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The Great Jesus debate. Did he exist at all - and if he did, what reasons do we have to believe he was divine?

(326 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).

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 13:31:12

The gospels are a fairly valuable source, there's no escaping that. When historians are making a judgement about the veracity of any claim they look at all aspects, not just what they can physically see with their eyes.

Who wrote the gospels? Why did they write them? Is this written in the style of fiction or is it purporting to be a factual account. What is known of the times the writer was living in, what might they have been trying to convey. Who would they have been trying to reach with their work - were they trying to entertain, impress, scare or educate? And so on.

So, without going too far into it, a lot of inferences can be made by asking these sorts of questions. The crucifixion example I gave above is quite illustrative of a good inference that can be made, but it's not conclusive. It's not inconceivable that a writer might make up a shameful death for his hero - maybe he was trying to give him a very "humble" death in comparison with his glorified greatness or something - but the most likely is that this is what happened, in some respect.

But in terms of direct historical evidence, the gospels can offer very little indeed for one reason - they are hearsay, and we do not accept hearsay as evidence. It may give us clues ("Officer, my friend's neighbour told her that the milkman's aunt witnessed the brutal murder") but it's not conclusive by itself. The police officer would indeed want to talk to the milkman's aunt, but only evidence directly from her could be presented in court for obvious reasons.

That's where we're at with the gospels. They were written decades after the events they describe by people who had a) never met or heard Jesus themselves and b) had never spoken to anyone who had. They were written in a foreign land in a language that Jesus & his followers didn't speak*. Matthew & Luke make liberal use of Mark's account when telling their own (odd that, if they were independent witnesses) and they all have something different to say about most things. Some of the discrepancies are minor, some are fairly huge. That they hadn't even met each other, let alone Jesus, is rather worrying. Didn't they meet while they were following Jesus around? And why are they writing their accounts decades apart?

It simply doesn't add up no matter how you look at it.

And, here's the thing - if Christianity is true, my immortal soul is in some kind of danger for not accepting Jesus into my heart. I'll either be cast into the pits of Hell to be Satan's plaything, or I just won't get to go to Heaven with the nice folk. Either way, it kind of does matter that I do what God wants me to do - love him and accept Jesus.

And, really, could he not offer me something rather better than this to give me a reason to believe? Some fragmentary, inconsistent accounts of people who were at least 4 times removed from the events they talk about? Gospels that have not survived in their original form, so we can't be completely sure what they actually said? Accounts that have been faffed about so much in the past 2000 years that it's a major puzzle to remove all the fraudulent interpolations and honest mistranslations? Accounts that are so vague it's possible to come up with dozens and dozens of different interpretations depending on your own particular bias?

If the Bible is God's message to the world then it's a rather shamefully amateur effort, to be honest.

hiddenhome Wed 06-Mar-13 13:36:35

Many of the disciples were executed here Would they have given their lives for someone who didn't exist?

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 13:37:11

*It's vaguely possible that Jesus & the disciples were bi-lingual and spoke both Aramaic & the Greek dialect that the gospels use. But this is extremely unlikely given their humble, working men backgrounds. And being illiterate, which they almost certainly were, was not a shameful thing then - it was the default for most people.

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 13:38:40

Hidden People don't die for things that are not real or true? Really?

So, the September 11th bombers are in Paradise with their 72 virgins are they?

Christians are NOT the only people to have died for their religion. And I'm assuming that you believe all of those other religions are wrong?

MadHairDay Wed 06-Mar-13 13:41:16

Cloaked in obscurity in that it happened in a small region in a time things were not generally recorded. They didn't have the Daily Fail in those days grin What happened was that as the movement of early Christianity gained momentum, very quickly, the documentation of it passed down via oral tradition (we're not talking vague memories of stories your nan told you here) was solidified in the gospels, the writings of Paul even before these, and later on in mentions of Jesus and the movement in Roman, Jewish and then early Christian literature.

I do not think you can apply a modern lens to the situation - you cannot say, for example, that surely the feeding of the 5,000 must necessarily have been recorded somewhere at the time - because this was just not done. It was not an overtly political or economic movement. Jewish leaders were far more rattled in terms of Jesus' implicit and explicit claims to be more than a man than Romans were threatened. Jesus showed himself to be not particularly politically motivated - for instance, he told them to give to Caesar what is Caesar's, he didn't stand against the regime in any explicit and threatening manner.

