Thursday, June 7, 2007

What We Know & How We Know It - Part I

Texts, Truths and Traditions:
A Study in Three Parts

Note: The following three posts are written in response to Robin Artisson's "Why a Return to Indo-European Polytheism is Needed." At one point, he writes, "I would personally like to see Christian apologists explain to me, and the rest of the world, why all mentions of the resurrection, as well as many other claims to the divinity of Jesus, and miracle stories, are not in these earliest manuscripts of the Gospels." And though I in no way consider myself a Christian apologist, I don't mind rising to the challenge.
Further Note: Just to put these posts, which will be rather verbose and "heady" (fair warning), into perspective, I just thought I'd point out that I sat at the computer writing for so long that I now have a cramp in my right forearm. On the other hand, this afternoon while sitting in mediation out on my bedroom balcony, I think I may have seen my first "faery." So there's that, too.

In a recent post, blogger Robin Artisson, proposed this intriguing question:

"What if the entire New Testament was a construct, a forgery, a fake? What if Jesus never existed, and was instead a composite figure cobbled together from the myths of many other Gods that long pre-existed Christianity?"

Now, as "a Christian on the Druid Path" (one day I will elaborate on exactly what this phrase means to me) and as a comparative religious scholar with more than a passing interest in the theological, ritual and spiritual uses of sacred texts in various religious traditions, I figured I'd take on the various issues that such a hypothetical question raises. (Plus, Erik ecently challenged me to consider more seriously my relationship with Jesus as a deity, and so I might as well address some of the more theological/intellectual issues that the figure of Jesus raises first, before moving on.) For me, these two questions incorporate (and perhaps confuse) two very different objections to the "truth" of Biblical texts within the Christian tradition: (a) what if Jesus was not an historical person (i.e. a person who actually existed in the time and place the Bible says he did); and (b) what if Biblical texts are inaccurate or intentionally misleading regarding the actions, words and ontological nature that it attributes to him. In the rest of this post, I'll tackle each of these issues separately (the one being much easier, in my opinion, to deal with quickly and cleanly than the other).

The Historical Person of Jesus

In general, I've found it very hard to collect a solid amount of thorough, serious and scholarly work on this particular subject. There are, of course, a few of those books out there citing evidence to prove or disprove the existence of an historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, who was executed by the Roman state for perceived political rebellion. Every once in a while, I'll bug Nathan, a good friend of mine and my former faculty advisor when I was attending college, to make some recommendations about respectable or helpful books on the matter; inevitably, he replies that there just aren't very many because, quite honestly, it's not a topic that is considered to have much relevance in the study of Christianity as a religion. There are a few reasons for this.

  • First, it is notoriously difficult to prove the existence of particular historical figures, especially if their cultural or social importance developed posthumously and within a minority community that was actively repressed or otherwise censored by the larger contemporary culture. Furthermore, it is simply impossible to prove that such a person did not exist; strictly speaking, it is impossible to prove the theoretical nonexistence of anything, and the best we can do is make statements about the relative likelihood that something or someone did or did not exist. (In case you were wondering, this is a very handy point to bring up when discussing the existence of God with atheists, as it makes clear how the belief in the nonexistence of a god is still, in the end, a belief, and not proof. The closest we can come to such a proof is Douglas Adam's excellent proof-by-contradiction regarding the "babel fish".) That said, the analysis of Biblical texts suggests that it is very likely that there was a person by the name of "Jesus" who lived in the time and place that the various texts claim and did at least some of the things they record.

  • Secondly, the historical reality of this one particular person is not crucial to the understanding of the role such a person (and that person's death) played or would have played within the early social or cultural development of Christianity. This may sound a bit shocking, until we consider that, at this point in history, social and political tensions--both between Roman and Jewish culture, and within the Jewish religious community itself--gave rise to many such politico-religious "messianic" figures preaching various forms of alternative religious paths. When I was growing up, in fact, this was often presented to me as evidence that Jesus was the "real thing," since his death made such a huge impact as to be remembered two thousand years later, while other similar martyrs of the time faded into the obscurity of history. It could just as easily be argued that the idea of Jesus had such staying power because it developed as a compilation of and extrapolation from this common social figure. Either way, it is the idea of the person of Jesus which is most relevant to Christianity as a religious system, and clearly the idea did exist historically.

