History for Atheists or Pandering to Theists? The Difference Between Fact and Interpretation

I have been doing this (whatever you want to call this) for over 10 years and I’ve had an online presence for about half of that. In all that time and particularly during my time online, both on YouTube and more recently on Twitter, I’ve spoken to a lot of people on a range of issues. But the issue that I have not felt comfortable speaking about until now is the issue of whether Jesus existed as a historical person. The reason why I say “until now” is because for the most part, I just merely took the (seemingly) reasonable assumption that there simply must have been a historical Jesus. While I was always able to understand that Christians and non-theists were often talking about two different people; what is commonly differentiated as the “Christ of faith” and the “Jesus of history”, although for a number of years I did not accept the former existed, it has only been in the last 12 months or so that I began to really understand and critically examine the case challenging the assumptions of the latter. Because before that, I just never really saw reason to question it. While I am still wrestling with the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus’ existence and learning about so-called (and in my view, poorly named) Christ-Myth Theory, it seems that a fundamental issue needs to be explored as it relates to the philosophy of history which is unfortunately so pervasive in the writings of both areas of research.

The issue I want to raise today, specifically relates to Tim O’Neill’s blog, the grandiosely named History of Atheists. While I always appreciate those who hold people’s feet to the fire, I have a number of issues with some of Tim’s methodologies. For a little bit of context, in response to the question: “are you a historian?” Tim answers:

No. At least, not in anything but the broadest sense of the word. I do have training in the historical method, I have studied historiography and I have read widely in the work of leading professional historians on ancient and medieval history, the history of science and the history of Christianity and its theology. But I am generally not presenting original research of my own here or putting my own re-interpretive spin on any historical topic. Instead, I’m drawing on over 35 years of reading on a range of topics relevant to the history of western religion and seek to curate summaries of current expert scholarly positions on those subjects. It’s the qualifications and expertise of the historians and scholars I cite and whose work I draw on that are relevant here.

Obviously, this seems reasonable. Equally, below he claims:

I’m correcting some atheists, particularly anti-theistic activists, who often use arguments based on flawed, over-simplified, outdated, misinterpreted or plain erroneous ideas about history in their critiques of religion

Again, this is seemingly very reasonable. Yet it seems the difficulty is, the methodology he employs, which he claims to have experience of, as well as the rationale for his blog is to correct those who use arguments based on flawed or erroneous ideas are both exhibited in his blog. While I could (and maybe will, who knows?!?) respond to each blog post, as I was reading his post: DID JESUS EXIST? THE JESUS MYTH THEORY, AGAIN there are numerous incredibly questionable or even factually inaccurate statements. For instance, he claims:

While Paul was writing letters about matters of doctrine and disputes and so wasn’t giving a basic lesson in who Jesus was in any of this letters, he does make references to Jesus’ earthly life in many places.

While he claims that he creates “summaries of current expert scholarly positions on those subjects” it is bizarre that he would claim that Paul makes references to Jesus’ earthly life in many places when even the most ambitious snake oil salesman Christian apologist would scarcely claim such a bold assertion!

The fact is, it is simply not consistent with the scholarship on the issue to claim this! For instance, someone who is certainly not someone who gives much credence to the idea Jesus did not exist, James D. G. Dunn correctly points out that:

In short, Paul tells us next to nothing about the life and ministry of Jesus apart from its climactic finale. Had we possessed only Paul’s letters, it would be impossible to say much about Jesus of Nazareth, let alone even to attempt a life of Jesus. Paul makes it clear that Jesus was a Jew. And that is a crucially important fact. But beyond that the life of Jesus seems to be little more than an assumed and hidden antecedent to the all-important record of his death.

(The Theology of Paul the Apostle p. 184)

Now I could quote scholars all day which echo this who affirm that Jesus did exist, but that is not the point of this post today. Therefore, my issue today is not about about this per se, but when he later claims to support this claim:

He [Paul] says Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother and born a Jew (Galatians 4:4). He repeats that he had a “human nature” and that he was a human descendant of King David (Romans 1:3) of of Abraham (Gal 3:16), of Israelites (Romans 9:4-5) and of Jesse (Romans 15:12). He refers to teachings Jesus made during his earthly ministry on divorce (1Cor. 7:10), on preachers (1Cor. 9:14) and on the coming apocalypse (1Thess. 4:15). He mentions how he was executed by earthly rulers (1Cor. 2:8) that he was crucified (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2, 2:8, 2 Cor 13:4) and that he died and was buried (1Cor 15:3-4).And he says he had an earthly, physical brother called James who Paul himself had met (Galatians 1:19).

