Jesus Christ: Greater Than You Knew, Too Great Not To Be True

Today I’m announcing a new argument for the historicity of the Gospels, published just now through Touchstone Magazine.

The editors have titled it The Gospel Truth
Of Jesus: What Happens to Apologetics If We Add “Legend” to the Trilemma “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord”?
.

The main point of the argument: Jesus Christ is greater than you knew.

I say that with all confidence. I say it to atheists and skeptics, who doubt that his reality is great at all, or who even doubt his reality. I say it to long-time followers of Jesus Christ who have some inkling of his greatness. Ironically it is the ones who know something of the truth of Jesus who are most aware of how far they are from apprehending the fullness of that truth.

There is an aspect of Jesus’ greatness that I think even the most committed skeptic must recognize. Jesus displayed a certain ethical perfection that ought to be uncontroversial, even among those who think his story is nothing more than a story, and even among those who aren’t sure that he exhibited every virtue to its fullest.

I use the word perfection advisedly. This is a side of Jesus Christ that I did not see until recently. I have discussed it with several major New Testament scholars who agreed with me that it has implications they had not previously seen.

For those who know Jesus Christ, it is cause to worship him more profoundly.

For those who know Christ, it’s also one of the simplest and yet strongest ways I know of to explain why the Gospel accounts must be true.

For those who do not yet follow him, it’s a good reason to look further into the accounts of his life, and consider how incredibly implausible it is that they arose as mere legend.

I have been told by at least one major New Testament historian (and I will seek permission from the source before saying who it was) that this topic is worth bringing into widespread discussion.

(I trust that commenters here will read the article and make that the topic of discussion and not this teaser, which is not intended to present the actual argument.)

The main thing, though, is that it’s about the greatness of Jesus Christ, who, once again I say, is too great not to be true.

Comments

  1. Steph

    The problem with your argument is that you simply assume that Jesus belongs on the lists of questions 1 and 2. I think you need to do some more work here.

    If you had the advantage, like I had, of living in a country influenced by Nelson Mandela, you would perhaps have a beter appreciation of just what is needed to create a legend.

    You don’t mention Mandela at all. Any reason why?

  2. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Steph, why wouldn’t Jesus belong on those lists? Why wouldn’t Jesus be included among characters, either of history or imagination, who is represented as having great power and being self-sacrificing? (That’s how the lists were defined.)

    If that’s the only problem with my argument…

    I didn’t mention a lot of potential candidates. There was no special reason for excluding anyone. As I wrote in the article, I’ve asked those two questions of several people, and the names I listed were the ones I had heard most often in reply.

  3. BillT

    Tom,

    This is truly excellent work. It answers the challenge with clarity and reason. I think it adds a significant line of reasoning to the overall apologetic that has been raised to counter the “the Gospels are fiction” proposition. Those often rely on textual/literary analysis and the existence of eyewitnesses as a counter to the possibility of fictionalized accounts. Approaching it through the perfection of Christ’s character and the complete unlikelihood of it being developed as a legend fills in an important aspect of the reasons and reasoning that support our beliefs. Kudos.

  4. MikeH

    In a different thread, someone asked (paraphrasing), why do we need God in order to explain anything? My first thought was “Jesus of Nazareth.” Your argument, if it holds, lends credence to the idea that there is no explanation for who he was and what he did other than God. Thanks for the good work.

  5. Steph

    Tom,

    I just don’t think it’s that easy to untie Jesus from Yahweh.

    Why should we accept what the gospels say about Jesus as part of his character and ignore the old testament depictions of Yahweh?

    Yahweh is certainly not portrayed as being “supremely powerful” or “supremely good”.

  6. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Steph, the article is about Jesus as displayed by the writers of the four Gospels. They represented him as being supremely powerful and as supremely self-sacrificing. This is sufficient for the argument to go forward. The argument is based on the Gospel writers’ depiction of Jesus’ supreme power and his supreme self-sacrifice, and it’s not based on anything else.

    I certainly disagree with your assessment of God in the OT, but that’s not germane to the discussion. Here’s why I can say that with complete confidence. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that you were right. That would raise questions about the relationship between Jesus and the OT God, certainly. But would it alter anything I wrote about in that article concerning the implausibility of legendary processes producing a character like Jesus, portrayed as the Gospels portray him? Not at all.

    He would still be the one who healed sicknesses freely, calmed the wind and the waves, raised the dead, was even identified as the creator of the universe, and who never employed any of his extraordinary power on his own behalf, but who freely died for the rest of us. Those facts would remain unaffected, even if you were right about God in the OT.

  7. Holopupenko

    Steph:

    Not mentioning Mandela? Maybe because he’s not that good of a person: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/nelson-mandela-a-candid-assessment, whose legacy looks like it’s turning out to be the introduction of more suffering than even apartheid. Maybe the question should be asked–of YOU–Steph–why, for example, isn’t Mother Teresa mentioned? Why? Because Princess Di, that paragon of morality and faithfulness who died on the same day, better serves ideological commitments. What a disordered way of approaching an argument: asking why a certain someone wasn’t mentioned… which Tom nicely handled. Sheesh.

    And then there’s the ole YHWH thing: if you understood the meaning of that Name and its implications, you might understand why asserting “Yahweh is certainly not portrayed as being ‘supremely powerful’ or ‘supremely good’” is ignorant nonsense.

  8. Bill K.

    This exactly the same kind of argument as is used by the Muslims called the Inimitability of the Qur’an. According to Wikkipedia, ” Islamic scholars believe that the Qur’an has an insuperable literary style, regarded as testament to its divine origin, which cannot be matched by human endeavor.”

    Given what we know about human’s capacity for creativity and willingness to believe (confirmation bias), I can’t think of any reliable criteria that we could use to distinguish between a human creation and something “too perfect” to be a human creation. This applies whether we are talking about a book or someone’s “greatness”.

