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An Atheist’s Defense of the Historicity of Jesus

April 2, 2015

I saw this fascinating blog post this morning on the historicity of Jesus by atheist, Neil Carter. I’ll quote some sections of the post:

I can’t believe I’m feeling the need to do this, but today I’d like to write a brief defense of the historicity of Jesus.

When climate change deniers want to insist that our actions have no impact on global temperatures, they display a remarkable disdain for an entire discipline populated by credentialed professionals in that field who say otherwise.  It doesn’t seem to bother the deniers that they themselves have no specialization in the academic field they disparage because in any field of study there will always be at least some small contingent who go against the consensus.  The existence of those outliers is justification enough for the deniers to say, “This business is far from certain, you know.  Just look at these four people who disagree!”

That’s how I feel when people in the skeptic community argue that Jesus never existed.  They are dismissing a large body of work for which they have insufficient appreciation, most often due to the fact that they themselves have never formally studied the subject.  And yes, I know that the study of religon and of antiquity is a far “softer” field of study than climatology (and therefore more subject to personal bias).  But that doesn’t mean we can’t reasonably conclude anything at all about the distant past.  There are at least a handful of things about the origins of the Christian religion which we can reasonably conclude based on the things that we know.  Among them are that there was most likely a guy named Jesus who preached and was killed outside Jerusalem, and that after his death a diverse following emerged which built around that event a narrative which grew to become the Christian faith.

The existence of two or three professionals within the study of antiquity claiming that Jesus never existed does not signal a sea change in that field.   There haven’t been any new discoveries in the past few years which signal any significant changes in that discipline.  The only thing I see that’s changed is public opinion.

He makes precisely the arguments I’ve been making in some of my recent blog posts on John Oliver and Richard Carrier about accepting the ‘Jesus myth’ position. Carter goes on to outline some very persuasive arguments for the clear existence of Jesus. But then he concludes with a fascinating and honest reflection.

And that right there is my biggest problem with the mythicist position.  During my deconversion I learned to be highly suspicious of my own willingness to accept ideas that I wanted to be true without applying the same intellectual rigor and skepticism toward those ideas before accepting them.  I suspect that many non-theists would love the vindication of discovering that the whole Jesus story was made up from start to finish.  Not just embellished by layers of legend developed over decades of telling and retelling the stories to a wide-eyed audience, but fabricated out of whole cloth and completely devoid of historical fact.  The layers of legend over a kernel of original history makes the most sense to me.  And I don’t think it makes us look very objective when we too eagerly embrace a position which contradicts an almost universal consensus among those who have devoted their lives to the academic discipline which concerns itself with these matters.  We of all people should know better.

He is warning against cognitive bias. He is warning that there may be reasons other than the arguments themselves, which affect our perception of Jesus. We so desperately want the story to not be true that we adopt a position in contravention to the evidence and the accepted scholarly position.

His warning is very important and needs to be heeded. We are susceptible to biases and desires which affect our perception of truth. And these desires are most acute when assessing the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth because the stakes are so high. The easiest way to avoid following Jesus is to deny his historical existence altogether. Yet the difficulty is that the clear historical evidence will not allow that position. Jesus really did exist so we need to make a decision on who he really was and the claims he makes on my life.

If Jesus words are false, then of course there is no need to believe in him or follow his life and teaching. But if his words are true then we need to repent, change our lives and acknowledge him as ‘Lord and God’.


From → Comment, Jesus

  1. Rob,

    Let me give you another quote. This quote has long been attributed to someone of whom I happen to know you think rather highly, so I am hopeful that you will pause and take it fully on board before you post any further on this subject.

    “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

    Yes, we all suffer from cognitive bias but the person against whose cognitive bias we must be most vigilant is ourselves! You are so busy seeing cognitive bias in Carrier that when I have suggested to you that you might apply the same argument to yourself you breezily wave it aside:

    “I tend to agree here, but I don’t think that my Christian worldview is true because I find comfort in it.”

    How do you know?! That is exactly what cognitive bias will do to you! Conjugating “bias” runs like this:
    I have reached my conclusions on a careful and dispassionate analysis of the evidence.
    You may have allowed some of your pre-conceptions to influence your conclusion somewhat.
    She is an ignorant bigot who wouldn’t recognise the truth if she fell over it.

    What is the point in banging on about Carrier’s supposed bias when you have not produced a scintilla of evidence to support the notion that Carrier is a scrap more biased than you, or William Lane Craig, or Tom Wright? In other words, to the extent that cognitive bias is a relevant factor, it applies everyone on both sides. And that is a very good reason why you should not rely on it as an argument. Because if you rely on it to refute the claims of those with whom you disagree, it will equally refute the claims of those with whom you agree -,and in that case no matter how many are on “your” side, they are all as susceptible to bias as Carrier and so all as unworthy of belief as Carrier. The numbers will not help you then, because a million unreliable views can carry no more weight than two or three unreliable views.

    In any subject where we are not experts ourselves we may defer to those who are (an appeal to authority). On the matter of the historicity of Jesus, it is not improper to refer to the fact that the majority of historians believe Jesus to be historical. If all you have to put against that is that a few other historians, a very small minority, think he was not historical, then your appeal to a contrary authority will be unpersuasive. But this cannot end the discussion.

