Continuing my discussion of common arguments used against christians.
This post: arguments that seek to undermine faith in Jesus by arguing that the gospels aren’t reliable as history, or that we can know little factual about Jesus, or that Jesus could not have been divine.
There is no contemporary evidence for Jesus
If Jesus was such an important figure as christians claim, and if he did all those miracles, wouldn’t you expect him to be mentioned in the many histories and other writings of the time? But none of them mention him, so either he didn’t exist or he didn’t do any miracles.
Historians tell us that this argument doesn’t show a good understanding of the times.
- There is little or no contemporary evidence for Hannibal and several other major figures of the time – only a small proportion of all relevant documents survive today.
- Most Roman historians were interested in imperial events, not a Jewish prophet in the backblocks of the empire. They mostly don’t mention other Jewish figures who would have been more notable to them. Nevertheless, Tacitus, writing about 80 years later, does mention Jesus.
- Jewish historian Josephus mentions Jesus twice, and although the text of one passage has been corrupted by a christian interpolation, scholars generally believe we can see a clear and useful reference to Jesus in both passages.
- The gospels are separate, and mostly independent, writings that historians regard as valuable historical documents. They give good information about Jesus, even if one doesn’t accept their portrayal of him as divine.
Prof Bart Ehrman, University of North Carolina: “We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.”
So in fact we have better evidence for Jesus than many other ancient figures, and pretty much what we’d expect to have. The argument is simply not based on a fair reading of history.
Paul knew nothing about Jesus
The earliest documents in the New Testament are Paul’s letters, the gospels came later. Yet Paul seems unaware of anything about Jesus’ life, and only writes about a heavenly Jesus. This shows that the story of Jesus began as a spiritual story and the historical details were invented later.
It is true that Paul doesn’t provide many biographical details of Jesus’ life and times, but it isn’t true that he provides none. About 20 facts about Jesus’ life can be found in Paul’s letters, including he was a descendent of King David; he had a brother James and a disciple Peter (both of whom Paul had met); he taught against divorce; he was betrayed on the night he shared a meal we now call the Last Supper; and he died by crucifixion.
The claim is therefore much over-stated, so the argument is ineffective. But why did Paul make so few references to Jesus’ life? It seems reasonable to guess that Paul was writing letters to people who already knew the stories which had been passed around orally – this is supported by the fact that later letters don’t say that much about Jesus’ life either.
Jesus was a legend copied from pagan gods
There are many mystery religions in the ancient world, and there are many parallels between their gods (often called dying and rising gods) and Jesus. Perhaps the most argued parallel is with the Egyptian god Osiris (Dionysus to the Greeks). Christianity originated as a Jewish mystery religion, except much later some of his followers invented a historical story about him.
These ideas are to my knowledge supported by only one recognised scholar (Robert Price), and some enthusiastic amateurs.
The problem with this theory is that, according to almost all expert scholars, it is not based on facts. The supposed parallels fall into on of the other categories:
- The god may have died, but he didn’t rise again. Prof Bart Ehrman says of Hercules and Osiris: “there’s nothing about them dying and rising again.” TD Mettinger, Lund University (Sweden), who made a detailed study of the matter: “there were no ideas of resurrection connected with Dumuzi / Tammuz” Jonathan Z. Smith in The Encyclopedia of Religion: “There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity.”
- Other aspects of the supposed parallels are not factual either. For example, Osiris/Dionysus was not born of a virgin as claimed.
- Some of the supposed parallels are irrelevant. For example, Osiris/Dionyus was born on December 25th, but the Bible says nothing of this and few suppose that was when Jesus was born.
- In some cases, the legends originated after christianity, and so the copying went the other way. Wikipedia: “The mysteries of Mithras were not practiced until the 1st century AD. The unique underground temples or Mithraea appear suddenly in the archaeology in the last quarter of the first century AD.” TD Mettinger: “The references to a resurrection of Adonis have been dated mainly to the Christian Era”
- Some of the supposed parallels come from mystery religions about which we have insufficient information to draw any parallels. Prof Bart Ehrman: “we know very little about mystery religions – the whole point of mystery religions is that they’re secret! So I think it’s crazy to build on ignorance in order to make a claim like this”. JZ Smith: “[The idea of dying and rising gods is] largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.”
