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)
EllieArroway Tue 05-Mar-13 13:51:59

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.

Mine is:

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 wink

(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).

Oh he definitely had a beard! I've seen the pictures smile

MareeyaDolores Fri 03-May-13 01:38:32

Misread the title and thought it said 'what reasons to we have to believe He was bearded' blush

WhenSheWasBadSheWasHopeful Thu 02-May-13 19:26:41

I'm still lurking away. Very entertaining thread and I'm really hoping you are feeling better mad

madhairday Mon 29-Apr-13 12:06:31

Interesting about pilgrimages too, like Holo I did not know a lot about early Christian pilgrimage <or lack thereof> - I have been educated! I hadn't made the connection that Constantine, having been embedded in Roman and pagan religious practise, encouraged pilgrimage and that this is when such practises took off in the Christian world. Before that, and particularly early on, it seems that Christians were detaching from Jewish tradition and literally practising what they preached - that God was all around, so there was no need for special sites of significance in a holy sense. Early Christian writings mention journeys made to communities of Christians, including to those living in places Jesus visited, but not journeys of pilgrimage. Paul, of course, mentions meeting with Peter.

madhairday Mon 29-Apr-13 11:47:14

I'm sorry I have not been around. RL has been a bit bonkers and stressful and also poorly, so I have not had the time, headspace or energy.

Please don't leave the thread Holo - your contributions are so valuable, you say it a lot better than me. I think we have done as you said - accounted for the development of the Jesus tradition in the 1stC - and gone beyond that in fact, in providing some good arguments for historicity and for the 'historical Jesus'.

So with Paul, Ellie, am I right in thinking you go along with the C19 school of thought that he did not see Jesus as a human being or give any credence to his life and ministry? So we're talking here about Paul's perspective on Jesus rather than Paul being a good historical source to 'prove' Jesus existence - good, because that's the line of thinking I would prefer to go down. I don't think Paul could be cited as a useful historical source, if nothing else but by the nature of his epistles, which were documents as part of ongoing conversations with communities in varying situations. They were not a repetition of history in the way the gospels are purported to be - they were letters to groups addressing their own problems and misunderstandings.

Because of this, we can also surmise that it would be odd if Paul did repeat history in them. We join them as part of a conversation - would we expect single letters to go into a depth of explanation about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ? It is certain that Paul places most importance on the death and atonement of Jesus, but there are references to Jesus as man, to his life as well as his death. There are also interesting semantic and etymological points - Paul's use of the word euangelion for example <'gospel'>, pointing back to the use of the word in Isaiah - the one who was sent to bring good news to the poor. There are also striking parallels between Jesus' and Paul's teaching on the kingdom of God - the central feature of Jesus' teaching. The use of such language implies a knowledge of such categories in early Christian thought - again, it would be odd if Paul repeated events in addressing particular circumstances, and would be beyond astonishing if Paul's early audience did not possess their own knowledge of Jesus traditions - ludicrous to say that they knew nothing of them until the appearance of the gospel of Mark. Where was the material Mark drew upon from? The early traditions referred to in Pauline epistles point to the fact that Christians had well formed credal statements from incredibly early after the events.

I'd thoroughly recommend reading this book if you have the time and inclination, it goes into this subject in a great amount of depth and has fascinating insight into 1st Century practise and belief and formation of Christianity as well as into the theology of Paul himself.

DioneTheDiabolist Sat 27-Apr-13 17:33:59

Holo sad, I have been enjoying this thread, but I understand your decision.
Mad, hope you are feeling better and can return soon.

HolofernesesHead Sat 27-Apr-13 13:47:19

And I set out to do what I wanted, which was to put forward an account of the development of Jesus traditions in the first century. You called me stupid. I'm sure that if I'd agreed with your version of events, you'd have hailed me as a genius.

See ya smile

EllieArroway Sat 27-Apr-13 13:08:00

That you are incapable of understanding what the debate is actually supposed to be about, Holo is your problem, please don't pretend that it's mine.

Anyway, I set out to do what I wanted - to show that there's no reliable historical evidence for Jesus. You helped me to show that by being completely unable to refute a single fact that I produced - all the time attempting to patronise me by implying that I don't know what I'm talking about.

See ya smile

HolofernesesHead Sat 27-Apr-13 13:03:01

Ellie, I'm going to leave this thread now. I'm not here for 'apologetic' reasons, I'm here for a good discussion, and it's impossible to have a good discussion with someone who has no respect for or confidence in one's ability to contribute. You obviously think I'm some delusionist who's just read a few modern apologetic books and Googled a few Bible passages. This is objectively and provably untrue.

