• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Jesus Did Exist: A Response to Richard Carrier

by  
Filed under Historicity

Jesus icon

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today we continue our four-part series concerning the historical evidence for Jesus. Popular atheist writer Richard Carrier, probably the world's best known Mythicist, began yesterday with his article "Questioning the Historicity of Jesus". Today, Catholic writer Jimmy Akin responds. Tomorrow, Richard will offer his take on “Four Reasons I Think Jesus Really Existed" by Trent Horn. Finally, on Thursday, Trent will wrap up the series with a rejoinder.


 
I would like to provide responses to the arguments and evidence that Richard Carrier offers to rebut my argument that Jesus existed. This task is complicated because, in his response to my original piece, Carrier says a surprisingly small amount that engages my argument and a large amount that does not.

Approximately half of his piece is devoted to other matters:

  • running through the names of people who agree with him in varying degrees
  • recommending books
  • expressing hope for the fortunes of his thesis in future decades
  • plugging his forthcoming book
  • acknowledging the mistakes of fact and argument made by others who hold that Jesus never existed
  • discussing the goal of his own research.

Stating Your Position is Not an Argument

 
In the part of his post that does respond to the original piece, Carrier does not interact very directly with its argument. Instead, he makes a series of alternative assertions that state his own view.

His view does disagree with mine, but stating your own view is not the same thing as providing evidence in favor of it. Much less is it the same thing as providing evidence against the view you are responding to.

Carrier’s goal in the post does not seem to be so much responding to the original argument as “giv[ing] you an idea of where this new approach to Christian origins is coming from”—that is, sketching an outline of his own view.

What are Carrier’s Arguments?

 
Arguments for his view are apparently to be found in other people’s books, behind a paywall, or “in my forthcoming book,” where “I treat all the best objections and suggestions and debates surrounding all the evidence.”

I’m glad to hear that his forthcoming book will be so comprehensive, but the absence of arguments here makes it difficult to respond.

I could take any of the specific claims he makes in his post and critique it, but without knowing what evidence he plans to cite for it, he can simply say, “You’re attacking a straw man. Just wait until my book comes out.”

He does make occasional gestures in the direction of an argument—e.g., claiming that “There actually were Christian sects that said Jesus lived a hundred years earlier” or stating that Jesus probably was not from Nazareth—but he doesn’t put these together into a coherent argument.

I could try to form one out of the pieces he gives us and then critique it, but he could always say, “You’re attacking a straw man. That’s not what I would have said.”

So let’s set these aside and to the best we can with what Carrier has given us.

The Central Argument

 
The central argument I posed was based on evidence showing that Christianity was a movement that emerged in Judaea in the first century and then spread widely across the Roman world within a few decades, indicating that it had a substantial degree of organization and a founder who really existed. Carrier concedes these points.

The argument then held that it is most natural to look at the movement’s own account of its founding for information about who the founder was. Carrier’s attitude toward this is unclear.

My article then pointed out that the earliest records we have say that Christianity was founded by Jesus of Nazareth. Carrier takes exception here and states:
 

"[B]ut that’s not true. The earliest accounts (in the letters of Paul) know nothing of Nazareth and never mention Jesus recruiting or training anyone. When Paul mentions Jesus communicating with and sending apostles, it is always in the context of revelations."

 
Carrier appears to misunderstand the reference to “the earliest accounts” to mean “the early Christian documents we have.”

The subject at hand was who the “founding leader” of Christianity may have been. The relevant accounts, therefore, are those that dealt with this question.

The earliest specific accounts that we have of that question must include the gospels and Acts, which clearly point to a historical Jesus as the founder of the movement. These documents are nowhere near so late as Carrier seems to think, but even setting that aside, what can we learn from Paul?

Paul on the Founding of Christianity

 
As Carrier acknowledges, Paul speaks of “Jesus communicating with and sending apostles,” pointing to Jesus as the founder of Christianity. But does he indicate, as Carrier says, that this was “always in the context of revelations”?

Not in the slightest.

It’s true that Paul acknowledged that his own contact with Jesus was through revelation (Gal. 1:12), but Paul acknowledges that his relationship was different than that of the other apostles, that he related to Jesus as “one untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8)—that is, out of the normal sequence that governed how the others related to Jesus.

So how does Paul indicate that Jesus related to the others?

Brothers of an Unreal Man?

 
Paul indicates that some of them were his brothers. Later in Galatians 1 (which Carrier cites as an authentic text), Paul writes that once when he went to Jerusalem, “I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19).

Paul acknowledges that James, together with Peter (Cephas) and John, was one of the “pillars” of the Jerusalem church (Gal. 2:9).

And this is not Paul’s only reference to the “brothers” of Jesus. He also asked: “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brethren of the Lord and Cephas [Peter]?” (1 Cor. 9:5). So Jesus had “brothers” who were distinct from the apostles and other major Christian leaders such as Cephas/Peter.

An examination of early Christian sources reveals that James was the foremost of these “brothers” of Jesus. We can discuss precisely what their relationship was to Jesus (whether they were cousins, step-brothers through Joseph, etc.), but the early sources indicate that they were familial relations of Jesus, despite strained mythicist attempts to avoid this.

Paul also tells us that Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3) and “born of woman, born under the Law [of Moses]” (Gal. 4:4). This clearly indicates Jesus’ birth as a Jew who belonged to the lineage of David (and who, as well, had both flesh and a woman as his mother).

All this indicates that Jesus was a real, historical individual.

Other Indications

 
In 1 Thessalonians, commonly regarded as one of the earliest New Testament documents, Paul writes that the Jews “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out” (1 Thess. 2:14-15).

He also states “that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed” instituted the Eucharist and told his followers to perform it (1 Cor. 11:23-25) and afterward was “buried” (1 Cor. 15:4).

And, in 1 Timothy he writes that Jesus “made the good confession...in his testimony before Pontius Pilate” (1 Tim. 6:13).

Some would challenge the last document as post-Pauline, though not the former two, and the former two provide further indications that Jesus was a historical individual who gave instructions to his followers on a specific night, on which he was then betrayed; who was killed through the agency of earthly individuals, who also killed the prophets and drove Paul and others out of Judea (cf. 1 Thess. 2:14); and who was then “buried.”

This is all consistent with the idea that Jesus was a historical individual who lived, died, and was buried on earth, and there is no indication of this taking place in “the lower heavens.”

The Islam Analogy

 
Carrier acknowledges that the same logic used to support the existence of a historical Jesus also points to the existence of a historical Muhammad as the founder of Islam. He writes:
 

"Akin’s analogy to Islam is on point, and I would add Mormonism as equally apt: their founders, Mohammed and Joseph Smith, respectively, were “sent by” and “communicated the teachings of” non-existent celestial beings, the angels Gabriel and Moroni, respectively. In the most credible mythicist thesis, Jesus corresponds to Gabriel and Moroni."

 
I’m glad to see that Carrier recognizes the validity of the argument to this extent, but his own addition to it is problematic.

It’s true that Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism each had a founder who organized a movement that spread rapidly, but in each case the movement’s early writings point to that founder being a historical individual: Jesus, Muhammad, and Joseph Smith.

Their writings do not point to that founder being, on Carrier’s thesis, a spiritual being (i.e., a purely spiritual Jesus, Gabriel, and Moroni).

Carrier can’t have it both ways. He can’t say that the founding of Christianity, Islam, or Mormonism point to the existence of their claimed historical founders in two cases but not the third.

Not unless he has compelling evidence to the contrary.

Carrier’s Future Book?

 
Might he provide this evidence in his forthcoming book? We’ll have to wait and see, but the way that he handles evidence in this post does not provide much confidence. For example, at one point he claims that:
 

"Paul says no Jews could ever have heard the gospel except from the apostles (Romans 10:12-18)."

 
This is simply false. Paul says nothing of the sort. What he does do is stress the importance of preachers to spread the Christian message. But he merely indicates that people need “a preacher” (Greek, kerussontos) to tell them about Jesus, not “an apostle” (Greek, apostolos). (Romans 10:14; see here for Romans 10:12-18, the range of verses Carrier cites.)

Perhaps Carrier has some further, also-not-provided-here argument for why Paul actually meant what Carrier thinks he meant, but the fact is: It’s not what he said. It’s not even close.

What Carrier has provided does not give the appearance of a solid case against the existence of Jesus. It gives the appearance of a castle built of shaky inferences that strain to get us away from the plain meaning of the texts.

Including the Pauline texts.
 
(Image credit: GCSC)

Jimmy Akin

Written by

Jimmy Akin is a Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a member on the Catholic Answers Speakers Bureau, a weekly guest on the global radio program, Catholic Answers LIVE, and a contributing editor for Catholic Answers Magazine. He's the author of numerous publications, including the books The Fathers Know Best (Catholic Answers, 2010); The Salvation Controversy (Catholic Answers, 2001); and Mass Confusion: The Do's & Don'ts of Catholic Worship (Catholic Answers, 1999). Many of Jimmy's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Follow Jimmy's writing at JimmyAkin.com.

Enjoy this article? Receive future posts free by email:

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • http://www.catholicauthor.us/ Dominic de Souza

    Thanks Jimmy, for reorganizing his article and reinforcing your points.

  • Peter Piper

    This is a pretty thorough demolition. However, since one of the key points Akin makes is that he found some of Carrier's arguments were not well enough fleshed out for him to respond adequately, it seems to me that it would be fair to give Carrier a chance to flesh out these arguments a bit more. So I would like to see Carrier being given a chance to reply to Akin's article here, in addition to his response to Horn's earlier article.

    • Randy Gritter

      Carrier had a chance to reply to Akin's original article and basically did nothing of the kind. As Akin points out here he did not respond to the specific argument made. He just worked in a few lines and then gave his standard stump speech.

      So what makes you think Carrier would do better if given another chance? If he can he should make a comment here indicating a substantive reply. Otherwise another round will just cover the same ground again.

      • Peter Piper

        I'm not sure he would do better, and I wouldn't support giving him a third chance if he does the same again, but I think a second chance is reasonable.

      • josh

        Akin's original article was pretty bad. His 'central argument' was that Christianity spread beginning somewhere in the first century, therefore Jesus. Carrier rightly points out that this is pretty irrelevant to defeating the mythicist view.

        What Carrier provided in his piece was a brief overview of his position. Akin does better here in raising some actual arguments for an early belief in a historical Jesus, namely, references to Jesus's 'brother(s)' and the barest outlines of a passion narrative in a specific setting (under Pontius pilate, killed by Jews). If you care to look through his stuff Carrier has written a fair amount dealing with these sorts of questions. The gist of it is that the 'brother' is a figurative phrase like 'brothers in Christ', the ideas of crucifixion and burial are borrowed from certain scriptural passages, and (I'm guessing here) 'killed by the Jews' is a proxy death for Jewish spiritual crimes.

        None of this is laid out in detail in Carrier's original post, but it can be found in rather extensive columns from his blog and other sources. He's not one given to brevity. I don't know if Akin is less superficial elsewhere, but one really has to get into the details to understand and potentially refute Carrier's position. Christian readers may not feel compelled to examine that position since it is admittedly fringe, but they shouldn't come away with the idea that the outline given was the pith of his argument, or that Akin can knock it down with a few unexamined biblical passages.

        What amuses me is his conclusion: "It
        gives the appearance of a castle built of shaky inferences that strain
        to get us away from the plain meaning of the texts..." I would expect that to kill a Catholic with a functioning sense of irony.

        • ziad

          "Akin's original article was pretty bad. His 'central argument' was that Christianity spread beginning somewhere in the first century, therefore Jesus. Carrier rightly points out that this is pretty irrelevant to defeating the mythicist view."

