An atheist’s thoughts on Jesus and history

September 8th, 2014 in Belief. Tags: , , , , ,

Jesus

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

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.

Contemporary evidence

“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.

Unreliable sources?

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.

Photo Credit: freeparking 😐 via Compfight cc

20 Comments

  1. I believe there was a historical Jesus too. I also tend to agree with Albert Schweitzer who wrote , “The Quest for the Historical Jesus”.

    ” In Schweitzer’s view, Jesus genuinely believed that his ministry would bring about the end of history and did not see any prolonged period elapsing between his time on earth and God’s final judgment.” (wiki)

    C.S. Lewis in his book, “The World’s Last Night” tends to agree with Schweitzer as well.

    “‘Say what you like,’ we shall be told, ‘the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And He was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.’ It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”

  2. I believe in God and believe Jesus existed but have trouble believing all the miracles that Jesus was meant to have done although I would like to.Hence Iam a firm believer in hard evidence and unless you see something with your own eyes you cannot give something 100% credibility

  3. Hi Ken, Schweitzer is a little out-of-date now, but I have no trouble accepting that Jesus didn’t know the future – he said so himself! But I always understood those prophecies to be referring to the establishment of the kingdom via his death & resurrection and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.

    Hi Rick, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. The “problem” with history is that the evidence isn’t always “hard”. The historians have no doubt that Jesus was known as a miracle worker, and many believe he really did heal people – not only christian historians either – e.g. the late Maurice Casey believed Jesus healed by natural means.

    How much of the gospels would you then believe might be true?

  4. “But I always understood those prophecies to be referring to the establishment of the kingdom via his death & resurrection and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.”

    Yes unkleE , but the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost also signaled “The Last Days” which goes hand in hand with what Jesus believed.

    Acts 2:15-17New International Version (NIV)

    15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

    17 “‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

  5. Yes, exactly! If I understand it rightly, the Jews knew they were doing it tough in the present age, but they believed the Messiah would usher in a glorious age to come at the “end of days” or the “last days”.

    Jesus was a different Messiah than they expected, and the last days were different to what they expected. The last days began then and continue to this day. An illustration might be looking at a mountain range from a distance and all the peaks look like they’re in a line, but when you get to the first peak, you can see there’s a big valley between it and the next one.

  6. unkleE, I don’t think “Last Days” was anything different then than what it means to you and me. My Dear Mother just turned 96 a couple of weeks ago. She is most definitely in her last days. Last days to her doesn’t mean 2000 years from now. It means the imminent future.

    This is where you and I respectfully disagree . I don’t see where you can possibly think 2000 years would be considered the last days.

  7. Hi Ken,

    That may be your meaning of the term, but to first century Jews, it wasn’t quite like that. Here’s how Wikipedia sees it:

    “In Judaism, the term “end of days” is a reference to the Messianic Age, and includes an in-gathering of the exiled diaspora, the coming of the mashiach, olam haba, and resurrection of the Tsadikim.”

    So the Jews thought that the Messianic Age would come at the end of this present age. The coming of Messiah would be a great (even cataclysmic) event and the beginning of a new age, the glorious age to come. So the last days were an end but also a beginning.

    Jesus and then Christians reinterpret much of the Old Testament. We are in the Messianic Age now, and so we are in the last days now. But we believe the kingdom of God comes gradually rather than cataclysmically (just as Jesus taught) and the Messianic age hasn’t been fully realised yet. (Most christians believe eternal life starts here.)

    I don’t expect you to see it this way because you are not a christian, but once I believe Jesus was/is the promised Messiah, all the rest follows.

  8. “I don’t expect you to see it this way because you are not a christian”

    Dr Albert Schweitzer and CS Lewis didn’t see it your way either and they were both very devout Christians.

  9. Since you are quoting wiki, it goes on to say, “Christianity

    Some first century Christians believed Jesus would return during their lifetime. When the converts of Paul in Thessalonica were persecuted by the Roman Empire, they believed the end of days to be imminent.[22]”

  10. “Dr Albert Schweitzer and CS Lewis didn’t see it your way either and they were both very devout Christians.”

