Saturday, September 27, 2014

Part 8: Historical Jesus

You can tell that Christian apologists are fighting an uphill battle when the very existence of God is already a dubious philosophical proposition unto itself.  To illustrate, let's suppose we're feeling generous and immediately decide to grant every last argument put forth by Christians thus far.  What exactly would be established?  Well, apparently, a powerful, supernatural agent exists somewhere, He has a good knack for conjuring stable universes out of nothing, and He probably has a vested interest in how human beings conduct their personal affairs.  That's really about it.  It's a pitifully weak form of deism that does absolutely nothing to differentiate Christianity from any other religious tradition.  That's why, sooner or later, Christians eventually have to start defending the Bible as a reliable historical account of genuinely supernatural events.  And even then, the only thing that fundamentally separates Christianity from the other Abrahamic traditions is the alleged spiritual identity of Jesus Christ.  So for all the philosophical posturing and metaphysical presumptions, Christianity either lives or dies on the historical reliability of Christ's ministry and resurrection, as detailed by the New Testament accounts. 

Now before offering any criticism, it’s important to establish what exactly is being claimed here.  Remember that the very core of all Christianity itself is the belief that, roughly 2,000 years ago, a half-blooded demigod, born of a virgin woman, was sent to Earth on a cosmic mission to atone for the sins of the entire universe as a form of ritual blood-sacrifice to appease the perfect justice of his omnipotent father/God/self.  He healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on water, turned water into wine, and spent his entire adult life preaching a message of divine salvation throughout ancient Judea.  Then, three days after being crucified by Roman authorities, he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven in full, celestial glory.

That really is the ultimate pill you have to swallow in order to properly call yourself a Christian.  However, it's also important to realize that stories like this are rampantly commonplace throughout human history.  For example, Apollonius of Tyana, Zoroaster of Persia, Muhammad of Arabia, Siddhārtha Gautama of India and even Joseph Smith of Upstate New York, are just a handful of similar prophetical figures to Jesus of Nazareth.  All of them are recorded to have been divinely inspired leaders who taught messages of spiritual salvation and even performed miracles among their communities.  So on what basis do Christians pretend to know that the supernatural stories contained in the Bible are legitimate, historical events, as opposed to just another bunch of cultural myths, legends, and fairy tales?

This is an important question to ask because the answer itself is almost embarrassing to say out loud.  In short, the sum total of all evidence we have for any of the spiritual events described within the Bible is the Bible itself.  Literally, the pure, unfettered say-so of human authors; oral traditions that were scribbled down millennia ago by members of highly superstitious, illiterate cultures, teeming with deliberate frauds and religious cults.  We're seriously talking about copies of copies (of copies!) that were selectively edited and compiled over multiple centuries by a series of politically-motivated committee decisions, and then translated through multiple languages.  That is the ultimate standard of evidence Christians expect us to embrace when determining the historical reality of supernatural events.

So without even getting off the ground, the case for the historical Jesus is already so laughably empty that there's almost no point in even looking at it any further.  Nevertheless, the case of the historical Jesus does raise a very profound epistemic question.  Namely, how do we know the past?  That is to say, on what basis do we measure the "truthiness" of any given proposition about historical events?  How do we know that Abraham Lincoln was an actual living person while Sherlock Holmes was not?  This is another one of those complex philosophical issues that again sparks all kinds of academic debates to this day.  But even so, there are still many well-established guidelines on which every renowned, professional historian necessarily agrees.  We can therefore learn a great deal about history and Christianity by applying these very same rules to the Biblical gospels.

For example, one of the core guidelines in all historical method says that any given source of historical information may be forged or corrupted.  This is simply a fact of life given that huge volumes of historical knowledge are derived almost entirely from written human narratives.  And whether we like it or not, human beings have the unfortunate habit of misremembering, mistranslating, exaggerating, hallucinating, omitting, or even plain, outright lying whenever they commit a piece of information to paper.  No matter how certain we may feel, there is simply no such thing as "absolute" historical truth.  At best, there are only varying degrees of certainty based on empirical data and probabilistic inferences to the best explanation.