I have to go back to the NT accounts as historical sources which hold up under scrutiny. Paul's writings go back to a time extremely soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus. His inclusion of early forms of credal statements point to the fact that early Christianity was formed and organised very soon after the events took place and that there was consistency of belief. Not only that, but the accounts in Luke and Acts, for example, were written by a respected physician and historian who hung out with Paul who was likely to have been converted around 2 years after the resurrection. Hardly accounts that would be based on vague memories lost in the mists of time and made up by a few deluded individuals. They were contemporary enough to be fully refuted by more hostile witnesses living at the time, but they were not.

Hostile witnesses such as Tacitus the Roman historian only back up the existence of Jesus, despite him naming him as a sorcerer - again, an implicit accounting for Jesus being a miracle worker.

hiddenhome Wed 06-Mar-13 13:44:23

They spent a proportion of their lives with Him. Something convinced them. The 9\11 bombers never met Mohammed or witnessed anything that he supposedly did. Their religion was handed down to them. Jesus' disciples were first hand witnesses and died for what they believed.

It may be all a load of bunkum, but something happened.

I've been through the same questioning and struggles and searches and you never, ever end up with anything concrete. You just have to decide and see where it leads you.

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 13:44:45

Oh, and Hidden. Have you checked the birth dates of those men who are purporting to know what happened to the disciples?

I suggest you do. Unless Hippolytus of Rome died at about 200 years of age, then he hadn't been born while Jesus and his disciples were being executed.

Does he give the source of his information? Nope. So, how do you know he didn't just make it up.


hiddenhome Wed 06-Mar-13 13:48:25

So, people didn't record events that had occurred in the past? Why would he record that these people had been executed if they hadn't?

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 13:49:10

You don't know that they died for what they believed, that's the point. There's no evidence for that. And history is littered with people giving up their lives for something they truly believed....The Jonestown Massacre?

hiddenhome Wed 06-Mar-13 13:51:34

But why are you trying to find concrete evidence when you know that none exists? You will never find the answers that you're searching for.

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 13:54:11

Where are the records he used, then? Does he tell us who told him? Why not?

This is like me saying that Napoleon had pancakes for breakfast in 1801. How do I know - it was hundreds of years before I was born. And if I refuse to say how I know this, then you'd be justified in wondering if I was right.

And why would he say that if it hadn't happened? There is loads of evidence of Christians making stuff up to prove their beliefs to others. Or maybe he was mistaken. Maybe his mum told him. Or maybe it's really true. But we don't know - that's the point.

Again - it's not evidence. And we usually need evidence for the things we believe.

BoffinMum Wed 06-Mar-13 13:54:44

Two further thoughts:

1. The NT makes it all sound strangely like Promethean myths.
2. There were allegedly lots of self-proclaimed prophets and sons of god around at the time, but we only seem to have extensive documentation relating to this one, which makes it sound like the Life of Brian.

I am a Christian, BTW!

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 13:56:23

"But why are you trying to find concrete evidence when you know that none exists?"

Have you read the point of this thread at all? It's a debate.

I'm not searching for evidence - I did that years ago. I am trying to demonstrate to other Christians that my statement "There is no evidence for Jesus" is true - as you have confirmed for me. Thank you smile

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 13:57:36

True, Boffin.

I shall let other people get a word in edgeways now. Back later smile

hiddenhome Wed 06-Mar-13 13:57:41

There is no evidence. You will never find anything. I've been down this route and asked all these questions, but it throws absolutely nothing up. This is how it is.

MadHairDay Wed 06-Mar-13 13:58:01

And, really, could he not offer me something rather better than this to give me a reason to believe? Some fragmentary, inconsistent accounts of people who were at least 4 times removed from the events they talk about? Gospels that have not survived in their original form, so we can't be completely sure what they actually said? Accounts that have been faffed about so much in the past 2000 years that it's a major puzzle to remove all the fraudulent interpolations and honest mistranslations? Accounts that are so vague it's possible to come up with dozens and dozens of different interpretations depending on your own particular bias?

OK. The gospel accounts are not fragmentary, not inconsistent, and they are most certainly not 4 times removed from the events that they talk about.

The accounts, especially the synoptic accounts (John is a different matter grin ) are remarkably consistent for such ancient literature describing events, and yet not so consistent that they are suspect - ie they do not match each other word for word, which would imply a conspiracy and a conference at the very least. Their inconsistencies can be accounted for in their own bias, their literary devices and in the natural differences which usually occurred in oral tradition at the time. The inconsistencies are all secondary points - the accounts have a remarkable consistency with each other when it comes to the most important history and theology.

