Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Denying the Existence of Jesus: A Very Costly Way to Be Consistent

Last post, I talked about how a very leftist historical Jesus project (headed by atheist and agnostic historians) ends up conceding six miracles of Jesus, even though they want to undermine the traditional picture of him as presented in the gospels. The miracles they concede are quite impressive, and I know of no one who can heal blind men, a paralytic, a leper, and a person with internal bleeding through "faith healing." That's absolutely incredible and impossible without God's help. Furthermore, I would say its very irrational to stay atheist/agnostic after conceding such a thing.

Denying the Existence of Jesus in Popular Circles

Some people obviously do not want to mess around with this kind of irrationality, which makes a lot of sense. If the people who want to completely undermine any concept of Jesus we hold to be true, and they still believe in miracles, this creates a very significant problem for those who do not believe. One way to avoid this evidential problem is by denying Jesus' existence altogether, which seems to be the preferred choice of many scientific and popular atheists, even though the historical scholarship is almost unanimously against it.

I used to think it was incredibly irrational to deny the existence of Jesus. I still think so, but now I realize why so many people go that route. It seems for some, its a great way to stay consistent, so it is not irrational in that sense at least. If you don't believe in miracles, and even the people who don't believe in miracles (the Jesus Seminar) feel compelled to believe in six of them, a really good way to be consistent is to deny the existence of Jesus altogether. This way, you don't have awkward miracles laying around that you have to do back-flips and historical gymnastics to rationalize away.

A Costly Route to Consistency 

I didn't realize this fully until the other day, but the connection between miracle denial and denial of Jesus existence seems logically more connected than I thought. Below I will illustrate the conundrum people face.

To say that there was a man named Jesus in 1st Century Palestine, but we don't know anything about him, is a very meaningless statement since Jesus is such a common name in the time period. In fact, saying such a thing is about as meaningless as saying there is a man named Joe who lived in 21st Century Missouri. It doesn't really tell us anything at all. So if a person says something like this, in my opinion, they are basically denying his existence, since they aren't telling us anything new.

But what about the people who want to say meaningful things about a historical Jesus, whoever he was? If we can provide any meaningful predicate to the man Jesus, the first thing we will learn is that he was crucified. Easy enough. However, the crucifixion is as well attested as his post-death appearances to his disciples, which makes the historical Jesus less easy to deal with. One has to come up with an explanation for why the disciples all of a sudden came to believe Jesus was raised from the dead and that they claimed they saw him.

The Two Facts about Jesus Life We Know

But we still haven't said anything about the life of Jesus. We have only discussed his death (and post-death appearances, which many people don't want to be the result of a resurrection). We haven't said anything about what this guy said, what he believed, what he hoped for, what he was trying to accomplish, what his contemporaries thought of him, and on and on it goes.

Here's the rub. The earliest material we have about Jesus life has a lot of miracles in it. The gospel of Mark, which many scholars concede is the earliest (liberal date - 70 A.D.) has a ton of miracles in it. In fact, you will see one or two miracles every chapter in some cases. Furthermore, the miracles are often multiply attested in different gospel sources (and sometimes independent sources). The miracles of Jesus are more corroborated than the death of Caesar. Even the liberal scholarship concedes that the sources we have about Jesus are earlier and more plentiful. The material for Caesar's assassination was written over 100 years after the events and there is only 2-3 sources for it. However, all of the gospel sources are within 70 years of the events and often report similar miracles. So if Jesus did anything at all, the most well supported fact about his deeds, historically speaking, is that he was regarded as a miracle worker by his contemporaries. (1)

As far as his words, if we know anything about him, we would know that he felt he was inaugurating some new phase of history with his arrival, something he called the "Kingdom of God." This is the unifying narrative feature of Jesus' teachings in the synoptic gospels.

These are two inconveniences that one faces if they concede the existence of Jesus. If we know anything about him at all, we know that he was regarded as a miracle worker and that he thought he was inaugurating the Kingdom of God. Though not an absolute proof, it is very inconvenient when the only two facts you have about a person is that he thought he was ushering in the Kingdom of God and everyone thought he could do miracles. Especially when the evidence for the miracles is so strong that people who don't believe in them end up conceding 6 of them. 36 miracles are a lot to dismiss or rationalize, especially when a lot of those miracles are more well supported than some other stuff we believe in ancient history.

So I understand now why people want to deny the existence of Jesus. Irrational and inconsistent? Yes, I would say so. Very much so. Especially if you believe in other ancient historical things, such as the assassination of Caesar. Is it ideologically inconsistent? No, it's a great way to stay consistent in that sense. But it is a high price to pay to be consistent. In fact, its one of the highest prices people pay in order to be consistent.

Imagine if your belief system depended on the fact that Caesar was not assassinated on the Senate floor in Rome? That's the situation those who deny the existence of Jesus are faced with.

1) http://www.amazon.com/The-Resurrection-Jesus-Historiographical-Approach/dp/0830827196

1 comment:

  1. One could concede that Jesus was an historical person--even one who was believed to be a miracle worker by others living in 1st century Palestine--without believing that he could actually perform miracles.

    I don't find it inconvenient that Sathya Sai Baba was an historical person, and I don't know much about his life. I do know, however, that many people thought he could perform miracles (and many still believe that to this day). That doesn't cause me much discomfort.