          The issue is that Akin did not write his piece to debunk the mythicist view. He might not have heard it before (it appears to me that it is a new theory of the origin of Christianity).

        • Randy Gritter

          Akin's argument was simply that Christianity came into existence therefore some cause needs to be identified. In the absence of any evidence for another cause the most obvious candidate is the traditional cause. Carrier and many like him don't grasp this. They think they can just say forgery, forgery, forgery and ignore the problems with people dramatically changing a religion while the religion is changing them. The idea that people just make stuff up and then preach it like it is the word of God. Never mind which people or why or how. Poof, we got a New Testament and a church.

          • josh

            As noted, the argument that Christianity had an origin isn't an argument for a historical Jesus. The 'most obvious' candidate isn't necessarily the right one and Carrier thinks he's got a case that it isn't. He's actually concerned with the details of how the New Testament was formed and the early church got started. He has actually argued at length why certain statements taken to indicate forgery or insertion, e.g. Pilate's being both a procurator and a prefect, are legitimate. At the same time, he is well aware, like any legitimate historian, that certain documents and passages are forgeries and corruptions. It's the exact opposite of Poof!; the beliefs of the Church today were formed over time and subject to the politics and personalities of various leaders. Carrier's thesis is one particular extension of that trend.

            You seem to have great difficulty with the notion that people can create, adopt, modify and spread new religious ideas. I don't know why. History and psychology both attest otherwise.

          • Randy Gritter

            History and psychology attest to some things. The trouble is that what is being alleged is very different. The test for me is to be precise. If Peter made up a new religion and invented this Jesus guy how does John react? He says, " O sure me and Peter both spent 3 years with Jesus." Why does he say that? The psychology does not work for me. Guys like Carrier don't just fail to solve such problems they don't even seem aware they exist. They just talk like Peter started Christianity and by the 4th century we had what we had.

            So sure, I would be happy with details but not more details saying Paul does not mention Jesus' healing. For me, apostolic succession is big. What was happening with the apostles? What was happening with the next generation of bishops, with Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, etc. How does the history and psychology make sense?

          • Pofarmer

            Randy, look at all the religions and Gods that were around at the time of Peter and Paul. Keep in mind, these were people who didn't understand what made it rain, who thought the stars were "set in the firmament" and that God and heaven was above the firmament, etc, etc. What would "make sense" to them, isn't probably anything like what would "make sense" to us.

          • Randy Gritter

            So what is your point? They understood that dead people don't rise. They understood that bright lights and strange voices should have a proximate physical cause. They understood virgins don't give birth. Why do they need to know modern astronomy and meteorology to figure out these things are quite amazing?

            There were many gods being worshiped in the Roman empire. Again, so what? People became Christians because Christianity was more credible than those religions. So saying it is just more of what already existed explains nothing.

          • Pofarmer

            The point is, they had a habit of making things up to explain things that they didn't understand. Generally what they made up was a deity of some sort or the other. What makes sense to us today, isn't going to be the same sort of thing that made sense to folks back then. Even if you don't agree with Dr. Carriers point, it's a mistake to think that the ancients thought the same way we do about the physical world.

          • Randy Gritter

            But what did they make up? They pray to some deity for rain and praise him when rain comes. They don't say, "This guy was the incarnation of the rain god and rose from the dead." The reason they don't is it would be asserting something they could understand and falsify. They might tell a story that something fantastic happened in the vague unspecified past. They don't make up a story with actual places and dates and people and inject the rain god into it. One is normal, expected human behavior. The other is too weird. Nobody would do it.

            The Jews were the least likely people to make up god stories. I mean they killed people for blasphemy. They were the only monotheists of the time. If Christianity were made up then Jews would be the last people group to make it up.

          • Pofarmer

            They would have to give the gods they prayed to attributes of some kind. I think that it is just that most of those are lost to us, as they were pretty much all oral traditions. As for the Jews making up God stories, isn't it the least bit interesting that the first evidence we have, isn't preaching to the Jews, but a Jew having a conversion experience preaching to the Gentiles? Why isn't it possible that the rest of the reinterpretation of what may have indeed be an historic event, came later on?

          • josh

            "They might tell a story that something fantastic happened in the vague
            unspecified past. They don't make up a story with actual places and
            dates and people and inject the rain god into it."

            No, this is also a historically common behavior. Suetonius reports quite a number of miraculous events surrounding the lives of Roman emperors. E.g., Tacitus is reported to have healed someone of blindness by laying on his hands. And it should go without saying that the emperors were much more famous and surrounded by verifiable witnesses at the time than Jesus. Haile Selassie was the real emperor of Ethiopia who died in 1974 and Rastafarians believe he was the messiah and an incarnation of God. Some refuse to accept that he died and others believe it is the fulfillment of a prophecy. Sound familiar?

            You are just talking from ignorance when you assert that 'Jews were the least likely people to make up god stories'. Jews are like any other people, they had lots of mysticism and numerous sects active during the 1st century AD and before. There were multiple would-be messiahs trying to fulfill the expectations of an imminent Jewish golden age.

          • Pofarmer

            "The idea that people just make stuff up and then preach it like it is the word of God"

            What about things like the Irish monks and the idea of daily confession? New ideas come into religion all the time.

        • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

          None of this is laid out in detail in Carrier's original post

          To the extent that whatever is not laid out at all can also be said to be not laid out "in detail," this is a true statement.

          If you care to look through his stuff…

          Which "stuff" would that be? The book that isn't available yet, paywall-protected content, or what? He was given space here to outline his case — a case that I, for one, would like to have read. I'm still not sure why he chose not to.

          The gist of it is that the 'brother' is a figurative phrase like 'brothers in Christ'

          "Brothers in Christ" and "brothers of Christ" are two very different expressions. Does Carrier, in the content he doesn't present here, offer any evidence that early Christians were ever called "brothers of" the Lord Jesus? Or any explanation why this phrase appears to have been applied only to a very select group (James being, I believe, the only named individual so identified outside the Gospels and Acts, where it is only applied to putative relations of the earthly Jesus)? Why was James the Lord's brother but Cephas wasn't? Why is there no apparent evidence of the transition of this usage from its spiritual roots to the later, mythologized familial use?

          the ideas of crucifixion and burial are borrowed from certain scriptural passages

          Does he offer any basis in actual Second Temple Jewish culture for imagining these events in a heavenly context? Is there any rationale for imagining that being "crucified, buried and resurrected" in the "lower heavens" would make any sense at all in that cultural context?

          Remember, the people in Jesus' day weren't just reading the Old Testament in a vacuum. Their cultural and symbolic world was as rich and complex as ours. If a theory of Christian origins can't explain itself in terms of what we know of the actual cultural context in which the first Christians lived, it's a non-starter.

          (I'm guessing here) 'killed by the Jews' is a proxy death for Jewish spiritual crimes

          It's generous of you to guess and supply what, as far as any of us knows, Carrier hasn't supplied himself. Yet the reference in question occurs in the immediate context of references to perfectly specific, concrete acts on earth: Jesus' death at the hands of the Jews is of a piece with the persecution of the prophets and of the Jewish Church and the apostles. What possible rationale could there be for

          What amuses me is his conclusion: "It gives the appearance of a castle built of shaky inferences that strain to get us away from the plain meaning of the texts..." I would expect that to kill a Catholic with a functioning sense of irony.

          I assure you my sense of irony is entirely functional (and so is Jimmy's)…yet not only am I still breathing, I'm not even entirely sure what you perceive as the potential cause of death in this case. It appears neither of us has yet succeeded in reconstructing the other's mental model.

          • josh

            SDG, it really shouldn't take you 10 inches of column to repeat that Carrier didn't give you a detailed argument in his first post. Like I said, read his blog or his various debates with other historians to get a sense of his case. Or don't, but stop whining. I'm not here to carry water for him, I'm just pointing out what I know of his position. You're not satisfied with what he wrote here, that's fine. Either get on with your life or go learn more.

            The irony comment was just a side-note. Catholic doctrine is chock full of shaky inferences that strain to get away from the plain meaning of the text, Protestants are of course the ones who asserted that the text was plain to all. Case in point: Akin above argues that James was plainly the brother of a historical Jesus, but by brother he means maybe a cousin or an unmentioned step-brother, because the Catholic doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity contradicts the 'plain' meaning of the text.

          • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

            Josh,

            it really shouldn't take you 10 inches of column to repeat that Carrier didn't give you a detailed argument in his first post.

            I only took a few lines to repeat that. The rest of my comments (starting with "Brothers in Christ") were queries about the "stuff" you say Carrier has written elsewhere.

            You're entirely within your rights to decline to act as Carrier's mouthpiece here, though it's curious to me that, despite my reiterations on this point that you say weren't necessary, you continue to say that Carrier didn't give a "detailed argument," when the point I've been trying to make is that he hardly gave any argument at all, detailed or otherwise.

            I don't know why you feel the need to emotify my pointed but dispassionate critique as "whining." The only remotely emotive element of my comments was that I expressed interest in the arguments I would have liked to see Carrier make. If that qualifies as "whining" in your book, well, I suspect a bit of jaundice on your part, but I won't whine about it.

            I have no great quarrel with someone who says that the simplest and most direct explanation of Jesus' "brothers and sisters" in the Gospels is that they were other children of Joseph and Mary, and that, absent Catholic dogma, few would be inclined to read the text any other way. It's true that this otherwise simple reading creates some exegetical problems (such as why Christ crucified in John 19 found it necessary to entrust his mother to his beloved disciple, if Mary had other sons who would naturally have taken responsibility for her). However, if someone says finds these problems less daunting than the assumptions of the stepbrother or cousin hypotheses, as I said, I have no great quarrel with them.

            I take this, though, to be a fairly marginal case, not a case in point of something Catholic doctrine is "chock-full" of. There are not many Catholic doctrines for which it seems to be plausible to say that the Catholic exegete is required to "strain" to avoid the natural sense of the text. Catholic doctrine may often say far more than the first and most obvious senses of the texts it cites, but it is not, in my experience, often obliged to say that the text doesn't mean what might reasonably be thought to be the obvious, natural meaning.

          • josh

            SDG, I appreciate the response. My main point is that I agree that Carrier hasn't laid out his case here in a way that is likely to persuade committed Christians. There is a case to be found in his online writing which is easily Googleable. (Whether it is ultimately persuasive or not is a separate matter.) I don't know if he will choose to get into the weeds with people in his upcoming post here, but if you are sincerely interested do check out some of his available stuff and maybe read his book if and when it comes out. I don't know that there's much more to say.

            On the doctrine stuff: Well, Catholics and Protestants produced hundreds of years of bloodshed partly over the ability to decipher the 'plain meaning' of texts. Adding great dollops of shaky theological assertion onto the text does strike me as avoiding the plain meaning. But for examples that explicitly contradict the natural meaning, you might consider the modern Church's position on Genesis, Adam and Eve, Heliocentricity, slavery and genocide, etc., etc. Like I said, it struck me as funny that a Catholic was going to lecture us on 'the plain meaning' when a central part of Catholic doctrine has been that we need specially trained experts steeped in the esoterica of the tradition to explain things to us, like, you know, Dr. Carrier.

            No doubt the joke is only getting funnier as I explain it. :)

          • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

            Thanks, Josh. To clarify, I wasn't hoping for a case likely to persuade me (which I don't mind saying would be unlikely no matter what he wrong); I was hoping for more understanding of what Dr. Carrier's case was. But enough of that.

