no historical Jesus to be found (or a confusion of many), one would at least suppose that the Roman and Jewish sources from around that time would call into question his very existence (since they were happy to ridicule him and use every other argument against his believers, even forcible suppression) ... But they didn’t.

I find that a very telling problem with the anti-historical-Jesus argument.

Happy to hear counterarguments ... as I said in the other thread, Jesus’s historicity isn’t of any personal import to me. Frankly, I don’t really care if he existed or not—the arguments against Christian theology are grave enough even assuming his existence is real.

But given that there is no really strong argument denying his existence, I think it’s the best argumentative strategy to assume he existed and go from there.

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Posted: 13 March 2006 02:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Re: Historicity of Jesus

[quote author=“dougsmith”]
But given that there is no really strong argument denying his existence, I think it’s the best argumentative strategy to assume he existed and go from there.

Doug: After reading this thread including the other one in Free Will, I agree with you.  It really does not matter whether Jesus lived or not.  It is enough that some people believe he did.  I submit that even if it could be conclusively proven that Jesus did not live it would make no difference.  It is a matter of faith pure and simple.

Wes

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Posted: 13 March 2006 03:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Re: Historicity of Jesus

[quote author=“wesmjohnson”]Doug: After reading this thread including the other one in Free Will, I agree with you.  It really does not matter whether Jesus lived or not.  It is enough that some people believe he did.  I submit that even if it could be conclusively proven that Jesus did not live it would make no difference.  It is a matter of faith pure and simple.

Wes

Right ... and really for the religion the existence of Jesus the person isn’t important. For example, the Jewish and Islamic traditions agree that Jesus existed. (As do the Hindus, I think). But none of them think he was the Messiah and the son of God.

To be a Christian isn’t to believe that Jesus existed; it is to believe he died for our sins, etc.

So I say we just grant that he existed; the evidence anyway could easily support that claim. But nothing interesting follows from that, except maybe that he said some good things about morality. (So did Buddha).

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Posted: 13 March 2006 05:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Re: Historicity of Jesus

Doug wrote
So I say we just grant that he existed; the evidence anyway could easily support that claim. But nothing interesting follows from that, except maybe that he said some good things about morality. (So did Buddha).

Doug,
That reminded me of something I heard Kurt Vonnegut say. That it really doesn’t matter whether Jesus was God or not. The main thing is that he was a great moral teacher;
Bob

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Posted: 13 March 2006 08:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Bob:  You wrote: That reminded me of something I heard Kurt Vonnegut say. That it really doesn’t matter whether Jesus was God or not. The main thing is that he was a great moral teacher;

I personally do count Vonnegut as a tower of intellectual power and insight.  But your comment reminded me that a lot of people seem to think the same thing.  That is that Jesus had a unique and worthy set of ethical and/or moral principles. 

I was wondering what was great about Jesus’ teachings.  I do not remember any really deep moral truths in the New Testament, so called.  The “golden rule” was articulated about 600 years (I think) earlier by Confucius.  We certainly can’t count on anything Paul wrote, he didn’t know Jesus.  Well neither did Mark, Matthew, or Luke.  But, nonetheless upon what basis do people believe Jesus was a good guy?  As far as I can tell he was just another Jewish malcontent without the support to challenge the Roman occupation.  At most his comment was on the state of Judaism at that time and the recurring notion that the Jews were being punished because they were not “right with God.”

Doug noted: <But nothing interesting follows from that, except maybe that he said some good things about morality. (So did Buddha).>  What were they?  Do they stack up to any modern day statements on morality?


Wes :D :wink:

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Posted: 13 March 2006 09:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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[quote author=“wesmjohnson”]Doug noted: <But nothing interesting follows from that, except maybe that he said some good things about morality. (So did Buddha).>  What were they?  Do they stack up to any modern day statements on morality?