    If it were always the case that the majority view of experts were decisive, then we could never make any progress. For example, the opinion of vast majority of New Testament scholars is that the author of Matthew was not an eye-witness to the events in that gospel. That cannot settle the question, but it does mean that those of us who are not experts in that area can feel that we are not obliged to re-argue the case when anyone who takes a contrary view has no arguments to put forward which have not already been considered and dismissed by the expert majority.

    But supposing that a Christian were to produce some ground-breaking work which argued in favour of the writer of that gospel being an eye-witness. Would you the following a satisfactory response (on any level, whether put forward as a rebuttal, or for any other reason):
    “You are a Christian and therefore strongly motivated to say Matthew was an eye-witness. The vast majority of experts in this area take a contrary view. So let’s just take everything you’ve said with a pinch of salt, shall we?”
    Or would you think that this Christian’s arguments should be addressed solely on their own merits, with no reference to her religion and no preconceptions?

    Remember that speck and plank thing, and answer me honestly.

    • Frances,

      Thanks for these comments. Just to clarify my thinking on this comment “I tend to agree here, but I don’t think that my Christian worldview is true because I find comfort in it.” I suppose I have undergone a real questioning of the ‘comfort’ of the Christian view in recent times (particularly after the loss of my mother – as an aside, this is our experience affecting our assumptions and thinking). I have stared many times into the abyss I fear of nihilism. This is one of the reasons I fear death (as I mentioned before). I find myself at many times pondering the awful reality of the atheist world – that death is really the end of consciousness and everything. Perhaps I am guilty of bias because I want it to be true, but that is not how I feel inside at times when I am questioning and challenging and I have to remind myself of the historical reasonableness of the resurrection to provide any sort of comfort.

      I’m not trying to say that Carrier is more biased than me or anyone else. As I said, I don’t know how I can provide evidence for bias, it is very unclear. How would I do that? My point is that our assumptions and our thinking is often shaped by our experience. It’s interesting you raise William Lane Craig, because I used to think very highly of him. Yet, I had a very poor personal experience with him when he was in Australia back in 2013 which now deeply impacts my view on him. Maybe I should outline the ‘bias’ of William Lane Craig, because I feel I understand his arguments better and I am now deeply critical of a number of assumptions and methodology he adopts. Do you think that would be helpful?

      I find your comment here interesting: “But this cannot end the discussion”. I tend to agree and disagree at the same time. Should we debate the reality of Climate Change? It seems like the question is settled by science, or do we hold off on making an opinion until every last objector is dealt with? I raised similar questions in my post on John Oliver – where I suggested that this would mean the suppression of prophetic voices. I think this is a genuinely difficult issue to adjudicate on which topics are ‘debatable’ and which are ‘settled’.

      With reference to the historical Jesus, I have investigated Jesus myth thinking many times before and the arguments are generally very poor (as are some of Carriers) – to what extent do we open up old arguments which have been debated to death in the past?

      I think that your response in this paragraph is interesting: , “But supposing that a Christian were to produce some ground-breaking work which argued in favour of the writer of that gospel being an eye-witness. Would you the following a satisfactory response (on any level, whether put forward as a rebuttal, or for any other reason): “You are a Christian and therefore strongly motivated to say Matthew was an eye-witness. The vast majority of experts in this area take a contrary view. So let’s just take everything you’ve said with a pinch of salt, shall we?”

      I think that this was how many have responded to Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. This is how Dillahunty argues when he says that modern scholars teach us that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses etc. I would think that you do need to address the arguments, but I was also taught to assess motivations and influences. Why is an author trying to write something? What motivates them? Who influences them? Sometimes this is difficult to determine, but it can explain certain assumptions and methodology (as it does fairly clearly at times with William Lane Craig).

      Further, I’d suggest that this is not a fair analogy, because I would suggest that the authorship of Matthew is far more debated and contested than the existence of Jesus.

      I have to go, but I really do enjoy engaging with you Frances. You push me to think, which is very good (and I hope I do the same to you). It’s a shame that you’re in the UK. I’d love to meet and talk some more some time. Planning any trips to Australia at present? It’s a shame I “met” you after my UK trip last year, I would have liked to have an afternoon conversing (if you would be amenable to that).

      Thanks again, Rob

  2. Hi Rob,

    I think (judging by your last post on the “potential bias of Richard Carrier” thread) we’re now on the same page when it comes to cognitive bias.

    By one of those strange coincidences after posting on your site another (Christian) blogger I follow posted something covering very similar ground. Here is a link:

    I’ve also posted on my own blog. I had written most of the blog before I got your last two responses, but I thought it was worth going through the issues anyway. Here is a link:

    As to when we stop arguing, my first response to anybody who is challenging the accepted view would be “What new arguments/new data do you have?” If the challenger does not claim to be in possession of anything new then, as lay people, it sensible for us to disregard her views and rely on the majority. If she does claim to have something new to say, then we must consider her new evidence. If we are unable to assess it because of our own lack of expertise, then we should consider the matter undecided until the claim has been assessed by other experts.

    I too would have loved it if we could have had a face to face discussion. It could still happen, you never know!

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