Now contrast this basic principle with the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy - the belief that the words contained within the Bible were all divinely inspired by God Himself, and are therefore perfectly trustworthy as given.  It's another classic attempt by Christianity to sidestep fallabilism altogether and psychologically shield itself against the prospect of being wrong about things – as if we're supposed to just take it all on faith that not a single one of the dozens of Biblical scribes, authors, and editors, was even remotely capable the slightest shred of personal bias, misinterpretation, embellishment, or deliberate fraud.  And this is in spite of the fact that we literally have hundreds, if not thousands, of well-documented examples of exactly that sort of thing in early New Testament manuscripts [1].  Yet most Christians apparently just don't care.  They simply assume, in advance, that everything in the Bible is the inspired word of God Himself, and therefore completely free of error [2,3].

Next in our list of historical methods is a simple guideline that says first-hand information is more credible than second-hand, which is more credible than third-hand, and so on.  This is simply an application of the famous “telephone” problem [or Chinese Whispers if you’re from the UK], where information is inevitably corrupted as it hops from one individual to another.  It's also the reason why nearly all forms of hearsay are utterly inadmissible in any modern court of law - you just can't trust it.  So if the Gospel narratives are supposed to be credible, then it should would be awfully nice if they were written by the actual people who were actually there.

But of course they weren’t, and often times are openly proud of it.  For example, absolutely nothing in the New Testament was actually written by Jesus himself, but was instead written by other people who merely claimed to be recording Jesus' words after the fact.  Even in the Book of Luke, we find an implicit admission that he didn't actually see any of this stuff for himself, but rather that he's simply compiling second-hand accounts from various anonymous eyewitnesses [4].  Then the apostle Paul admits in his own epistles that no one actually told him anything about the Christ narrative, but that he instead received his entire message by pure revelation alone [5].  Many events, such as the nativity, occur long before Christ ever met any of his disciples and therefore cannot possibly be eyewitness accounts under any conditions.

Even the very authors of the Gospels themselves are completely anonymous [6], because all we have to go on is religious tradition to tell us who these guys actually were.  We don't even have any original copies of the Gospels, but simply scattered fragments of copies (of copies!) written centuries after the fact.  We even have multiple competing versions of the Gospels with wild variations in all sorts of crucial details, with nothing more than religious tradition to tell us which are officially "scripture" and which are just fallible human concoction [7].  We therefore have no idea how much of the New Testament is a reliable transmission of factual events as opposed to natural historical corruption.

Moving right along, our next rule in historical method states that the more time that transpires before recording an event, then the less reliable the account becomes.  This should be pretty obvious, given that human memory is notorious for omitting, substituting, and even inventing major factual details - a situation that is well-known to get even worse when social pressure is added to the mix [8,9].  Hell, why do you think human beings even bother writing stuff down in the first place?  Memories unavoidably change over time, which is why the sooner a narrative gets recorded, the more reliable it becomes, while the later a narrative gets recorded, the more natural corruption there will inevitably tend to be.  So if the Gospel writings are going to have any validity to them at all, then the least we should expect is for them to be contemporary with the actual events as they transpired.

Sadly, this is not at all the case.  For example, consider the Gospel of Mark, which scholars generally agree is the earliest official record of the Christ narrative.  No one actually knows exactly when this document first appeared, but there is at least a general consensus among scholars that it could not have been recorded any earlier than 30 years after the death of Christ [6].  That means multiple decades of raw, unrestricted word-of-mouth compilations before we even get our very first official Gospel!  And that's our absolute best case available, because the other three Gospels were all definitely written even more decades after that.  Compound this with the obvious political and social bias inherent to any religiously-motivated allegation, not to mention the superstitious, illiterate culture from which it grew, and it becomes psychologically inevitable that legendary elements would corrupt the narrative beyond repair.

