Did Jesus Really Exist?

Discussion in 'Off-Topic Discussions' started by paynedaniel, Mar 15, 2005.

  1. Anthony Pina

    Anthony Pina Active Member

    I'm with you. Over the years, the Book of Mormon has included illustrations from Mormon and non-Mormon artists. Fortunately, the "Nordic" pictures have not been reproduced in the last few printings of the book. I have also been uncomfortable with the portrayal of Jesus as the emaciated pocelain doll found in so much art. I would imagine that one trained as a carpenter would be above-average in build.

  2. marilynd

    marilynd New Member

    Since I'm the one who raised the "argument from silence" issue, I suppose I should weigh in here with a sort of mea culpa.

    First, let me say that I am a medievalist specializing in church history, not a classicist, and although my "minor," for want of a better term, is in the ancient church, it centers on the 3rd - 5th centuries.

    That said, the argument from silence, which is a useful analytic tools commonly used by historians, pertains only in situations where one would expect an assertion and it does not exist. Knowledge of what does and does not comprise an "expectation" requires intimate knowledge of the author and the author's context. It is a tool which needs to be used with care, and even then, as I stated, it is usually suggestive rather than probative. As such, it is usually used as an ancillary tool, rather than a means of gathering primary evidence. I never expected that someone would come out with a list of classical authors, asserting that because they don't speak about Jesus, therefore Jesus did not exist. The world we are talking about is not the world of CNN!

    What I had in mind specifically was Jewish tradition and the early Greek antagonists as reflected in the writings of Athenagoras and Justin Martyr. Celsus, as reflected in the writings of Clement and Origen, might serve as well, although this is quite late indeed. One would never use this absence of testimony as primary evidence, however. In context, it is merely suggestive.

    Here is my primary mea culpa. I wasn't thinking about the transmission of texts before I weighed in on this issue, which would certainly impinge on anyone's use of the absence of evidence as suggestive. There are too many works that are known to have existed from references by other authors and too many well-known textual corruptions (Josephus being primary here) to have confidence in any general argument from silence. However, my general point here is that there is no discernible denial of Jesus' existence in the texts. We do not have many of the texts or oral arguments that were made during this time (about all sorts of subjects), but we do have many of them reflected in works that do exist. I am not saying that no one denied the existence of Jesus in the ancient world. There may indeed have been someone who did, whose writings or the reference to them were lost after the destruction of the Temple or in the Diaspora or for other reasons. I am saying that if there was a running theme, so to speak, which questioned whether he had actually lived, we find no traces of it in the existing texts, at least to my knowledge. Suggestive, not probative. Ancillary, not primary.

    Historical "proof" is always conditional and contextual. Rarely is it syllogistic, for want of a better term. We work with what we've got to work with. I have already stated that, in my view, a proof (in the syllogistic or perhaps "scientific" sense) for or against Jesus' existence is not possible. The existing evidence is not probative one way or the other. If there is such evidence, trot it out and let us examine it, but this is ground that has been trod by 150 years of scholars whose historical skills far surpass those that we here possess (IMHO). That consensus, as I understand it, is that qua historical proof, the question is unanswerable.

    However, it seems to me that the evidence taken as a whole suggests that someone did exist, probably named Joshua or Jesus or whatever Aramaic version of such a name might be, who was the ultimate source of what became the Christian movement. It simply does not make sense to me that the movement would have grown out of a whole-cloth fiction; nor, if my understanding is correct, is this the line followed by Biblical scholarship or classical scholarship as a whole. It is difficult to image in the historical context what would motivate someone to do this. It's not as if they knew what Christianity was to become or would have any chance of becoming. To use a distinctly non-probative term, it doesn't "feel" right for the context (i.e., our understanding of ancient world and the specific evidence, including the New Testament texts, put together). In lieu of any evidence suggesting that this story was a whole-cloth fiction, there is a presumption, it seems to me, that Jesus was a real, living human being. But, from a strictly historical viewpoint, it is only a presumption, not a firm conclusion. Please note that this tells us nothing about who or what he was. Accepting the New Testament as presumptive evidence of actual existence is not to try to confirm its narrative or characterizations. It only affirms that there was likely a real referent to the stories. Hence, in a larger sense, the question of the existence of Jesus is really a non-question. It tells us nothing about the man himself. This is in many ways the more important and more interesting issue, as evidenced by the slipage on this thread away from proofs of existence to questions of characterization. From an historical perspective, given the state of the evidence, the development of the ideas and beliefs generated by the movement is far more important than any question of the existence of its referent. This would, of course, not be the theological view of things, I suspect.

