He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, October 31, 2016

Fair Questions: Did a Historical Jesus really exist?

This morning I ran across an article on the Washington Post's website entitled, "Did historical Jesus really exist?  The evidence just doesn't add up."  I thought perhaps it was going to make a stronger case than most of these sorts of articles, given that it specifically purported to deal with weighing the evidence.

Usually, these articles invoke vague doubts, but don't articulate a clear and useful standard of evidence, so I was looking forward to one that actually examined the evidence.  After reading it, I do think that the author succeeded in looking at the evidence.  That was a refreshing change of pace.

On the other hand, I have some concerns about the standard of evidence being used and lines of reasoning presented with regard to what we can conclude from that evidence.  I thought that perhaps the article seemed to dismiss evidence unusually quickly and make odd leaps of logic because it had been edited significantly for length, so I looked at the original article.

Sadly, it didn't offer any more substance than the re-printed version in the Washington Post, though there were some minor edits that changed nothing of importance.

One important distinction the author (Raphael Lataster, a University Lecturer in Sydney) makes is the distinction between a "Historical Jesus" and a "Christ of Faith" as being two different persons whose existence can be considered separately.  Later, he notes the difficulty in disentangling those two people as they are present in the Gospels, and suggests that perhaps Jesus was originally a pure myth about a divine figure who was later written about as being a man as well (a point I'll return to later).

To be fair, if one proposes that there is a "historical Jesus" as distinct from a "Christ of Faith" figure in the Gospels, it's hard to see how one could possibly draw a rational line between them.  The Gospels are written with the deeply embedded idea that Jesus is simultaneously the Son of God and a Son of Man and make no effort to draw such a distinction, so it makes sense that it would be hard to tell based on the Gospels where the divine Jesus of Christianity begins and the mere man (however characterized) of many secular scholars ends.

And if the overwhelming majority of the earliest textual evidence is written with this assumption, then even drawing a distinction between a "historical Jesus" and a "Christ of Faith" might be impossible using those texts.  It might make sense to, at this point, just remain uncertain about the very idea of a "historical Jesus" and back away slowly from trying to draw hand and fast conclusions about a "historical Jesus" from either the Gospels or the Epistles, those earliest of Christian texts.

If this was where Lataster had stopped, I think he would be standing on fairly solid ground.  But he didn't stop there.  He boldly ventured where others are unsure there is any ground at all when he suggested (as I mentioned earlier) the possibility that Jesus was originally a pure myth about a divine figure who was later written about as being a man as well.

Then went on to claim that 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 refers to demons when it mentions the "princes of this world" and that Paul's letters consistently taught a "celestial Jesus" or "Heavenly Jesus" as opposed to a human Jesus rather than in combination with a human Jesus.  He points out the Paul doesn't spend much time describing Jesus' earthly life events and teachings in the Epistles, as if this was somehow supportive of the argument for Jesus as originally a pure myth.

But, as we all know, Paul was writing these letters to existing Christian communities in various places, churches full of people who would have already heard those stories and teachings (and probably caused them to believe in Christ).  Given that he was already writing to people who already accepted the truth of Jesus' life and teachings, why would he spend a lot of time on that in his letters?  Doesn't it actually make more sense for him to provide a theological explanation of how those teachings applied to their immediate problems and struggles, both communal and personal?

Doesn't it make more sense to clarify and synthesize those teachings rather than repeating them to people for whom those stories and teachings were already a standard part of their oral tradition?  Why would Paul attempt to use those stories and teachings to (as Lataster suggests he should have) "bolster his own claims" when writing to people who already believed those claims?

I'm not sure why Lataster thinks that would be a good idea in the slightest.  Sure, if Paul were writing a "Letter to the Heathens Who Tried to Kill Me" and trying to convince them from the ground up that his claims were rational, he might well do as Lataster thinks he ought to do and start with the events of Jesus' life and Jesus' teachings.  That just wasn't at all what he was trying to do, and so it makes no sense to suggest that Paul should emphasize those things.

I think Lataster makes a much more useful point with regard to the Criterion of Embarrassment and the Criterion of Multiple (or Independent) Attestation.  I would certainly agree that many people take the weight of the former to be far greater than it actually is and that the latter isn't satisfied very strongly by the writings of Josephus or Tacitus.  The existence of references to Jesus in these works doesn't really function as strong evidence of his existence, and Christian apologists sometimes have an unfortunate habit of presenting them as if they do function as such.

There's definitely a problem of confirmation bias making many Christians, especially those who haven't studied history or literature very deeply, prone to think that the historical evidence for various Christian truth claims is stronger than it actually is.  Unfortunately, rather than just acknowledging that this is a problem for Christians, Lataster waves away any truth value in the earliest Gospels by pointing out that the authors of the texts were biased.

I don't think this is a good approach for a very simple reason: every author is biased strongly toward their point of view.  Unless you're willing to toss out the overwhelming majority of textual evidence for any event in human history, such a method also undercuts every single historical text Lataster (or anyone else) might use for any purpose other than casting doubt on every author whose work he cites.
Sure, we have to take into account bias, especially when the author makes claims that are very convenient against his opponents, for example.  Or when the author seems not to apply his standards consistently.  And I do wonder if Lataster applies his standard consistently.  As I've mentioned before, the Pāli Canon wasn't recorded until several hundred years after the Buddha's passing on, which is pretty far removed compared to the Gospels of Christianity that were written decades after Jesus' death.