Anyway, I have much bigger fish to fry in my life right now, so I'm going to stick to MN threads which are, in that popular phrase, radiators and not drains.

EllieArroway Sat 27-Apr-13 10:44:20

I didn't mean YOU think that! But you'd be amazed how many people do smile

dogsandcats Sat 27-Apr-13 10:36:31

I do not think that you are ignorant or a fool.
And I would be happy for you to link to this. smile

EllieArroway Sat 27-Apr-13 10:21:37

I get what you're trying to say, dogs, but that's not really a good analogy. We know (all of us) that pain exists, and there's no biological reason why it should be the case that one particular part of the body should be immune from it - so can only really conclude that it does exist.

Of course, strictly speaking, you're right. Someone who has never had backache can only surmise that it genuinely exists in others - but that's based on some pretty solid evidence.

The point of this discussion was to make clear that when people say "Oh, it's a fact that Jesus existed. There's loads of historical evidence proving it..." which we hear continually from all Christians and an awful lot of atheists/agnostics too, they are not correct.

And next time an MNer calls me an ignorant fool for pointing out, entirely correctly, that there's no evidence for an historical Jesus, I can post a link to this.

dogsandcats Sat 27-Apr-13 10:14:25

Back pain. I have never had it badly.
But it exists. We all know it exists.
How,or why, if we have never had it ourselves?

Partly because we believe those we trust who say they have it,
partly because we believe specialists who diagnose it and have no reason to believe that they are lying,
partly because we read about it, and again, have no reason to doubt the ones who wrote the articles,
and partly because it makes sense.

dogsandcats Sat 27-Apr-13 10:04:08

I dont have a problem with that, but now I am looking at it form non-christians points of views, I can see why that is problematic for many.

technodad Sat 27-Apr-13 09:57:55

So, not evidence at all then! And people of religion wonder why they are patronised by non-believers!

EllieArroway Sat 27-Apr-13 09:54:40

The "evidence" for some Christians is what is in their hearts and minds

Fascinating. So the only evidence for Jesus exists in the minds of the people who believe in him. I agree.

dogsandcats Sat 27-Apr-13 09:44:54

Looking at your op, no I dont think it is ignorant on your or anyone else's part to say that there is and will not be any evidence in the way you may mean evidence, to say that Jesus existed.

The "evidence" for some Christians is what is in their hearts and minds.

EllieArroway Sat 27-Apr-13 09:36:23

Well, your posts always make me laugh like a drain, Dione, so I'm glad to return the favour.

"Paul wild not quote something with which he disagreed, except to refute it" No, he wouldn't. But singing a song about someone doesn't prove that the person you're singing about is actually real, clearly. So presenting it as "evidence" in a debate about historicity is clearly fallacious. I'm a bit surprised that you have. There are better examples within Paul's writing. I'll address them when you Google remember them.

Secondly, and banging my head against a brick wall for the last time, you seem to be convinced of my 'theological' motivation, which you are pitting against 'history'. Do you basically believe that Christians are, by virtue of their belief, debarred from historical enquiry into the history of the Christian faith? Not debarred, no. But as you are continually demonstrating they seem to think that theological excuses/explanations for things = historical evidence. They don't.

Finally, the thing I don't understand (genuinely) about your approach is that you seem to lack contextual knowledge of the 1st c, and you seem not to value it or give it any role in your thinking. Do you think that's unfair, or have I just missed the bit when you carefully consider modes of communication, letter writing etc (as distinct from more self-consciously literary forms), group identity formation and so on?

Utterly irrelevant to the point I'm making - so patronise away all you like, Holo. The fact that you keep trotting out this nonsense indicates to me that the tenor of this debate is still sailing entirely over your head.

Clearly you are not aware, but there ARE good arguments for the existence of Jesus that can be made when we look at context, who was writing and why, for example. If you notice, I began the debate by saying that I feel there quite possibly WAS a man by the name of Jesus - but this is for inferential, not evidential reasons. We can only infer things when we look at the wider historical picture, which I have done. So, kindly do not accuse me of basically not knowing what I'm talking about when I would suggest that because you have not raised with me the inferences that can be made (and ARE made by historians) and why they can be made, that it might be you who is struggling in this department.

Historians look firstly for primary or secondary sources. In this case we have neither.

They then zoom out and look at the wider picture and make inferences from that - and in this respect there are a few reasonable inferences that can be made.

Perhaps someone will come along who knows about this to discuss them.