  9. Steph

    Tom,

    Just for clarity.

    Your question 2 deals with a lot more than just self-sacrifice. But then you bundle the rest of those characteristics together as “supremely good” in question 3.

    How do you wish me to read this?

    I take your point that the article is about the portrayal by the gospel writers and I think that even there you are optimistic in your assessment of how Jesus is displayed.

    Before we get there though I think you need to do more to convince me that
    a) Jesus is not understood to be Yahweh of the OT
    b) Yahweh is displayed as supremely powerful and supremely good

  10. Jenna Black

    Tom,

    This article is excellent. It introduces and thoroughly presents an important aspect of the gospels as testimony of the life and teachings of the living, breathing Jesus. IMO, the incarnation is a challenging theological concept to unravel, but simply viewing Jesus the man as a morally perfect human being is a good starting point. I remember early in my Christian journey thinking about the power of Jesus’ life, teachings and sacrifice purely from the standpoint of activism and social justice. Most certainly Jesus knew that what he taught and spoke was considered sedition by the authorities of his time. He knew that his ministry would lead to his trial, execution and death. Yet, he spoke and acted with an authority that was beyond that of any mere human. This is what I think about when I think of how Jesus “died for me.” His ministry as the Messiah was of such great value to humanity and his death as a perfectly moral man who was innocent of any sin or crime that could possibly deserve him a torturous execution on the cross is his gift to me, personally and individually.

    Thanks for this inspiring article. I appreciate your work.

    JB

  11. Steph

    Holopupenko,

    By suggesting that Mandela’s wasn’t that good of a person and that his legacy is turning into something worse than apartheid, you are revealing a lot more of yourself than ignorance.

    There must be thousands if not millions of articles, writings, books and movies about the man where he is portrayed exactly as Tom suggests of Jesus.

    I found it surprising that he missed such an obvious candidate.

  12. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Bill K., the differences between this argument and the ones for the Qu’ran are too numerous to name. This one has nothing in common with it. Please re-read my article.

    Steph,

    The argument does not depend on whether Jesus is understood to be the God of the OT. It depends on what I wrote in my previous comment to you. I am not going to go on the rabbit trail of discussing the God of the OT. You could read Paul Copan or John Lamb’s books on that if you care to do so, but since that’s not the topic here, I’ll let you do that on your own.

    You say that I am optimistic in my assessment of how Jesus is displayed. What is your assessment of the optimism with which the skeptics’ “non-community of cognitive dysfunction” (as I put it in the article) is displayed—that it would have the ability to come up with the only character in all history or literature as powerful and simultaneously self-sacrificing as Jesus?

    Whether Mandela was good or not, he was not supremely powerful in the manner of having the ability to do whatever he chose to do—especially in jail!—so he would not be a candidate for a person who met both characteristics. He is not portrayed (you knew this, right?) as a man who could heal the sick, raise the dead, and calm the wind and the waves.

    Your suggestion of “thousands if not millions of articles” showing he is “portrayed exactly as Tom suggests of Jesus” merely indicates that you haven’t read what I suggest of Jesus.

    I think it would be a wise idea for you to re-read the article and understand what it says before you try to contest it further.

  13. Larry Tanner

    From the article: “could the magnificent character of Christ really have bubbled up from a fount of that sort? One gets an uncomfortable feeling, thinking about it: perhaps it’s possible, but is it likely? Communities produce stories, yes; one thinks of Till Eulenspiegel, Paul Bunyan, and Pecos Pete. A character like Jesus, however, is of another sort altogether.”

    Sure the ‘magnificent’ character could have emerged. Happens all the time, and with much more interesting characters.

    Your argument for the authenticity of the Christian Jesus (i.e., Jesus was a real person who really did miracles, was God’s son, died for sins, resurrected, and so forth) reminds me of arguments for the authenticity of the Sinai event (i.e., entire nation of Israel gather at the mountain, get spoken to directly by God, then receive the rest of Torah and how to interpret it through Moses, and so forth).

    I may have asked this of you before, and if so I apologize for forgetting your answer then, but do you hold that Sinai happened and God himself spoke to Israel?

  14. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Happens all the time?

    Larry, is there any other character in history (real or imaginary/literary) who was simultaneously as powerful and as other-oriented as Jesus? Who would that be? Can you name even one?

  15. Post
    Author
  16. Steph

    Tom,

    To me, by restricting your argument to the gospels, you seem to imply that Yahweh of the OT doesn’t satisfy the requirements of your three questions.

    If not, then I’m curious to know why you would restrict the claims in your article to the gospels and Jesus only and not include the rest of the canon and Yahweh?

    I don’t think that you give enough weight to the point that claims about Jesus that implies supreme power or goodness need to be assessed in conjunction with other claims made about the deity he is supposed to be.

    This article

    http://www.academia.edu/1497054/Does_Yahweh_exist_A_critique_of_realism_in_Old_Testament_theology
    by Gericke shows nicely why your claims that there are only claims that Yahweh is supremely powerful or good shouldn’t so easily be accepted.

    He even points to instances where Yahweh himself doesn’t believe that he is all powerful.

    If Yahweh doesn’t think he is so powerful , where do claims about the powers of Jesus get us? To my mind, nowhere.

  17. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Steph, by restricting my argument to the gospels, I keep the argument what it is. Whether the God of the OT satisfies the requirements of the three questions has nothing to do with whether the Gospels were produced by a “community of faith” following the death of their Messiah—which is what the article was about. You see that, don’t you?

    This article was intended to show what it was intended to show, and it wasn’t intended to show what it wasn’t intended to show.

    I have made no claim here that my argument depends on Yahweh being supremely powerful or good. (That information is vitally important in other contexts, but not the current one.) The fact that you say I’m making that claim is further evidence that you don’t know what you’re disputing. How can you tell me I’m on the wrong track when you haven’t even figured out what track I’m on?

