The Great Jesus debate. Did he exist at all - and if he did, what reasons do we have to believe he was divine?(316 Posts)
Madhairday and I have been plotting behind the scenes to have this debate as we think it will be interesting, both for us and for others.
Mad is a Christian & I am an atheist. I will leave it entirely up to her to present her case.
It's impossible to conclude that Jesus actually existed at all given that there's simply no evidence to work with. I am aware that the majority (although not all) of scholars, both secular & religious, have concluded that he did exist, but this is for inferential reasons not evidential ones, so the issue is nowhere near as cut and dried as many people suppose.
While I am generally happy to accept that there was some man, probably called Yeshua/Joshua/Jesus, who lived in the Galilean region at the beginning of the 1st century & who may have died by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans - I don't feel that this is particularly significant or justifies anyone in believing that he was divine.
I also believe that nearly all of the "Jesus story" - the nativity, the miracles, the resurrection etc is complete myth and never happened at all.
I have continually pointed out on many threads that "There's no evidence that Jesus existed" and been called ignorant and so forth. So, this is my opportunity to make my case and demonstrate that this is, in fact, a correct statement.
So, I'm kicking of this (hopefully) interesting discussion with:
There is no evidence that Jesus the man existed. Discuss
(By the way, this is an open discussion for anyone to join in, ask questions, make points etc, it's not just for Mad and I).
Ah yes, the other 'gospels' like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary. Certain scholars of Jesus Seminar fame would like to include the former in the canon, but I've always found it difficult to understand on what grounds. These works were written down far later than the original gospels - they could much more bear the charges often given to the four gospels, that of them being made up out of vague legend. I read that the amount of time passing between the events and these works being written was the same amount of time scholars would say that myth and legend could creep in, whereas the four gospels would not fulfil such criteria.
The reason why the gospel of Thomas, for eg, was not accepted into canon was that it did not meet the standards set by canon - those of wide usage among the christian community, and consistency of character to the rest of the canon and to what Christians believed, among others. It contained some strange passages - the walking cross as you mentioned Ellie, and the delightful passage about males only attaining salvation. This was totally unlike any other sayings of Jesus and so out of step with anything he would say that it was obviously not canon material. If you were going to say anything about unsubstantiated, cloaked in myth documentation, this would be a good example. Interesting though!
Not accepted by the canon of the Roman/European Christian church, when discussing canon and theology we need to remembered that it spread and established into Africa a long time before it spread through Rome but, through various factors, the Roman church's version ended up as the finalised version (with many new sections that had never been in the original African versions such as divinity) and denounced/oppressed other groups until they agreed and a lot of the original stuff that disagreed was destroyed by them.
I think we need to draw a distinction between evidence & apologetics.
If I say, for example, there's no mention of Jesus anywhere until 70AD, you are NOT providing contrary evidence by saying, "Oh, but that's to be expected, there was no Daily Fail back then, and it was all oral tradition" - you are merely providing an explanation (apologetics) for why you think that might be. You are not contradicting me, or proving me wrong, you are acknowledging that I'm right - just putting your spin on it.
Evidence demonstrating that I'm wrong would be "Actually, he's mentioned by x person in y record in 49AD". Do you understand the distinction? Every single time you try to explain away one of the facts I present rather than contradict it directly and show that I'm wrong, you are merely confirming that I'm right.
I already know that you feel you have an explanation for why there's a lack of information about Jesus. I expect every Christian agrees, more or less, with your explanation. But I don't accept your explanation because you are not backing it up with verifiable data - evidence. And that is what this debate is SUPPOSED to be about - whether there's actually any EVIDENCE that Jesus existed - not whether there's a convincing explanation of why there's no evidence.
Right - for clarity, let's look directly at what we know regarding Jesus. This is what the "evidence" amounts to:
Christians generally claim two sources of evidence that Jesus existed - the Bible, in particular the NT, and a few non-Christian, extra-Biblical sources.
I'll come back to the Bible - but let's look outside of it for now.
We have a lot of Greek and Roman sources from the period - because of this we are talking about one of the best understood eras in the ancient world. It's is absolute rubbish to try and suggest no one was writing anything down because they really, really were. We have the works of religious scholars, historians, philosophers, poets & natural scientists. We have thousands of private letters, inscriptions on buildings & tombs etc.