            On the subjects you mention: I think if we stick to actual Catholic teaching, as opposed to climates of opinion and theological, political or disciplinary jousting in various historical circumstances, we find very little to strain our plain reading of the scriptures — when and where the meaning is plain, I mean. (I would certainly never say that the proper interpretation of any and every scripture is the identification of its "plain meaning"!)

            I would prefer not to speak of "deciphering" the Bible. The Bible isn't a code; it's literature: in Catholic belief, divine revelation in human literature —— the Word of God in words of men, as fully human and literary as the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is fully human. Thus, the Bible must be approached and interpreted exactly as any other human literature to discern its meaning — which meaning, however, is understood by Catholics to be divinely intended.

            What this means is that, in principle and in the main, there shouldn't be a "Catholic interpretation" of the Bible, a "Lutheran intepretation," a "Jewish intepretation," an "atheist interpretation" — at least, not as a matter of primary meaning. In principle and in the main, there should be a literary interpretation, by which historiography is read as historiography, myth as myth, poetry as poetry, apocalyptic as apocalyptic, epistolary as epistolary and so on.

            Catholics and atheists should not (in principle and in the main) differ as such on the interpretation of a given text — or, if they do differ, their disagreements should (in principle and in the main) be of the same sort that could arise between two Catholics or two atheists, and subject to the same principles of debate and remediation.

            In that regard, should think you and I could agree that the plain, natural approach to the scriptural texts (as opposed to a Fundamentalist/literalist approach) is that while the Gospels appear to offer a species of historiography (albeit history interpreted and constructed from a religious perspective), Genesis 1-3 appears to offer a species of mythology (albeit, again, mythology communicating a worldview of Hebrew faith), and Christian exegetes such as Augustine, Origen, Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley entertained non-literal readings of these passages. Likewise, passages that speak in a geocentric mode can without strain be literarily understood as phenomenological language, etc.

          • josh

            I agree that we should read the Bible like any other piece of human literature and that is exactly what Christians don't do. Which is to say, that the meaning is the meaning the human author intended, which may be conveyed through various genres. Or we may speak of the meaning that various audiences throughout history have attached to a text. What we don't say is that the meaning is true regardless. The meaning of Mein Kampf is pretty clear but it isn't true. If you assume there has to be a true (or divinely intended) meaning then you aren't reading it as literature, you are behaving irrationally. This is just a different strain of fundamentalism, you and the people you call Fundamentalists simply choose different meanings to extract as clearly divine.

            So when we actually look at the Bible, we find that it is a collection of diverse works edited together over a long period of time for political and sectarian purposes. Genesis conveys an ancient worldview that includes an ancient cosmology and history of earth. It gets these things wrong, it is a mythological history. There is no reason to think that it got the timeline wrong but the creator God part right, these are both products of the ignorant culture that produced it. The gospels aren't historiography, they are religious propaganda. They exist to spread the religion and convey the opinions of their earthly authors with the appearance of divine sanction. Compare the legendary stories of the life of Buddha or Mohammed.

            Augustine, Origen, Aquinas and Wesley had their own views on the 'real' meaning of various passages but they held to literal views on many of them. The key point is that they had no qualification to interpret them, no valid method of literary or historical analysis. They didn't treat them as literary works, they treated them as divine revelations from which all important truths were to be distilled.

            Passages that 'speak in a geocentric mode' are that way because the authors thought in a geocentric mode. The ancient Jews pretty clearly thought the sun orbited the earth, which was a flat disk or bowl with a firmament dome over the top in which stars are fixed. There is no point in blaming them for being ignorant, but there is no reason to assert that that isn't what they meant, or that we should ignore that but look for the 'spiritual' truths that are 'really' there.

          • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

            I agree that we should read the Bible like any other piece of human literature and that is exactly what Christians don't do.

            I'm glad we seem to be clear, at least on an elementary level, where and how we disagree. That can be a major accomplishment in itself.

            The meaning of Mein Kampf is pretty clear but it isn't true. If you assume there has to be a true (or divinely intended) meaning then you aren't reading it as literature, you are behaving irrationally.

            Quite right, as regards Mein Kampf, and so a helpful analogy highlighting the point at issue.

            Caveat: Mein Kampf is an autobiographical socio-political manifesto, and while its value as autobiography is a question I've not looked into, its message as socio-political manifesto falls well short of the sort of truth that socio-political manifesto can offer. That is the standard by which every literary work can and should be judged: Does it offer the kind of truth that that sort of literature can offer?

            Genesis conveys an ancient worldview that includes an ancient cosmology and history of earth. It gets these things wrong, it is a mythological history. There is no reason to think that it got the timeline wrong but the creator God part right, these are both products of the ignorant culture that produced it.

            "Mythological history," as applied to the creation accounts in Genesis, may be something of a category mistake. What Genesis offers is mythological narrative, not mythological "history." In human oral and literary narrative history, myth is not a corruption of history, as if history came first; myth came first, and history — based on eyewitness accounts and community memory — came later.

            Of course the author of Genesis — and the historical community that produced the stories he adapted, redacted and wove together — had no conception of modern cosmology and the processes of the origins of the universe, life on earth, etc, nor did the communities and authors responsible for other ancient creation-myths. They had prescientific, mythic pictures of these things. If God had anything to do with the book of Genesis, He didn't set out to instruct the author in cosmology, astrophysics, evolutionary theory or any such thing.

            And, notably, nothing in Genesis 1 says that He did. We don't find a first-person narrative reading, "The word of the Lord came to me, Moses, saying, 'Write the words I tell you, for here is how I created the heavens and the earth,'" etc.

            What we have instead is a story — or rather, a pair of stories, that of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, partially echoing and partially diverging from other similar creation-myths in nearby cultures. There's no reason to think that the redactor who first put together these two originally separate creation narratives was less aware of the tensions between them than we are, or of oddities like day and night preceding the creation of the sun. Many Hebrews would have been aware of the similarities to other ANE creation stories; they would also have been aware of the differences, and the extent to which their creation-stories offered a critique of the pagan stories.

            By the time Genesis was written, probably most educated Jewish belief affirmed that God was all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent and so forth. There are stories in Genesis of God coming and going, not knowing things and going to investigate, changing his mind and so forth, but there's no reason to think that the author of Genesis literally predicated any of these things of the Divine Nature. Ancient writers could be sophisticated in their use of mythic materials. The specific character of myth, as distinct from history, wasn't necessarily lost on them at all.

            Augustine, Origen, Aquinas and Wesley had their own views on the 'real' meaning of various passages but they held to literal views on many of them. The key point is that they had no qualification to interpret them, no valid method of literary or historical analysis.

            Philo, Augustine and Origen are useful witnesses to the range of premodern literary assumptions in the ancient world in which the biblical authors wrote, and thus to the reasonability of not insisting that the author of Genesis could only have meant to assert a literal six-day creation.

            They didn't treat them as literary works, they treated them as divine revelations from which all important truths were to be distilled.

            This is manifestly untrue.

            For instance, Augustine certainly didn't believe that "all important truths" were to be "distilled" from scripture; indeed, he strongly objected to this naive methodology, which he feared would make Christianity look ridiculous to educated pagans:

            There is knowledge to be had, after all, about the earth, about the sky, about the other elements of this world, about the movements and revolutions or even the magnitude and distances of the constellations, about the predictable eclipses of moon and sun, about the cycles of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, fruits, stones, and everything else of this kind. And it frequently happens that even non-Christians will have knowledge of this sort in a way that they can substantiate with scientific arguments or experiments. Now it is quite disgraceful and disastrous, something to be on one's guard against at all costs, that they should ever hear Christians spouting what they claim our Christian literature has to say on these topics, and talking such nonsense that they can scarcely contain their laughter when they see them to be toto caelo, as the saying goes, wide of the mark. And what is so vexing is not that misguided people should be laughed at, as that our authors should be assumed by outsiders to have held such views and, to the great detriment of those about whose salvation we are so concerned, should be written off and consigned to the waste paper basket as so many ignoramuses.

            Whenever, you see, they catch some members of the Christian community making mistakes on a subject which they know inside out, and defending their hollow opinions on the authority of our books, on what grounds are they going to trust those books on the resurrection of the dead and the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of heaven, when they suppose they include any number of mistakes and fallacies on matters which they themselves have been able to master either by experiment or by the surest of calculations? It is impossible to say what trouble and grief such rash, self-assured know-alls cause the more cautious and experienced brothers and sisters. Whenever they find themselves challenged and taken to task for some shaky and false theory of theirs by people who do not recognize the authority of our books, they try to defend what they have aired with the most frivolous temerity and patent falsehood by bringing forward these same sacred books to justify it. Or they even quote from memory many things said in them which they imagine will provide them with valid evidence, not understanding either what they are saying, or the matters on which they are asserting themselves. (The Literal Meaning of Genesis).

            Thus, Augustine argued,

            In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we may find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. We should not battle for our own interpretation but for the teaching of Holy Scripture. We should not wish to conform the meaning of Holy Scripture to our interpretation, but our interpretation to the meaning of Holy Scripture.

            Continuing, you conclude,

            Passages that 'speak in a geocentric mode' are that way because the authors thought in a geocentric mode.

            True, but that doesn't mean that their pictorial naivete is not distinguishable — in principle, even by them — from their legitimate use of the same sort of phenemenological language that we all use every time we talk about the sun rising or setting.

            Suppose we stretch time and credibility just a tad and imagine the author of 1 Chronicles somehow running into Aristarchus of Samos, and becoming convinced of heliocentrism. Then he revisits what he wrote in 1 Chronicles 16:30: "Tremble before him, all earth; yea, the world stands firm, never to be moved."

            Would he be obliged to say, "Oops, got that wrong. The earth does move; it doesn't stand firm"? Or could he reasonably say, "Yes, heliocentrism is all very interesting, and I'm glad to know that. But nevertheless, in the relevant sense, the earth does stand firm"?

          • josh

            "Quite right, as regards Mein Kampf, and so a helpful analogy highlighting the point at issue."

            Which, I'm afraid, you don't really address in what follows.

            "That is the standard by which the truth of any literary work can and should be judged: Does it offer the kind of truth that that sort of literature can offer?"

            Well, first note that 'truth' isn't the standard by which we have to judge all literature. Fiction and poetry can be enjoyable quite apart from imparting any truth. Which brings us back to the question of why you are trying to force truth to come out of some ancient work of what Christians have had to increasingly claim is poetry and myth. Moreover, there is no reason one can't use figurative language to convey some broad truth without misleading your readers for a couple millenia.

            '"Mythological history," as applied to the creation accounts in Genesis, may be something of a category mistake.'

            No, this is at best a semantic distraction. I was speaking of the book of Genesis (and subsequent books in the OT). It presents a history of the Jewish people beginning with the creation of the first people and leading up to the establishment and dynasties of Israel and Judah. The creation is presented as part of this history. The history is legendary and mythologized. We might reasonably conjecture that the earlier periods according to that history are the most mythic, which is to say the most unreliable. Myth doesn't come before history or vice verse, they cross-pollinate.

            "If God had anything to do with the book of Genesis, He didn't set out to instruct the author in cosmology, astrophysics, evolutionary theory or any such thing." Begging the question. If God existed and if he had anything to do with the Bible we wouldn't expect it to be so full of errors. What you are doing is assuming he exists, assuming he can't be wrong, assuming he had something to do with the Bible, and concluding that any apparent errors aren't the real meaning.

