Sunday 7 August 2011

Existence of followers isn't proof of that which is followed

Several months ago on a Christian discussion forum I was asked two questions:
1) Who do YOU say Jesus was?

2) Do you deny the resurrection?
I answered both, but the first question is the one relevant to this post, and my answer to that was:
1) It seems likely that Jesus was an itinerant preacher who developed a considerable local following, to the extent that he annoyed the established religion of the time, which got rid of him in an effort to preserve the status quo.
This still seems to me to be a reasonable interpretation of the story we have of Jesus. There are some who deny Jesus existed at all; others suggest that the popular account is a melding of stories of a number of different preachers who were around at the time.

Chapter 27 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, "Did Jesus Really Exist?" by Paul L. Maier, is addressed to those who claim Jesus didn't exist — a claim he characterizes as "this pathetic denial".

Maier's first foray is to say that the New Testament wouldn't make "an ounce of sense if Jesus had never lived." This presupposes that the books of the New Testament do make sense, which to me seems like putting the cart before the horse. He describes this as "internal evidence", which appears suspiciously like "circular evidence". (Or to put it in simple, direct terms, Jesus existed because it says so in the Bible.)

Then we come to "external evidence" — Christian, Jewish and secular. The Christian evidence Maier lists is from Jesus' disciple John, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who was John's student, and Irenaeus of Lyons, who was Polycarp's student. Pardon me for my skeptical view of this chain of hearsay, but I see a problem with calling the writings of Polycarp and Iranaeus "evidence", if they both had it ultimately from John. This is evidence from one man, not three. Maier also counts the writings of Justin Martyr as external evidence that Jesus existed, but as with Polycarp and Iranaeus he does not provide references.

When considering Jewish external evidence Maier quotes writings in the Talmud (though once again without a citation). He acknowledges that references to Jesus in the Talmud are garbled, but claims that one of them is "especially accurate" when it reports on Jesus' arrest notice. By what standard, I'm bound to ask, do you assess whether a report is garbled or accurate? (If you already "know" what happened, such assessment is easy.)

As is usual in these arguments it's not long before Josephus is wheeled out to proclaim the existence of Jesus, as if this impartial chronicler is the last word on the subject. But when you read what Josephus writes, you find he's only reporting what others have said.

For his secular external evidence Maier first cites Tacitus, who mentions the Christians in his Annals. Tacitus is referring to followers of Christ, but such reference is no stronger evidence for Jesus than the existence of Raëlians today is evidence for Raël. Next come Suetonius — who mentions Christians and Christ one time each — and Pliny the Younger, who asks for advice in dealing with those superstitious Christians.

In passing Maier also mentions Theudas and Mara bar Serapion as providing evidence for the existence of Jesus, but again gives no references — an omission he excuses on the basis that he's already made his case that "Jesus of Nazareth was no myth, but a totally historical figure who truly lived."

As I mentioned at the top of this post I'm not one of those who deny that someone of the name of Jesus ever existed, but I don't think the evidence for the existence of the man described in the New Testament is as clear cut as Maier suggests. It's likely that a charismatic preacher or three did make waves — enough to get at least one of them executed — but that's a far cry from categorical proof of the existence of the New Testament Jesus. Nor do I deny that the followers of "Christ" existed — but the existence of Christians isn't automatic proof of the existence of Christ.