Credulous Skeptics and Mythical Memes 1: “Jesus Did not Exist”
In this series, I question the veracity of and logic behind some of the popular memes employed by Evangelistic Atheists (EAs) and self-proclaimed skeptics in their supposed war on ignorance. For the most part, I seek minimal claims and suggest an appeal to agnosticism or caution on the part of self-proclaimed skeptics. That is, I simply ask skeptics to be consistently skeptical by being skeptical with respect to some of the extreme claims that seem to support their generally anti-theistic tendencies. Yet, these extreme claims often undermine their credibility and raise questions about their status as bona fide skeptics.
What is a meme? Meme is a term coined by evangelistic atheist and evolutionary apologist Richard Dawkins. A meme “is a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.”
A meme can be true or false or neutral. A snippet of a song that you can’t get out of your head is an example of a neutral meme. In popular usage, a meme is often used in a similar way that people speak of a Tweet or YouTube video going viral. It interesting that both these terms are metaphors from biology.
Mythical Meme 1: Jesus Did not Exist
This rather strong claim is often stated just this bluntly. “Jesus did not exist.” However, it is sometimes softened in the following ways: “No one is even sure Jesus existed.” or “Some scholars argue that Jesus never existed.”
From Tweet to Dialogue: Be wary when someone writes,”Some scholars say. . . ” It is not difficult to find scholars who make arguments that lend support to your own prejudices, preconceptions, and personal preferences. Even extreme positions like aliens building pyramids can be held by someone with a PhD.
So, what do you do when someone tweets, “Some scholars say…” or something similar that appeals to authority? It is simple. Ask them for their source. Which scholars? Send me a link to Amazon or YouTube or blog, etc.
Then to avoid making similar unsubstantiated appeals to authority include short links from Amazon to books in your tweets. Don’t say “some scholars” say. Say “N.T. Wright says”, or, “Bart Ehrman says . . .”
If your interlocutor is really interested in dialogue, learning, and overcoming ignorance, then they will follow through and you can reciprocate by reading their recommendations. Suggesting books seems to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff or, in this case, the elves from the trolls. Trolls don’t want to read books. They want to win arguments or destroy dialogue.
Even if your interlocutor turns out to be an angry troll, others following your Twitter feed may be led to good books themselves. Moreover, the vacuity of the troll may be revealed.
In my own effort to overcome ignorance and in my desire for honest and open dialogue, when engaging EAs I am usually not seeking to defend any particular position, thick concept, or robust Christian doctrine. Rather I take a minimalist approach. So, for instance, while I personally hold the orthodox Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate, with respect to the meme “Jesus did not exist” I am only seeking the minimal claim that it is likely that in first century a Jewish man named Jesus (Yeshua) lived and stood in some relation to the sect that claimed to follow him.
That is, I am not asking the skeptic to trust the claims or judgements of Paul or Pseudo-Paul or the gospel writers or even the compiler of the hypothetical document Q about Jesus. Rather, I am suggesting Jesus of Nazareth existence is the simplest explanation for these documents. Moreover, any alternative explanation of the origins of these documents and the existence of a Jesus sect or sects stretches credulity.
Often those who make this extreme claim put the onus on the Christian to prove that Jesus existed. Yet, the onus is really on the one making this extreme claim to explain the Jesus movement and its subsequent influence without Jesus. In other words, while this mythical meme seems to solve a problem for its proponents namely Christianity has no historical roots and is as much a fairy tale as Jack and the Beanstalk, it actually engenders a multitude of historical problems that then are resolved by even more incredible solutions. For instance,
Richard Carrier’s Hypothesis:
On more than one occasion, when I have suggested that this position is extreme and would not even be considered by most historians and biblical scholars, my dialogue partner has directed me to the arguments of Richard Carrier. I was sent links to his blog and to YouTube videos. Now, while I read his blog and his rather viscious “review” of Bart Ehrman’s book on this topic, I admit that I could not stomach his YouTube video for very long. But in preparation for this post, I sat through it. It does not make me ill as a Christian but as a scholar. His superior attitude with respect to other scholars is offputting. I even found myself defending Bart Ehrman. Nevertheless, one gets the gist of his argument quite quickly.
Basically, Carrier begins by claiming the consensus view that Jesus existed has “institutional inertia” and the historicity of Jesus has not been established because it has rarely been questioned. So, he notes correctly that the onus is on him to come up with a theory to explain Christianity without an historical Jesus whom he describes as a charismatic first century Jew.
He admits that his theory sounds “weird” at first blush but is convinced that it will all makes sense after he makes his argument. It reminds me of a certain room in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. Everything is a little off in the room but if you sit in it long enough it will begin to look right and when it looks right you have been initiated into the new science. (Or Creation science or Dispensationalism or Marxism, etc. — take your pick.)
Carrier’s Hypothesis: Jesus began as a celestial being (an archangel), revealing truths to his followers via revelations and hidden messages in scripture.