            Now we can speculate about a hypothetical human originator of some version or piece of the stories. It's possible that this or that unknown proto-story contained allegorical elements, or was intended only as a story to tell around the campfire. But somehow or other that story passed into religion. It was taken literally, or it was taken to reveal some divine truth by millions of people. Unknown redactors and compilers are trying to smooth tensions because they assume there is a singular 'true' version or meaning. Trying to sort out the history of the story is a job for historians, but searching for an interpretation that doesn't really have errors, or never really meant them, isn't a valid method.

            "Augustine and Origen are useful witnesses to the range of premodern literary assumptions in the ancient world in which the biblical authors wrote, and thus to the reasonability of not insisting that the author of
            Genesis could only have meant to assert a literal six-day creation."

            But that's not the point. How Origen and Augustine interpreted their texts doesn't tell us how Genesis authors intended them. You're just making the observation that people can have non-literal readings, which I'm not debating. Augustine of course maintained a literal Adam. He was making the same mistake you are, trying to fit things into a 'true' meaning, trying to fit scripture into his own idea of what theology should be, rather than the entirely human fiction it is. Thus a literal Adam but perhaps a symbolic six days for Augustine. But neither is particularly justified. (And let's remember that ancient authors often saw the physical world as literally expressing symbolic or spiritual truths, not one to the exclusion of the other.) Again, there is no reason to think that ancient authors got 'spiritual' truths any more correct than they got physical truths.

            "This is manifestly untrue."
            You are reading me too narrowly. I actually worried about this but hoped you would avoid this red herring. The church fathers and doctors looked primarily to scripture and attempted to extract or support their beliefs from that. The scripture was the important thing, the authority. Of course they thought other things could be known, but the scripture was sacred and right and concerned the important things in life. Your own quote confirms this. Just like you, if they thought there was a conflict between a clear reading of scripture and what they thought was known, they would argue that the scripture meant something else, that it only really conveyed things they were comfortable with.

            But we can look at history with more perspective. We can see that when they weren't aware of the conflicts with future discoveries and criticism, they made all sorts of mistakes based on the assumption that it must be true. We can also see that even when they made symbolic interpretations they got things wrong because they didn't know they were referencing a forgery, or a mistranslation, or they misunderstood the original context, etc. And the same thing is going on today. Your assumptions about specifically what is and isn't obviously non-literal or what the important points are differ, but it's the same irrational method.

            So, to recap, the issue is not that there can't be figurative language in the Bible. I literally can't think of anyone who believes that. The issue is that we shouldn't approach the book assuming it has a message or meaning that is true.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I agree. Carrier should respond.

  • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

    Jimmy's citation from 1 Thes 2:14-15 is particularly important because of how it situates the killing of Jesus in a historical continuity from the deaths of the Old Testament prophets to the persecution of the early Christians, including Paul and his fellow evangelists. Jesus was killed, Paul says, by the same Jews who persecuted the prophets and are persecuting the early Christians. There is no slightest whiff of an event believed to have occurred "in the lower heavens"; on the contrary. And, as Jimmy says, this letter is commonly regarded as the very first extant Christian document of any kind!

    The fact that Paul emphasizes that Jesus was "buried" before rising from the dead (1 Cor 15:4) is also striking. Did this "burial" take place "in the lower heavens"? Is there any reason to think that being "buried in the lower heavens," or being buried anywhere but on earth, would have been conceptually cogent to Paul or his contemporaries?

    It's worth noting in this connection that the affirmation of Jesus' burial takes place in a passage that, like Paul's Last Supper account in 1 Corinthians 11, is widely regarded as a pre-Pauline ritual formula, solemnly introduced in both cases with the technical terms "received" and "delivered."

    One would think Carrier would have to argue that such Pauline material as the Last Supper account ("on the night he was betrayed"), references to Jesus' "brothers" (including his brother James), etc., if they didn't originally belong to a fairly well-established narrative of Jesus' earthly life more or less as later attested in the Gospels, were later seamlessly woven into the Gospel accounts of Jesus' earthly life, with no redactional irregularities that I can see.

    That would be a pretty incredible claim. I happen to think there are what appear to be redactional artifacts even moving from Mark to Matthew and Luke; so the idea of the scraps of Jesus' story as we have it in Paul being smoothly and seamlessly relocated from some supposed "heavenly" context to an earthly story without narrative bumps and bruises is hard to credit — particularly in the absence of any supporting argumentation to date.

    I would also be curious what support Carrier might marshal for the claim that "crucifixion" and "resurrection" were, in the world of Second Temple Judaism, concepts that could cogently be applied to narratives in the "lower heavens." What narrative precedents for such claims does he have?

    N. T. Wright in The Resurrection of the Son of God has argued pretty exhaustively (and, IMO, convincingly) that in the world of Jesus' contemporaries the word "resurrection" denoted only one thing: bodily return to this-worldly life. Later in the second and third centuries there is evidence of the word taking on additional, spiritual (from an orthodox Christian perspective, corrupted) senses, but no evidence of any such usage in the Second Temple era.

    The idea that the crucifixion of Jesus was a pious fiction originally imagined in some heavenly context is, for me, perhaps the most stunning element of Carrier's thesis. The mainstream historical view of the Jesus material is that the crucifixion of Jesus is the one most historically certain datum in the story, precisely because, per the criteria of double dissimilarity and embarrassment, it is the worst possible end for a putative messiah, and the one end that no messiah-cult would invent for their leader.

    It was absolutely discrediting: A crucified messiah was, by definition, a failed messiah. Such an end was an enormous obstacle both for potential Jewish converts and for Gentiles. It would have been like sending out missionaries wearing nametags saying "Don't Join Our Group." I am aware of no plausible account of such an invention ever being proposed, or even of any serious attempt to do so.

    Yet, at the same time, it's widely recognized that the passion narratives were the earliest portion of the gospel traditions to take shape. The crucifixion is central to every strand of NT tradition: Pauline, Mark, Q, special M, special L, Johnannine, Hebrews, etc. It is almost the only notable element of Jesus' biography (other than his ancestry and a few other points) that appears in Paul at all — along with the Last Supper account, which uniquely ties together Paul and the Synoptics and is essentially bound to the passion narrative. Furthermore, the crucifixion is central to the two most notable fragments of potentially pre-Pauline Christianity in the NT, i.e., the Christological hymn of Philippians 2 as well as the confessional formula of 1 Corithians 15:3ff.

    The passion narrative is also far and away the area of i) most exact and extensive harmony among the synoptics as well as ii) greatest overlap between the synoptic and Johnanine traditions. Mark's Gospel, the first to be written, is widely characterized as "a passion narrative with an extended introduction." Foreshadowings of the crucifixion likewise infuse the narratives of Jesus' career, including the infancy narratives. Taken together, these points constitute the strongest argument that could be hoped for that the crucifixion not only belongs to the earliest strata of Jesus tradition, but is central to it from the start.

    I thus have grave doubts that any critical attempt to reconstruct a primordial Jesus tradition, or even to propose threads of such a tradition, while excluding the historical crucifixion of Jesus could ever offer a plausible explanation of the data.

    • Christian Stillings

      Steven, I just want to tell you that you're consistently one of my favorite apologetic writers- and it's not even your day job, haha. :-) Your insights are splendid, and you perfectly balance thoroughness, conciseness, and clarity. I wish my writing was more like yours sometimes, haha.

      I was recently reconciled to the Church from a Protestant (Evangelicalish Anglicanish) upbringing, and I'm presently writing twin apologias: one for Protestant friends and one for curious "secular" friends. I'm toying with a few arguments for Jesus' divinity for the latter apologia, and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about one of my ideas.

      The first obvious one is William Lane Craig's "Four Facts" argument for the Resurrection- death by crucifixion, burial in the tomb, empty tomb, and post-empty-tomb appearances; as Craig claims, a solid majority of historians agree to the authenticity of these events. The other obvious choice is the "Liar-Lunatic-Lord Trilemma," but His splendid moral teachings are historically better-accepted than His supposed Divine claims. I want to use early Eucharistic theology to up the "lunatic" factor and demonstrate Jesus' certain claims to Divinity or very-near-Divinity.

      As you note, the Last Supper is next to the Crucifixion in terms of early attestation and wide attestation. I'd first argue for the authenticity of Jesus' "Bread of Life" speech in John 6 wherein He said "He who does not eat my flesh and drink my blood does not have life within him." I find it absurd to think that someone might've invented such a statement in a Jewish context, and I may borrow from J.A.T. Robinson's "Redating the New Testament" to argue for an early date for the Gospel of John. I'd then argue for the historicity of the Last Supper from early and wide attestation and focus on how "this is my body, this is my blood..." would be absurd as a Jewish fabrication but fulfills Jesus' implicit promise in John 6 (to make His body and blood available to eat and drink). I'd finish by pointing out how Paul directly equates the bread and cup with Jesus' body and blood, which suggests that the Eucharistic ritual was carried on in early Christian communities. Jesus' promise to "transubstantiate" bread and wine into His body and blood is something only a Being with Divine power could do; because the earliest Christian witness suggests that He did so, they clearly believed that he was God, or at least an extraordinarily similar being- perhaps Arius' superman?

      The short version: early Christian witness indicates that Jesus (implicitly) promised to make His body and blood available for consumption, fulfilled said promise at the Last Supper, and early Christian communities believed that they continued to consume His body and blood. The only reasonable source of this belief is Jesus' own words, and the Promise of continued miraculous sacramental action could only be made by someone with consistent access to Miracle Power, ie God. This demonstration should falsify the "legend" thesis often tacked on to the "Trilemma," because the clear claim of Lordship is demonstrably authentic.

      It's not a totally finished line of reasoning, but I think it has promise, and I'll continue to hone it. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for how I might work with it?

      Strange Notions Catholic forum folk, do y'all have any critique or suggestion for this idea? I'd love to hear some perspectives!

      Christian

      • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

        Hi Christian,

        Thanks so much for your kind words.

        I like your approach. It has much in common with my own thought on these questions.

        I like to begin with the fulfillment of Jewish expectation: that preposterous, age-old hubris of the Hebrews that not only was their covenant god, the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the true God before who the gods of the pagan nations were but lies and shadows, but the expectation that the day would come when this god of theirs would vindicate himself before all the pagan nations as the one true creator and the lord of all, that the pagans would come to Israel to learn wisdom, etc.

        It seems an insane conceit for this paltry backwater nation: not unlike the Duchy of Grand Fenwick in The Mouse that Roared declaring war not only on the USA, as they do in the film, but on the rest of Europe as well — and actually expecting to win into the bargain. (In the film the war is a strategm; they intend to lose, but win by mistake.)

        Yet this was part and parcel of the notion of the kingdom of God that Jesus seems to have announced -- and his life and career actually wound up bringing it about. If this massive coincidence was itself an accidental consequence of his life and career being completely misrepresented, this must surely rank among the most staggeringly ironic twists in history.

        Yet along came Jesus of Nazareth, proclaiming the kingdom of Israel's god, and his life and career actually had the stunning historical effect of apparently vindicating this Hebrew expectation. Within an astonishingly short time, the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was proclaimed throughout the Gentile world as the one true God. Goyim in every corner of the Roman empire pored over the Torah and the prophets. And from there this faith became, and remains, the world's largest religion.

        From there, I follow a path much influenced by N.T. Wright's Christian Origins and the Question of God series.

        The main fulcrum of Wright's approach is the question, "Why did Christianity begin and why did it take the shape it did?"

        Wright argues at length that early Christian belief and praxis makes no sense historically unless the earliest Christians believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

        He argues that this belief was central to the earliest Christianity to which we have any kind of historical access -- and that it is accompanied by striking alterations in the nature of resurrection-belief vis-a-vis existing Jewish belief also in need of historical explanation.