At this point, the case for the historical resurrection of Jesus is already decisively settled beyond any rational dispute, yet Christians are amazing when it comes to cramming as much failure into a single argument as they possibly can.  For instance, one of the most important rules in all of historical method is the requirement that multiple, independent accounts should all converge onto the same message in order for that information to be credible.  This is another obvious rule based on simple probability [10].  All it means is that it's far more difficult for several people to collectively misremember an event the same way than it is for only one person.  This is how we know that Abraham Lincoln really was shot in Ford’s Theater on April 14th, 1865.  We have genuine eyewitness accounts from the crowd of people in the room as it happened. We have testimonials from the confederate conspirators themselves admitting to the plot and carrying it out.  We have the autopsy report from the guy who examined Lincoln’s corpse after the fact.  We even have the actual pistol used by Booth himself to fire the shot.  It’s a huge variety of independent sources, all cross-confirming each other on each and every detail, with hardly any errors or inconsistencies between them.

Now contrast this with the Gospel accounts, which often borrow so heavily from each other that they cannot even be considered as truly independent narratives.  Then in other sections they'll vary wildly in all sorts of crucial details that cannot be corroborated by a single outside source.  For example, after Jesus is crucified, the Gospels describe a series of very extraordinary events, including massive earthquakes and even three hours of darkness covering the land [11].  You would think that if something like this really happened, then maybe a few local historians might have recorded it, or that maybe the local astronomers would have noticed the sun blotting out for three entire hours, right?  But strangely enough, no such records exist, leaving us entirely with the Bible's abject say-so that any of this stuff really happened.  But what's even more extravagant is how the Book of Matthew also describes dead people rising from their graves and roaming the streets.  Surely, it’s reasonable to expect at least a few locals to mention a sudden zombie apocalypse somewhere in their memoirs, isn’t it?  Yet not even the other three gospels are kind enough to confirm or deny any of this stuff, and these are supposed to be reliable narratives of the exact same events  [12]!

And speaking of zombies, there’s one particular rule in historical method that often gets overlooked, even though it conspicuously stands out above and beyond all others.  Namely, any narratives that appear to completely violate the known laws of physics are the least reliable of all.  Again, this is hardly a controversial requirement, since, by definition, such violations cannot be reliably demonstrated under any known conditions.  In contrast, human accounts across all cultures are notorious for their capacity to imagine wild fantasies in total disregard to physical laws.  This is how we know that stories like the Iliad or the Odyssey are totally unreliable in their historicity.  They talk at length about all sorts of magical enchantments and superhuman feats, while the Gods of Olympus constantly intervene in the flow of events - things that make no sense from objective historical references, but are perfectly fitting in a mythological story.

The exact same thing is true for the New Testament narratives.  We’re talking about a guy who was allegedly birthed by a virgin woman, who walked on water, who exorcised demons, and who came back to life after three days of lying dead in a tomb - events which have no physical basis in all human experience!  We know that women don't make babies without first having sex.  We know that people who stand on water will generally tend to sink.  We know that mental diseases are not caused by evil demon possessions.  And, most important of all, we know that dead people have a persistent tendency to stay dead.  So when confronted with a story about some guy bleeding out on a cross, only to rise again after three entire days, which should we assume is more likely?  That the very laws of physics and biology were specially suspended in this one case?  Or that, just maybe, somebody is telling an extravagant work of fiction? 