Does Lataster have the same concerns about bias and contemporaneous independent corroborating accounts with regard to the earliest Buddhist texts?  Does he also propose strange interpretations of some of the suttas that completely ignore the audience for which they were written and the purpose of them?  I don't know the answer to that question.  Maybe he does, and if so, that's very much to his credit that he applies the same standards consistently, regardless of my disagreements with his standards.

Let's suppose for the sake of being charitable that he also doubts the veracity of the Buddha's discourses as recorded in the Pāli Canon because the monks didn't write them down until several hundred years after the "historical Gotama" passed on from this life just as he doubts the veracity of the Gospels written decades after Jesus' death (or maybe more so given the longer passage of time).  That's a consistent standard, to be sure.  It's just not the only one.

Because there is good scientific evidence that human beings are quite capable of preserving accurate information by oral tradition for many thousands of years and then communicating it effectively in a new language, it is by no means implausible that human beings similarly motivated by a significant event would do the same for mere decades or a few hundred years.  That's why I tend to give texts based on oral tradition about a significant event the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were probably referring to a real event, though perhaps with liberal embellishment and literary license being employed to make a larger point.

Lataster spends a great deal of time near the end of his piece asking what the underlying sources are for the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), who produced them, and what style of literature they were written in, among other things.  I'm just not sure why he or anyone else assumes that there's some sort of written proto-Gospel that we're missing.  The most parsimonious explanation is that the proto-Gospel is the oral tradition about Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

Oral tradition is usually how these things start (as we can see in the case of Judaism and Buddhism and many other religions), and written records of those traditions generally come later once it's either technologically and/or economically feasible to write them down and spread them around.  Which brings me to Lataster's suggestion that it's odd that only centuries after they were written would Christian apologists point to the works of Josephus or Tacitus as evidence that Jesus was a historical figure.

That's not odd in the slightest.  Most people would not have doubted that the Gospels were evidence of the existence of some fellow named Jesus at the very least (and that's still true even of most anti-Christian historians today), though they might think many of the claims about him were utterly unbelievable and absurd.  And the few people who did have those doubts probably didn't have some formal standard they applied consistently to historical texts that made it likely that they would accept the works of Josephus and Tacitus as evidence.

Frankly, given how little work those pieces of evidence do, I wouldn't expect Christian apologists to use them much at all.  I certainly don't.  One thing I do look to as evidence is how the texts were treated by those who were exposed to the Christian community during that time period.  Though Lataster thinks that we can't know whether the Gospels were "intended to be accurate historical portrayals, enlightening allegories, or entertaining fictions", it seems to me that the reactions from the people who read the text suggest that it was not intended to be a set of entertaining fictions.

Whether it was the Gnostics who used the Gospels as the basis for their claims to a higher, more esoteric and secretive truth, or the Greeks and Romans who criticized its message philosophically, the people who were most likely to be familiar with the literary forms and intentions of the Gospel writers never treated it in the way that modern scholars who are far more distant from both the Christian community and the literature of the day do in the 21st century.

It may not be a coincidence that those most likely to understand the Gospels and the intent of the authors directly took it much more seriously than we do today.  Whether they agreed or disagreed, they didn't do impressive intellectual gymnastics to find a way to invalidate the Gospels by pretending that the authors weren't actually referring to Jesus when they referred to Jesus.

Maybe the "historical Jesus" doesn't exist because the very concept is a reductionist attempt to find a way to separate the Son of Man from the Son of God in writings which present them as the same person.  Maybe Jesus who is written of as having both human and divine natures has to be accepted or rejected as he's presented rather than whittled down into a form more palatable to people who aren't as bold as Lataster, people who are unwilling to go so far as to say that there was no historical Jesus, but are entirely willing to pretend that Jesus was actually just a nice guy who agreed with their modern views despite there being even less evidence of that than the alternative.

Either way, it's important to have a consistent standard of evidence when we deal with questions like this, and that's something I hope Lataster's work can encourage, if it accomplishes nothing else.

Painting by Amédée Varin - http://www.culture.gouv.fr/GOUPIL/IMAGES/101_Christ_sur_eau.jpg (Gravures et eaux fortes), Public Domain, Link

1 comment:

  1. "It may not be a coincidence that those most likely to understand the Gospels and the intent of the authors directly took it much more seriously than we do today." --Absolutely correct, my friend, although this is something that is missed by pundits who want to re-invent Christianity in a form that is more palatable to modern people. I've been (very slowly) plugging my way through the Church Fathers, and so far I've only made it to Justin Martyr (circa 150-160 A.D.). What strikes me so far is that the state of being under persecution was "status normal" for the early Christians. They simply took it for granted that they were likely to suffer for their faith. One of the main arguments presented by Justin (and others) for the veracity of the Christian faith was that so many Christians were willing to be killed for their faith rather than recant. This, of course, doesn't prove to us that Christianity is true. It does prove, however, that the earliest Christians took the basic Gospel narrative of Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension as literal history rather than allegory. People typically don't die for quaint stories or parables.