  • Lastly, it is not the role of scholarly studies of religions to determine "which religion is true." The belief in an historical person of Jesus who is theologically identical to the deity-Person of Jesus Christ is approached as an aspect of the Christian faith or a part of Christian mythology. Scholars generally consider proving the historical existence of Jesus about as relevant to the study of Christianity as proving the historical existence of Krishna would be to the study of Hinduism, the Amitaba Buddha to Mahayana Buddhism, or Zeus and Athena to classical ancient Greek religion. Establishing definitively the existence of such people or beings does not necessarily give us much insight into their functions within the development, doctrines or practices of a given religious tradition. At best, disproving the likelihood of an historical person might raise the question, "Why did so many suckers believe it to begin with?" But then, this is more a matter for a sociologist or social psychologist to address (after all, there are plenty of examples even in modern society of everyday, reasonable people believing some pretty strange things--e.g. "fifty million Elvis fans can't be wrong").

With all that covered, it's understandable that, in some ways, the answer to this part of the original question, "What if Jesus never existed, and was instead a composite figure...?" would be a shrug and a so-what?. It wouldn't be the first time a spiritual or religious system grew up around a text or mythology that was largely "fantastical" and unlikely given what we now know through modern scholarly and scientific efforts. Indeed, most modern believers in any spiritual or religious tradition have come to accept this fundamental uncertainty and/or improbability as a "fact of life" about being a religious person. In the end, the historical existence of Jesus is as much a matter of faith for believers--through the perfectly normal and acceptable lack of definitive proof--as is the existence of any obscure historical figure. Heck, half the time I find it difficult to believe even Paris Hilton's real!

What We Know & How We Know It
Texts, Truths and Traditions:
A Study in Three Parts

Part I: Introduction & The Historical Person of Jesus
Part II: The Historical Nature of Biblical Texts
Part III: The Part that Passion Plays


  1. Ali:

    While you yourself may be comfortable with the fact that Jesus may not have existed as a historical figure, the unavoidable fact is that if he did not, the foundations of Christianity are invalid. Our Pagan ancestors would have suffered persecution and lost their ancestral religions for a lie. I don't care what the "symbolic" figure of Jesus might mean; Pagans had their own symbolic figures that came with the same wisdom, but minus the political scheming and outrageous nonsense of the early and later church fathers. And there were social issues that the Church itself caused to come into nonsensical conflict that didn't exist before Christianity, and which we still have not resolved, to this day.

    There are good books out there about the historicity of Jesus; I'd look for Dr. Morton Smith if I were you; he's a good one.

    My point is one that I think Christians would agree with- yes, Jesus needs to have been a real, living man who died and came back from the dead, just like the scriptures say, if Christianity is to have any solid ground to stand on; if it is worthy of forcing the older religions into oblivion and inheriting the world and the spiritual destinies of people who put their hope in it.

    You said that we "can't prove that Jesus didn't exist". There's a reason for that- you can't prove a negative. WE don't have to prove that Jesus didn't exist. THEY- the Christians who believe in him- have to prove that he DID. The burden of the evidence is on the people who are making the claim, not the people who choose not to believe it until they see evidence.


  2. Hi, Robin. :) I haven't actually read your comment, yet. Since I've only posted the first of three parts to this essay, I'm going to wait to read and respond to all comments until the end. Hope that's okay. Thanks for stopping by, and I'll definitely get back to you in a few days (my work schedule this weekend is rather hectic, anyway, which is why I decided to write three posts-worth of stuff yesterday when I had time).