    I didn’t say all christians see it my way. I said I didn’t expect a non-christian to see it my way.

    “Why ? Because his writings disagree with what you believe ?”

    Ken that is petty and insulting. And the answer is no. It is generally considered that there have been two revolutions in NT studies since Schweitzer, so while he was an important figure, few of his ideas would be currently held. A lot has happened in NT studies in more than a century!

  11. “Some first century Christians believed Jesus would return during their lifetime.”

    Ken, what are you try to demonstrate? Can you please clarify?

    I have already said that I accepted that Jesus didn’t know everything, and I agree that the early christians generally expected Jesus to return soon. I have merely commented that I have always (with the hindsight of 19 centuries), understood the predictions differently to the first christians did. It is obvious from the NT that their understanding of who Jesus was and what he accomplished grew over time.

  12. “Ken that is petty and insulting.”

    What was insulting was the way you dismissed Dr Schweitzer. But then again, it’s your blog .

    I stated earlier that we respectfully disagreed. I wasn’t being petty or insulting and you know it. You obviously have little respect for those who disagree with you.

  13. 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

    unkleE, I gave you responses and all you could say is, “Ken that is petty and insulting.” “Ken, what are you try to demonstrate? Can you please clarify?”

    I am trying to demonstrate that your statement that this is an “Either / Or” shouldn’t be so. There is more to Jesus than being just a historical figure but many feel there is not enough evidence to make the claims you do.

    Here’s the Either / Or argument. You are either interested in what someone else has to say, or you can be dismissive like you have been many times before and all you want to hear is comments from like minded people.

    So which do you want to do ? It’s your blog and your call. I have been nothing BUT respectful here and you know it.

  14. Hi Ken,

    It is hard to know how to respond here, because there is little point in playing the blame game. I can either not comment or I can address what you have said here. Obviously I have decided to address it.

    “What was insulting was the way you dismissed Dr Schweitzer.”

    It is factually true and no insult that Schweitzer is no longer cutting edge. But I actually said I had no problem with the quote you gave, so how could that be dismissing him?

    “I wasn’t being petty or insulting and you know it.”

    Ken, with the best will in the world, I cannot see how your comment can be interpreted any other way than you are accusing me of being dishonestly selective in who I reference. Can you explain to me any other meaning please? So I pointed that out and then moved on.

    “You obviously have little respect for those who disagree with you.”

    That is not how I feel. It is not how I have behaved. I have responded to each of your comments politely. Can you point out anything I said that was disrespectful?

    “I gave you responses and all you could say is, “Ken that is petty and insulting.” “Ken, what are you try to demonstrate? Can you please clarify?””

    1. This is an exaggeration. I wrote 515 words in response, and those three sentences contained 17 words or 3%. So I said a lot more than that.

    2. Can you point to anywhere where I denigrated you or didn’t respond reasonably to your comments? I can’t see it. I responded respectfully and politely to each one. The only thing is, I sometimes disagreed with you – as you sometimes disagreed with me.

    3. I asked you to clarify because I couldn’t see what you were getting at in many of your comments. They sounded as if you were disagreeing with me, when in many cases it seemed to me we were agreed, so I asked.

    “I am trying to demonstrate that your statement that this is an “Either / Or” shouldn’t be so. There is more to Jesus than being just a historical figure but many feel there is not enough evidence to make the claims you do.”

    Thank you. I didn’t understand what you were driving at. And I’m glad you have clarified. So what other option do you have in mind? It seems to me that you are agreeing with my second option, but I am interested to hear.

    “You are either interested in what someone else has to say, or you can be dismissive like you have been many times before and all you want to hear is comments from like minded people.”

    Ken, what more do you want me to do? I have been courteous in every response. I have said hi, spoken to you by name, responded to your comments. I just either disagree with what you say or find it hard to know what exactly you are arguing. You are welcome to continue to comment and disagree. I will generally reply, even if just with a greeting, but I will often disagree back. I am sorry if I have somehow offended you. If you point out any particular offence I will apologise, I have no wish or intention to be hurtful.