        Neither the discovery of an empty tomb nor the experience of postmortem encounters with Jesus alone suffice as historical explanations of belief in Jesus' resurrection. (Meeting a man after his death, in the absence of an empty tomb, would have been interpreted as spectral or spiritual phenomena, not resurrection. And of course the empty tomb by itself would only suggest that the body had been moved.)

        Rather, both the discovery of the empty tomb (where Jesus was known to have been laid) and postmortem encounters with Jesus together are a necessary and sufficient explanation for this belief. Rival hypotheses lack comparable explanatory power.

        Therefore it is historically highly probable that the tomb where Jesus was buried was found empty, and that his followers did experience meeting him alive after the crucifixion. And the best historical explanation of these two phenomena is that Jesus really was raised from the dead.

        It's important to note that neither of this lines of thought proves that Christianity is true. The early Christians might have been right about Jesus being raised from the dead, but wrong about why. The mere fact of Jesus rising from the dead doesn't prove that he was raised by God, or that God raising him vindicated his teaching or established him as the true Son of God or the Savior of the world. These are interpretations of the resurrection-event. Other interpretations are in principle possible. (He could have been raised by space aliens, or by mischievous beings of some sort: elves or demigods or demons. Or perhaps God raised him, but for imponderable reasons we can't begin to imagine.

        Likewise, the apparent vindication of the Hebrew expectation doesn't prove that God is actually revealing himself in history through the spread of Christianity. This is an interpretation of the facts, just as the belief that the resurrection means the vindication of Jesus by God is an interpretation of the resurrection. Taken together, though, they offer a plausible interpretation of the realities in question and a challenge to rival theories.

        From there, I would go on to work some kind of aut deus aut homo malus argument ("either God or a bad man"). I agree with you that the Eucharistic themes you cite have promise in this connection.

  • Timothy Reid

    I obviously do agree with this article more than yesterday's post,
    but that aside. I felt some of the same confusion about how one cannot just simply say that all these other people don't believe Jesus was real, therefore Jesus was not real and in time everyone will agree with me.
    I don't know if the desire to prove Jesus didn't exist comes from sound and legitimate historical and scientific research, or if is merely focused on a dislike of Christianity and a wishful thinking that the central figure be an invention of clever 1st and 2nd century outlaws.
    What's the motivation?
    Is it that new type of atheism where it's not enough to opt out of religious belief, but one must (in a sense) proselytize their atheism upon everyone? Granted, Christians did that for centuries and still continue to be missionaries, but being an atheist missionary is trying to take away a person's core belief, but replacing it with nothing. What is then at our core if not our beliefs?

    • josh

      Hopefully, being some kind of decent person is at your core. Maybe your love for friends and family is core, or maybe an interest in music, or art, or science, or your job. These all seem like core things. On the other hand, specific beliefs about absolute loyalty to magical authoritarians seems like the sort of thing that shouldn't be at your core. If it is it seems rotten. Atheism is the same as it has ever been; some atheists (like myself) think the world would be a better place if people in general were less religious. Hence the 'proselytizing'.

      I'm sure some of the attention paid to mythicism stems from atheists eager to have a handy knock-out blow. After all, if Jesus didn't even exist at all then there is no need to bother with explaining why an obscure 1st century itinerant holy man probably didn't actually work magic. But the level of interest doesn't tell you all that much about the merits of the case one way or another. Ideally, people would realize that it is not the strength of the case for strict mythicism that matters, but the complete weakness of the case for Jesus as a foundation for your 'core'.

      • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

        Hopefully, being some kind of decent person is at your core. Maybe your love for friends and family is core, or maybe an interest in music, or art, or science, or your job. These all seem like core things. On the other hand, specific beliefs about absolute loyalty to magical authoritarians seems like the sort of thing that shouldn't be at your core.

        "Absolute loyalty to magical authoritarians" is so far from being a helpful description of how I understand my position as to be essentially worthless.

        Here is how I would put it: My absolute loyalty is to the Good, the True and the Beautiful, which I understand to be, not abstractions, but "refractions, as it were, across the prism of consciousness, of the boundless realm of being, which extends beyond man, in whom they actuate an ever more extensive participation in Being itself" (Pius XII).

        In other words, God is absolute Being and the ground of all being, the fullness and source of all goodness, truth and beauty. God's will, God's judgments are right and true as necessarily as math necessarily works. There is nothing arbitrary or accidental about the goodness of God, any more than it is arbitrary or accidental that ten is not only five times two, but also two times five. For reason itself is ultimately rooted in the Divine Reason (Logos).

        So, when you talk about being "a decent person," behind your concept of "decency" is some idea of goodness which, from my point of view, is a reflection or approximation of God. Believing what I do, I know of no way to "try to be a decent person"—no meaning I can ascribe to those words—that mean anything other than "strive to be in harmony with God, to conform myself to Him" (just as you try to live up to your idea of "decency" or goodness) in the manner befitting my nature and vocation.

        • josh

          '"Absolute loyalty to magical authoritarians" is so far from being a helpful description of how I understand my position as to be essentially worthless.'

          Then I'm afraid you don't understand your position. Unfortunately, I don't know any sure way to help you, but you need to move off dead center to the point where you can consider being wrong.

          "My absolute loyalty is to the Good, the True and the Beautiful, which I understand to be, not abstractions, but "refractions, as it were, across the prism of consciousness, of the boundless realm of being, which extends beyond man, in whom they actuate an ever more extensive participation in Being itself"

          It would be hard to find a more explicit example of abstraction. Rather than considering concepts like true, beautiful, and good as they are used in human experience, you are reifying them, just look at the capitalization! You are promoting subjective judgments like good and beautiful to objective qualities that lose all connection with the real world, and then trying to mix everything together into one meaningless whole. When you watch a beautiful sunset do you really think to yourself "I am actuating the hell out of my ever more extensive participation in Being Itself"? What a load of metaphysical garbage to drop on a pleasant evening. The truth does not need your loyalty.

          "In other words, God is absolute Being and the ground of all being, the fullness and source of all goodness, truth and beauty. God's will, God's judgments are right and true as necessarily as math necessarily works. There is nothing arbitrary or accidental about the goodness of God, any more than it is arbitrary or accidental that ten is not only five times two, but also two times five. For reason itself is ultimately rooted in the Divine Reason (Logos)."

          Being does not need Absolute Being to 'ground' it, even the concept of Being itself is a needless abstraction. 'Being' is not the source of things that be. Goodness and beauty and truth don't have to spring from some singular source, they don't need a 'fullness', they are descriptions of the way (some) things are. Moreover if we were going to say that they 'sprang' from some whole, we would have to say that it is the source of all evil, falsity and ugliness as well. The universe just isn't here to be good or bad for you. Similarly, we don't need to root reason in Divine Reason any more than you would root Divine Reason in Super Reason. You are either being reasonable or you are not, and if you assume that reason itself has to be justified in terms of your religious beliefs then you are in the not category.

          Incidentally, math doesn't necessarily work. 2X5=5X2 is a mathematical model of certain features of reality, handy for describing things like how many apples you have. But other features of reality are described by non-commuting numbers, where aXb does not equal bXa. Two and five are symbols with a set of rules we use to model reality where applicable, they don't determine reality.

          And the problem we have is that your model of 'God' doesn't fit reality at all. It makes no sense to speak of the 'ground of Being' as having a will, or making judgments. These are things a vanishingly small sample of existing beings might be said to do, not 'being itself'. If you were just trying to force everything into some Platonic 'the Good' and such that would be one thing. But you are trying to graft that dubious metaphysical abstraction on to the parochial God of Israel, and then onto the even more unsuitable figure of Jesus. Being itself doesn't choose a tribe to offer it sacrifices, it doesn't have a son who walked around 1st century Palestine, it doesn't write commandments. That's the magic part.

          Moving on, there is no argument that your God necessarily makes right judgments, you are just trying to define him as such. And this is where the authoritarianism comes in. You have an identical mindset to, say, a North Vietnamese who literally believes that Kim Il Sung and his family are incapable of error. You are refusing to evaluate your authority figure, opting to believe by definition that he is legitimate. And because of beliefs like that we get people arguing that biblical genocides just must be justified. That's textbook authoritarianism.

          "Believing what I do, I know of no way to "try to be a decent person"—no meaning I can ascribe to those words—that mean anything other than 'strive to be in harmony with God, to conform myself to Him' ..."

          First of all, my concept of decency acknowledges that it is subjective. I'm not trying to elevate the way I want the world to be to some kind of transcendental absolute. Now as established above, the issue is that 'Believing as you do' isn't a reasonable thing to do. But I don't think the quoted sentence is even true. I'll wager you do have ideas about what a decent person would do that are quite independent of your God conception. You (presumably) don't go around arbitrarily harming people because you actually care about other people, not because you made some abstract evaluation of what God is like and are trying to emulate him. Rather, you are trying to conform your idea of God to your ideas of good and decent, etc. God has become your imaginary exemplar of goodness, love, whatever.

          I'm trying to get you to understand that that person doesn't really exist. That the jumbled conception of this ideal person mixed with the backwards tribal mythology of Judeo-Christian legends, mixed with the mistaken metaphysics of pre-scientific Greeks is an unworkable mess. One that is not only unnecessary and mistaken but actually a hindrance to being the decent person I think you want to be.

          • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

            Then I'm afraid you don't understand your position. Unfortunately, I don't know any sure way to help you, but you need to move off dead center to the point where you can consider being wrong.

            Wow. The irony of sentence 2 following upon the breathtaking hubris of sentence 1 is killing me.

            Honestly, I'm surprised, Josh. I was gratified by our amicable and, I thought, reasonable exchange yesterday. While I've taken a strong position above that God, as I've defined him, can't be wrong, nothing in what I've said suggests the slightest confusion between God and myself!

            I take for granted that to be human, and therefore finite, necessarily entails uncertainty — for unbelievers, believers, everyone. I can, I assure you, consider being wrong. I do it all the time.

            It would be hard to find a more explicit example of abstraction.

            That you say that suggests that you haven't yet come to grips with what is, in fact, my position.

            We think of the Good, the True and the Beautiful as abstractions, but my thesis is that the Reality that is the Source and basis for all these is utterly concrete. My capitalization denotes not reifying, but the opposite: speaking abstractly about the utterly concrete. Think of Carl Sagan's famous sentence "The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be." I am saying that beyond the cosmos there is Something — a concrete Something, not an abstraction, from which the cosmos has its existence, and that when we abstract concepts like "truth" and "beauty" we are, in fact, approximating this Reality.

            When you watch a beautiful sunset do you really think to yourself "I am actuating the hell out of my ever more extensive participation in Being Itself"?

            You have no idea. :-)

            I'm sure you've heard people use "seeing God" as a metaphor for a transcendent experience. The metaphor loses nothing for being taken more seriously than many intend when they say it.

            It is precisely my experience that every beautiful sunset, every transcendent bit of music, every happy evening with friends or family, lifts me up to God. I can't say I take seriously the idea that you somehow get more out of sunsets than I do by not finding this. :-)

            And I have, in fact, made this exact point, regarding sunsets specifically — and in particular one sunset I'll always remember, and the profound effect it had on a coworker — in dozens of CCD classes over the years.

            The truth does not need your loyalty.

            Indeed not! But I need to be loyal to the truth. If I don't, I lose out, not the truth, just as the sunset doesn't lose out if I fail to appreciate it.

            It makes no sense to speak of the 'ground of Being' as having a will, or making judgments.

