Tuesday, 17 July 2012
I am not a Christian apologist, nor do I want to convert anyone. I once believed that there was no evidence for Christ's existence. I am now quite certain that, at the very least, he was a real person. I was recently talking to a friend who suggested that my new position on this was "fine" but I should admit that it’s just "faith" because there is absolutely no historical evidence that reliably proves Jesus existed. Which is a little like saying that I either didn't critically think through the evidence, thoroughly review it, or fully understand the arguments against it. She didn’t understand how an intelligent reasonable person could weigh the same evidence she did and yet reach an alternate conclusion. And I know from experience that many Atheists have trouble seeing Christians as intelligent, reasonable people.
As children most of us believe in Santa Clause, and as we reach that age of maturity where we must admit that it's simply not possible for him to exist we look with disdain at those kids that hold on a little too long. The kids that just can't let go of Santa Clause are the simple, slow to mature, kids with the obstinate denial of simple evidence that generally underlies a small intelligence, an inability to critically reason, and a creepiness that smacks of social pariah. By junior high we understand that nobody can still believe in Santa Clause and be intelligent. Many Atheists see Christians in much the same light. While I don’t yet consider myself Christian (because I can’t say with confidence that I believe he performed miracles, rose from the grave, or somehow delivered me from sin or death or whatever) I’m actively looking for answers that may lead me in that direction and someday I might be a believer. It bothers me to think that my intelligence, my ability to reason, and my ability to objectively weigh evidence and reach conclusions could be called into question, because someone else may have come to a different conclusion.
I hold that there is enough evidence that Christ was a real man who existed on the earth to convince any reasonable person who doesn’t have a biased agenda. The arguments against his existence are in many cases logically fallacious. My goal is not to convince Atheists that they're wrong - but to show them that an intelligent, reasonable person can easily believe that Jesus existed.
Many atheists would prefer evidence external to the Bible, and there are a handful of references to ancient manuscripts that mention Jesus. Tacitus, Pliny, Josephus, Talmud, and even the Quran. I won’t summarize them here because I’m assuming that anyone who would argue the existence of Jesus is already familiar with them.
The arguments against these texts include 1. They were written after Jesus’s death, 2. They differ from biblical accounts, 3. They were edited by Christians and Christian references were intentionally added, and 4.Some of them may reference a different Jesus entirely. I’m familiar with the arguments – I just think they are weak arguments.
First of all – it’s commonly stated that 64 A.D. was “almost 70 years after Jesus died.” A.D. does not mean “after death,” it stands for “Anno Domini” and starts at Jesus’s birth. In 64 A.D. Jesus’s own generation was still alive, his disciples were in their 60’s and the children among his entourage would have only been in their 30’s and 40’s. When Jesus was alive he was no threat to Rome, and not more than a nuisance to Isreal – he hadn’t risen from the grave or “proved” to more than a handful of people (fishers and taxcollectors, not historiographers or emperors) that he was anything more than a seditious carpenter, so why would we expect anything prior to these documents? He was not the first man to claim to be the messiah, and not the first to claim the ability to do miracles, but the only records we have on the others were also created after their executions, not during their lives, and even then only those because their movements were actually much bigger than Jesus’s. So it seems a little unreasonable to demand that documentation of Jesus from the time of Jesus is the only valid evidence of his existence.
Second – of course they differ from biblical accounts. In the same way that, to his supporters, accounts of the Ron Paul campaign will differ from whatever makes it into history books, to the people who wrote the Bible Jesus was a King and even a God, but to the average Roman the Christian movement wasn’t even big enough to be a thorn in their paw. If they didn’t differ from the Biblical accounts, I wouldn’t believe them. Ron Paul’s supporters remember a visceral and close election war. Mitt Romney’’s remember a crazy fringe group that was a bit of a joke and a nuisance that at *most* divided the vote and at worst did nothing at all. And even that small accounting of them is only because of the small media coverage Paul recieved. Jesus’s revolution wasn’t even televised. It seems unreasonable to expect that in order to accept the existence of the man, all historical mentions of Jesus, his family, and his followers would agree with each other regardless of the perspective of the person who wrote them.
Third – Christian monasteries were the publishing machine of the ancient world. There were no printing presses, so everything that was copied was copied by hand, which was in turn copied by more monks by hand. To add anything that wasn’t in the previous version would more than likely have been noticed by an organization that took pride in their accuracy, so either: a. A mad genius happened by the original and doctored it so well before anyone else saw it that his forgery was never detected or b. there was a great conspiracy involving many people to inject bits of unflattering proof of their revered God that made him sound like a heretical criminal and everyone was in on it. Possible. Not probable.
