Reflections on the historicity issue

March 2012

One of the first essays I wrote for this Web site was a defense of my belief that Jesus of Nazareth probably never existed. At the time, I had not yet begun my formal education in philosophy, and I was about equally ignorant of historiography. I have since been working to correct both deficiencies. Besides pursuing a degree in philosophy, I have taken an upper-division historiography course and done as much independent study of the subject as I could manage. Early last summer I began a complete rewrite of that essay, mainly to incorporate new ideas I have picked up over the past decade, not because I have found any substantial errors in my argument. (I was hoping to finish the rewrite before summer's end, but had to abandon that hope.) By and large, everything I have learned has tended to confirm my earlier thinking. One thing new I discovered, though, was how illustrative an investigation of Jesus' historicity can be of some of the major issues in epistemology and, derivatively, in historiography. I have meanwhile noticed some distressing similarities in the dialectical and rhetorical tactics employed by both side of the debate.

Whether one argues for or against Jesus' existence, one is challenged at every step of the way to ask: How do you know that? It is, arguably, the philosophical community's prime directive to answer that question. It is of course the definitive question for epistemologists, but I suggest that it is no less central to other subdisciplines, just more specifically targeted. The philosophy of science, it seems to me, is just epistemology applied to the scientific enterprise, and likewise for the philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of history, and so on for every other philosophy of ______.

My own skepticism does not lead me to conclude that as long as we can ask the question, there must be no answer. My position rather is that we should not stop asking just because we feel certain that we already know the answer. There could be other reasons not to bother asking. The brevity of life, if nothing else, will always constrain our intellectual investigations. But one excuse we cannot use for failing to question our assumed knowledge is the notion that a consensus of experts cannot be mistaken.

An inquiry into Jesus' historicity is an unusually appropriate epistemological exercise for lay scholars because all the important evidence is accessible to anybody sufficiently motivated to examine it. In almost every other field, the experts are able to examine key pieces of evidence that the general public cannot get to, at least not without significant financial outlays. But there is nothing significant about the origins of Christianity, known to the experts, that an industrious lay person cannot learn just by spending enough time on the Internet. Of course, mere possession of facts is no guarantee that one will know what to do with them. The explanation of facts is what theorizing—scientific, historical, philosophical, whatever—is about. But that too can be learned by anyone of ordinary intelligence if they are sufficiently motivated.

One of the most pivotal discoveries I made while looking into all of this was not about Christianity in particular, but it changed my attitude toward those who defend it. It was that there is no paradigm, or worldview, or whatever you want to call it, that can be defended entirely without noncircular arguments. This does not commit any of us to sheer postmodernist relativism. Some epistemological systems are more defensible than others. But it is no legitimate defense to argue, "Your worldview affirms X, but my worldview says X is obviously wrong, therefore your worldview is wrong." Way too many skeptics cannot do any better than that. They seem to forget, or to have never understood, that critical thinking is not evidenced by what one believes, but rather by why one believes it.

Indeed, the more attention one pays to the historicity debate, the more apparent it becomes that religious skeptics collectively are nowhere near as smart as they think they are. There is a clear analogue among them to the evangelical notion that the Christian worldview is obviously true to anyone who is sincerely receptive to divine guidance. The counterpart notion among nonbelievers is that the falsity of Christianity is obvious to anyone capable of honest critical thinking. The presupposition on both sides is that our minds are all endowed by some means with a truth detector, and that the only reason it doesn't work for some people is that they just prefer not to use it. (This is a version of the "virtuous intuition" hypothesis that I touched on in another essay.)

The error is especially egregious in the debate over Jesus' existence. Historicists are fond of saying that it is denied only by crackpots, and they are almost right. Of all the people on the Internet questioning Jesus' historicity, the vast majority seem to know nothing and care less about soundly reasoned argumentation or critical analysis of sources. Their screeds are rife with fallacies and suffused with a blatant bigotry against religion in general and Christianity in particular. Just as too many Christians think any argument with a conclusion favorable to their religion must be a sound argument, so do too many skeptics think any argument with a conclusion embarrassing to Christianity must be a sound argument. But then, just because crackpots like a certain idea doesn't mean it's not a good idea, and a plethora of bad arguments cannot negate one good argument. The argument from crackpottery is nothing but guilt by association.