From all of these people we learn about the different religious cults that there were (and there were many), all of the people who were claiming to be able to do miracles, messiah claimants riding into Jerusalem on asses to fulfil the prophecy in Micah, uprisings being stamped out by the Romans. We are very fortunate to have so many rich sources of detail.
So, if we look directly at the period Jesus lived in - up to the end of the 1st century, what mention can we find of him? The answer is truly staggering. We can find nothing. Absolutely nothing. He is never discussed, challenged, criticised or laughed at. There are no records of his birth, accounts of his trial & death, disputes about his teachings. No passed on rumours about miracles, believed or not - nothing. No mention of any kind from anyone.
Now - is it enough to say, "But they didn't keep records back then, No one wrote anything down"? No. As I have said, the sheer volume of literature produced at that time and in that place is enormous - they WERE writing things down. Lots of things.
Does this all prove that Jesus didn't exist? Nope. It doesn't prove anything - except my assertion that there's no evidence that Jesus existed. If you are opposing me on that, name the extra-Biblical source that names Jesus, or even refers to him in passing, in the first century after his birth? Explanations such as "They kept no records back then, y'know - and no one had heard of him" etc are not relevant to this discussion. Remember please, that I am not trying to prove Jesus didn't exist merely that there's no evidence demonstrating that he did.
WHATEVER the explanation is, the fact remains that there is no source that even hints at, let alone demonstrates, the existence of this man Jesus of Nazareth (no trace can be found of Nazareth either, by the way).
So, we have to wait until about 112AD before we start hearing vague mentions (and they are very vague indeed). There's an immediate problem - the authors of the sources were not actually alive at the time Jesus was and they don't tell us where they are getting their information from - so it's hearsay. This is not evidence and should therefore not even feature in a discussion about the historicity of Jesus - but because Christian's literally have nothing else, they are forced to keep bringing them up.
The second problem (if hearsay isn't enough of one) is that they don't tell us a blessed thing about Jesus anyway. The most they do is confirm what we already know - that there was a religion called Christianity in the second half of the first century. Big deal.
Oh - and if you're going to try and suggest that this is enough to prove Jesus existed, then I'm assuming you believe Mithras did too? People worshipping him were around in far greater numbers than the Christians. As were thousands upon thousands of believers in Pagan gods - does their very existence prove that the god they worshipped was true & real? Of course not. And it doesn't prove that for Jesus.
So, in 112AD Pliny the Younger, who is the governor of a Roman province wrote a letter to the emperor Trajan asking how to handle a group of Christians who were meeting illegally. He explains that these people "worship Christ as a God". That's it. Pliny says nothing about Jesus, never even names him. This is evidence that Christians existed. That's all. NOT evidence that Jesus ever did.
Tacitus is next (in 115AD), and I've dealt with him further up. Again, not a contemporary of Jesus and not passing on anything he's witnessed personally - so not providing evidence of anything. In a tale about Nero in a history book he's writing, he explains that Christians get their name from "Christus...who was executed by Pilate". He calls their beliefs "superstitions".
These two above are the best, believe it or not. The rest are frankly embarrassing:
In 110AD, a Roman historian called Seutonius is writing a biography of the emperor Claudius. In it he says that Claudius drove the Jews out of Rome because they, at the suggestion of Chrestus, were constantly rioting. Christians have always tried to say that actually, he meant, "Christos". Even if they're right, Jesus was in Rome telling Jews to riot? Really? Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? Chrestus was actually a very common Christian name. Seutonius was not talking about Jesus, clearly.
The Talmud: Discussed briefly above, I know, but for those who aren't familiar The Talmud is a collection of Jewish religious and civil laws which includes a commentary on The Torah. There's a briefly mentioned character in there called Yeshua which some Christians have taken to mean Jesus. This is divisive amongst scholars - firstly whether they mean someone else altogether (and there are a couple of likely candidates) and secondly whether the passages are original. In any event, the Talmud did not come into existence until the 3rd century, and it took about 300 odd years to write!
It's truly amazing that anyone thinks this is evidence that Jesus existed - 3 to 600 years earlier!!!
The last one is Josephus - the most important & the one that's quoted the most. It's not evidence for one really good reason - it's an outright forgery. We even have a really good suspect for who the forger is.