Fourth – There are a few references to other Yeshus in the Talamud that may or may not be Jesus. The petulant one who fancied himself a rabbi in training, but was so embarrassed by his uncontrollable sex drive that he went running from his teacher and killed himself – that one might NOT be Jesus. The one who was a bastard with the power of sorcery because his mother was unfaithful to his father, slept with a demon, and confessed to prostitution for a thin promise of God’s forgiveness – that one might NOT be Jesus. But the one that was convicted of practicing sorcery and leading the Jewish people to apostasy, who was tried, stoned, and crucified on the eve of Passover. I mean, really, how many Jesus’s could there have been who did that? And the other references – if they were no one- just some poor schlub who didn’t matter – why are they in the Talamud at all? And I wouldn’t expect the dates to match up, given the way the Talamud was written and compiled. It’s more or less a compilation of personal writings from Rabbis, subject to the same problem with dating things and recalling dates that all historical documents of the time have. These are the same people that dated the human race back only a few thousand years and it’s not very reasonable to expect the dates to be any more accurate than any other historical event recorded in ancient texts. The other texts mostly refer to "Jesus, also called Christ" – it’d be a pretty far leap to suggest they are about a different Jesus.
Then there’s the argument that even within the bible, eyewitness testimony isn’t written until after Jesus died. Again – why would we expect anything different? The man died only 3 years into his ministry. His followers at the time were fishermen and tax collectors not historiographers, and just because you couldn’t run out and buy the hardback the day after Jesus rose from the dead, that doesn’t mean his disciples never wrote anything down. I seriously doubt they each decided one night to sit down, order a pizza, and churn out a 50 ft scroll novel by morning on their experiences with Jesus. They didn’t have backspace, let alone whiteout, they had notes, and notes of notes, copied and recopied, edited and rewritten, and copied again to create a narrative that may have taken them a lifetime to get right, and these things take time. The fact that the apostles didn’t publish their experiences until some time after Jesus died doesn’t cause any reasonable person to doubt they ever knew him. And the fact that the oldest version of their accounts are still not the originals – it’s been 2000 years. We’ve never seen the original manuscript penned by Josephus either, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t exist.
Then there’s the argument that using the Bible to corroborate the Bible is circular reference. Which is also a fallacious argument because the bible is not a single book. If it each book of the Bible were published separately, and I used the testimony of one as evidence for the truth of another one, it would be a moot point – the argument then is that the binding itself somehow invalidates it.
Then there’s the argument that the eyewitness testimonies don’t agree. The story is slightly different in each. Would it honestly be more believable if the story were exactly the same in each? If I were to tell you about my childhood trip to Disney world, and my brother were to separately tell you the same story, would you doubt that we went at all just because he remembers little Italy being to the left of Little Japan and I remember it being to the right. Would you think that we were both lying if he said he remembered meeting Mickey Mouse in Epcot Center, and I remember meeting him outside of Space Mountain? Or would you assume that the parts of the story that *do* match up are enough evidence for you to believe that we actually went to Disney World and actually met Mickey Mouse. The differences in the eyewitness testimony go farther to confirm the authenticity of it than discount it as fabrication.
I’m sure I could go on for pages with arguments and counter arguments but hopefully a clear pattern is emerging that is enough to prove a case for my intelligence. The reality of the situation is that there is historical textual evidence both in and outside the bible that are reasonable proof of the existence of Jesus, and it’s not the case that I don’t understand the arguments against them, but that I believe those arguments rely either on unrealistic expectations or general conspiracy theory. If you’re going to believe that Jesus should have been minted into coins and painted and sculpted and recorded into the annals of roman history like an Emperor – and that the fact that he wasn’t is evidence for his non-existence, go right ahead. If you’re going to believe that the evidence is faked, or doctored, despite what *I personally* think is a lack of evidence to support that sentiment, then go ahead and believe that. I think that position is mired with fallacious assumptions, but I can respect that you might find the evidence compelling. I don’t think you’re stupid for not agreeing with my conclusions, and I won’t assume that you simply chose to ignore the evidence and obstinately cling to a belief that has been clearly disproven out of some kind of psychological immaturity. And all I want is to be afforded the same courtesy. Your opinion of me matters because I respect you, and I’m not interested in converting Atheists – my only purpose in writing this out is because I want to be respected also.