            It would certainly shock a neo-Platonist. Identifying the "ground of Being," the Absolute or the One, with the covenent god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a mind-blowing move. But that's what many Second Temple Jews and later Christians did. I am saying that the neo-Platonists were right, and that the Jews and Christians were right, and they were both right about the same thing.

            Being itself doesn't choose a tribe to offer it sacrifices, it doesn't have a son who walked around 1st century Palestine, it doesn't write commandments.

            Because you say so? Because I say it does.

            Incidentally, math doesn't necessarily work...

            Yeah, I'm familiar with this type of response, but it doesn't change the fact that there's nothing arbitrary about five people with two apples apiece having the same number of apples as two people with five apples apiece.

            Moving on, there is no argument that your God necessarily makes right judgments, you are just trying to define him as such. And this is where the authoritarianism comes in.

            No, I'm saying fact can't be non-fact, being can't be non-being, fullness can't be privation, truth can't be false. It's not authority, it's reality.

            First of all, my concept of decency acknowledges that it is subjective.

            I know it. What I'm saying is that I believe it's a subjective approximation of something objective. If it were wholly subjective, there would be nothing to say that your subjective preferences are any better or worse than a pedophile's or a serial killer's.

            But I don't think the quoted sentence is even true. I'll wager you do have ideas about what a decent person would do that are quite independent of your God conception.

            This is true in a sense, but fatally wrong in another sense. Of course my ideas of right and wrong aren't conclusions derived from my idea of God. I have a conscience same as you. But I understand my conscience, to the extent that it's properly formed, to be directing me to conform myself to God.

            If I didn't believe that, it seems to me I would regard my conscience in an entirely different light. Beliefs affect experience and feelings. For instance, I'm arguing with you now because I take you seriously, and I take you seriously because I believe that on the other end of this discussion is a human being with a mind like my own.

            If for some reason I became convinced otherwise — if I came to believe that you were actually a sophisticated chatbot that might be able to pass the Turing test but wasn't really conscious and didn't have opinions or beliefs — I would not be nearly as invested in this discussion.

            And if somehow I became a convinced strong solipsist — if I literally believed that I was the only mind in the world, and everyone around me was a projection of my own mind — I have a hard time believing I would find it compelling or reasonable to continue to take seriously ideals like "Do as you would be done by" or "Love your neighbor as yourself."

            Likewise, when I think of the times in my life when I've come the closest to seeing a universe around me with no God in it, it has been very clear to me that in that world my moral affections would appear to me as a set of instincts and responses with some survival (and thrival) value for myself and society, useful certainly, and worth following most of the time, but by no means absolute (which might be what you mean by "subjective," although I'm not sure).

            And, for me at least, when and where my idea of decent behavior comes into conflict with other things I want badly enough, absent something more for my idea of "decency" to be about, I can't for the life of me see that my idea of decent behavior should always win, even in principle. Given sufficient incentive, the sensible thing to do might well be the "indecent" thing.

            Hint: This is where unbelievers who don't grok the relevant concepts say that this is really shockingly immoral of me, since I'm only doing good or avoiding evil because the bully in the sky has bribed or threatened me, etc. But it has literally nothing to do with reward or punishment. (I'm sure you'll correct me if you understand my beliefs better than I do.)

          • josh

            "Wow. The irony of sentence 2 following upon the breathtaking hubris of sentence 1 is killing me."

            Pointing out that you haven't justified your position and don't acknowledge the criticisms that it entails hardly qualifies as hubris. I'm not asserting that I have access to some absolute truth, you are. You've said that God can't be wrong, how does that not indicate an unwillingness to consider where you can be wrong about the existence of God?

            "That you say that suggests that you haven't yet come to grips with what is, in fact, my position.

            We think of the Good, the True and the Beautiful as
            abstractions, but my thesis is that the Reality that is the Source and basis for all these is utterly concrete."

            I understand your position, it's just that your thesis isn't supportable. We agree that the Good is an abstract thought and you are reifying it by saying it is something concrete. You have no basis for your assertion. If the abstract category Cosmos is 'all there is' then it literally makes no sense to say there is 'Something' beyond.

            You are moved by sunsets, and you feel that it 'lifts you up to God'. But that is because the sunset is beautiful to you and you want God to be beautiful too, not because you are 'being' more.

            "But I need to be loyal to the truth." You are missing the point. There is no question of loyalty involved.

            "I am saying that the neo-Platonists were right, and that the Jews and Christians were right, and they were both right about the same thing." "Because I say it does." Again, this is gibberish. Not because I say so, but because we can always conceive of a being without mind or judgment, therefore any 'ground of Being' can't have mind as a fundamental property, much less can it have a son performing parlour tricks at weddings. It is as irrational as saying that God literally has a white beard.

            "Yeah, I'm familiar with this type of response, but it doesn't change the fact that there's nothing arbitrary about five people with two apples apiece having the same number of apples as two people with five apples apiece."

            Then I'd ask you to think harder about the response because you still haven't got the point. The apples are an approximation your mind makes to describe reality as it encounters it. That reality is described more accurately by the laws of physics and we don't know any necessary principle that sets those laws as they apparently are. The world as it actually is is arbitrary to our knowledge. The way we describe it depends on our minds. But the map in our minds doesn't determine the world outside. That's why it's bad to define God as infallible. We don't need more descriptions and derivations from your map, we need to see if it is a useful guide to the world we encounter.

            "No, I'm saying fact can't be non-fact, being can't be non-being, fullness can't be privation, truth can't be false."

            Which is a binary categorization that we all use when reasoning. But the danger is to think that your understanding of these categories is absolute. Experience tells us that they will break down when pressed beyond their domains of applicability. Hence the LIar's Paradox, for example. But you are still trying to lump everything into one. If Good and Evil really were absolutes then they would both be Truth. Beauty and Ugliness are equally real. And the truth can very much be that both beauty and goodness are subjective experiences. But again, even if there is some sort of objective Good, it isn't a god and it isn't necessarily true that any putative god acts for the good. The Good can't have judgments anymore than The Spherical, or the Cockroach-like can, if we must dabble in Platonic silliness.

            "If it were wholly subjective, there would be nothing to say that your subjective preferences are any better or worse than a pedophile's or a serial killer's."

            It is wholly subjective, 'better' and 'worse' are subjective judgments. That's why there are pedophiles and serial killers, but not people who break the laws of relativity. The former is subjective, the latter is not.

            "But I understand my conscience, to the extent that it's properly formed, to be directing me to conform myself to God."

            But 'properly formed' is a judgment of your conscience itself. As I keep saying, I'm asking you to question your understanding.

            "If I didn't believe that, it seems to me I would regard my conscience in an entirely different light."
            Yes. The rest of your comment is an argument from consequences. In effect, 'If I realized that my conscience isn't absolute then I'd have to admit that my conscience isn't absolute.'

            Here's the thing: to the extent that you decide your actions, you do it based on desire. Your different desires compete, you weigh long vs short term, etc. and you come to a decision. Your conscience is part of your desires. Your desire not to hurt someone competes with your desire to have the money in their wallet. You can have the meta-desire that your conscience desires always win out. That doesn't have to change if you unseat your religion. The question is, why do you want it to be the case that God set up your desires? It's no less arbitrary than any other mechanism. But if you desire to seek truth then it behooves you to realize that it's not the case.

          • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

            Josh:

            Pointing out that you haven't justified your position and don't acknowledge the criticisms that it entails hardly qualifies as hubris.

            If you'd only said I "hadn't justified my position," I would have cordially welcomed your challenge. If you'd said I "don't acknowledge criticisms," I would have equably argued the point.

            What it seems to me you said was that I don't understand my own position — that you understand my position better than I do. A statement like that is very nearly a discussion-killer. If that's really what you think, especially at this early stage, then I'm confident we're both wasting our time. I hope you misspoke, or I've misunderstood.

            If the abstract category Cosmos is 'all there is' then it literally makes no sense to say there is 'Something' beyond.

            The syllogism is formally valid…but I reject the implicit first premise. Sagan's definition of "the Cosmos" is not acceptable to me. I only cited it as an example of anti-reification.

            But that is because the sunset is beautiful to you and you want God to be beautiful too, not because you are 'being' more.

            Our interpretations of the experience differ. I'm just pointing out that your unpleasant idea of "dropping a load of metaphysical garbage on a pleasant evening" corresponds to nothing in my experience.

            At any rate, it strikes me as clearly untrue to my experience and outlook to say that I "want God to be beautiful too." That is precisely not what "I want" ("what I want" being something I persist in thinking I have more insight into than you).

            It would surely be somewhat less inadequate and misleading, if you insisted on psychologizing my experience, to say that for some reason — as powerful as I find these experiences, or even precisely because I find them powerful — I seem unsatisfied with accepting the experience of beauty as a stimulation of the pleasure centers of my brain, just as I'm unsatisfied with the idea of decency and indecency rooted in cerebral and emotional positive and aversive moral responses.

            For some reason I insist on perceiving or imposing a category of meaning onto these experiences — and if you try to talk to me about "creating my own meaning," I become frightfully tiresome and say that I honestly have no idea what what that would mean. In that context, "God" is not something I would like to see as having attributes similar to rainbows and moral goodness; "God" is my name for what I believe is the source and standard of what we call beauty and goodness, as excellences we perceive in the created order.

            The apples are an approximation your mind makes to describe reality as it encounters it. That reality is described more accurately by the laws of physics…

            Physics can describe phenomena more precisely; I'm not sure I see that it describes them more accurately. Calling the word "apple" a symbol makes sense to me; calling it an "approximation" seems odd, though I don't see the point in quibbling about such words. If words like "faith," "God," "skepticism" and "undirected processes" are approximations, they're helpful ones.

            …and we don't know any necessary principle that sets those laws as they apparently are.

            Which raises whole other kettles of fish about how remarkably convenient those laws happen to be, to allow us to sit here thinking about them. A discussion for another time.

            If Good and Evil really were absolutes then they would both be Truth.

            Indeed. Which is why dualism is false, and why I don't believe that Good and Evil are equal, opposite absolutes, or Truth and Falsehood. Only Good and Truth.

            But 'properly formed' is a judgment of your conscience itself. As I keep saying, I'm asking you to question your understanding.

            I'm always questioning my understanding. I hope you are too.

            "'Properly formed' is a judgment of your conscience" is true in a sense, in the same way that "My reason when working properly" is a judgment of my reason. But both judgments in fact appeal to a standard beyond my own judgment, and allow for the possibility that, in principle, I could be wrong. I thought "a valid proof" meant a proof I agreed with, I wouldn't check and recheck my work; and in the same way if I thought "a morally good act" meant "an act my conscience approved of," I wouldn't struggle over moral decisions.

            The rest of your comment is an argument from consequences.

            Not an argument from consequences, only an exploration of consequences. I didn't argue, even implicitly, "and therefore X is true and Y false." I simply pointed out that your idea that my idea of decent behavior is in principle detachable from my idea of God doesn't correspond to my own experience of belief and doubt — and I can't see why it should. That doesn't tell us what's real. It's just a fact about me.

            You can have the meta-desire that your conscience desires always win out. That doesn't have to change if you unseat your religion.

            But why would I want to? What sense would that make?

            The question is, why do you want it to be the case that God set up your desires? It's no less arbitrary than any other mechanism.

            If God set up my desires arbitrarily, that would be true. But if He set them up in accordance with His own necessary, non-arbitrary nature, then it would not be arbitrary. I believe I'm biased toward love over hate because God is Love, and God is Love as necessarily as A is not non-A. I know, non-Aristotelian logic. God isn't arbitrary anyway.

          • josh

            "What it seems to me you said was that I don't understand my own position — that you understand my position better than I do."