Now, I know with 100% certainty that you'll all pile on me and say, "But not all scholars believe that - most think it was only partly forged" (like that makes it better!). No, there's little doubt that it's a complete fabrication. There are some wonderful quotes from Christian scholars writing it off completely, my favourite is Bishop Warburton - "It's a rank forgery and a very stupid one too". He's right.
I will provide an abundance of evidence for this, I promise. Not a single Christian will leave this thread and use Josephus as evidence ever again - the case is that watertight. (Not saying it'll shake faith or anything, to be clear).
So - that's it, outside of the Bible, that's the only "evidence" that's presented for a historical Jesus. Not only is it lame and vague, it's evidence that proves precisely nothing.
Which leaves us with the Bible - specifically the NT. And what's the Bible - books & letters written for Christians by Christians. It's "in house" literature produced to shore up faith or covert others. Hardly what you'd call unbiased then? But the bias doesn't matter. The gospels demonstrate in a myriad of different ways that they are not historically reliable. But I shall get to that.
But before I do, let's thrash this lot out.
Tbh Ellie, I'm not particularly interested in apologetics. I'm not very good at apologetics, either. I am aware that apologetics isn't just a Christian thing though -'The God Delusion' is, IMO, an atheist apologetic work (a bad one at that). But that's a digression. I am interested in historical veracity / plausibility though, and that's what I'm interested in on this thread.
So, yesterday we had a (pretty conservative) list of evidence for Jesus in the pre-Gospels period; here we are:
The amended Passover meal in which the bread is seen as the body of Jesus - so early evidence that Jesus' death was seen as sacrificial and related to the Passover (Jesus leading people to the new 'Promised Land');
Songs and hymns sung about Jesus that show that people believed he was divine (Phil. 2, Heb. 1:1-3, which is IMO pre-70, Col. 1:15-20, which is later but the song probably pre-dates the letter).
Credal statements, often in the context of initation rites (baptism), asserting that Jesus was raised from death.
Now if you choose to disallow this, you need to be able to say why you think it's not useful. Otherwise it stands as a pretty strong body of evidence that, soon after Jesus' death, all sorts of things were happening in memory of him. Saying that some of the Pauline corpus is post-Pauline (and then not wanting to talk about why that might be so, or how thatworls, or whatthat means in a 1st c. worldview) doesn't cut it - 1 Cor. and Galatians, the two letters which we talked about yesterday, are both undisputedly Pauline, and undisputedly early (same as Philippians, which could also come into play here).
So your argument, if its foundations are going to be sound, needs to get around this somehow. Bear in mind that saying that the Bible is in-house is a completely anachronistic statement - 'the Bible' in the 1st c. was the Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures, not Paul's angry letter to the fledgling church in Galatia. What do you do with texts like 1 Clement, written in the 90s but not in the Bible, or the Didache, which some scholars date to the 1st c? Are they disallowed, too?
Two quick last points for now: you said, 'Explanations such as "They kept no records back then, y'know - and no one had heard of him" etc are not relevant to this discussion.' Now that needs unpicking. Surely, if it's true that record-keeping was done differently then to how it is now, it is relevant? Personally I don't think that record-keeping wasn't done, but I do think it was done differently. Now if hthis is a historically accurate statement, surely it is to be borne in mind? If not, whyever not? This is what I mean abuot methodology - if you decide that Paul can't be part of this discussion, you need to say why, and how you arrived at that viewpoint. If you say that record-keeping methods aren't to be part of this discussion you need to say why, and how you arrived ta that that viewpoint. Otherwise any of us on this thread cuold say anything and none of the others would have any way of knowing if there's any weight to their argument.
Second last point: you say, 'because of this we are talking about one of the best understood eras in the ancient world'. My response is, yes, of course, the Roman Empire's propaganda machine was rolling along very nicely in the 1st c! But what of the rural places, the not-important people, the many thousands killed in the 1st c by the R. Empire? Is there an official list of all the Jewish people killed in the siege of Jerusalem? You need to be a bit more critical of your sources, IMO, and be maybe a litlte humbler in your claims too. A while ago I was talking to a world expert on a period very close to this one (actually, the period we were discussing is slightly better documented than the 1st c), and as we were discussing an aspect of historical methodology, the prof. broke off, shook head and said, 'You know, the problem is, we know so very little about this period.' For me, it's a question of integrity - I can only claim so muc about the 1st c, but hopefully do so in a way that has honesty and metodoolgical rigour.
Actually, one (really!) last thing: we need to think about how we use evidence.