DioneTheDiabolist Sat 27-Apr-13 01:19:14

I'm so glad this has continued.
It's very entertaining.smile

HolofernesesHead Fri 26-Apr-13 16:05:25

Just v quickly, a few points: we don't know for a fact that Paul was quoting a hymn. That is debated. If he were, your Nellie the Elephant analogy is not apt; Paul wild not quote something with which he disagreed, except to refute it.

Secondly, and banging my head against a brick wall for the last time, you seem to be convinced of my 'theological' motivation, which you are pitting against 'history'. Do you basically believe that Christians are, by virtue of their belief, debarred from historical enquiry into the history of the Christian faith?

Also, be aware that 'theologians' span a multitude of approaches, methodologies, arguments, etc etc etc. There are very good theologians who would agree with my take on things as I've presented it today. There isn't one 'theological' party line that all theologians agree with; that would be weird.

Finally, the thing I don't understand (genuinely) about your approach is that you seem to lack contextual knowledge of the 1st c, and you seem not to value it or give it any role in your thinking. Do you think that's unfair, or have I just missed the bit when you carefully consider modes of communication, letter writing etc (as distinct from more self-consciously literary forms), group identity formation and so on?

EllieArroway Fri 26-Apr-13 15:28:49

Ellie, the thing is this: you seem to have a load of expectations that the Gospel writers and other writers of the first century ought to play by your rules by citing their sources etc. But why should they? Why should Luke name his sources?

Oh, man hmm

It's not about whether anyone SHOULD be naming sources, but about whether or not they DID. When they don't, then we have no reliable way of assessing the veracity of the claim.

Your "thought experiment" is completely irrelevant. If I wanted to assess the historical accuracy of a rather monumental claim that the islanders were making (ie: God lived, died and was born again) I would find myself completely unable to do so if there was not the slightest physical evidence of any kind demonstrating it. Could I say with certainty that it didn't happen? No. Could I say with any degree of certainty that it did? Absolutely not. Particularly when all the major players were dead and no one has a record of what they did or didn't say.

Remember - Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (Carl Sagan). There is no evidence at all that any of this extraordinary stuff happened, let alone "extraordinary" evidence.

This is the difference between history and theology. One is an academic endeavour, and one is making up explanations that you think sound right.

Oh, and the Phillipians passage is known as the Kenosis hymn. It was Paul quoting the words of a song. You don't know this? Does me singing Nellie the Elephant prove that Nellie the elephant is real? hmm

I still think that you're missing the point I am actually making, Holo. I'm not trying to disprove Jesus - that's not possible. I'm showing how shaky and virtually non-existent the evidence actually is.

Once again, you prove my point by trying to explain away the lack of evidence by saying things like "Do you think the gospel writers should play by your rules?" Way to completely miss the point hmm

Quite astonished this stuff didn't come up during your theology degree, to be frank. It's usually well known to theologians.

HolofernesesHead Fri 26-Apr-13 11:51:31

Not sure why that re-posted - sorry! smile

Ellie, the thing is this: you seem to have a load of expectations that the Gospel writers and other writers of the first century ought to play by your rules by citing their sources etc. But why should they? Why should Luke name his sources?

Try this thought-experiment: if you went to a beautiful south pacific island and learnt the language and started to learn the history of this beautiful island, and found that there wasn't much history written down until relatively recently because the peoples of the island preferred to sit around a fire in the evenings and pass down the stories of their peoples, would you expect there to be a 'historical record' of this pepoles? Would you say that this was a people 'silent' regarding its past? Would you not be somewhat missing the point? I am genuinely confused as you seem not to have made that leap between the way things work inside your head, and the ways in which things work in very different cultures. Maybe I get it because I've travelled a lot and done a lot of work on the 1st and 2nd cs. Remember that quote; 'the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.'

HolofernesesHead Fri 26-Apr-13 10:49:10

Must go but Ellie, surely people takling to each other isn't silence? confused

EllieArroway Fri 26-Apr-13 09:57:38

Must go but Ellie, surely people takling to each other isn't silence?

The silence of the HISTORICAL RECORD!

Please, please can I stop having to repeat myself?

EllieArroway Fri 26-Apr-13 09:56:09

Oh - and it's nonsensical to try and pretend that early Christians weren't interested in trying to demonstrate that Jesus did really exist. Luke himself makes it very clear that he has "investigated" the matter and that he believes he is basing his account from witness statements from long ago. He wants to try and demonstrate to Theophilus that this stuff really did happen:

"Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, 1:2 even as they delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 1:3 it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus; 1:4 that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed"

Unfortunately, he clearly doesn't know who these eyewitnesses were supposed to be and never quotes or names them anywhere.

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