    I generally agree with what Bill Dayson and Uncle Janko have written in this thread. Although I don't consider the argument from silence silly in itself, the way it was used in reference to the list of classical authors certainly is distinctly unhistorical and perhaps approaches "silly." Indeed, it may well be one of Fisher's Fallacies.

    Two questions that I'd like to pose to the more knowledgeable on ancient texts (probably Janko and nosborne):

    1. Concerning Josephus. My memory of the scholarship is that one of the two passages (affirming Jesus as the Christ) is considered spurious, but the scholarly consensus is that the other passage (calling Jesus the so-called Christ) is probably original (the argument being that "so-called" would not have been a term used by a Christian apologist). Admittedly, my memory of this is more than 30 years old, and certainly such a judgment--as many textual judgments are--is no more than an educated guess. My question is: is this the current state of the scholarship or has a more recent consensus emerged that regards both passages as spurious? Or is there no consensus? Or has my memory failed altogether?

    2. The Palestinian Talmud and Bablyonian Talmud are certainly quite late with regard to passages concerning Jesus. This raises a more general question, however. To what extent do theses texts represent a more or less continual oral tradition. Are the two collections used as historical sources rather than only sources of admonition and counsel by historians and/or Talmudic scholars? Is there a consensus about the probative or suggestive value these two collections might have on questions regarding historical events, such as the Bar Kochba rebellion?

    Sorry for the long post. Had a lot on my mind . . . and it's Monday . . . and it's Spring . . . and . . . well, you know.

  3. nosborne48

    nosborne48 Well-Known Member

    By JEWS at any rate, Talmud is not seen as an historical document though it contains some history any more than (thank God) it is viewed as a medical text though it contains some medicine.

    Talmud is functionally more like a compendium of legal argument and reasoning . A Jew studys Talmud to learn how to make legal and ethincal decisions Jewishly.

    Talmud is NOT a book of Jewish law, BTW. The Law is found in the Codes and Responsa. However, Talmud is a principal source of what might be termed "process" for ascertaining the Law.

    So a reference to Jesus is certainly not to be taken as an endorsement or even a witness to his life and teachings.
  4. BillDayson

    BillDayson New Member

    I like Xenophanes' (a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher and perhaps the first philosopher of religion) fragments 15 and 16:

    (15) Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as people do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.

    (16) The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
  5. uncle janko

    uncle janko member

    Plus ca change...


    The anorexic blond Swede pictures when I was a kid used to crack me up. I once asked our pigheaded 1940's ultraliberal minister who that was, since none of the Jewish kids in my school (almost the entire enrollment) looked anything like that, so it couldn't be Jesus. When I added that the guy was too skinny to be Jesus since the Bible says he was called a glutton, and way too pretty since Isaiah [Second or Third Isaiah to the liberals out there in cyberland] predicted He'd be ugly, this Union Seminary (NY) grad said I was a troublemaker and should stop asking questions.

    Not a chance, Reverend Schweinhund (as my father used to call the guy).

    Still not a chance. Not now. Not ever.

    Now we've got all sorts of "contextualized" Jesuses floating about: Nordic, Black*, Mestizo, various sorts of East and South Asian. The nice thing about a stupid game (make Him anything but a Levantine Jew) with really simple rules is that anybody can play.

    More's the pity.

    PS: Hey, how 'bout a Carpathian Jesus with a bottle of tuica and a porkpie hat a couple sizes too small?

    *Cf. Shrine of the Black Madonna (which has zero to do with Czestochowa).
  6. paynedaniel

    paynedaniel New Member

    moving on?

    I will move on to other extra-biblical authors - or we can continue with Tacitus - once my last post is addressed.

  7. uncle janko

    uncle janko member

    Once you finish answering my questions, we'll see.

    You have not indicated whether or not you can read Latin, and if so, with what degree of ease and expertise.

    You have not responded to my doubts about the probative character of Tacitus in the matter of the nonexistence of Jesus.

    You still haven't--and perhaps cannot--tell us which of those authors are historians at all, and yet you propose to have us think that you have vastly detailed knowledge about Tacitus and the textual transmission of the "Annals".