    If you want to discuss the article, that’s what this blog entry is for. You’re welcome to continue in discussion if you’ll get on topic.

  18. Jenna Black

    Steph,

    I think that it might behoove you to remember that the “displays” from the ancient Hebrews that we have of Yahweh from the Old Testament are of the One and Only God that promised the Hebrews that He would send a messiah. What more do you need to know about Yahweh to understand and appreciate Tom’s argument?

  19. Larry Tanner

    Tom @14:

    Who would that be? Can you name even one?

    Milton’s Satan comes to mind, among others.

  20. jwds

    How is Milton’s Satan at all other-oriented or self-sacrificing? How is he at all supremely powerful? The opening scene by itself is sufficient to disprove that: it begins with him having been defeated, but refusing to acknowledge it (so lacking both power and wisdom), and includes the famous “better to rule in Hell that serve in Heaven” line. He then proceeds to try to destroy humans out of jealousy…

    Did we read the same poem?

  21. Larry Tanner

    Satan makes a new world for himself and others, and you must admit as a character he is vastly superior to Jesus.

    You prefer something in the Prometheus vein, I suppose, but what’s the point? So many literary and legendary characters have unique and discriminating combinations of qualities.

    Besides, the original point was that magnificent characters bubble up all the time. If your requirement is now how often characters exactly like Jesus in four official stories, other unofficial stories, and accrued Christology over the centuries–then I guess you have a point.

  22. Billy Squibs

    you must admit as a character he is vastly superior to Jesus

    Why must we admit this, Larry?

  23. Larry Tanner

    Billy, if you think Jesus is the better written character, then it’s a matter of taste and I won’t contest. I do find the Jesus of the Gospel of Judas interesting. It’s a shame we don’t have a gospel in Aramaic, which would have been Jesus’ native language.

  24. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    “Better.”

    What does “better” mean?

    My point in the article is that Jesus displays a form of ethical perfection that no other author has ever devised. Then I explore the likelihood of that ethical perfection having been devised by the legendary processes that legend theorists suppose.

  25. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    In fact, Larry, can you conceive of how amazingly wrong your answer was? The question was, “is there any other character in history (real or imaginary/literary) who was simultaneously as powerful and as other-oriented as Jesus?”

    You answered Milton’s Satan.

    That, Larry, is a manifestly wrong answer. It’s completely wrong. It’s astoundingly wrong.

    Did you think my article was about “the most interesting character in literary or real history”? Read it again.

    No matter what else you might think of the kind of character Milton’s Satan presents in your mind, he is not as powerful as Jesus and he is not other-oriented.

    But when jwds and Billy pressed you on your answer, you stuck with it.

    Why?

  26. Larry Tanner

    Sorry, Tom. I think the balance of the text(s) makes Jesus less powerful and ‘other-oriented’ than you claim. But even if Jesus came across as even more ethical – and unprecedentedly so – that actually doesn’t tell us much.

  27. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    “The balance of the text…” meaning what?

    If you want to hold your opinion on that vague basis, that’s your prerogative. If you want to express that it’s your opinion, that’s also your right. If you want anyone to take it as being persuasive, that would require further explication. You’re welcome to share whatever you have in mind.

    As I wrote in the article, what Jesus’ character tells us has to be considered in light of the reigning “legend” theories.

  28. BillT

    Larry,

    I hope you’re “missing the entire point” of Tom’s article on purpose. The alternative would be simply embarrassing.

  29. Doug

    Excellent article. Thanks for taking the time. What, indeed, is sufficient “provenance for moral genius ” (in literature or otherwise)? The speed with which facile hand-waving “solutions” to this question are embraced by so many is remarkable, and not exactly indicative of intellectual honesty.

  30. Doug Peters

    @Ray

    His argument depends on…fig trees and pigs?
    Please explain why his (unstated) moral deference to animals and trees is any more legitimate than (for example) the argument made here?

  31. JAD

    I can see several problems with “community-of-faith authorship” hypothesis put forward by Ehrman and others. For example, the first problem I see is the Son of Man title Jesus used to refer to himself. Contrary to what many people might think this title is a claim of divinity on par with the Son of God (see Daniel 7:13-14). Where is the evidence that this title was invented (or even used) by early communities of faith outside the gospel accounts?

    “Many sceptical scholars believe that Jesus referred to Himself as the Son of Man, because it is unlikely to have been an invention of the early Church. For example, in the Gospels, ‘Son of Man’ is Jesus’ favourite self-designation. Yet in the epistles, it is never used of Jesus. In fact, the term appears in the New Testament only 4 times outside of the Gospels and never in extra-biblical Christian writings during the first 120 years following Jesus. The point is: How likely is it that the Church originated the title Son of Man as Jesus’ favourite self-description, when the Church itself did not refer to him in this manner?”
    http://www.bethinking.org/jesus/jesus-the-son-of-man

    It was his claim that he was the Son of Man that brought the charge blasphemy against Jesus at his trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin.

    The second problem I see is the fact that we can trace the basic Christian beliefs back to an early creed (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8) that was formulated by eyewitnesses within five years of the crucifixion-resurrection event. Of course, the skeptic could still argue that the creed is something that the disciples simply made up; but that would be a lie not a legend. In other words, we’re back to the old trilemma.

    Third, there is no question that the ethical teachings of Jesus have had an impact on western civilization. Is it really a credible hypothesis to say that most of Jesus’ teachings were made up by a group of his uneducated peasant followers?

  32. Jenna Black

    Ray, RE: #30

    I must say that in light of the evils of Nazism and other atrocities of the 20th century, I find Bertrand Russell’s objections to Jesus’ teachings on Hell and his use of metaphorical examples using trees and pigs to be rather trivial and misguided arguments against Jesus’ moral character.

  33. Ray Ingles

    JAD –

    Please explain why his (unstated) moral deference to animals and trees is any more legitimate than (for example) the argument made here?