- There is no evidence of pagan mystery religions having any influence in Jewish thinking. Prof Martin Hengel: “Hellenistic mystery religions … could gain virtually no influence [in Jewish Palestine]”
- The stories were generally known to be legends and not history at the time, whereas there is good historical evidence for Jesus. Plutarch (46-120 CE) warns his readers against taking the Egyptian stories literally.
The conclusion of the experts is almost unanimous:
TND Mettinger: “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world.”
Bart Ehrman: “We do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum in their propagandised versions.”
The common element in these three arguments is that they are all contrary to the conclusions of most scholars. They seem to depend on misunderstandings of historical realities and the use of unhistorical assumptions and criteria. We christians can confidently stand against these arguments by simply pointing to the scholars.
Next post: Has the New Testament been changed?
Read the whole series
This post is part of a series on Training disciples to stand. Check out all the topics here.
“Some of the supposed parallels come from mystery religions about which we have insufficient information to draw any parallels.”
And in cases we have sufficient information, alleged parallels are often disproven. Mysteries were generally not only secretive but elitist, they were not centered around some holy scriptures, they were focused on (personal) gains in this life opposed to gaining immortality in the hereafter, they granted a person greater status, they mostly were wholly life-affirming towards Roman society, they were focused on praxis instead of belief, myth and ritual were central, not theology (a centralised theology lacked, though “theologisations” existed) and they were inclusive towards the larger Pagan religious and cultic milieu.
U hit everything right on the head, however bart ehrman doesn’t believe in a biblical jesus- he doesn’t believe in the Jesus of the Bible. But he does believe in that a Man named Jesus lived and was crucified by the romans, And that people started fabricating stories after his death. Ehrman believes in a Historical Jesus….http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_Jesus
Yes, Bart Ehrman believes that many of the stories about Jesus in the Bible are either untrue, or exaggerations, or uncertain. But I was quoting him on the merits of these particular arguments – his expertise and non-christian approach makes him a good reference on the weaknesses in these arguments.
Bart Ehrman is writing (is it out yet?) about this.
I’ve always thought this shows the dangers of being too skeptical, rather than being a serious challenge to Christians – extreme skepticism leads you to reject the obvious truth, and that’s a problem.
It is already out, yes, causing flamewars on atheist sites.
I wouldn’t call him radical, he just defines inspired scripture different than many other Christians… He believes that God should have all preserved his inspired scripture and that if they were inspired God would have preserved the original autobiographical text
Nice post, unklee. When I was looking into claims that Christianity borrowed from earlier pagan myths, I found much of the same information. It was hard to tell if Christianity had actually borrowed some of those things, or if they were just attributed to the other religions after Christianity gained some popularity.
The only thing I’d really disagree with you on is when you say that Christianity wasn’t influenced at all by other traditions. The Bible’s teachings on the afterlife change pretty substantially from OT to NT, which I think is a direct result of Hellenistic influence.
Also, Richard Carrier recently did a review of Ehrman’s new book about this issue. I don’t know too much about the topic, but I found Carrier’s review pretty interesting, and he provides sources. If anyone is curious, you can find it here:
Hello Nate, actually I think you don’t disagree with UnkleE’s points in the post – UnkleE only addressed the Pagan parallels to Jesus. I would accept your point that there is Pagan influence in Judaism and Christianity, both about the hereafter and philosophical.
Ah, good catch — I think you’re right. Thanks for pointing that out!
“I wouldn’t call him radical, he just defines inspired scripture different than many other Christians”
Having read only parts of Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted, I would say my biggest criticism of Ehrman is he over-states his conclusions. In Misquoting Jesus he only establishes a few cases of altered text that haven’t already been recognised in most modern translations, yet he argues that we don’t know what the original authors said.
Nate, I saw Carrier’s review (though it was so long I only read about half). Have you seen Ehrman’s two replies? Here and here.
No, I’ll have to check them out — thanks!