Category Archives: Background

The Jesus Hoax?

"Who's your daddy?"

Did Jesus exist?

Certainly, most people in the past 2,000 years have assumed Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. Virtually all scholars in the field believe he walked the earth. But since modern textual studies emerged in the 19th century, demonstrating just how interpretive and — well — constructed the primary witnesses to Jesus’ human life were, plenty of people have wondered aloud whether the whole Jesus thing is just a pious or political fiction.

Is it possible there was no human Jesus?

A historian of any ancient figure would start by looking to the sources. There are no physical artifacts of Jesus himself, his followers, or even the Christian movement until the late 2nd century (around 120-130 years after Jesus died). The evidence is entirely literary.

Outside Christian circles, there are just a few scattered references (Pliny the Younger, Tactitus, Josephus) that do little more than show there were indeed Christians who followed a person (presumably human) called Christ. The only real biographical sources are the Christians Gospels.

Moreover, no original written documents exist. The evidence consists of copies of copies of copies made centuries later. There is a tiny fragment of the Gospel of John pulled from an Egyptian garbage dump in the last century that is dated to, say, 120 or 130 C.E. So we can safely say documents about this “Jesus” character existed 100 years after his “death.”

Historians make the convincing case that nobody from that era (other than Roman Emperors and celebrity poets) has ANY physical or literary evidence attesting to their existence. There is more reason to think Jesus existed than 99.9% of the region’s population.

But ignoring that. What do Jesus deniers claim?

There’s a long-running web hub and discussion forum inspired by the tireless efforts of British atheist Kenneth “Jesus Never Existed” Humphreys that offers the following:

  • Evidence is too scanty — as scholars have lamented for centuries, why don’t the great writers of the period, such as Philo and Seneca, say anything at all about Jesus?
  • Some evidence is contradictory — for example, the genealogies for Jesus given in Matthew and Luke don’t agree at all and seem fictional
  • Evidence is self-serving — the Gospels and other Christian scriptures contain material that legitimizes the Christian movement; i.e., the 12 disciples mirror the 12 tribes of Israel and allow the Christian cult to claim legitimacy
  • Christianity is a hodge-podge of external ideas that required no founder — messages of love and faith and God-men can be found in Stoicism, Mithraism, Judaism, Egyptian religion, and so on
  • Early Christianity was chaotic — the documented scattershot of beliefs, including all those Gnosticisms and neo-Judaisms, as well as a certain lack of interest in the human Jesus, shows there was no real focus from the beginning, aka, no Jesus

Like John William Draper in the 19th century, Humphreys is really using his thesis to bash the Church, which he calls a “tragedy” and an “active agent in destroying knowledge” and “an industry of deceit.” And so on.

Focusing on the Jesus question itself, however, is more difficult. No doubt early Christians were self-serving, imaginative, fictionalizing, chaotic, swayed by all manner of local beliefs . . . but does any of that prove Jesus himself is a fiction?

Scattergories: “Theology,” Alex!

Thousands of you have done one or many of the following over the past few weeks, as I’ve been slaloming through the history of the “Faith & Reason” debate: email, text, direct message, instant message, Skype, Facebook update, tweet, hashtag, blog post, blog comment, FB Like, anonymous review, post rating, FourSquare check-in, P-to-P download, voicemail, snail mail, malware, Luv virus, brain connection, public address system, skywriting, punch in the kisser.

"Get to the point, dude!"

And as one, you have asked but a single question: “I thought you were looking for God, bro. Why are you talking about philosophy?”

As the great, late Catholic church historian Raymond Brown said: “One of the worst things you can do as a teacher is assume the audience is going to understand what you’re getting at.”

So here automatic for the people is a quick backgrounder on the problem: as always in theology, things are not as simple as they seem. Searching for God is like walking through a whiteout.

To answer the question “Does God exist?” we must first answer at least two others: “What do we mean by ‘God’?” and “How can we know that what we mean by ‘God’ exists?” It’s the second sub-question we’re attacking with all this blather about Faith & Reason.

Let’s broaden sub-question part deux and ask “How can we know anything about ‘God’?” One way is through faith, which is an inner conviction. Another way is through reason, or the use of our minds. Most believers and atheists actually rely on both for their response. The question naturally arises how — or even if — Faith and Reason relate.

Over the past 2,500 years, three basic positions have been taken:

  1. Mortal Enemies — likes cats and dogs, faith and reason can not even agree to disagree: one is right, the other wrong. Sadly, this is a modern phenomenon. Fundamentalists don’t listen to reason. Atheists devoutly wish for The End of Faith.
  2. Incompatible — they are talking about different things. There is no real conflict because reason and faith are in different boxing rings. Varieties of this position include mysticism, which elevates faith into a realm of intuition beyond the senses, and so-called “negative” theologies like those of Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysius. Unlike, say, Fundamentalists, incompatibilists tend to see religious language as approximate or metaphorical.
  3. Compatible — even when there appears to be a conflict, there isn’t. There is only misunderstanding. Faith can be both justified and enhanced by reason. Either we can observe natural phenomenon and induce God (Aquinas, Aristotle), or use reason alone to deduce truths about God (Anselm, Descartes). This approach is very Medieval and, later, characteristic of so-called “natural theology.”

For what it’s worth, The God Project Dot Net believes (1) and (3) are dead ends that lead to agita. But (2) has potential. Agreed?

Let’s Begin

I am scared to start, so let’s begin.

We’ll begin with a question and go on to the end.

The Question: “Is there a God?” I won’t say “Does God exist?” because I can already see us arguing over that word “exist” – What does it mean? Sounds suspiciously anthropomorphic to me. Some of you in the back would assume that “to exist” means detectable by our own tawdry, disappointing senses, or something, and I’m not at all convinced that’s where we’re going. Where are we going? Who knows? Is this story to be nothing but questions? And is that the point?

So: the Question.

Now on to the end:

Today we have the so-called New Atheists, who are definitely atheists – that is, they believe that whatever we think we are talking about when we talk about “God” is, to use Richard Dawkins’ word, a “Delusion.” But are they so “New”?

Of course not.

There’s atheism in the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 14:1: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Aristotle mentioned a God, but it didn’t intervene in human life and didn’t much care. Practically speaking, it might as well not be there. Buddhists are supposed to be atheists.

Outright, full-throated skeptics have been screaming out loud since the Enlightenment, and everybody knows Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche absolutely killed, slaughtered, pummeled and eviscerated someone they called God so badly – so utterly convincingly – that anyone who puts down Freud’s The Future of an Illusion and heads off to church must feel like a total asshole.

And yet.