Ellie, or anyone else who's a bit bored or interested, a question:
You are in a foreign country which you've never visited before, and whose ten dialects you don't speak. You are walking along, and see a large, hollowed-out, carved wooden object on the ground. How do you go about working out what this is evidence of?
Thing is, the central tropes of a lot of myth systems are very similar: the king sacrificed and reborn, the leader's assorted moral lessons, some of which would have been specific to one area and some not, the idea that when you die you go to a Better Place (so know your place while your'e alive and obey your betters - the main reason for religion being favoured by governments). Various dietary taboos serve a dual purpose: they often include reasonable H&S advice for the time and place they were established and reinforce the control of the priest class, and the same goes for the sexual taboos.
So all these myth systems were cobbled together out of a bit of this and abit of that - some or other local notable did something interesting; there was a particular natural phenomenon; someone said something interesting; there was a tale told by a traveller that would lend itself to a bit of adaptation... And at the end of it you get this stew of crap, basically,that people either swallow whole or use to their own purposes. So, you know, some memorable or charismatic individuals on whom some of the myths were made probably existed, but it doesn't really matter now they are all long dead and the myth has become the important stuff.
Holo: Well if it were me I'd have a good look at it and its surroundings, and see what evidence there is of what use the thing might be put to. EG, if it's full of water it's not unreasonable to suppose it's a water trough, if it's got a corpse in it a fair assumption would be that it's a coffin.
I would also look for decorative carvings or markings: if it had illustrations of people picking apples or something which might indicate a purpose for it. Does it have wheels, is it fixed to the ground in some way?
I'm interested in where you're going with this BTW, or is it a completely open-ended question. Oh, and by the way, I appreciate that in your hypothesis one can't ask what the Big Wooden Doodah is, but one can use one's eyes to examine it in detail.
The wide majority of scholars do see the first passage relating to Jesus in Josephus as authentic, do you think that this one is a fallacy as well Ellie? Out of interest, as you state there is no mention. And yes, I'm answering you as you predicted I would by stating scholars' positions - sorry about that. But that's because scholars' positions need to be stated in an attempt to get to the case for or against. So, at the risk of being tedious <again> I am doing so.
A good majority also think that the passage in Josephus which is most suspect has roots in authenticity. You can say that the fact that only some is genuine makes it far too tenuous, but you'd be in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Many respected scholars state the case that Josephus did indeed write about Jesus and Jesus' death under Pontius Pilate. MOst scholars rightly believe that there are interpolations - those parts that do not scan with the rest of his writing and that Josephus would simply not say.
You are very firm in your belief that Josephus et all can be kicked out as useful evidence about Jesus, but there are always two sides, and I think both need to be examined. Having looked at both, I still think some of this extra-biblical documentation has valuable input into what we know.
As for Nazareth, there is evidence for a settlement. Archaeological evidence has been found from the era and even before the turn of the first century. Tombs have been found. Nazareth would have been a tiny place of no renown - unlikely to be included in any records or maps. But you are mistaken about there being no evidence. That criticism is based on outdated archaeological evidence. Why the biblical writers would make up a region and why followers would be known as Nazarenes, and this be preserved in biblical accounts, would be a severe stretch to any reason.
Now, I get what you are saying about evidence and apologetics. To a certain extent, I can agree, because to conjure up non existent evidence would be somewhat counterproductive. However, I include the NT in my sources of historically verifiable evidence, as do a great many eminent scholars. This is something you do not, so there is a gap between what we accept as 'evidence'. I have stated reasons why this material is useful historically.
I have indeed used arguments from oral tradition and first century culture to back up something of what I am saying, but not to say that you are right, not to say - well yeh, there's no evidence, but oral tradition was around so we can assume there was, hey?' - No. I've showed how the gospel writers relied on the very strict and accurate oral tradition and how the words they wrote down would have been much like the words handed down. This is not a loose argument for filling in a gap but a fact. However, I still see where you are coming from. It cannot be verified in concrete form, only in form of what we see written down and what we know about how things were done. The fact remains that we have the more concrete Pauline letters from early on in addition to the gospels in addition to the extra biblical historians in addition to all the early christian writings Holo referred to, eg the Didache. We do not have a huge unfilled gap of nothingness.
