Jesus, modern historical scholarship, and sceptics

Evidence and conflict resolution

It is no secret that believers and unbelievers argue a lot on the internet. But it is helpful to consider the nature of the disagreement.

Experts on conflict resolution have identified a number of different sources of conflict, one of which is a “data conflict”, that is, a disagreement about the facts of the matter, perhaps because one party or the other is misinformed. The “correct” way to resolve a data conflict is by reviewing and reinforcing the information.

Resolving conflicts about Jesus and the New Testament

People hold wildly varying views about Jesus. Many of the differences are matters of belief, but many are matters of evidence – they are data conflicts. People can disagree wildly about the historical evidence, such as whether Jesus was a historical person, how reliable the gospels stories are, etc. Of course there is scope for different opinions and beliefs on these questions, but there is a core of historical evidence that needs to be the basis of any discussion.

As in any area of knowledge, we can only have the best information if we go to the experts. If I want to learn about the human brain, I need to read expert neuroscientists and psychologists. And if I want to know historical information about Jesus, I need to read historians and archaeologists.

It would be nice if this was a straightforward process, but the experts often disagree about the facts. But there are some conclusions that historians are almost fully agreed on.

But I keep finding people who say they base their views on the evidence, but who won’t accept the conclusions of the experts, and so the data conflict cannot be resolved.

Here are some examples.

Derbyshire Atheists, Secularists and Humanists (DASH)

DASH is apparently a fairly active and committed group opposed to much of religious belief. Its website says it is opposed to “anything for which there is no need and no evidence”. The site discusses whether Jesus is a historical person, and makes three very definite statements that we can test against the evidence.

There is not one shred of factual evidence to show that Jesus existed as a historical figure.

The vast majority of scholars say otherwise – for example, I have compiled a list of more than a dozen quotes. Two scholars (Bart Ehrman and the late Maurice Casey, neither of them christians) have written books presenting the historical evidence for Jesus, some of which is summarised in Was Jesus a real person? So the experts think there is good evidence.

I have corresponded at some length with a representative of DASH, and asked for the basis of the DASH claim, and he referred me to three sources – GA Wells, a professor of German who later changed his mind and concluded Jesus was a historical figure; Alan Dundes, an anthropologist who appeared in the DVD The God Who Wasn’t There, and the biologist Richard Dawkins. These are hardly historical experts!

The “Christ” required certain characteristics common in myth (Dionysus for example): virgin birth, preaching, miracles, being put to death, rising from the dead, ascending into heaven.

The claim that the Jesus story is just a myth, possibly copied from similar myths, is an old one (about 150 years old). But it has been since debunked by scholars, who say that most of the claimed parallels are spurious, or even invented, and the story of Jesus is unmistakably Jewish, not pagan in any way.

No archeological evidence for the occupation of Nazareth at the time [of Jesus].

This is a strange claim, because archaeologists have found the remains of two houses and a farm, all of which they date to the first century, probably the middle of the century (just a couple of decades after Jesus) – not bad considering the site has a major city built over it.

Things people say on the internet

I have been discussing and blogging on the internet for about a decade, and a few sceptical memes seem to keep on appearing. Here are just two examples.

There is no evidence for Jesus outside the Bible?

This is often said. But Robert Van Voorst in his well-regarded book Jesus Outside the New Testament lists 7 classical (Roman) authors writing in the first two centuries who make some mention of Jesus. All are very brief and say very little, but the reference by Tacitus is fairly clear. Several Jewish sources mention Jesus, the most important being Josephus, who gives a good description of Jesus’ ministry and a second brief mention.

It is common for sceptics to argue that the references in Tacitus and Josephus are interpolations by christian scribes, and it is true that scholars are convinced that there are some interpolations in the main copies we have of Josephus. But sceptics often omit that the majority of scholars agree that even when the apparent interpolations are removed, the bulk of the Josephus reference remains and confirms the main aspects of Jesus’ life.

Why don’t contemporary historians mention Jesus?

Some sceptics go further and ask why there are no contemporary references to Jesus. It isn’t always easy to know how contemporary they want references to be, and Josephus wrote before the end of the first century.

Van Voorst says the writings of many first century classical historians have been lost, but it would be unlikely any of them would have referred to Jesus, because most Roman historians seemed only to be interested in christianity when it impinged on Rome’s interests – this occurred later, but a crucified Galilean presented no obvious threat.

Some sceptics compile lists of writers who, they say, “should” have mentioned Jesus, but these lists are subjective and generally neglect the writers’ main interests, which were not in a Jewish “prophet” who was executed. Van Voorst says: we must remember that at this time (50-150 CE) Christianity was only occasionally significant to most Romans. ….Romans were not interested in how foreign cults began.”

Scholars say no real conclusions can be drawn from the “silences”, and the evidence from the New Testament is the best we have. And on that basis, most historians have no doubt that Jesus existed and we can know significant things about him. Bart Ehrman:

I don’t think there’s any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus …. We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.

Real world outcomes

In my decade of discussing religion on the internet, I have tried to identify when the issue is a data conflict, and focus on that before getting into differences of opinion. Yet logical as that strategy may be, I’d have to say it rarely works out well. I genuinely try to obtain the best facts before forming or modifying my opinions and beliefs, but rarely are these facts accepted.