He argues that while Jesus began as a mythical angel like Gabriel. That this “being” known as Jesus “incarnated” himself into the devil’s celestial realm and tricked him by being crucified and rising from the dead. Carrier claims that this basic story was derived from Jewish Scriptures specifically Daniel 9, Isaiah 53, Jeremiah, & Zechariah through a method of interpretation known as Pesher in a way similar to the Essenes. Only later was this celestial Jesus “euhemerized”. That is, Christians began to tell stories which placed Jesus in historical settings. Subsequently, Christians began to believe their own stories.
Why don’t we have documentary evidence of this process? Well, according to Carrier, it is because all those documents were filtered out once the Christianity that we have access to became dominant. He also proposes that it was in the interest of Bishops to proclaim an historical Jesus because this legitimated their authority both via succession and as legitimate interpreters of scripture and traditions. The appeal to an historical Jesus became a way for those in authority to control doctrine and to dismiss personal revelatory experiences. (I guess Carrier overlooked the role of the Holy Spirit in these documents and the strong history of visions in the Church.)
There are numerous problems with Carrier’s theory but as I am here only interested in suggesting that the more modest claim that Jesus existed is more elegant and requires much less massaging of the data.
So, let’s take one of Carrier’s analogies.
Carrier draws a dubious analogy (not from the first century but from centuries later) between Jesus, Gabriel, and Moroni. Once Carrier has “de-euhemerized” and “dehumanized” Jesus and revealed him as a celestial being, he suggests that one need no more accept that the early Christians actually encountered this being than one believes that Mohammed encountered Gabriel or Joseph Smith encountered Moroni. Yet, it seems the analogy is off here. Explaining Christianity without Jesus of Nazareth is not like explaining Islam without Gabriel but explaining Islam without Mohammed or Mormonism without Joseph Smith. That is, if a skeptic is skeptical of the claims of Mohammed or the claims of Mohammed’s followers about who Mohammed was or the source of his message that seems reasonable, but to deny Mohammed’s existence stretches credulity. Similarly, to deny Jesus existence stretches credulity.
A skeptic might deny the theological claims by or about Jesus. Or like David Hume, deny that Jesus performed miracles based on the presupposition that such things just don’t occur. Yet, why make the incredible and unsupportable claim that some man named Jesus did not exist in the first century & stands at the head of what became known as Christianity? Such an absolute claim that “Jesus did not exist” which is not grounded in any evidence seems antithetical to skepticism. Why are not the other available options sufficient? Say, “Jesus was a liar or a lunatic.” Or say as many scholars do that Jesus’s followers made up stories about him. That seems sufficiently skeptical without engendering a whole new set of historical problems.
Link to Part 1 of a two part blog in which an atheist critiques this mythical meme in favor of an historical Jesus. “An Atheist Historian (Tim O’Neill) Examines the Evidence for Jesus Existence”
In my opinion, the appeal to Richard Carrier and to his source, Earl Doherty, is akin to the Creationist appeal to Henry Morris’s The Genesis Flood as scholarly support for their insistence on a worldwide flood. Indeed, when I read Carrier’s blog, I am reminded of Answers in Genesis with respect to tactics but Carrier’s posts lack the veneer of politeness that Ken Ham and his followers manage to convey. From his blog, it is apparent that Carrier thinks so highly of his scholarly talents that “institutional inertia” that borders on conspiracy seems to be the only plausible explanation for established scholars like Bart Ehrman not taking him seriously or engaging him in public debate. It would not cross his mind that they might see him and the proponents of the mythical Jesus as the atheistic equivalent of Ken Ham.
Recommending Bart Ehrman:
Some Christians respond to this mythical meme by quoting the Bible or asserting biblical authority in one way or another. I take another approach because they do not trust the biblical account anyway. First, I assume that the person is interested in truth and facts as most evangelical atheists claim to be. So, I only tackle this question from the point of view of history and how we know anything about the past. So, I focus on the question of Jesus existence and grant a great deal of room for disagreement over the trustworthiness, authorship, and dating of our written sources.
Now, normally I would not find myself recommending Bart Ehrman but when someone holds or suggests such an extreme view there is no point in directing them immediately to someone like N.T. Wright or Larry Hurtado. “Of course,Wright and Hurtado agree with the scholarly consensus that Jesus existed. They are Christians. They are biased.” So, I recommend scholars at the edges with whom I fundamentally disagree on key interpretive practices. So, I can say, “Hey look, even Bart Ehrman believes that there was an historical Jesus.” Or point them to the Jesus Seminar. While Ehrman has wisely declined to debate Carrier publicly, this meme has gained enough of a popular acceptance that Ehrman was moved to write a book arguing for the historicity of Jesus.
So, oddly in these interactions, I end up defending Bart Ehrman and recommending one of his books.
Now, I think that anyone claiming to be seeking the truth about the historicity of Jesus or the historical Jesus ought to read scholars like N.T. Wright (link to Amazon page) and Larry Hurtado for instance and they should read various arguments regardless of the biases. Until skeptics have done the hard work, they ought not to be making such absolute and ignorant claims like “Jesus did not exist.” In this case, you can’t fight fire with fire. Fighting ignorance with ignorance is more like pouring water on a flood.
If you have come across other “mythical memes” employed in this way either by skeptics or Christians, leave a comment.
How do you respond to dubious claims that come across your path?