In Australia they don’t call this the “silly season” for nothing. So we can expect a swag of Christmas stories, from the sentimental to the supposedly shocking. Which of course includes at least one “expose” of the shocking truth that Jesus probably didn’t exist.
And so right on cue we get Weighing up the evidence for the ‘Historical Jesus’, published by Sydney University, no less, in The Conversation, End of Year Series which promises “Academic rigour, journalistic flair”.
Well, one out of two ain’t bad, I guess, and at least its journalistic flair was enough for the Washington Post to re-publish three days later.
So after almost two millennia, is this the end of christianity as we know it?
The gentle art of misinformation
As I started to read Raphael Lataster’s piece, I wondered if it was going to be a spoof – but it became clear he was serious, and highly misleading.
Who do you trust?
Raphael questions the truthfulness of the New Testament authors because they were “Christian authors eager to promote Christianity”, and dismisses the opinions of all christians today. But if that is the case, shouldn’t we equally mistrust him because he is an atheist author (There was no Jesus, there is no God) apparently eager to promote atheism?
Isn’t it interesting how conspiracy theorists and some sceptics expect us to be sceptical of everyone’s motives – except theirs?
Don’t mention the historians!
Raphael says “the only thing New Testament scholars seem to agree on is Jesus’ historical existence” but that is simply untrue. Decades ago eminent historian EP Sanders listed 11 facts about Jesus that “are almost beyond dispute; and they belong to the framework of his life, and especially of his public career. (A list of everything that we know about Jesus would be appreciably longer.)”
I have read very few scholars who would disagree with Sanders’ list, and many who would argue for many more (e.g. the non-believer Maurice Casey, who Raphael references). It is true that some scholars give Jesus different labels, but they still agree on many of the historical facts. An atheist and a christian can agree about history even as they disagree about interpretation.
Don’t mention the gospels!
Raphael argues that there are no early sources for the life of Jesus, but he can only say this because he has already disregarded the gospels’ presentation of Jesus as “fictional”. Contrast this with the late Maurice Casey on Mark’s gospel: “He wrote …. literally accurate accounts of incidents from the life of Jesus and sayings which he spoke.” Not all scholars would agree with Casey, but he was an unbeliever, an eminent historian and closer to the consensus than Raphael’s view, and shows how far Raphael has misrepresented scholarship.
Raphael argues that the gospels are “filled with mythical and non-historical information” and then argues that gospel interpretation uses “dubious methods”. But if the methods are dubious, how can he be so confident the gospels are unhistorical? Or is it only everybody else’s methods that are dubious?
Then Raphael asks: “Were they intended to be accurate historical portrayals, enlightening allegories, or entertaining fictions?” and claims that no New Testament scholar can answer that question. But modern scholars generally favour the view that the gospels were closest to the literary form of “bios” – an ancient Greek form of historical biography that preserved historical facts about a figure from the recent past.
Paul and the “heavenly Jesus”
Raphael claims “Paul only describes his ‘Heavenly Jesus'”, and never mentions a historical Jesus. It is true that Paul doesn’t say much about Jesus’ life, but there are about 20 references to aspects of Jesus’ life in Paul’s letters, so the statement is exaggerated.
Tacitus and Josephus
Raphael argues that references to Jesus by the Roman historian Tacitus and the Jewish historian Josephus are “are shrouded in controversy” and of doubtful value.
Very few historians dispute the accuracy of the brief mention of Jesus in the writings of Tacitus, who the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes as “probably the greatest historian …. who wrote in the Latin language”.
Josephus has two references to Jesus containing quite a lot of information. It is true that scholars believe that parts of one reference have been added by later christian copyists, but Raphael fails to mention that the majority of scholars also believe there is good evidence to support the authenticity of much of the text. It isn’t reasonable for him to accept the scholars’ verdict on the interpolations, but not on the authenticity.
So the majority of historians conclude that both references establish that Jesus did indeed live and was executed by the Roman governor Pilate, contrary to the impression given by Raphael.
History and belief
There are many aspects of the christian story which are matters of belief or of dispute. Was he really the son of God? Did he really do miracles? Was he really resurrected? Raphael could reasonably have attacked these beliefs and given his reasons for rejecting them.
But when dealing with historical facts and evidence, and the conclusions of scholars, it is important to be accurate and fair. If one is offering an opinion contrary to that of most established scholars, fairness requires making this clear, and then arguing one’s case for an alternative view.
But Raphael ignores the views of the vast majority of respected historians (the only historian he quotes with approval is Richard Carrier, very much a “fringe” scholar), misrepresents what they conclude and gets some basic facts quite wrong.
I think christianity is safe for a few more Christmases at least!
Historian John Dickson has also commented on Raphael’s piece, and it’s worth a read.