Well, as I recall he did have things to say ... like that it was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man into heaven ... that the meek would inherit the earth ... blessed are the peacemakers ... judge not lest you be judged yourself ... if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other one as well ... etc.

These in general show a nonjudgmental pacifism as well as care for the poor, downtrodden and peaceful. To that extent he was at least someone worth listening to.

He was not consistent, since as I recall he also had bad things to say about unbelievers.

It is ironic to note how many of Jesus’s most famous ethical statements are flagrantly disregarded by those who are apparently his most fervent admirers ...

Incidentally, as for this:

[quote author=“wesmjohnson”]As far as I can tell he was just another Jewish malcontent without the support to challenge the Roman occupation. At most his comment was on the state of Judaism at that time and the recurring notion that the Jews were being punished because they were not “right with God.”

Not sure that’s right; he wasn’t just ‘another Jewish malcontent’, since he believed himself to be the Messiah, or so it would appear. There were plenty of other self-styled Messiahs in the area at that time, of course, so he wasn’t alone in that, but anyone claiming to be a Messiah would emphatically not have been mainstream. Indeed, that’s why he would have had a falling-out with the Jewish heirarchy at that time.

Also worth remembering that the Jews under Roman rule were second-class citizens. I imagine being there during this time would have been something like being Indian during the British Raj, or Iraqi during the present US occupation ... it was something of a powder-keg, with lots of splinter religious groups. Fertile ground for someone with a message promoting the “little guy” and a gift for prestidigitation. (In everywhere he went except his home town ... where people probably knew his tricks too well).

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Posted: 13 March 2006 12:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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An Observer

Hi all,
I just wanted to post a message so I can receive an email when there are new messages on this thread. I’m interested in it’s progress.  smile

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Posted: 13 March 2006 07:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Jesus’ Teachings

Wes wrote"Bob Doug noted <But nothing interesting follows from that, except maybe that he said some good things about morality. (So did Buddha).>  What were they?  Do they stack up to any modern day statements on morality?”


Wes,
Vonnegut didn’t say what was great about Jesus’ teachings in the interview I heard. Perhaps he mentions it elsewhere.
However, I feel that Jesus departed from previous moral teachers in that he said that we shouldn’t seek revenge and we should forgive those who do us injury. No doubt others before him advanced the same ideas but I think maybe he said it best.
Bob

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Posted: 14 March 2006 01:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Jesus

Doug:

My real point was, as you mentioned, that there were a lot of other messiahs around that time therefore, Jesus was not unique.  Additionally, his beef with the Sanhedrin may have been more than just his or his follower’s claim as Messiah.  Recall that his uncle, Zechariah, was a priest who performed duties in the Temple.  The same man whose wife Elizabeth took Mary in when she was pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth was pregnant with John (the baptist).  It was very much in the family and may have been intolerable to the Sanhedrin.

But without Paul taking Christianity to Rome it is likely that Jesus would be essentially unknown today.

Of course having all this wonderful information on the thread is truly meaningless.  Modern thinkers have so much more to say.  There is way to much time and effort spent on Jesus.  It is only important to understand a bit about Christianity because many people, sadly :cry:  have made much ado (and doo-doo :wink: ) about nothing.

Wes :D :D

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Posted: 14 March 2006 02:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Bob:  You wrote: <However, I feel that Jesus departed from previous moral teachers in that he said that we shouldn’t seek revenge and we should forgive those who do us injury. No doubt others before him advanced the same ideas but I think maybe he said it best.>

Well, we really do not know whether he said it or not, do we?  But in any case modern and better educated people have articulated moral/ethical understanding with more insight and meaning.

An issue raised by citing very old sources is the fallacy of “appeal to authority.”  Why do humans seems to put so much credence in old texts?  I suspect it is in our genes.  Respect for the tribal leader, usually older, comes to mind.  Some cultures embody respect for elders in their everyday customs.  As Humanists I would think we could recognize that modern thinking has evolved past the sage words of agrarian wise men (and women).

