When considering a contentious question, it can be helpful to see how much thoughtful protagonists concede to the other side, for this is an indicator of the range of reasonable views.
For example, if a thoughtful and knowledgable christian concedes an area of doubt about Jesus, there is a fair chance that doubt has some reasonable basis. Likewise if a thoughtful and knowledgable atheist concedes certain historical statements about Jesus are true, that too is likely to be a reasonable assessment.
So here is a recent example.
Neil Carter was an evangelical christian for something like 20 years, but is now an atheist. He blogs at Godless in Dixie and seems like a friendly and thoughtful person. He recently posted on An Atheist’s Defense of the Historicity of Jesus.
Why atheists should believe Jesus was a historical figure
Neil begins by discussing how some sceptics deny the reality of climate change, thus showing “disdain for an entire discipline populated by credentialed professionals”. He suggests that, despite history being less certain than climate science, there are some uncomfortable parallels with Jesus mythicism.
There is historical evidence for Jesus
“There are at least a handful of things about the origins of the Christian religion which we can reasonably conclude based on the things that we know”, Neil writes.
The evidence of Paul
Atheists may believe Paul re-worked the christian message, but the oral traditions about Jesus which formed the basis of the Gospels didn’t originate with him, but pre-dated him. Paul had credal statements to work from (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and 15:1-8), and there is so little variation in the extant copies of these that we can be confident that they provide good attestation of the life of Jesus from mid first century.
“Too much has been made of the contemporary silence about Jesus.” We wouldn’t expect anything else. “While highly colored by religious bias, the amount of information we have about Jesus is still impressive in comparison to any other non-official person of his time”
Sceptics and freethinkers should do better
He argues that atheists (who he assumes would be sceptics and free-thinkers) should be more objective. They should avoid the tendency to look for what they’d like to be true, and so bias the evidence.
I don’t think it makes us look very objective when we too eagerly embrace a position which contradicts an almost universal consensus among those who have devoted their lives to the academic discipline which concerns itself with these matters.
I don’t agree with everything he says
There are some statements which I believe go beyond the evidence:
Paul vs Jesus
Neil says: “Paul’s refashioning of the Christian story to accommodate a Gentile audience heavily influenced most subsequent expressions of this nascent movement, and it seems it even affected the later written form of the gospels”.
There is clear evidence of conflict between Peter and James (representing Jewish Christianity) and Paul (representing Gentile Christianity), but it wasn’t about the basic facts of Jesus’ life and teachings. Peter, James and John were not doormats! So I believe Neil overstates this issue.
Neil points to “many contradictions and variations” which make the Gospel sources unreliable, but again I think this exaggerates the matter.
The variations don’t change the basic picture of Jesus and his teachings, and scholars generally believe they tell us plenty about Jesus. For example, EP Sanders concluded: “the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said …”.
The options available to us
If we accept the thrust of Neil’s arguments, we are really left with a small range of options:
Either we believe, as I do, that the Gospels provide sufficient evidence for Jesus’ life and teachings that we are willing to believe him and follow him, or we can believe, as Neil suggests, that Jesus really existed, but there are “layers of legend over a kernel of original history”, making it impossible to accept him as an authoritative teacher or divine.
I’d be interested in reading responses. Thanks.