An Atheist’s Defense of the Historicity of Jesus
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’.