            You know how you think about your position, but it doesn't follow that you understand its ramifications and contradictions, or your internal motivations for holding it. You don't think of your position as 'magical authoritarianism', but I showed why it can be understood as such.

            On Cosmos, a definition is a definition, but maybe you are taking it to mean the sum of the physical world? I don't know the exact context of the quote. Regardless, you are still reifying things, just insisting that the reification is correct, sans argument.

            "I'm just pointing out that your unpleasant idea of "dropping a load of metaphysical garbage on a pleasant evening" corresponds to nothing in my experience." You don't agree that it is garbage, but that's not an argument. I assert that you can enjoy a sunset without trying to fit it into a metaphysical scheme. I'm betting you did at some point in your life before you got into religious metaphysics.

            "At any rate, it strikes me as clearly untrue to my experience and outlook to say that I "want God to be beautiful too." "

            Why? You will find the sunset beautiful with or without a belief in God. But you insist on trying to identify Beauty with your God (and Ugliness with absence). You seem to want god to be beauty. But we don't need beauty to be a god.

            This goes hand in hand with trying to make Beauty into a god, and thereby (in your mind) somehow elevating your sense of beauty above the subjective. But your dissatisfaction with beauty's subjectivity isn't an argument otherwise.

            "...I become frightfully tiresome and say that I honestly have no idea what what that would mean." And yet you can't say how God would solve this problem.

            "In that context, "God" is not something I would like to see as having attributes similar to rainbows and moral goodness; "God" is my name for what I believe is the source and standard of what we call beauty and goodness, as excellences we perceive in the created order."

            How can something be a standard for an attribute without having an attribute? But what you are perceiving is your enjoyment or appreciation for something. The standard is you and the 'source' is the structure of the universe that determines how 'you' react to the rest of it. But the same structure means that other people will react differently, so it makes no sense to externalize your reaction into some universal feature.

            An 'apple' is an approximation. It is an incomplete and non-fundamental heuristic your mind uses to describe reality. Useful indeed, but one can't push ones heuristics beyond their bounds. So we can casually speak of beauty and goodness but we shouldn't imagine they can be extrapolated to fundamental aspects of the universe. And 'God' is a useful description of a character in some people's beliefs, but not, as it turns out, a useful description of reality.

            "Which is why dualism is false, and why I don't believe that Good and Evil are equal, opposite absolutes, or Truth and Falsehood. Only Good and Truth."

            That's... not what dualism usually means. Anyhow, if Good is absolute (whatever that means) and Evil is not Good then Evil is also absolute. If A is absolutely true then 'not A' is absolutely False. If only Good and Truth exist then you have robbed the words of all meaning.

            "But both judgments in fact appeal to a standard beyond my own judgment, and allow for the possibility that, in principle, I could be wrong."

            I'm afraid you can't escape your own judgment. In the end, it is still the decider. What it can do is try to hold itself to its own standards, that's why you re-check your 'work'. That's why you allow that you might change your mind in principle. So when we talk about truth and reason, ultimately, one is trying to organize an understanding of your experiences that is as coherent, non-contradictory, and non-arbitrary as possible (by your own judgment). That entails for instance matching up our internal models of the 'world' with our external experiences of that 'world'. (That it is external is part of the model.) So when I examine my 'moral' experiences I find that ascribing them to an 'external standard' isn't consistent. You presumably aren't aware of an inconsistency in your model and I'm trying to get you to re-check it, based on the idea that our internal reasoning at it's fundamental levels isn't so different.

            But this is perhaps too much digression. Even allowing that there could be some objective notion of good and beauty, it simply doesn't make sense to identify them with a god.

            "...that my idea of decent behavior is in principle detachable from my idea
            of God doesn't correspond to my own experience of belief and doubt ...It's just a fact about me."

            Have you stopped believing in God and become a murderer? If not then I don't see where you have any relevant experience, or know these facts about yourself. Your stance on contraception or homosexuality for instance might change, but I don't think you want to argue that you believe in God in order to avoid changing any moral stance you currently hold.

            Why would you want to unseat your religion? Because you care about truth, or you care about ethics and therefore you care about truth. What sense does it make that you want your conscience to conform to God? That's what I mean when I say it is as arbitrary as anything else. If your conscience is a necessary product of God then it's fine with you? Then why not the much more plausible idea that it is a necessary product of evolution?

            You keep saying what you believe but not supporting it. One doesn't need abstract logics to point out that 'God is Love' is clearly not necessary in the way that 'A is not not A' is. All you have to do is realize that you can hold one concept in your mind without the other, and you can't get from one to the other by a set of necessary steps.

          • josh

            Jesus I'm getting long winded. Have a good night.

          • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

            Jesus I'm getting long winded. Have a good night.

            Long-winded, I can deal with. This, not so much:

            "What it seems to me you said was that I don't understand my own position — that you understand my position better than I do."

            You know how you think about your position, but it doesn't follow that you understandits ramifications and contradictions, or your internal motivations for holding it. You don't think of your position as 'magical authoritarianism', but I showed why it can be understood as such.

            The discussion-killing crisis mounts. My hope in the possibility of productive discussion wanes.

            Each of us believes that we are, in fact, right. What's more, each of us believes that the other is fundamentally mistaken, not only about the implications of our own worldview, but about the other person's worldview as well.

            I hope each of us holds these views critically, in a spirit of epistemological humility, and considers at each step the possibility of being in error — though so far only one of us (me) has owned this method for himself, while the other has only urged the first one to practice it.

            My assumption is that the appropriate method is dialogue toward better understanding of both positions and of the implications and arguments around them.

            Your assumption from the outset seems to be that you understand the implications and arguments before I make them, and any confusion is mine.

            I willingly admit that knowing how I think about my position doesn't mean I understand its ramifications or my internal motivations for holding it — and I think my language from the outset ("How I understand my position") has reflected this epistemological humility.

            The same is, of course, true of you regarding your own position and motives — let alone my position and motives. For some reason this doesn't seem to figure in your language the same way, though.

            In a word, I begin to fear that whatever misunderstandings you bring to the table (certainly regarding me, possibly regarding yourself) may be incorrigible.

          • felixcox

            Very good points, Josh. Nail on the head regarding the combining of abstract (amusingly rebranded as "concrete something") deism with iron age parochialism. sorry i'm late to this party.

  • C.J. O’Brien

    The problem I have with this kind of proof-texting from Paul is two-fold. On one hand, taking the genuine epistles more or less at face value, we can see that he was crashing the party, so to speak; there was a movement already underway, with leaders and some diversity of belief and practice, and Paul was introducing his own innovations which were unwelcome to some (many? most?) of the Jewish sectarians who were professing the risen Christ before Paul's arrival on the scene. So we don't know: a) What that movement was like -- though we can possibly make out the shape of an outline from the letters, that's taking the word of a polemicist who was antagonistic to it: do we trust Paul to characterize it truthfully?; or b) Which elements in Paul's gospel were the innovations he introduced? This matters for the history/myth debate because, even supposing that it it can be shown without a shadow of a doubt that Paul believed Jesus had been a real historical individual, that doesn't necessarily mean that he did so because that was the earliest belief. And it's identifying the ultimate origin of the entire Christ myth that is the object of such "minimalist" inquiry into the Christian texts. (Even if there was a man, there was also a Christ myth.)
    On the other hand, I don't take the epistles at face value. Nominally secular and critical scholarship has shown that the bulk of the epistolatory literature in the NT was forged, in Paul's or some other apostle's name, and yet seems curiously resistant to the idea that any of the material in the "seven genuines" originated in any way other that straight from the mouth of Paul. I find this unlikely, that there was some point after which basically everything is a theological argument between literary puppets, but before that point everything is "authentic". Especially once you consider that the Pauline texts were the primary battleground in the struggle between the Marcionites and the proto-Catholics, and that Marcion explicitly asserted that his opponents were adding to the letters. Several of these proof-texts look to me like exactly what an anti-docetist would want to put in Paul's mouth: "born of a woman under the law" for instance skewers two Marcionite beliefs with an admirable economy of words.
    Now, I'm aware that bringing up forgery and interpolation without manuscript evidence will leave the argument open to the charge of special pleading: call any passage you don't like a forgery and you can make the text read however you want. But that's not what I'm doing. What I would like to see is an anti-mythicist set these proof-text passages aside for long enough to engage with arguments like Doherty's, which point to the other 99% of the same literature from which the proof texts come, and say, okay, you've got this handful of passages, which are somewhat troubling for the mythicist case, but how do they stack up against the overall trend, which is cosmic in orientation, charismatic in practice, and awfully light on even incidental biographical and historical specifics. But no, it's always the same proof texts, case closed, move along now.

    2 specific points on the article:
    "betrayed" is a terrible translation of paredidoto in 1 Cor 11:23, an iconic case of importing gospel plot points into a literary context that can't support them. It could mean "betrayed" within the broader sense of "handed over, delivered to" but it is only given this translation in Paul in the specific cases where it might support the implication of a meaning from the narrative gospels. Most often Paul just means "given up" as is obvious in e.g. Gal 2:20 where it is the Christ who has given himself up for the believer. Using "betrayed" only when it doesn't obviously contradict the sense of the text is as tendentious as the worst argument of the most obtuse internet mythicist, and it's nearly ubiquitous in English translations of 1 Cor 11:23, which should tell you something about how reflexive and unconsidered this proof texting business is in the historicity debate.

    Paul didn't write the pastorals, and I'm sorry but I can't even have a conversation about this with anyone who can't just come out and admit it.

    • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

      C.J. O'Brien,

      The problem I have with this kind of proof-texting from Paul…

      "Proof-texting" is a rather silly charge in this context. Jimmy has cited passages from Paul precisely as indications of what Paul thought, over against the claim that the Gospels were "the first attempts to place Jesus in history as an earthly man," and by implication that Paul, writing before this "first attempt," would have understood Jesus differently, not as an "earthly man" in "history."

      When one reads Paul to find out what Paul thought before the Gospels were written, that's not "proof-texting," that's reading.

      On one hand, taking the genuine epistles more or less at face value, we can see that he was crashing the party, so to speak; there was a movement already underway, with leaders and some diversity of belief and practice, and Paul was introducing his own innovations which were unwelcome to some (many? most?) of the Jewish sectarians who were professing the risen Christ before Paul's arrival on the scene.

      This is a strange usage of "taking the genuine epistles more or less at face value." Taking at face value the epistle that deals most directly with the conflict in question, Galatians, while Paul emphasizes on the one hand that he received his Gospel not from men but from God, he also describes how he went twice to Jerusalem to see Peter and (on the second occasion) others, and "laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain."

      In other words, Paul was concerned to be sure that his gospel was in continuity with that of Peter and others who were "of repute." That's the opposite of "innovation."

      Nothing in his subsequent account of his conflict with Peter and the "circumcision party" indicates innovation on Paul's part; on the contrary, he indicates that Peter's original practice, until swayed by the circumcision party, was the same as Paul's. We can speculate that Paul may have been misrepresenting the facts and in reality Peter had never been on his side, but at that point we are no longer taking the epistle "more or less at face value."

      even supposing that it it can be shown without a shadow of a doubt that Paul believed Jesus had been a real historical individual, that doesn't necessarily mean that he did so because that was the earliest belief. And it's identifying the ultimate origin of the entire Christ myth that is the object of such "minimalist" inquiry into the Christian texts. (Even if there was a man, there was also a Christ myth.)