Sometimes people do accept the evidence of the experts I reference, sometimes they present reasonable alternate evidence. But by far the most common is outright denial of expert evidence based on non-experts sympathetic to their viewpoint, or else simple refusal to address evidence at all.

What’s going on here?

Our thinking processes are complex, and there are probably many factors involved in this behaviour of denying or ignoring expert opinion in favour of information that reinforces what we want to believe. But here are a few ideas I have found.

Beliefs can dictate the facts we choose to accept

[Our beliefs] “can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information.” (Boston Globe)

Too much information!

Some say the internet is partly to blame, because it makes information so much easier to obtain, but also makes it so much easier for anyone to publish information, and hence for there to be so much wrong information available – “it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.” (Boston Globe)

Conscious and unconscious causes

Some of our preference for simple answers that reinforce our current viewpoint are unconscious. Our brains can only process so much information, and it is hard work working through new and challenging ideas. If we have a lot of information stored away that is consistent with our current thinking, then assimilating new ideas and reviewing old information is a challenging task. In these situations, people are likely to “retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs, and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing.” (political scientist Charles Taber)

But motivation also plays a part. Our reasoning can be aimed at accuracy, but more often we are motivated to arrive at particular conclusions, provided we can construct a reasonable justification for these conclusions.This can easily lead to seeking out sympathetic information, even if it is from doubtful sources, as a bulwark against good information.

This is especially likely to occur if we experience cognitive dissonance, when new information significantly threatens our existing viewpoint, we become psychologically uncomfortable, and look for ways to ease this.

How information can backfire

Various mechanisms can be used, consciously or unconsciously, to avoid inconvenient facts.

  • “To avoid coming to undesirable conclusions, people can fly from the facts” so that their beliefs are less falsifiable. (Troy Campbell & Justin Friesen)
  • “We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close.” (political scientist Arthur Lupia) Facts and argument can backfire and entrench us deeper in our mistaken views.
  • Confirmation bias: “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs”
  • When faced with critical thought or aggression, people may disengage and “simply assert their personal opinions without justification”. But in the rare cases where other people are interested, people may then think issues through more critically (Lerner & Tetlock).
You can never win an argument online?

The ‘backfire effect’: “you can never win an argument online. When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel as though they are even more sure of their position than before you started the debate. As they match your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.” (David McRaney)

I’m not sure if I’d be that black and white, but there’s a lot of truth there.

What’s a poor boy to do?

Believers and non-believers, all of us in fact, are susceptible to these processes. And I’d have to say that the psychologists appear to have described well the behaviour I have come across so often, where Jesus-sceptics prefer out-dated, non-expert or self-serving “information” to the consensus of experts.

It’s goodnight from me ….

I suppose the first response (if we’re concerned about truth) is to review our own behaviour. Do I behave this way? Often? Am I willing to review my beliefs? Do I ever actually review my beliefs when I see compelling new information?

I don’t think anyone thinks it sensible to try to review beliefs every time a small piece of contradictory evidence is found. Life would consist of little more than contemplation! But if we engage in discussion on the internet, if we write blogs or books or newspaper articles, if we preach or speak or teach, sometimes we must surely need to review.

…. and from him

If we want to communicate and change, or at least challenge, entrenched opinions, we may need to re-think our strategies. Certainly I will be (and have been). Is it worth talking with people who have strong but contrary beliefs? How do we know who is never going to reconsider? How do we reduce the likelihood of one of these negative response?

You’d like to think that good information, in some form, is helpful. Certainly some experts say so. “We’ve learned that bias is a disease and to fight it we need a healthy treatment of facts and education. We find that when facts are injected into the conversation, the symptoms of bias become less severe.” (Troy Campbell & Justin Friesen)

But, sadly, it seems that more often than not, this will prove difficult. This is something I want to come back to.

What about you?

Do you have any thoughts on all this?

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons.


  1. Hi Erlend, thanks for that. That’s an excellent resource. I didn’t go into too much detail because I was heading in a different direction (the psychology) and I just needed some brief examples, but I may address the historical issue in more detail later, in which case that is a resource I will probably use and refer to at that stage. Thanks again.

  2. Seems to me the desire to deny led to the desire to dismiss the historical Jesus. It’s a Johnny-come-lately viewpoint. Likewise, I think the case for the late date for the New Testament is weaker than skeptics pretend it to be.

  3. Hi Doug, it’s nice to hear from you again. I didn’t realise until now that you’d started another blog, and all the time I had been wondering why you’d been so inactive. Now I have some catching up to do. And I pretty much agree with you here.

  4. I’ve been in and out, unkleE. I’m a searcher, straying but never completely from my Christian roots. I more and more think of myself as a Unitarian. There is room for Christianity (spiritually interpreted, rather than woodenly) in my worldview. Your blog has always been interesting and helpful to me. Presently I’m more content to look at the strangeness of our Cosmos. I don’t think of it as a closed system at all.

  5. Thanks for the compliment. You are always welcome. Is there a post where you’ve set out your current views on God, truth and everything else?

Comments are closed.