Just read back and half of that doesn't make much sense. Sorry <should not write under influence of large doses of codeine>
However, Mithras and the Mystery Religions, the myth systems that SGB mentions. Now there's another interesting area, and often cited as argument that Jesus wasn't unique and the Christians just made up another myth like the rest. However, precisely because they were mystery religions, they were incredibly secretive and there is very little known about them, even now. It is probable that the mystery religions, Mithraism in particular, was influenced by early Christianity rather than vice versa. What we know about them is dated from the 2nd century onwards. This is well documented.
Hello all. Hope you're okay, MadHair! Large doses of coedeine don't sound much fun.
SGB - this wooden carved object. Right, you'd have a good look at it. You'd see if it were empty, or not. That sounds sensible. Looking for markings wuold be sensible too. What if there were markings but you didn't know what they meant? I'd do a lot more than taht, if I were really interested - I'd be consulting experts, looking things up in libraries, assessing the age of the object, where it was found, whether there are others like it and if so, what we can learn from them. I'd have to chooes my 'experts' carefully and listen to enough of them to make ure that what I get is a shared view, not just the ideas of a maverick. Hard work, yes - but deciding whether or not an unknown object from a foreign country is any sort of evidence for anything is going to be hard. To be fair, most people wouldn't bother, unless they were being paid to do so!
The point is, as L. P. Hartley puts it, 'the past is a foreign country.' We can't simply point to things / texts from the past and use them as any sort of evidence for anything until we've actually worked out what they are. Which is why I'm saying to Ellie that it's no good saying that, for example that Paul is not permissible evidence in this debate if she's not willing to even engage with the question of what pseudepigraphic letters are, or what even the undisputed Pauline letters are. Expecting to gain credibility by slapping, e.g., Tacitus down on the table and saying 'That's bad evidence', let's think (if we can) a bit more intelligently about what each of these texts is, how they made sense within the 1st c, then we can go on to decide what, if anything, they are evidence of. Otherwise it's all a bit Alice in Wonderland.
A good starting point, as something useful and easy to read, would be the Harvard Professor of Divinity Emeritus Amos Wilder's 'Early Christian Rhetoric.' A little quote from him; 'Jesus did not write, and Paul wrote only under constraint and with reluctance. Even when the Gospels had been long in existence the Church Fathes frequently cited the words and deeds of Christ not from these writings but from the still growing oral tradition...[then, quoting Papias, 140CE] 'I did not suppose that information from books would help me so much as the word of a living and surviving voice.' Given all of this, what then should we expect to find from the 1st c. that is historically plausible?
Ellie, I have to keep picking at this Josephus thing. I'd like to know what you have to say that would persuade me to never again refer to Josephus as a source for the historicity of Jesus. I assume you are referring to Eusebius as the lone interpolator of the TF in Josephus' Antiquities ? If so, the argument proposed for this being the case is too weak to be of any value.
The fact remains that Josephus refers to Jesus in two places, one unchallenged by the vast majority, one shown to be partially authentic by the majority of scholars, and the parts that are thought to be authentic still provide a compelling case for not only the historicity of Jesus, but for him having disciples, performing miracles and being put to death under Pontius Pilate.
You can't discount Tacitus, Pliny et al as of no value in the debate either. They referred to the practises of the Christians and referred to Christ. The language used seems to suggest that the Christ mentioned is not only the one-among-many political messiah, but as referring to the one messiah, and also there is evidence that in early centuries people would have known that this Jesus was known as the Christ, there would be no need for clarification or even apologetics in terms of proving historicity.
On the question of evidence, again. We need to bear in mind that what texts we have from antiquity consitute a minority of those that might once have existed. There are many texts that know only part of because they were quoted in later texts; many that are mentioned in other texts but of which nothing has survived. Learning how to interpret what we do have takes time -- academic historians and textual scholars spend years working on particular fragments, placing them in their context and trying to understand them fully. And they disagree and debate with each other all the time.
'Evidence' isn't simply self-evident. It needs to be interpreted, and there is always more than one interpretation of any piece of evidence. That's why methodology and scholarly apparatus such as citing sources and authorities is important. Because they show you can back up your interpretation of the evidence. In the end some interpretations of evidence are more convincing than others because they have the authority of scholarly rigour -- stating them one's opinion forcefully makes a great deal of noise but it doesn't make you an expert in the field.