    I flunked high school physics (true) but I'm an expert in the thought of Feynman, Schroedinger, and Planck (uh...).

    Anyone actually familiar with Tacitus would know that as a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary nostalgic for the Republic [mind, I like that about the guy], multitudo is not a good word. Ingens is not a flattering term in much of anybody's Latin. Cutting and pasting stuff does not mean knowing the field. Observe, if you will, Marilyn's comments. She speaks in her own words. She doesn't just copy stuff and try to wow folks with the pretentious use of Latin jargon.* She reasons. She marks the limits of her knowledge. All this bespeaks mastery, not desperate improvisation. Imitate her!

    *Why say recensio when the perfectly good English word "recension" will do nicely? It reminds me of the people who say processEEs or AHmbiAHNce instead of PROcesses or AMbience. Paul Fussell wrote a book called "Class" which explains this language foible and much else.
  8. buckwheat3

    buckwheat3 Master of the Obvious

    William Jennings Bryan, several years before the "Scope's Monkey Trial": " I too like the atheist, have the right to begin with assumption, it is much easier to explain man's existence from God down than from a clump of dirt up!"
  9. nosborne48

    nosborne48 Well-Known Member

    Sanhedrin 43a

    I looked at this part of Talmud this morning. It's interesting!

    -The story is contained in Gamara, not Mishnah. It therefore dates from as late as the 500s of the common era (a.d. to Christians). It is much later than the Christian gospel accounts, I believe.

    -The story is told to illustrate the customs surrounding the Jewish death penalty but it has no historical validity, I don't think. First, it deals with a time when the Jewish community did not have the power to impose a death penalty, which he learn from the gospels. Second, it is being told 400 years after the event. How well do we know 16th century English laws and Courts at this time in OUR history? Finally, it is told by people clearly VERY hostile to Christianity by that point.

    -The story is very different in details. Jesus is held for forty days before his execution and his situation is announced by a herald to give potential defense witnesses a chance to come forward. Jesus has five disciples, one of whom has a name like Matthew but the others are unfamiliar to me. All five are tried along with Jesus and most are themselves executed.

    -The execution takes place on the evening of Passover (Pesach) which would have made the Last Supper impossible.

    A most interesting reference!
  10. Kizmet

    Kizmet Moderator Staff Member

    What could be more appropriate at Easter than to resurrect a thread about Jesus. It's a biggish thread full of some favorite characters including the much-missed Uncle Janko. At the same time, I think I get bonus points for adding a link that will allow you to view the Shroud of Turin online, courtesy of the pandemic and Cesare Nosiglia.

  11. GregWatts

    GregWatts Active Member

    Shouldn't Easter be celebrated 11 days later this year?

    3 days in the tomb, plus 11 more would give Jesus 14 days of quarantine.

    Just a thought.
  12. Kizmet

    Kizmet Moderator Staff Member

  13. nosborne48

    nosborne48 Well-Known Member

    Well, this THREAD was certainly resurrected...or perhaps exhumed.
    Maniac Craniac likes this.
  14. TeacherBelgium

    TeacherBelgium Active Member

    Not very religious. Been raised religiously but never been a church-goer myself.
    I believe that there is something but I don't know how to quality it.
    Maniac Craniac likes this.
  15. Maniac Craniac

    Maniac Craniac Moderator Staff Member

    "Whatever else one might want to say about Jesus, he certainly existed.” - Bart Ehrman
  16. TeacherBelgium

    TeacherBelgium Active Member

    I don't debate the existence of a supernatural power. I believe there is something. I just debate how human beings have gone on to interpret it.
    How LGBT people are treated because of how human beings interpret and change religion to their own likening, that's what upsets me.