    See the comment by Doug Peters, which cites Prov 12:10 FWIW. If you were walking in the woods and came across a kid dismembering a live squirrel, would you just think, “Oh, well, no biggie”?

    Besides, I have my own problem with the Gospels. Maybe you want to try tackling something you saw me address to G. Rodrigues a while back. He didn’t:

    Another potential “authentication” – how come none of the divine revelations included some simple medical advice like washing hands before working with the injured, or boiling bandages before application? It’s sobering to realize how much suffering and death that could have alleviated throughout history. Yet it’s as if the existence and nature of microorganisms was a closed book to those with divine connections.

    I grant that the simplest disinfectant to make for most of history, distilled alcohol, would be a mixed blessing at best. But other sanitation measures are much less fraught with potential abuse.

  34. Doug

    @Ray,

    Perhaps the Creator knew that physical pain and suffering is only an insignificant shadow of spiritual pain and suffering — and He didn’t want us to be distracted by treating the former as if it addressed a moral imperative (says the guy who spent yesterday in the ER with occasional conscious-limiting pain)…

  35. Jenna Black

    Ray, RE: #34

    Please, can’t you admit that you are more troubled by what the gospels do say than what they don’t say?

  36. Billt

    Bertrand Russel addressed this reasonably well a while back.

    The next time Bertrand Russell addresses anything to do with God reasonably well it will be the first time. Russell has to be the most overrated, over quoted philosopher of all time and Why I Am Not A Christian is one of the poorest examples of atheistic writing in existence. It spurred and entire cottage industry of critique and refutation.

    If you think I exaggerate just read how badly Russell handles the argument from morality. Russell goes merrily along critiquing a God and a concept of morality that Christians don’t believe in. He entirely misses the idea behind the theistic vision of morality and God as the summum bonum. Instead, he critiques his own version of theistic mortality and the difference between right and wrong being due to God’s fiat. Of course, he boldly makes short work of that idea. Too bad it’s an idea that no theist believes in either.

    Perhaps though, I am being too hard on poor old Bertand. After all, critiquing straw man versions of Christian theology and thought has become de rigueur in the atheist blogosphere and in writings from the New Atheist crowd. We should give Russell his due here. I’m not sure he was the first to do this but he certainly sets a “standard” in this essay that we frequently see elsewhere. In fact, we frequently see it right here if not on this very thread. So Russell may well have contributed significantly to atheistic thought even if in an unintended way.

  37. BillT

    “…how come none of the divine revelations included some simple medical advice like washing hands before working with the injured, or boiling bandages before application?

    Oh, wow!. Another argument from absence. Got to admit it’s slightly more sophisticated than old Bertram’s straw men if no more substantial.

  38. bigbird

    On a related topic, was there anyone in history who told stories like Jesus did – stories that resonate with people across cultures and languages? The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Unforgiving Servant, the Wise and Foolish Builders for example – these little parables are pure genius.

  39. bigbird

    Another potential “authentication” – how come none of the divine revelations included some simple medical advice like washing hands before working with the injured, or boiling bandages before application?
    … I grant that the simplest disinfectant to make for most of history, distilled alcohol, would be a mixed blessing at best. But other sanitation measures are much less fraught with potential abuse.

    The best and simplest sanitation method was mandated extensively in Jewish law – washing your hands. Does that not count in your view?

  40. Tom Gilson

    Ray,

    The logical rebuttal to evidence x is not, but why don’t we also have evidence y?

    If we have a verbal confession to a crime, plus fingerprints, plus eyewitnesses, but we don’t have video footage too, does the jury grant acquittal?

    If the defense lawyer says, “The proprietor never saw fit to install video cameras, therefore there can be no conviction of a crime on his property,” does anybody in the courtroom let him continue without laughing him down (with proper legal decorum)?

    There is evidence here that the account of Jesus could not plausibly have arisen through legendary processes. That’s the question on the table: From where did the account arise?

    In the article I wrote something like this: the four accounts of Jesus came from somewhere. The skeptical line is that they came about by a game of telephone played by a non-community scattered all the way around the Mediterranean and into Asia Minor, in multiple language and cultural contexts, to assuage cognitive dissonance through wild invention of impossible stories to shore up their faith cognitive dysfunction.

    My point here is that there is at least one specific ethical perfection that shows up without the slightest flaw in Jesus, as recorded in these accounts. Whether he displayed every ethical perfection might be controversial, but he was consistently and perfectly displayed as having massive power which he never employed for himself but only for others. This is a form of ethical perfection never imagined in any other character in literary history.

    Is it plausible that this non-community of cognitive dysfunction and social/psychological pathology would have produced this character perfection as an act of fiction in all four of its first-century documents?

    Where did the accounts come from?

  41. Tom Gilson

    Jesus actually did validate his knowledge of disease and its treatment, Ray.

    He didn’t do it the way you say he should have. I can think of some very good reasons he would not have done so. Here’s a very brief synopsis, which is probably worth developing but not here, because it’s a rabbit trail. Suppose for example he had taught about boiling bandages. Any measure like that has the potential to go in two different directions: superstition or knowledge with understanding. True knowledge, with understanding, would have been impossible for him to have imparted in his lifetime. He did not come to increase superstition.

    Now, where did the gospel accounts come from?

  42. Billy Squibs

    Semi-honest question. Ray. Are you serious about the hand washing thing? I ask because you are a smart guy and yet you advance an idiotic objection.

    As an argument it can forever by re-aimed at a new target (whilst also missing the point each time). If you will allow me to put a little Gnu spin on things for demonstration purposes, “Christians, why did your zombie Jesus not warn us about the danger of radon gas, excessive exposure to UV light, over-dependence on fossil fuels, the ebola virus and not looking both ways before you cross the road? Therefore there is no God”.