The trouble with this, is that there is a huge difference between statements of fact and interpretationsI have no doubt if someone questioning the historicity of Jesus had made such claims, Tim would have (rightly) challenged them because the profound flaw in his argument is there for all to see in plain sight!

For instance, when he claims that Paul says: “Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother” that is an interpretation of the passage in Galatians 4:4. Of course, one can certainly interpret the phrase (as many scholars do) that the phrase used is typical Jewish circumlocution for a human person, but this is still an interpretation. Tim obviously knows this because I’m sure he’s aware that Mythicist’s obviously can explain that being born of a woman can mean that this phrase does not necessarily mean that Jesus was born of a historical woman in the recent past. For instance, later on he claims:

Mythicist theorists then have to tie themselves in knots to “explain” how, in fact, a clear reference to Jesus being “born of a woman” actually means he wasn’t born of a woman

Yet, he fails to mention that his analysis of this passage is itself an interpretation. He might find it convoluted and not convincing, but you cannot take the passage in Galatians 4:4 and necessarily translate this to mean Jesus was born as a human, of a human mother.

Equally, when he claims: “he was a human descendant of King David (Romans 1:3)” this again is an interpretation given that Paul does not say Jesus descended from David or was a descendant of David but merely that he “came from the seed of David.” Obviously again, many scholars might argue that Paul was talking about Jesus being born as a descendent of David, this is again an interpretation. While those who may not necessarily hold to this view can point out that the word used to describe this is the word he uses for God’s manufacture of Adam’s body from clay, and God’s manufacture of our future resurrection bodies in heaven, which clearly does not sound the same thing as someone being biologically descended from a human ancestor. Again, Tim might not find this convincing, but to merely claim that Paul said Jesus “was a human descendant of King David” neglects to acknowledge this is still merely an interpretation of Paul’s statement.

One can also look at the reference in Galatians 3:29, where Paul claims: “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” This is not necessarily saying that Jesus was a biological descendent of Abraham. Instead, the point seems more likely that Paul was saying even gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) are able to become born “of the seed of Abraham” at baptism.

Also, Paul does not say that Jesus “was executed by earthly rulers” in 1 Corinthians 2:8, this again is an interpretation, as the passage merely say “the rulers of this age” are those who crucified the Lord of glory. Thus, this passage does not say that Jesus was killed by the Jewish Sanhedrin or Roman soldiers, a tetrarch, or a prefect of Rome but merely the “rulers of this age”. In fact, in A Translator’s Handbook on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians the authors conclude: “[a] majority of scholars think that supernatural powers are intended here”. Thus, to claim that Paul says Jesus was “executed by earthly rulers”, while this may have been what Paul meant that he was killed by earthly rulers, it is certainly not what he actually said. Again the issue is not necessarily that Tim is wrong, but one cannot simply proclaim your interpretation is the only interpretation.

Obviously, many scholars and people would say that the explanations offered by those affirming Jesus did not exist are merely engaging in a post-hoc rationalisations, although it seems one could equally charge those affirming Jesus’ historicity with the same charge! The bottom line is, you cannot simply say “Paul said X and this means Y” and provide a quote, because this is merely treating interpretations as the same thing as value-free facts. Paul says a number of things which can be interpreted as referring to a historical Jesus, for instance being “born of a woman” or that when he says “none of the rulers of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” and thus interpret this to mean that Jesus had a human mother that gave birth to him and was executed by earthly rulers, I’m not for a moment suggesting otherwise. The issue is, these are certainly not the only way to read these passages.

While you may not necessarily agree with all or even any of the claims of those affirming Jesus did not exist, such a conclusion can only be made on the basis of a careful and critical analysis of the evidence and examine all of the available evidence and understand Paul’s writings in their own historical and literary context. But to merely claim that Paul said this or that about a historical Jesus is not something that one can quickly or easily do and must expressed that this is an interpretation. In other words, interpretations are not the same things as facts!

2 thoughts on “History for Atheists or Pandering to Theists? The Difference Between Fact and Interpretation

  1. You quote Tim saying he has had “training in the historical method”. Has he elaborated on that claim anywhere? What was the training in historical method that he received, exactly? I have read several works on the philosophy and methods of history and have always thought Tim to be lacking awareness of the sort of studies these works explore.

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