    “I have been nothing BUT respectful here and you know it.”

    Ken, you are generally respectful and I appreciate it. When you stepped over the line with that one comment I pointed it out and then put it aside and didn’t mention it again.

    So that’s my response. I know I’m not perfect, and these discussions can get adversarial on occasions, but I try very hard to be friendly and polite. I will always apologise if I fall short of that, and I apologise here if I have done so (though I can’t see anywhere that I did). I’m not sure what has upset you on this occasion, but I’m sorry it happened.

    Best wishes.

  15. “Ken, you are generally respectful and I appreciate it. When you stepped over the line with that one comment I pointed it out”

    Asking a valid question is not stepping over the line. You tend to poo poo scholars who are used by your opposition . By saying Schweitzer was a little “little out of date” , I thought you were being dismissive of him and I asked if this was because you didn’t agree with his position.

    As I have seen you do many times before, you pretend to be the offended for being asked the question.

    No apologies needed unkleE. I understand it’s all part of your game.

  16. At various places in this most enjoyable blog I run across the contention that there is some sort of “consensus” that has come about in New Testament scholarship. Quite to the contrary, there is probably more division today about the historical Jesus then ever before.

    The two most well known modern New Testament scholars, Crossan and Borg, are a light year away in their interpretations from recent or current conservative scholars like Sanders and Wright. Whether the historical Jesus was primarily an apocalyptic preacher like John the Baptist, or a wandering healer/sage/prophet, or more of a Jewish messianic figure who directly (albeit nonviolently) challenged Roman rule, or a unique figure unable to the characterized in any customary manner, is as much in controversy today as at any time since the first quest led to the second quest and then to the third quest and now to whatever new quest might be underway for us later to number.

    It’s FINE to take a more conservative approach to the historical Jesus and believe that the canonical accounts, however they may diverge (and diverge they do, as paging through Gospel Parallels will quickly show you) are accurate enough to put one’s faith on solid ground. That is also MY OWN position.

    But let’s not create the misapprehension that any kind of unanimity has emerged from a couple of centuries of New Testament scholarship or the latest go-round. This controversy about who Jesus was or thought he was or at least what he was like (had we been there) has NOT been dampened in the least but rather stoked by Form Criticism, Redaction Criticism, Historical Contextualism, Jewish Reclamation, the Jesus Seminar, new non-canonical gospels (Gnostic or otherwise), Literary Analysis, Historical Contextualism, new archeological discovers, Deconstructive Analysis, Post-post modern approaches, and so on ad infinitum.

    And in closing, Albert Schweitzer’s take on Jesus is as fresh and relevant today as when it first was published, took Europe by storm, and started this whole quest business in which we remain submerged. As a literary work, NOTHING since written about the historical Jesus, at least that I’ve read, comes even close.

  17. Hi Newton, thanks for your comments. I’m sure like you, I am not wanting to argue over this, but I think it could be helpful to compare notes. Here’s how I see it.

    1. Scholars of course disagree about many aspects of the history of Jesus, but there are many aspects where they agree. EP Sanders, a cautious, sceptical and not christian scholar has set out a list of things that are almost beyond dispute, and I haven’t found many who disagree with his list. In discussions about Jesus and history, that is often my starting point. (Sanders may be conservative in his historical conclusions, meaning very cautious, but he is not conservative or christian in his beliefs as your comment may suggest.)

    2. There isn’t an easy way to know the “scholarly consensus” – they don’t sit down every year and answer 100 questions or anything (though sometimes I wish they did!). But I think there are two ways we can do it approximately:

    (i) If we read enough scholars, whether full books or just articles on the web, we can get a picture of the consensus – e.g. that virtually all agree Jesus existed, the vast majority accept at least Sanders’ cautious list, and more besides, and most accept that seeing Jesus in his Jewish context supports the idea of his being an apocalyptic prophet (at least).