    A simple answer is that in raising this objection that you are not engaging with the point of Jesus’ life death and resurrection as told throughout the NT. (Hint: Jesus didn’t die in order to improve the sanitation conditions in the Ancient Near East or to warn us about exposure to dangerous gases.) Why would something so blinding obvious need to be pointed out to you or anyone else, Ray? You complain that G. Rodrigues didn’t bother to answer your point to which I say good for him.

  43. BillT

    Now, where did the gospel accounts come from?

    Why bother with such a triviality when there is Bertrand Russell to extol and arguments from absense to make. Priorities Tom, priorities.

  44. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    If we have a verbal confession to a crime, plus fingerprints, plus eyewitnesses, but we don’t have video footage too, does the jury grant acquittal?

    What if we have eyewitness accounts but no weapon?

    If some of the evidence supports a story, but other evidence that would reasonably be expected doesn’t turn up… then yeah, questioning the story is justified.

    he was consistently and perfectly displayed as having massive power which he never employed for himself but only for others.

    Cursing the fig tree when it wasn’t the season for figs just comes across as petty.

    This is a form of ethical perfection never imagined in any other character in literary history.

    Prometheus comes pretty close – not omnipotent, but superhumanly powerful and clever, and ever the friend of humankind, even at great risk and cost to himself.

  45. Holopupenko

    Re: Ray per @43: … you are a smart guy and yet you advance an idiotic objection.

    It seems to me, the latter betrays the true status of the former… doesn’t it… I mean, from an investigative scientific perspective? Effects have causes, don’t they? Or, is it just invincible ignorance? Or, is it intentional game-playing. One thing is clear: it’s not sound reasoning.

    Has anyone been keeping track on how many times Ray has argued fallaciously… or stealthily advancing his ideology?

    Joy Gresham (from the movie Shadowlands): “Are you TRYING to be offensive, or merely stupid?”

  46. Billy Squibs

    Cursing the fig tree when it wasn’t the season for figs just comes across as petty.

    And if ever there was an example of the true evil of religion there we have it . The poor fig tree.

    Of course, instead of advancing the least charitable reading (petty Jesus) you could have suggested an alternative interpretation (if you are familiar with them). For example F.F Bruce suggested that the cursing of the fig tree was a parable, albeit one that happened in real time.

  47. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    The skeptical line is that they came about by a game of telephone played by a non-community scattered all the way around the Mediterranean and into Asia Minor, in multiple language and cultural contexts

    Who says they weren’t communicating? In fact, let’s bring another analogy into the fold. Ever heard of hybrid vigor? You take a population, separate it for a while, then breed samples of both. The hybrids are often superior to their parent populations in several traits. It’s even easier to ‘cross-breed’ the best elements of ideas and stories.

    Maybe, as you claim, “Ehrman describes… a serial process, not a parallel one”. That doesn’t mean every skeptic must assume a purely serial process. Plus, if you have a few strong personalities influencing multiple communities (e.g. Paul’s letters), that can have a definite unifying effect. Multiple groups communicating with the same source can look a whole lot like communicating with each other.

    True knowledge, with understanding, would have been impossible for him to have imparted in his lifetime. He did not come to increase superstition.

    But – and this an answer to bigbird, too – Christianity almost immediately dumped the Jewish dietary and cleanliness laws. So much so that later on, in the Middle Ages, the Jews tended to get sick less from plagues and such, which led to accusations that they were poisoning wells

    I’ll also note that you claim that God can convey to humans knowledge of Its infinite Self, but “God, who originated human communication” can’t convey some basic hygiene to a culture that already has an obsession with purity and impurity. “[P]erhaps it’s possible, but is it likely?”

    Again, reflect on exactly how much disease we’re talking about here. Boiling bandages and cleaning wounds all by themselves would drastically improve survival rates from the all-too-common injuries that came with life before modern times. Heck, just some tips on applying vinegar to household cleaning would cut down on the spread of sickness. Consider infant mortality – oy.

  48. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I’ve opened up a new discussion on Jesus and medical science.

    Your “hybrid vigor” theory is pure speculation divorced from the facts of what anyone thinks might have happened, not to mention that it doesn’t explain perfection of the sort we have in view here.

    I suppose some skeptics could assume a parallel process instead of a serial one. You can assume whatever you want. Assumptions are not evidence, though, and in fact they have a jumpy way of disconnecting themselves from reality altogether. They make lousy first principles or premises for explanations.

  49. JAD

    Billy S. to Ray:

    You complain that G. Rodrigues didn’t bother to answer your point to which I say good for him.

    Good point! Honest questions deserve honest answers; dishonest, disingenuous ones don’t. I have noticed that Ray gets very sanctimonious when he presenting his own beliefs– or rather non-beliefs. But, why should I take anyone seriously who can’t deal with other people honestly. If other people want to waste their time with Ray that’s their business. As for me, I have better things to do.

  50. Ray Ingles

    Billy Squibs –

    Are you serious about the hand washing thing?

    Yup. Quite serious.

    Lack of understanding of microorganisms caused suffering and death for not just hundreds of millions but billions of people throughout history, many – almost certainly most – of them infants and little children. Show people how to keep their babies alive and they will pay attention.

    And even basic hygiene has a huge effect. Think how many people died needlessly in the Civil War alone thanks to the lack of knowledge of surgical sanitation. Or puerpal fever

    One single thing that could have massively reduced suffering and death for thousands of years.

    Maybe Jesus cared much more for the soul than the body. Fair enough. But to show no concern whatsoever for that magnitude of suffering… even just encouraging Christians to keep up with the Jewish tradition of washing hands before and after meals would be something. Not once in ~33 years did the opportunity arise?

  51. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I have a phone call scheduled about now. I’ll be back later with a more specific response to what you said about Paul’s letters.