Wes :D

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Posted: 14 March 2006 03:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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evolution of manners, morals

[quote author=“wesmjohnson”]Some cultures embody respect for elders in their everyday customs.  As Humanists I would think we could recognize that modern thinking has evolved past the sage words of agrarian wise men (and women).

Wes :D

Such as: Honor thy father and thy mother. Some terrible people have children.
The whole topic, IMHO, begs for a review of the moral authority of religion. But I don’t know very much about Jesus, it turns out, compared to how much some scholars think there is to know.
Doesn’t it seem likely, tho, that if a particular cultural teaching is counter productive, that it would die off? Is the two thousand years since Jesus a long time for an institution to last like this? Or 5,000+ years for Judaism?

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Posted: 14 March 2006 04:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Elizabeth K:

You wrote: <Doesn’t it seem likely, tho, that if a particular cultural teaching is counter productive, that it would die off? Is the two thousand years since Jesus a long time for an institution to last like this? Or 5,000+ years for Judaism?>

It is an interesting question.  I would think part of the answer is in what you consider “counter productive.”  The Roman Catholic Church controlled Europe for well over 1000 years.  A very repressive period in human history - it did not die out (yet).  Hinduism is alive and has been around for probably 10,000 years and it has repressive elements.

Some psychological studies I’ve seen (Journal of Psychological Type) suggest that about 70% of people are followers and the rest questioners.  (Of course the degree of following and questioning is distributed.)  The suggestion means to me that religions will be around for a long time.  We have evolved for belief - damn those ancestors!  :wink:

Wes

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Posted: 14 March 2006 04:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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[quote author=“wesmjohnson”]  We have evolved for belief - damn those ancestors!  :wink:

Wes

So—does that mean we nonbelievers are doomed by our genes to be “sports”? Is there any likelihood that a time will come when it will be an evolutionary advantage to not be a believer?  :?
Basically, I’m pretty happy the way I am—I think I see the world more clearly than those who filter their existence through belief in the paranormal, or religious dogma. But it’s strange to think that I am this way because of a glitch in my dna.

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Posted: 14 March 2006 04:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Wes wrote
“Well, we really do not know whether he said it or not, do we?”

Wes,
Of course we don’t. And we don’t really know for sure if he ever iived—but I think he probably did.


Wes wrote
“An issue raised by citing very old sources is the fallacy of “appeal to authority.”  Why do humans seems to put so much credence in old texts?”


Wes,
I don’t know. As you say later, perhaps it is in our genes.
Bob

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Posted: 14 March 2006 05:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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[quote author=“wesmjohnson”]
Well, we really do not know whether he said it or not, do we?  But in any case modern and better educated people have articulated moral/ethical understanding with more insight and meaning.

Certainly. I think so as not to appear petulant we should grant that Jesus probably said these things, or anyway similar things. Others have said them as well or better. And anyhow even if we claim that Jesus was in some ways a good moral teacher, nothing interesting follows about belief in the religion ...

[quote author=“wesmjohnson”]An issue raised by citing very old sources is the fallacy of “appeal to authority.”  Why do humans seems to put so much credence in old texts?  I suspect it is in our genes.  Respect for the tribal leader, usually older, comes to mind.  Some cultures embody respect for elders in their everyday customs.  As Humanists I would think we could recognize that modern thinking has evolved past the sage words of agrarian wise men (and women).

My feeling is that the genetic component comes from our innate tendency to view other humans as in or out of our kin or tribal group. Tribal identities can last for millennia: they are one of the most persistent cultural creations. Tribal wars can last for hundreds of years, long after the origins of the war are lost in the mists of time, and the original warriors are long dead.

Two of the strongest identifiers of tribal identity are language and religion. We might even claim that religion developed as a further “marker” of tribal identity.

In that sense, religion is like rooting for your home team in sports. It is irrational but strangely unavoidable.

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