      The best historical theory will be the simplest theory that best accords with the known facts, with the greatest explanatory power and the fewest unsupported assumptions. To set out to explain the figure of Jesus as we find him in the Gospels and even in the epistles of Paul -- a Jewish man, a descendant of David, who was betrayed, crucified by the same Jews who later persecuted the early Christians, buried, and rose again -- by positing a celestial figure undergoing some sort of death and resurrection in the lower heavens -- does not seem to fit this criteria.

      • No Way

        "buried, and rose again -- by positing a celestial figure undergoing some sort of death and resurrection in the lower heavens -- does not seem to fit this criteria."

        this is the crux, if you say, "rose again," then any other possibility is more likely. As long as that is part of your argument then it is no more likely than the poisoned Hercules rising to heaven on a Nemedian lion skin.

  • Miguel Adolfo.

    To my knowledge, most modern historicians, whether they believe or not in Jesus Christ, support the theory of Jesus of Nazareth being a real person. From the end of the fifties, the then western historicians -which means, those in the States and Western Europe- dropped the mythical theory. At least the core of proffesional historicians in the Soviet Union followed them soon in the sixties.

    • No Way

      The theory has been picked up so it could not have been dropped. No one has ever thoroughly examined it. There is a reasonable case for doubt.

  • ContraBullshit

    "Brethren, it has come to my attention that you expect me to be a human sacrifice for your sins. May I asketh, who in the goddamn hell came up with that Neanderthal bullshit!!!!????

    What are we, living in the fucking Stone Age!!???

    Blood sacrifice!!!!!!!?????? You can take that pile of disgusting donkey shit and shove it straight up thy fucking asses!!!!"

    ------Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Sane Thought

  • disqus_59KZkHgegx

    The doubts about Jesus’ historical existence probably peaked in the late 19th
    century. Literature, quotations, life events and personal accounts about Jesus occur in great quantity within a generation of His death. No purely mythical figure would generate such details that could be easily refuted by contemporaries if fabricated. The evidence for the physical existence of Jesus of Nazareth is far stronger than that for (e.g) King Arthur or Robin Hood.

    • No Way

      The first information we have about an earthly Jesus is the Gospel of Mark from about 70 CE. The argument against this is that Mark was writing fiction. Paul, whose letters predate Mark, never reliably places Jesus in a historical context. When you add to this that everyone thinks that there is historical evidence, it makes an interesting case for Jesus not being a historical figure.

  • Bruce Grubb

    I like to point out that arguments like the above fall apart when compared to the real world example of the John Frum cargo cult.

    According to the cult, John Frum was a literate white US
    serviceman that appeared to the village elders in a vision in the late
    1930s.

    However as early as 1949 there were people saying the "origin of the
    movement or the cause started more than thirty years ago" ie putting
    "John Frum" in the 1910s

    The problem is the closest thing actual recorded history shows is not one but
    three illiterate natives taking up the name John Frum and being exiled
    or thrown into jail for the trouble they stirred up in the 1940-1947
    period:: Manehivi (1940-41), Neloaig (1943, inspired people to build an airstrip), and Iokaeye (1947, preached a new color symbolism)

    The John Frum cult caused so many problems that in 1957 there was
    effort made to prove John Frum didn't exist--it totally failed.

    By the 1960s, the natives were carrying around pictures of men
    they believed to be John Frum. In 2006, when asked why they still
    believed in his coming after some 60 years of waiting, the Chief said
    “You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to
    earth, and you haven’t given up hope.”

    "Unlike the cult of Jesus, the origins of which are not reliably
    attested, we can see the whole course of events laid out before our eyes
    (and even here, as we shall see, some details are now lost). It is
    fascinating to guess that the cult of Christianity almost certainly
    began in very much the same way, and spread initially at the same high
    speed. [...] John Frum, if he existed at all, did so within living
    memory. Yet, even for so recent a possibility, it is not certain whether
    he lived at all."

    Everything the Christian apologists claim couldn't have happened
    regarding Christianity appears to have happened with the John Frum cargo
    cult – it evolved from the preexisting beliefs without a clear
    definitive founder. Moreover in a seven year period we see various
    believers taking up the mantel of "John Frum" despite being totally
    difference in terms of literacy, nationality, and race not even a decade
    later. There is a hint in Paul's own writings (2 Corinthians 11:3-4)
    that this had happened with Jesus as he warns against other Jesuses
    other Gospels other then the ones he and his followers were preaching.

    Furthermore, as seen with the Prince Philip Movement, there are
    variants of the cult that connect the mythical John Frum to real living
    people (Prince Philip is the brother of John Frum in this variant even
    though Prince Philip has no brothers), something the Christian
    apologists claim couldn't have happened with Jesus.

    Carrier on his blog (July 1, 2013's "Hey, Free eBook! Christian vs. Atheist Intellectual Cage Match") was asked why the cargo cults with so many seemingly ready made examples were not used and his reply was "They are. Robert Price has been making the comparison for years, and I
    will be as well, extensively citing the scholarship, in my book on the
    subject (On the Historicity of Jesus)."

    • No Way

      We have at least two Jesus' running around right now. Alan John Miller in Australia and Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop in Russia.

  • No Way

    Wow, this just confirms that Dr. Carrier's best case is in the disingenuousness of the arguments against him.

    "Carrier appears to misunderstand the reference to “the earliest accounts” to mean “the early Christian documents we have.”"

    No, he doesn't. What I mean here is that it clearly does not look like Carrier is referring to christian documents or misunderstanding anything. He is referring to the letters of Paul which, according to general consensus, predate the gospels. Paul's genuine epistles are the earliest christian writings that we have. The gospels and Acts come later with Luke and Acts usually being dated approximately 90 CE. You know this, so why the smoke screen?

    You reference 1 Cor. 15:8 here without getting to the meat of what is being said. 15:8 just says that Jesus appeared to Paul last. If we go back, as you assumed your readers would not, and read from the beginning of the chapter, we see that Paul is talking about non physical appearances.

    "[H]e appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters"

    These are exactly the kind of revelations that Carrier is talking about! This seems to be intentionally deceitful on your part.

    Brothers of an Unreal Man?

    See the quote from 1 Corinthians above. Did Jesus have five hundred brothers and sisters? From a virgin mother no less! You go on to say,"So Jesus had “brothers” who were distinct from the apostles." The verse you cite here does not show anything of the kind. It lists apostles, brothers [note the plural] of the lord, and Cephus. Is Peter not generally considered to be both an apostle and a brother of the lord in the spiritual sense?

    "[T]he early sources indicate that [the brothers of the lord] were familial relations of Jesus," not a scholar myself, but, this seems like an absolute cherry place for a citation. Which sources?

    Born of a woman means absolutely nothing. Hercules was born of a woman. The ancient world was rotten with the children of gods. Every Roman soldier's bastard was sired by some kind of divinity.

    Other Indications

    1 Thess. 2:14-16 is considered by Dr. Carrier (and other scholars?) to be an anti semitic interpolation. The reasons being, to my understanding, is that it contradicts what Paul taught about the jews in other places (Romans 11:25-28) and references the destruction of the temple which happened after Paul's death.

    1 Cor. 11:23-25 Paul claims to have gotten his knowledge here from the lord. The problem with that is that Paul never met Jesus. This is another revelation. The kind Carrier constantly points out whenever talking about Paul.

    The Islam Analogy

    You intentionally misrepresent the analogy here. In Richard's analogy Paul is the parallel to Joseph Smith and Muhammad, not Jesus. Carrier is making Jesus the mythical figure like Michael in islam or Moroni [giggles] in mormonism. Joe and Mo received revelations from a heavenly being. This is exactly what Paul says happened to him whether Jesus was a real person or not. Carrier, and many people who are not mythicists, see Paul as the founder of christianity not Jesus. I cannot believe that you misunderstood this without some willfulness on your part.

    Ultimately, I find Carrier’s arguments unconvincing, though not implausible. As you started arguing, christianity appears to have been founded by a messianic figure. Jesus fits the Koresh/Jones/Manson cult leader mold much better than he fits the celestial deity (Thor/Bacchus/Zeus) mold. The best case for mythicism though, is how no one ever deals seriously with the idea that Jesus didn’t exist. We have no credible evidence for a historical Jesus. Using the gospels is like using Homer to argue for a historical Hercules. The historical references are either over represented when they are brought up or are christian forgeries or interpolations. Jesus, IMO, probably existed, but there is a very good case for him being entirely mythological.

  • spin

    I would like to correct a few issues.

    It’s true that Paul acknowledged that his own contact with Jesus was through revelation (Gal. 1:12), but Paul acknowledges that his relationship was different than that of the other apostles, that he related to Jesus as “one untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8)—that is, out of the normal sequence that governed how the others related to Jesus.

    1) Paul doesn't actually say that he had contact with Jesus in Gal 1:12. The text says that he was given a revelation of Jesus and 1:15-16 clarifies that the revelation was from God. It is important to note that Paul says he got his gospel through revelation, not from people. That means that Paul needed no-one to relate gospel events to him for him to proclaim Jesus. The revelation was sufficient. And he was set aside by God before birth for the job.

    2) 1 Cor 15:8 certainly does not mean "out of the normal sequence that governed how the others related to Jesus." The word underlying "untimely birth" is εκτρωμα, which actually indicates "abortion". See, eg LXX Lev 12:12. The sentiment indicates faux self-effacement.

    Paul indicates that some of them were his brothers. Later in Galatians 1..., Paul writes that once when he went to Jerusalem, “I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19).

    There are two problems in the common attempts to use Gal 1:19 to assert that Jesus had a real brother so Jesus must have been real.

    1) Paul overwhelmingly uses the word αδελφος ("brother") to indicate a member of his community or a fellow believer. He doesn't use it to indicate a literal brother. When dealing with literal family relations he is seen to add κατα σαρκα ("according to the flesh"). Abraham is Paul's father "according to the flesh" (Rom 4:1). Jesus is descended from David "according to the flesh" (Rom 1:3). The Jews are Paul's brothers "according to the flesh" (Rom 9:3).

    2) Paul's use of κυριος (lord) when it is used alone as a substitute for a name is generally held for God when its referent can be discerned, as is expected in the LXX, eg "the lord said...". The other use of "lord" is as a title, eg "our lord", "lord Jesus", etc. The use in Gal 1:19 is as a name substitute. It is therefore not reasonable to assert that the phrase τον αδελφον του κυριου indicates Jesus. There is no reason in either αδελφος or κυριος or their combination to believe that Jesus is indicated.

    Appeals such as "what else could it mean?" I would normally leave to the reader for them to read something into a text that is opaque to us moderns, but I have encountered such incredulity that I usually end up offering a suggestion that calling James "the brother of the lord" may have been an honorific title: he was a brother, ie believer, who was held in such respect as to be seen by the community as the Lord's, ie God's. Looking at its plural use in 1 Cor. 9:5, we can see a group of people who have a position within the Christian community. (You have to conjure up some notion of those brothers who rejected Jesus having a change of heart and suddenly becoming important in the Jesus community, though there's no sign in the gospels.)

    Now, given that Paul expressly says his gospel came via revelation from God Gal 1:11-12, he needed no human sourced information about his Jesus to proselytize. However, for his Jesus to be what he considered the messiah, there were conditions: he had to be a Jew and therefore born of a Jewish woman. That means in Paul's mind Jesus had to be real. To die in place of sinners he had to be able to die, ie real flesh and blood. These things are logical necessities for Paul's theology. How can a non-real non-Jew be a suitable surrogate for sinners? How can you die if you are not real? Paul's theology had clear needs, which in no way had to represent reality. Ebion had to be real in Tertullian's mind despite the fact that he didn't exist. People can believe that non-real people were real. That means arguing from what Paul believed about his messiah has no historical weight.