During a recent exchange, I was discussing some of the areas of dispute associated with the historicity of Jesus with Godless Engineer and R.C. Apologist. The reason why I wanted to set up this exchange, is because I feel as though there is a profound misunderstanding (particularly online) when it comes to the positions which one may hold regarding whether there was a historical figure known as Jesus of Nazareth. I have only briefly touched upon a mere fraction of issues associated with this topic, in fact, I only have two blog posts (see here and here) which deal with the passage in Galatians 4:4 which is often taken by those advocating for Jesus’ historicity as slam dunk pieces of evidence for a historical Jesus. In response to this, a lot of people online seem to have a heuristic which unfortunately stifles any chance of productive conversation.
It seems to me, the profound misunderstanding that many people have regarding the existence of a historical Jesus is that there are only two options; historicity and mythicism. To briefly explain the difference between the two, one affirming historicity is someone who maintains that there was a historical, flesh and blood figure whom we would recognise as Jesus of Nazareth in (approximately) the time the Gospels describe he lived and died. In contrast, mythicism is the position that the earliest writings to Jesus were of a celestial being, who was never on Earth but the references made about him are based on revelations and all of the appearances to apostles (importantly there are no disciples in Paul’s writings) occur after his death. Then, the later writings of the Gospels effectively place Jesus into a historical setting through a process euhemerism. This, to many, is where the debate is centred; whether the earliest accounts (Paul’s letters) are indicative of a historical figure (born of a woman, had a brother called James etc.) and that the Gospels have at least some historical details of an earthly figure, or whether the earliest records we have speak of a celestial figure (God took the seed of David and used it to manufacture a body for Jesus etc.) which was then placed into history by the Gospel authors. However, when the two positions are placed side-by-side like this, it seems clear there is an obvious third option; that of historical agnosticism. This is the view that saying whether or not there was a historical figure which one might refer to as Jesus of Nazareth is either impossible and/or that one cannot say with any certainty that the figure of Jesus of Nazareth existed.
When put like this, it seems a mere prima facie analysis of historical agnosticism is hardly unreasonable. After all, all one has to accept is the depiction of a famous Jesus in the Gospels, being so famous he was constantly running away from large crowds (e.g. Mark 2:2, 3:7-9 etc.) can be dismissed as hyperbole, and so, if one grants that we are talking about a Jesus who was a merely obscure figure in or around the first century of the common era, the case in favour of agnosticism is merely exercising some caution regarding whether there existed an actual historical figure which can be clearly identified.
The way I like to think about this, is: imagine we had a time-machine. Those advocating for historicity would claim that if you could go back to the correct time and place in which Jesus supposedly lived and died, we could clearly find a historical figure which we would be able to recognise as Jesus of Nazareth. That is, either by his actions or words, one would be able to walk around the location in which Jesus has been claimed to have lived and one would be able to pin-point him and say “yep, that’s clearly the person we would refer to as Jesus of Nazareth”. While those advocating for mythicism would claim that if we travel a little further forward in time, to when Paul writing his letters, he would actually believe that Jesus was not a figure of the recent past, but that he believed in a celestial being which could only be understood through revelation and Scripture. While those arguing in favour of historical agnosticism, such a line of reasoning can be summed up by early 20th century author John Eleazer Remsburg:
That a man named Jesus, an obscure religious teacher, the basis of this fabulous Christ, lived in Palestine about nineteen hundred years ago, may be true. But of this man we know nothing. His biography has not been written. (Christianity and Mythology p. 125.)
In other words, there may well have been an individual in the first century which the Gospels and Paul’s writings are based, but even identifying anything more than fragmentary details about his life may be beyond the scope of historians. The reason being, as William Arnal puts it:
Whether Jesus himself existed as a historical figure or not, the gospels that tell of him are unquestionably mythic texts. … Investigations into the historical Jesus require, by contrast, that the gospels be used as historical sources, and in fact the main difference between “conservative” and “liberal” scholarship revolves around how much legendary accretion is stripped away in order to arrive at the “historical core,” not whether there is any historical core to be found at all. In seeking to find the real, historical person behind these narratives, we are using these texts as sources for a figure that they themselves show no interest in at all. Just as the myths and legends about Herakles are simply not about a historical person, so also the gospels are not about the historical Jesus. (The Symbolic Jesus: Historical Scholarship, Judaism and the Construction of Contemporary Identity p. 75-76)
While this post is not (although I’m certain people will claim otherwise) intended to support the case in favour of agnosticism, I just want to point out an interesting quote from Emeritus Professor Philip Davies from the University of Sheffield:
[S]urely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. The ‘amateurs’ are now all retired professors, while virtually everyone else in the field has become minimalist (if in most cases grudgingly and tacitly). So, as the saying goes, déjà vu all over again.
Obviously, one does not need to travel very far to see such tactics in action. For instance, Bart Ehrman claims:
In a society in which people still claim the Holocaust did not happen, and in which there are resounding claims that the American president is, in fact, a Muslim born on foreign soil, is it any surprise to learn that the greatest figure in the history of Western civilization, the man on whom the most powerful and influential social, political, economic, cultural and religious institution in the world — the Christian church — was built, the man worshipped, literally, by billions of people today — is it any surprise to hear that Jesus never even existed?
While I will go through my objections to both those advocating historicity and mythicism throughout this blog, but I will leave you on this thought. When one claims that any position is “the majority” or “a consensus”, as Mike Licona in his PhD Thesis recounts a thought experiment by Robert Miller who notes:
[S]cholar “A” who is widely respected awards historicity to a particular deed of Jesus without providing adequate argumentation. Scholar “B” who is likewise a respected scholar grants the historicity of the same deed and cites scholar “A” in support. A third scholar “C” praises the thorough work of scholar “B.” Miller then asks, “Are these indications of an emerging consensus . . . How many consensuses in our field get started in just this way?” (p. 196-197)
While I certainly do not agree with everything (or even a lot) of Richard Carrier argues, here is an important point to end on:
Case in point: McDaniel says Paul “candidly admits that he never actually met Jesus in the flesh while he was still alive on earth.” Paul actually never says this. He never once says Jesus “was still alive on earth.” At any time. McDaniel is thus inserting an assumption about what Paul meant, that is not actually evidenced in Paul. This kind of slip is common among historians bent on maintaining a position not well supported by actual evidence: they conflate conjecture with evidence, and all of a sudden, such conjectures are offered to the public as “evidence” in their support. It is circular reasoning like this that led me to suspect that maybe this popular certainty Jesus existed was not actually founded on sound reasoning after all.