  3. (Ack, I can't even stick to my own rules!) Some of the issues you brought up in your comment are addressed in Parts II and III of this post, but you say that Christianity's foundation-myth must be historically true "if it is worthy of forcing the older religions into oblivion and inheriting the world and the spiritual destinies of people who put their hope in it." My immediate response to that (as a person who does believe in Jesus as an historical person, as well as a deity), is that no religion, no matter how well-founded in "fact," is worthy of such domination. Most moderate Christians would, I think, agree (in Part II, I talk about the relative futility of basing arguments on what we personally think "most Christians" believe or don't believe based on anecdotal evidence).

    Anyway, just wanted to address that statement. Also, your point about "proving the negative" is what I was going for, just couldn't remember that phrase, so thank you. On the other hand, I don't think a Christian (or anyone who has faith in something that is difficult to prove) is absolutely obligated to provide historical evidence for their beliefs. They have the option of making emotional appeals, especially if that is largely the foundation of their own faith. It's a facet of modernity's preoccupation with science and supposed "objective facts" that makes us think factual, historical truths are the only kind worth having. I'll talk about the idea of passionate, personal truth in Part III. (Of course, the increasing importance of recognizing passionate, personal truth as such is a key to tolerance for religions other than one's own.)

  4. As a Christian who hasn't devoted much time to comparative religion or exploration, I can vouch for the idea that I don't really care if Jesus was a living, breathing person at all. The whole point of religion (to me) is faith, believing what you cannot prove. Otherwise, you don't have religion, you have science, history, etc. Thinking of Jesus as an Idea or abstraction rather than a fact doesn't change my beliefs about kindness, tolerance, and compassion.

    Yes, in many populations, Christianity displaced Paganism. That happens. I'm sure Ali can offer some support (or not) on how populations' needs shifted, how the context of the times made Christianity a more attractive choice for some (which moves this discussion from religion to anthropology and social science).

    While I'm at it, I do not discuss my religious beliefs very often, but it saddens me to hear that "Christianity" is almost inevitably limited in peoples' mindscapes to either fundamentalism and evangelism, or Catholicism--the most visible and criticized Christians. Please remember that there are many many different kinds of Christianity, all with their different merits, many of which themselves have been persecuted, and not all of them deserve to be villified.

  5. ali wrote: "That said, the analysis of Biblical texts suggests that it is very likely that there was a person by the name of "Jesus" who lived in the time and place that the various texts claim and did at least some of the things they record."

    I would agree with that statement. I think that the New Testament does provide us with certain traditions that point to genuine sayings and teachings of Jesus, and the likelihood that he was a historical figure, just as Biblical analysis can show that some teachings, etc, attributed to Jesus were likely grafted on by the gospel writers to meet the needs of the growing church.

    While I find it unlikely that Jesus is purely a Mythological Figure, I think it most likely that mythical ideas were absorbed into the Christian writings, surrounding Jesus, and these myths may of played a part in styling Jesus as a divinity who died and rose again. If so, the truths of Christianity, if they are to be understood as solid historical facts, as many Christians believe, are deceptive, yet not completely without spiritual value to the Christian practitioner.

    Personally speaking, I no longer accept that the Bible is wholly the Word of God, in the way a fundamentalist Christian would, yet when I did believe that ten years ago, I had a transformative experience that had a profound effect on my character and spirit. That I no longer believe as I once did, doesn't invalidate my experience, despite the possibility that much of what I accepted to be truth was perhaps a lie.

    If I understand Jesus is a mystical sense, placing less importance upon whether Jesus was real, or if he died and rose again, etc, and the 'truths' of Christianity still have a transformative spiritual effect, then I feel that Christianity and the person of Jesus, real or not, is still of value.

    Myself, I need Jesus and his death and resurrection to be real in order for Christianity to make sense to me, other Christians see things differently, yet that doesn't mean their spiritual path is a wrong one, or that Christianity is fraudulent.

    If Christianity is mythologically based, the transformative power inherent within those myths still work for many Christians, regardless of the repackaging.

    looking forward to part two and three :)