  52. Post
    Author
  53. BillT

    Ray has actually already contradicted himself on the hygiene issue. He said:

    If some of the evidence supports a story, but other evidence that would reasonably be expected doesn’t turn up… then yeah, questioning the story is justified.

    So just where in Christ’s ministry is there any other advise or indication that hygiene is part of His ministry? Where is there any statements from Christ that address matters in any way related to the hygiene issue? The changes to the dietary laws aren’t heath related and in fact, as you point out, may well in that era have been detrimental. So, given what we know about Christ’s ministry, we should have no expectation the He would address hygiene no matter how beneficial it might have been.

  54. Jenna Black

    I think we should also keep in mind that Louis Pasteur was a devote Christian.

  55. Doug

    In the context of medical knowledge and its moral implications, it is legitimate to point out that the incidence of diabetes, Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease, autism, and a number of other issues is sky-rocketing in this age of our (pathetic) “understanding of microorganisms”. So perhaps it is somewhat premature to judge Christ on what it was that he didn’t say (calling it “no concern whatsoever”, when he healed the sick for pity’s sake!).

  56. Ray Ingles

    (I shan’t be discussing medical stuff here; that’s on the new thread.)

    Tom Gilson –

    Your “hybrid vigor” theory is pure speculation divorced from the facts of what anyone thinks might have happened, not to mention that it doesn’t explain perfection of the sort we have in view here.

    What? We know that there were communities diverging and reconnecting over and over again. And we know that there were active efforts to prune the divergences. (It’s luck the Gospel of Thomas survived at all, for example. Quite a few other such works are known only because they are mentioned by their detractors.) The picture of Jesus we have didn’t develop without any ‘editorial committee’.

  57. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Sure. But you’re still describing hybridization within a community the skeptics uniformly describe as inventing false and fantabulous stories to resolve their pathological cognitive dissonance and support their cognitive dysfunction that they called “faith.” You’re also not really taking the distributed form of the community seriously enough. Diverging and reconnecting over and over again is diverging and reconnecting: this was still a game of “telephone,” according to Ehrman, even if there were checkpoints along the way.

    Skeptics assume there was a “telephone” game-like process because nothing else accounts for the fantastic nature of the story (from their perspective). Re-convergence should have brought the story back down to earth, as it brought the story back within the reach of those who knew the facts, unless they were careless about truth themselves. But it’s hard to imagine anyone saying, “Let’s shore up our faith in this failed Christ by lying about his character, and making him ethically perfect. Let’s save our faith-lives by telling people we follow someone who taught that the best thing to do, in faith, is to give up one’s life.” It’s even less credible to suppose that they would have succeeded in the attempt, given that no one else in all literary history has done so.

    I don’t think you’ve really grappled with the uniqueness of Jesus yet.

    Suppose a stock you owned hit it big, and by next month it had paid out a million dollars in dividends. Before you gave it all away to charity, would you treat yourself to a nice dinner first? Do you know anyone who wouldn’t?

    Jesus was the possessor of infinitely more than that amount of potential power to serve himself. He didn’t use it for himself, even to that small extent. Instead he willingly gave all of himself away completely. How did this early non-community of cognitive dysfunction invent the only character in all literature to be so completely other-oriented?

  58. JAD

    The New Testament presents Jesus as a moral and spiritual exemplar. His life is something that we are taught to imitate.

    For example, Jesus himself presented himself as an example:

    “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” (John 13:13-16)

    Peter also held Him up as an example:

    “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

    As did Paul:

    “5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
    6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
    7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men…”

    (Philippians 2: 5-7 KJV)

    And,

    “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”
    (1 Corinthians 11:1)

    Notice that Paul is also holding himself up as an exemplar. Is he being presumptive here? I don’t think so. One of the things that I find so compelling about the character of Christ is that it is reflected down through history in the lives of others, like it was some very long and very grand hall of mirrors. Many who have seen Jesus as an exemplar themselves have become exemplars. History is full of these kind of people.

    For example, about seven or eight years ago I had the opportunity to hear a business man, named Steve, who had done something absolutely crazy. In the mid 1990’s, in the middle of a booming economy, he had sold his successful business and moved his family down to the Amazon rain-forest to help a tribe of very primitive hunter-gatherers, who had only started making contact with the outside world in the 1950’s. (Steve’s parents had been missionaries to the same tribe in the early 50’s.)

    Steve’s talk reminded me a little bit of a real life version of the 1986 movie, The Mosquito Coast (starring Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix). Of course, unlike Ford’s character, Allie Fox, Steve is not anti-Christian, but he is definitely of an inventor of sorts, an adventurer, and probably even a little quixotic. Steve has designed and built several small airplanes– some designed so that they can be flown and maintained by tribal people with very little training. And, a skilled pilot himself, he knows how to set an airplane down on a short airstrip in the middle of the jungle or on a beach along the bend of river.

    In 1995 he built “a house” for himself, his wife and two teenage children isolated in the middle of a tribal area miles from any kind of civilized outpost. For lumber he used the trees of the rain forest, which after cutting down he formed and shaped using mainly a chain saw. For the roof he used a large tarp that he had purchased from Home Depot. Somehow he had worked out a special arrangement with a ticket agent for American Airlines, so he was able to bring just about everything he needed for his project– chain saws, generators, outboard motors, machetes, axes etc.– on several trips as checked baggage. (This was long before those stupid baggage charges.)

    Over the the year and a half that Steve lived in the Amazon he made hundreds of life flights, evacuating indigenous people who needed urgent medical care to a missionary hospital. He also used his business skills to teach the tribe he was working with how to become more self sufficient–how to develop their own economy.

    I could go on. I intended to only attend to one of Steve’s talks. (I had other plans.) I ended up attending all four on four separate nights. Apparently a lot of other people were drawn to return to hear what Steve had to say. Over a thousand people were in attendance each night. Why? He wasn’t preacher or Bible scholar, he wasn’t even that gifted of a speaker, though he did have a great sense of humor and knew how to tell a good story. Come to think of it, it really wasn’t so much of what he had said. It was what he had done. It was who he was. He was someone who imitated Christ. He was someone who followed in his footsteps (1 Peter 2:21).