Niminy, true! One of the best stories regarding early manuscripts is that of the epistle to Diognetus, which was discovered in a fish Market in 1435, about to be used to wrap some fish. It turned out to be an authentic 2nd c. apologetic letter. It's very lovely, and has lines like this: 'Christians are to the world what the soul is to the body' (or words to that effect.) It so nearly never got found - it's not mentioned by any early Christian writer. But it was found to be authentic.
On Josephus; I think that J. D. Crossan is about right; he does a good job of boiling down what is most likely that Josephus said about Jesus, to this: Jesus was a Jew with particularly loyal followers, who was tried by other Jews, executed by Romans and about whom reports of resurrection circulated early on. It's a conservative estimate, but I think probably a good one.
I think a charismatic figure existed around the time, maybe named Jesus, and the rest is a myth.
Wow this is a fantastic and thread, well done to Mad and Ellie for kicking it off! I hope it can continue, the information is really interesting. Mad and Ellie, I'm curious to know how you are so well informed? Did you study theology or is it all from personal reading?
I have a theology degree from
too many years ago, but have always loved the subject and read around it. Would love to do a Masters at some point if my health ever allowed it. DH has an MTheol and I enjoyed critiquing reading his essays and discussing it all as he did it
Thank so much for this thread, I'm a Christian but am also interested in the historical side. Where would be a good place to start reading about it. If I remember rightly from the depths of my brain are there not elements of Zoroastrianism in Christianity?
An anthropological question. Levi-Strauss developed the concept of the 'cold chronology' (when not much appears to be happening) and the 'hot chronology' (when a lot seems to be happening or changing).
Was there a particularly hot chronology between 5 BCE and 30 CE? Apart from the Jesus question?
Well, there was certainly a lot going on in Israel -- culminating in a revolt by the Jews against the occupying Roman Empire in 66 C.E. and the destruction of the Temple as a reprisal by the Romans four years later. The period was marked by unrest and both covert and overt rebellion -- zealots for example (some scholars think that some of the disciples, eg Judas, may have been zealots), who wanted to see violent resistance to Roman rule.
Hi Aftereights .
Prompted by the debate on similar threads in the past few months, I looked into Karen Armstrong's work (thanks to whoever suggested that). Her History of God and The Case for God - both available on Kindle - give a lightning tour of religions and related philosophical thinking since the beginning of human history up to the present day, with scholarly references.
I must say Karen gives a lot of support to some of Ellie's points, but leaves readers to make up their own minds on whether God exists etc etc
Holo: your hypothetical wooden thingy doesn't actually work that well as a debating tool. Because you've got to tell the rest of us whether it's three feet tall or ten feet tall, and whether it's got a hole in it, or whether it smells. Or we would find out for ourselves, because it's a wooden thing that's there in front of us. Imaginary friends are just imaginary, so debating them is always going to boil down to 'Bwhaah, Great Pumpkin IS REAL' with no evidence, whereas a person finding a wooden object has the wooden object to explore, not just stories about the wooden object and/or descriptions of it.
For instance, I could tell you that apples are blue, when they're special. Here's an apple, it's not blue yet because you have insufficient faith. It will turn bue at some point.
Icould also give you a blue apple. It's an apple, and it's blue, and you can decide for yourself whether it become blue by magic or whether it turned blue because I did it with a crayon. BUt i't an apple, and you can go find one or I culd show you one and it's a bit better than a shouty knob on the interne.
Thanks town I've downloaded the history of god onto my kindle. Looking forward to reading it.
SolidGoldBrass I think you have misunderstood the purpose of HolofernesesHead's example (and indeed of the thread). As I understand it she was making a point about methodology, namely that we need to have thought about a set of second-order considerations such as how we might distinguish true explanations from false, how we would go about looking for explanations, what factors we would use to distinguish between and evaluate competing explanations, and what we would count as an explanation, before we would be able to find out what the object was. Academic researchers tend to make those second-order considerations explicit, and they are called methodology. Understanding methodology helps us make our arguments more robust, and allows us to evaluate and critique other people's arguments.
Holo was not in any sense debating the existence of the wooden object. Neither is the thread debating the existence of God. It was set up to debate the question of the historical evidence for Jesus. Since we are evaluating evidence, questions of the methodology we use are extremely important.
Yes, exactly what Niminy said. It's all about why we accept certain things as evidence of certain other things, and how we arrive at that decision. This doesn't just go for the question of whether Jesus existed, of course - it's a basic question about how we understand life, the world and everything.