    There is a subreddit on Reddit called truechristianity and when I read how they treat lgbt people, I realise how many severely religious people are still intolerant to people with a different identity.
    That's something that all religions have in common. How it's used to make LGBT people scapegoats.
    Can't say I will ever agree with that. It's what pushes me away from religion. That and the way so many severely religious people still believe that women need to be submissive, can never accomplish the same as men etc. Those ideas make my blood boil.
    Maniac Craniac likes this.
  17. Maxwell_Smart

    Maxwell_Smart Active Member

    I disagree with the tenets of most, if not all, religions. But I also have a problem with the modern pseudoscience that some are trying to force on others these days, and it particularly upsets me when respected scientific institutions make changes, not because there have been any new scientific discoveries to discredit established scientific information, but because certain groups put pressure on them to make changes because they don't like how the information makes them feel. I'm all for new or differing viewpoints, but when things start getting edited and removed from science over people's feelings being hurt, we are going down a very dangerous path which oddly resembles the path the early churches were taking us down by censoring and removing anything that didn't align with its doctrines.
    Maniac Craniac likes this.
  18. RL82

    RL82 New Member

    I always LOVE reading posts about Jesus and Christianity. The funny thing is that the question "Did Jesus exist" is always asked.
    I wonder why though? My question is:"Does it really matter to you?"
    If you are an Atheist or any other-ist.....why do you care? you don't believe in him anyway...unless you are doing it to provoke and argument or debate or......which doesn't make you much better than most Christians anyway because they fight over crap daily.
    If the WHOLE world and EVERY religion in the world brushes of their religious views over everything and go back to the CORE of their religion...life would be beautiful. EVERY religion has a core value of....LOVE. Love for yourself, each other and whatever deity or deities you want.
    If we really love we wouldn't fight over LGB issues but love them regardless, we wouldn't fight over science tjis or that...but love the scientist anyway....I believe you see the point?

    So my question is:"If Jesus existed or not, does it really matter to you?" If it does....great: Love like he taught you to. If it doesn't: Why debate around it?
  19. Maniac Craniac

    Maniac Craniac Moderator Staff Member

    Jesus is an extremely important historical figure. Whether or not he existed is not only an important historical question, it's also an extremely interesting question given the dramatic implications of the upturning of the answer to that question.

    Why debate it? Because debating is a good thing, as are questioning, disagreeing, challenging and wondering. Even if we can't agree in the end, the very exercise in flexing our muscles of reasoning is a fruitful one.

    I'd have to disagree with the notion that the core of all religion is love. That's a relatively new phenomenon. Mostly, religion has historically been about loyalty to group values- to appease and to appeal to the "gods" that keep your tribe in check.

    Just a few examples here- it's hard to find the "love" universal value in greek mythology, buddhism and scientology. Not that the concept is absent from those belief systems, just that it's not a salient aspect.

    Even in my own life, in my experience as a former Christian, we used the word "love" a whole lot, but hardly ever did anything to meaningfully better the lives of our fellow man. Our understanding of "love" often boiled down to remaining loyal to our religious leaders and to not outright spit on all the non-Christians of the world even though we often had really nasty things to say about non-believers, just wrapped up in loaded language to pretend that we didn't really mean any harm.
    Johann likes this.
  20. Rich Douglas

    Rich Douglas Well-Known Member

    Writing about historical figures can be dicey. What evidence there is can be subject to very wide differences of interpretation. But seldom is there an argument about whether a person actually existed at all. That very fundamental question would seem to be the easiest to answer.

    During the reign of Henry VIII, he was convinced by his courtiers (mostly Thomas Cromwell) to marry Anne of Cleves. The only picture of her was a portrait he commissioned from Hans Hoblein. It turned out that, according to Henry, she was not as attractive in person (once he met her) as she was portrayed. It became a huge issue and he annulled the marriage as a result. Relevance? There are lots and lots of figures from that time that are not even that well-documented, and portraits from that time about which scholars still debate the identities of the subjects of them. But the subjects did exist. And the farther you go back in time, the murkier the evidence tends to become, and the less reliable interpretations of it become, too.

    The existence of a guy who met Herod, who met Pilate, who met John the Baptist, who rode triumphantly into Jerusalem to cheering throngs, and who was the subject of at least one census should have left some wisps of documentary evidence of his existence. And, according to the Gospels, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. But no records?

    Correct me if I'm mistaken, there is/are no physical evidence/artifacts, nor are there any contemporaneous accounts from witnesses.

    According to at least one poster, this is a meaningless distinction with no difference. That it is the lesson of the story that matters. Okay, but this metaphorical approach doesn't jibe with those who insist on the Bible being an unerring and literal description of times, events, places, and people. I think that's why the existence of such a transformative figure is such a heady subject.

    I have no opinion as to the answer to the question, nor do I rely on its outcome. But the question about why there is a debate should be obvious.

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