    (ii) We can also see who other scholars respect most from direct statements and from who they most commonly cite. So, 15 years ago, Mark Powell and Paula Fredriksen nominated Crossan, Borg, Sanders, Meier, Wright and Vermes as the most influential scholars. More recently, Casey names Sanders, Vermes and Wright as the ones he most respects, with Allison, Chilton, Dunn, Meier, Hengel and Schwermer as honourable mentions.

    3. It is clear that the common threads are Sanders (agnostic), Vermes (Jew) and Wright (christian), and they are all scholars I have read and taken notice of.

    4. You mention Crossan and Borg, who used to be influential, but seem less so these days. Crossan is particularly criticised by both Sanders (atheist/agnostic) and Wright. Both praise his writing and inventiveness, but both agree he is “almost entirely wrong”. I think he even has questions himself, for he seems to have changed direction in recent years.

    5. My comments about Schweitzer are not criticisms of him (Casey for example praises him), but that he wrote so long ago, and a lot has happened since then. Casey particularly mentions the Dead Sea Scrolls and the understanding of early Judaism and of Aramaic idiom they provided, which makes most older scholarship a little out of date.

    So that is where I am coming from. It isn’t a conservative view as you infer, but neither is it a radical view. I think most scholars would hold views not all that different to mine about the history, but when we go from history to personal belief, I wouldn’t be so sure – few of them discuss that.

    How would you respond?

  18. Apart from the linkage Sanders makes between Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the Passover, which some see as a later theological overlay (so rich in symbolism as to be almost irresistible), Sanders’ basic points about Jesus are so elemental as to be hard to dispute.

    But it’s the putting of the flesh on the skeleton sketched by Sanders that opens up a most vigorous scholarly debate, in which I can see no consensus forming whatsoever. Even the Sanders-type Jewish reclamation of Jesus, the title of a good book I read years ago about how a variety of Jewish scholars were bringing out new aspects of the Jesus story by emphasizing its Jewish prophetic context, remains open to serious question these days, since the alternative role of wandering teacher/sage/healer was also a familiar role in the Judaism of Jesus’ day.

    My take on the scholarship I am acquainted with (a substantial amount but by no means exhaustive) is to diverge from both poles of interpretation. I see Jesus neither as an apocalyptic prophet similar to John the Baptist nor as simply a teacher/sage/healer. The reasons for my interpretation are a bit complex and, in some respects, possibly novel.

    The main criteria I have used to form my picture of Jesus draws heavily upon my other profession, not my divinity degree but my law degree. The key is consistency, something a lawyer develops a good nose for if he or she is any good at his or her craft. If you would like, unckleE, and I certainly would, we could shoot this around, break it down into appropriate pieces, and see where we end up.

    Let me know your thoughts about such a dialogue.

  19. Hi Newton, I am certainly happy to continue the discussion.

    My feeling is that the historians are looking for something different to what I’m looking for. They want to find out what can be “known” using normal historical methods, and they tend to leave less certain matters “up in the air”. I am trying to decide if I should follow Jesus, and how I should.

    So their conclusions are the start of my interest, but not the end. So when they show that even by the exacting standards of historical scholarship, most different aspects of Jesus life and teachings (e.g. teachings, parables, forgiving sins, apparent healings, plausible historical evidence for the resurrection, etc) can be found to be historical, I have a good basis. Even if some stories or teachings are doubtful to them, this doesn’t change the overall picture much.

    I am far less worried about the different descriptions (prophet, teacher, etc) they give – these are just labels.All of them preserve something and lose something of who he was.

    With that basis, I am willing to accept most of the rest in faith. If the 4 gospels have been shown to be reasonably accurate and reasonably contemporary, I am willing to trust the picture they give, even if it isn’t 100% perfect – just like I would accept an eyewitness report of an unusual event even if I knew some parts weren’t 100% reliable.

    And in this, I am joined by many scholars who are also christians – Wright, Bauckham, Hurtado, Evans, etc. So I believe I have balanced facts and faith in a reasonable way. The real question for me is understanding Jesus in his context, and then applying that to my life today.

Comments are closed.