    That’s what is significant about the character of Christ. It was not just something that was true way-back-when; it is something that keeps showing up in the here-and-now.

  59. Billy Squibs

    I’ve been listening to Bart Ehrman talk about his latest book and he assures us that we have to “look behind the Gospels” to find the true Jesus. According to Bart, the Jesus we all know never claimed to be God and what we see is a evolution of the divine nature of Jesus throughout the Gospel culminating in John.

    So Bart and his followers (for want of a better term), which are sadly many, would suggest that the Jesus we know is an invention.

  60. BillT

    How does Ehrman deal with the creedal statement in Corinthians which is reliably dated to within a couple of years of Christ’s ministry. How does Ehrman deal with the fact of the many eyewitnesses to the events recorded in the Gospels being alive at the time of their writing. How does Ehrman deal with the quite unflattering descriptions of the actions of the Apostles (e.g., Peter’s denials). How does Ehrman deal with not making any sense.

  61. Ray Ingles

    Tom – “Telephone” as a game has one key element – no error-correction at all. Every change accumulates, there’s no ‘pruning’ stage.

    Stories circulating within and between communities, on the other hand, have ‘selection pressure’ associated with them. The story will tend to converge on elements that resonate with the community and elements that don’t will tend to be dropped. (How many one-sided news reports have you seen, from every side of every political and social spectrum?)

    Skeptics assume there was a “telephone” game-like process because nothing else accounts for the fantastic nature of the story (from their perspective).

    Hardly. Stories spread because they are interesting and/or exciting and/or edifying. In a community that expects and is hungry for miracles, miracle stories are no surprise. We’re all familiar with how exaggerations happen, especially when it fits in with what people want to hear. (An example from this weekend.) Look into, e..g, the history of the antivaccination movement for the development of a story and a canon.

    Frankly, it looks rather like an evolutionary process to me. I know we have different estimations of what evolutionary processes can accomplish, but oh well.

  62. BillT

    The problem with even an evolutionary process as an explanation is that it can’t account for the early creedal statements, the acceptance of fictional/legendary accounts by the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry, miracles, resurrection, etc., the very unlegendary like renderings of the principals of those stories.

    We know that within 30 years the church had spread throughout the Mediterranean and we know who they worshipped, why they worshipped Him and what they thought of Him. And that hasn’t changed in the 2000+ years since. We know they had access to hundreds of eyewitnesses both believers and skeptics. Legends, fictions, telephone, evolutionary, none of it makes any sense in light of the facts.

  63. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Ray,

    if you’re going to describe an evolutionary process, you have to take “selection pressure” seriously. Selection only works when there is something for it to work on. In biology there has to be variation and then selection. In the development of legend there has to be invention and then selection. The problem with invention is exactly the problem of which I have written in this article: how did this community invent the character of a certain moral perfection that no other community and no other genius in all of history has come close to matching? You are still positing a community that includes liars who created the perfect picture of other-oriented self-sacrificial character, for the purpose of saving their own psychological skins.

    In other words, you really haven’t explained anything through your evolutionary scenario.

    This is just one more thing to consider on top of the objections that BillT has already brought up.

  64. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    Selection only works when there is something for it to work on. In biology there has to be variation and then selection. In the development of legend there has to be invention and then selection.

    So far, I’m with you.

    The problem with invention is exactly the problem of which I have written in this article: how did this community invent the character of a certain moral perfection that no other community and no other genius in all of history has come close to matching?

    But that’s the problem. By pruning out anything that got generated that didn’t match up to the ideal, and exaggerating things as they were retold. C.f. Gautama Buddha.

    You are still positing a community that includes liars

    Who says that the people telling the tales believed they weren’t true? Have you never had a clear memory of something that later turned out couldn’t have happened that way? C.f the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s. Few if any of those people were saying things they believed to be false, but clearly a lot of false stories were generated communally anyway.

  65. BillT

    Who says that the people telling the tales believed they weren’t true?

    What about all the people who knew they weren’t true. Who’s keeping them silent or why are “the people telling the tales” ignoring people who knew the facts first hand.

  66. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Ray, your comment at #65 doesn’t begin to address the invention problem at the level at which it needs to be dealt with. “Got generated” was your phrase. What do you mean, “got generated”?

    Jesus was not an exaggeration. Zeus was. Apollo was. Thor was. Loki was. Jesus wasn’t. Jesus was not a larger-than-life character; he was a far-better-than-you-ever-imagined-anyone-could-be character.

    “Have you never had a clear memory of something that later turned out couldn’t have happened that way?” No: not on the level of my inventing the most ethically perfect version of a human being that ever lived.

    Not. Even. Close.

  67. scbrownlhrm

    “Now, we may call that doctrine exhilarating or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all. That God should play the tyrant over man is a dismal story of unrelieved oppression; that man should play the tyrant over man is the usual dreary record of human futility; but that man should play the tyrant over God and find Him a better man than himself is an astonishing drama indeed. Any journalist, hearing of it for the first time, would recognize it as News; those who did hear it for the first time actually called it News, and good news at that; though we are apt to forget that the word Gospel ever meant anything so sensational.” (Dorothy Sayers).

    “‘Why doesn’t God smite this dictator dead?’ is a question a little remote from us,” says one of the characters in The Man Born to Be King. “Why, madam, did He not strike you dumb and imbecile before you uttered that baseless and unkind slander the day before yesterday? Or me, before I behaved with such cruel lack of consideration to that well-meaning friend? And why, sir, did he not cause your hand to rot off at the wrist before you signed your name to that dirty little bit of financial trickery?” (Dorothy Sayers)

  68. scbrownlhrm

    “Any journalist, hearing of it for the first time, would recognize it as News; those who did hear it for the first time actually called it News, and good news at that; though we are apt to forget that the word Gospel ever meant anything so sensational.”