Bear in mind that these are not just “my” rules for determining history, but “the” rules - rules that are designed to keep us honest and help us arrive at a functional understanding of objective reality.  Violation of any one of these is already sufficient grounds for doubting the reliability of any historical account, but the Biblical narratives fail at each and every one of them without exception.  It’s as if the Bible is going out of its way to win the title for “Least Reliable History Ever.”  We're talking about anonymous human narratives written decades after the fact by second-hand sources with obvious political and social agendas, and then translated through multiple language barriers.  All of them make wild claims about fantastically impossible events, many of which cannot even be corroborated internally, much less externally by objective, independent sources.  It's so patently absurd that even if the authors admitted outright to having made it all up as they went along, then it still wouldn't technically make any of it worse off than it already is.  Yet the entirety of Christianity itself is predicated on the idea that the pan-galactic uber-deity of the entire cosmos had a direct influence in assembling this record and preserving it to modern day.  Information that is supposed to ultimately determine the eternal fate of our very immortal souls, and the absolute best that God can do to relay it to us through hopelessly corrupted accounts from a dubious iron-age cult.

This is what makes Christian doctrine absolutely terrifying on a national scale.  Because if you want to talk about the historical basis for the Christ narrative, then at best, the only thing we can confidently conclude is that there was probably some popular philosophical Jesus-figure who served as the real-life foundation for an exaggerated messianic legend.  He wouldn't be the first example of this kind of phenomenon,  and he sure as hell wouldn't be the last.  Yet apologists would actually have you believe that these narratives are more than enough evidence to justify the strong assertion that the literal son of God came down to Earth, performed miracles, and died for your sins.  They have no respect for very basic rules of honest epistemology, but instead rewrite them altogether into something that can only be described as a direct effort to foster dim-witted conformity.  It's as if the entire institution openly relies on the implied assumption that you're nothing but a credulous moron who’ll believe anything simply because a smart guy in fancy suit says so.  We’re talking about a belief system where truth itself is literally defined through the compiled scribblings of an ancient, superstitious culture.  The very words “I am a Christian” might as well be perfectly synonymous with the words “I am a gullible fool.” 

  2. "We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly.  We believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God." - 8th Article of Faith for the LDS church
  3. "We proclaim the absolute truth and authority of the Bible with boldness." - AIG mission statement
  4. Luke 1:1-4
  5. Galatians 1:11-18
  6. Mack, B. L., "Who Wrote the New Testament?" The Making of the Christian Myth", Harper One, 1996.
  7. Bart Erhman, "Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament
  8. Loftus, E. F. and Palmer, J. C., "Reconstruction of automobile accidents: and example of the interaction between language and memory," Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, Vol 13, No 5 (1974)
  9. Allan, K. and Gabbert, F., "I still think it was a banana; memorable lies and forgettable truths," Acta Psychologica, Vol 127, No 2 (2008)
  10. For any two events A and B, if A and B are independent, then P(AB) = P(A)P(B).  That means P(AB) < P(A) and P(AB) < P(B).
  11. Matthew, Chapter 27
  12. Luke and John make no mention of the earthquakes.  Only Matthew mentions the dead people rising from the grave.


Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Remember that the very core of all Christianity itself is the belief that, roughly 2,000 years ago, a half-blooded demigod ...

Er, no.

Not half-blooded. Not demi.

Fully human and fully God.

Greg G said...

"Then the apostle Paul admits in his own epistles that no one actually told him anything about the Christ narrative, but that he instead received his entire message by pure revelation alone"

Romans 16:25-26 tells us that "the revelation of the mystery" was from "the prophetic writings". So Paul's revelations were what he found in the OT scriptures. This can be verified by looking at the apparently factual information he gives about Jesus and noticing that it is information that could have been derived from the Old Testament. That verifies what Paul says about where he got his information and his sources were already hundreds of years old.

Paul also insists that his knowledge is not inferior to the "super-apostles" which seems to mean they were getting their ideas about Jesus from the scriptures and that they didn't have first hand knowledge of Jesus, either.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

St Paul certainly says the Revelation he had matches the OT Scriptures, but never he derived it from Scripture alone.

So, what he is saying is, he got a revelation, but the original twelve were eywitnesses in a more carnal manner - which may still be, very inhteresting to us.