They are not 4 times removed. Luke, as I said in my last post, was a contemporary of Paul, who was converted very early on and began his missionary work long before the gospels were written down. Luke observed the early church in the making from day one, not from decades after Jesus' death, and observed the consistency of early creeds and ways of living life in line with what Jesus taught. Mark was a contemporary of Peter the disciple, and wrote his gospel the earliest, using Peter as a source - Peter the eyewitness. Matthew is more uncertain, but many scholars make a very good case for the author Matthew being the apostle Matthew - certainly the book was attributed to him from very early on, as documented in some early writings. Many scholars also believe John to have been written far, far earlier than some think and there is archaeological evidence for this. The idea that the gospels were written decades after the events and by authors far outside the eyewitnesses' experience is one that is mistaken, or at least much challenged by many prominent scholars. James Dunn is always a good one to read on this.

Your last point is that accounts have been faffed around with so much in the past 2000 years that they are unreliable. Again, this is a myth. Scholars argue that the accounts we read today are remarkably close to what was written down originally. We have a multiplicity of early material, fragments of papyrus dating right back as early as the first century AD.

Got to go - be back later to expand on this - parent's consulation beckons!!!

hiddenhome Wed 06-Mar-13 13:58:47

Are you trying to prove a point to Christians then?

HolofernesesHead Wed 06-Mar-13 13:59:12

Ellie, the questions you asked about the Gospels in your post of 13:31, are they rhetorical questions, or are you hoping for answers?

Polyethyl Wed 06-Mar-13 14:06:09

Sorry not to have read entire thread.... baby demanding attention. .. but can I check that you are aware of the passage in Tacitus' history, mentioning Jesus. Which is as good an independent historical confirmation of the existence of a Gallilean carpenter as you can hope to find.

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 14:08:40

Are you trying to prove a point to Christians then? Well, yes and no. That makes it sound like I'm preaching or something. It's a debate - two differing points of view, two different interpretations of the same data both trying to make a case. Mad is doing the same, in case you hadn't noticed. It's a debate - that's how it works!

As we both pointed out at the beginning, we've been called ignorant by the "other side" more than once - so really this is an opportunity to show that we're not, we've thought about this and both standpoints have value.

Also - it's just interesting, isn't it? I think so anyway smile

Holo Bit of both, I suppose. Would be interested in your answers for sure.

EllieArroway Wed 06-Mar-13 14:10:58

Completely aware of Tacitus, Poly - and I shall be back to annihilate that argument in due course grin

I have a broken boiler & a plumber demanding attention, so must go for now.

TheFallenNinja Wed 06-Mar-13 14:12:10

Woman of science, woman of faith.

Never be solved.

HolofernesesHead Wed 06-Mar-13 14:27:43

Ellie, hope your boiler gets sorted soon!

I think this is a great idea for a thread as some of the 'Is there a God?' threads touch on the historicity of the Bible and of Jesus, but I can't remember seeing a thread just dealing with this one question.

Ellie (and others), can I ask, which is your favourite Gospel, and why? I'm all about Luke at the moment, but every time I read John I'm swooning smile.

HolofernesesHead Wed 06-Mar-13 14:30:20

FallenNinja, I get so bored when I hear the science / religion dichotomy trotted out as fact...! It can be interesting very occasionally with the right conversation partners, but most of the time it's a very thin and non-engaged argument. But that's not what the thread is about, anyway.

Absy Wed 06-Mar-13 14:38:12

I don't know that much about it, but here's some things I've been told by Rabbis - there are a LOT of records in the Talmud about a wayward student of a particular rabbi, around the time that Jesus' is thought to have lived. His name was Yehoshua (Hebrew version of Joshua/Jesus) who rebelled against his teacher, and went off on his. There is a tradition that these stories (which could be allegorical) refer to Jesus, but they were removed from the Talmud during the Middle Ages (due to fears of Christian persecution. Basically Jews at that time rightly thought that if Christians saw these texts which denigrate Jesus, they would be in a lot of trouble) and are now being incorporated into publications, as it is safe to do so.

I think it is likely that a) there was someone with that name, b) at that time. In terms of the time period, it was an incredibly socially and politically unstable time, and around then (c. 70CE) there was mass oppression by the Romans of the people of Judea. In all likelihood you could have someone who takes on a lot of disciples, and would be seen as a political and philosophical leader.

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