Another error prevalent on both sides is the genetic fallacy. The motivation for an argument has nothing to do with its cogency. Of course many mythicists, possibly most, are motivated by hostility to Christianity, but that fact does not constitute a refuation of any mythicist argument, any more than Christians' motivation to defend their faith constitutes a refutation of any historicist argument. What motivation can explain is why so many advocates on both sides of the debate are so easily attracted to so many bad arguments.

What mythicists need to understand, at this moment in Western history, is that Jesus' nonexistence has in no useful sense been proved beyond reasonable doubt. It is still an open question whether there is even a preponderance of evidence against a historical Jesus. This is not to say that no one can have a justified belief one way or the other. It is to say only that no one can be justified in claiming certainty if their only appeal is to the facts in evidence. (Whether Christians can be justified by appealing to faith is a separate question.) As Richard Carrier has observed, the time may come when an intellectually rigorous analysis of the evidence will settle the issue as definitively as any historical issue is ever settled, but that time is not here yet, and it will not be here for many years, probably at least decades, yet to come.

The more I study the issue, the more probable it seems to me that (to grossly oversimplify the whole story) Jesus of Nazareth was a product of the imagination of the author of Mark's gospel—in just the same way that Scarlett O'Hara was a product of Margaret Mitchell's imagination. I believe he did not suppose that anyone would think he was writing about a real person, any more than Mitchell expected her readers to think Scarlett was real. But in due course some people got it into their heads that Mark's gospel and those that followed it were works of history rather than fiction, and thus did the religion that we now call Christianity get started. Over more than a decade of research, I have found not a single fact constituting clear evidence against this hypothesis, but I have continued to find new evidence in its favor.

(I will grant a possible exception to Luke and Acts. The man who wrote those books might have believed he was writing history, but in that case he was just mistaken. I do not for a moment think that any early Christian writer intended to deceive his readers. The notion, so beloved of so many skeptics, that Christianity was invented as some kind of fraud deserves no one's serious attention.)

A popular historicist argument is that if we if we doubt Jesus' existence, then we should also doubt the existence of many other historical figures for whom the evidence is no better than that for Jesus. I happen to agree, but a couple of qualifications need to be made. First, to call anyone a "historical figure" can beg the question. By the usual definition, anyone who was a historical figure did in fact exist. For the argument to work, we must take "historical" to mean "considered by all competent historians to have actually existed." Arguments from authority are well and good in their place, but not if they treat authority as infallible. With that proviso, I have no problem saying that for some historical figures, most people, including the authorities, are more confident of their existence than the evidence warrants. For two examples from the history of philosophy, I offer Thales and Pythagoras. I think they were probably real people, but I cannot agree that only a fool could think otherwise. The evidence for their existence is not that good. I think it is good enough simply because, despite its inadequacy, there is no evidence at all to the contrary.

This gets us to the other qualification. I deny that the evidence for Jesus, considered in its entirety, is equivalent to the evidence for any other historical person whose existence is truly undisputed, because in all the other cases, there is no contrary evidence. There are facts inconsistent with Jesus' historicity. They do not conclusively prove his nonexistence, but no historical evidence ever conclusively proves anything. All historiography is a discussion of probabilities, but we usually get high probabilities when all the evidence points only one way, which it does for most historical figures. For Jesus, it does not all point one way, and so the equivalence argument fails.

I may note here, tangentially, another absurdity repeated by many mythicists, that there actually is no evidence for Jesus' existence. That is the purest nonsense. The only possible defense for it would be the question-begging position that there can never be evidence for any false proposition. That raises the issue of how "evidence" itself should be defined, which I won't get into here, but the point remains that you cannot use an argument from lack of evidence if you must first assume your conclusion in order to establish lack of evidence.

The debate over Jesus' existence, notwithstanding the wishful thinking of most historicists and the rabid thinking of many mythicists, is nowhere near over. That does not mean we cannot have a justified opinion one way or the other, but it does mean that whichever side we think has the better argument, those who disagree with us deserve more respect than what I see is typically granted.

Return to home page.

(This essay last updated on March 26, 2012.)