    Insight into that descriptive,”sensational“:

    “Truth certainly has this definitive element, to be sure; the Logos which became flesh is God’s definitive account of truth. But this is something far deeper and more dimensional than hard, unresponsive facts and verses, as further evidenced in John’s description of Christ as one full of grace and truth in himself. There is a corresponding, interactive quality to truth, which cannot be merely argued in words, but is best understood by engaging its depth and character within a world of impersonal, simplistic alternatives. For if truth is personal—indeed, a Person—it demands a lifetime of shared engagement with the one who is truth and the Spirit who actively leads us into its discovery. Evidences of the heights and depths of this divine truth can indeed be received as factual, definitive fingerprints. But so they are clues that point to a multi-dimensional, inexhaustible Person full of grace and truth—and beauty.

    Such an idea is set to narrative in the characters of The Idiot, in whom Fyodor Dostoevsky sets forth the bold assertion that “beauty will save the world.” The sheer number of ways in which this quote has been taken from the prince who uttered it and handed to less-discerning philosophers attests to the risk inherent in the idea, and perhaps inherent in beauty itself. Even in the story, the prince’s grand pronouncement is immediately the subject of interrogation—”What sort of beauty?” But prince Myshkin affirms in response that it is who will save the world. And here, Dostoevsky, too, entertains the proclamation in a person, in Myshkin himself, who lives the quality of beauty as if telling of his very soul. It is Myshkin who chooses again and again to help rather than to harm, to give mercy rather than malice; he forgives tirelessly, though surrounded by people who do not. In fact, it is this group that labels Myshkin the “idiot” because he refuses to participate in the withering ugliness of their own ways. In Dostoevsky’s analysis, if Beauty will save the world, it will indeed be a person.

    For those waking to the light of truth, for those speaking to the light of truth, there is a temptation to overlook the personal in the midst of the philosophical. When Plato said that beauty is the splendor of truth, he had in mind the Forms, literally Ideas. Comforting though it is to those who instinctively sense we were not meant for the darkness of caves, the truth he had in mind is inherently different in substance and character than the God-Man who looked his troubled friends in the eyes and said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Here we find not words, but the Word enfleshed, the transcendent in person. He is goodness, truth, and beauty incarnate, beckoning us out of the darkness to follow, to die, to become as he is. As it turns out, my old desire not merely to be good, but to somehow become united with it was not my own thought after all.

    If the story of Christ is a call to participate in the glory of God as persons who imbibe that glory, then there is most certainly in beauty the potential to save, for God is both the Source and Subject. And it is thus quite possible that God reaches out to the world in beauty, mystery, or transcendence, in goodness or kindness, in truth, logic, or reason. For the divine and human Christ is all three in personthe Good, the True, and the Beautiful.” (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries)

  69. Ray Ingles

    BillT –

    What about all the people who knew they weren’t true. Who’s keeping them silent or why are “the people telling the tales” ignoring people who knew the facts first hand.

    Why did the Satanic Panic types ignore mountains of contradictory testimony and evidence? Why do the young-Earth creationists do the same today? Why are anti-vaxxers willing to risk the lives of their children – and the children of others – for something palpably false and continually debunked? Why do people still fall for emails from Nigerian princes?

    For an example of legend growing and spreading despite eyewitness testimony, see, e.g., the case of the murder of ‘Kitty’ Genovese. Heck, snopes.com makes a business out of dispelling such myths.

  70. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    I think it would be a salutary exercise for you, Ray, if you would do the obvious work yourself and detail all the significant differences between your examples and the one we’re talking about. Deal with the strength of our position, not with what you see as its weaknesses. Who were the “people who knew [the stories] weren’t true in each case? Who was “keeping them silent” in each case? What were the people up against in each case? What were the motivating factors? What kind of stories did they develop, as in (since it’s the point of the post, after all!) what kind of moral character did they assume or invent (if they did) in each case?

    With anti-vaxxers compared to the Gospel legend-creators (if there were such): what kind of information does each group have to draw upon? How immediate or distant is it? What kind of story, again, came from each group?

    What kind of error correction is available in each instance? What evidence can be gathered that it was actually in operation?

    And so on.

    If you want to rebut us, show that you know what you’re rebutting. So far you haven’t, but it’s not too late.

  71. BillT

    Ray,

    How come instead of addressing the facts and issues I raised you bring up a bunch of things that don’t relate to the issue at hand. The issue is Christianity not the “satanic panic” or YEC or anti vaxxers or Nigerian Princes.

    The issue is Christianity and the facts that surround it. I mean, it couldn’t be more obvious you have nothing to to address the facts I raised but how about just admitting that instead of the nonesense you posted. Anti vaxxers, really?

  72. Larry Tanner

    My assessment of the Too-Good-to-be-Untrue argument: http://www.skepticink.com/atheistintermarried/2014/05/04/super-ethical-jesus-no/.

    In one sense, the fact Gilson feels the need to make this argument represents cultural progress. Evidently, the folks who have been trumpeting C.S. Lewis’s “trilemma” as if it solved anything finally realize that what Jesus is reported to have said about himself — as interpreted through later Christology and religious indoctrination — carries zero weight. We don’t care about Jesus quotes because they are hearsay. We have no way to verify them one way or the other, so they have no value. No, the fundamental issue really concerns the extent to which one or more of the canonized Gospels can, in part or in whole, be considered historically reliable testimony of the life, statements, motivations, and actions of Jesus.

    Gilson asserts not only that they can be considered reliable, but also that one need only read the Gospels to see that they are reliable, that they must be. No need to look for other historical documentation or artifacts. Just read your Bible in a good translation and perhaps a proper biblical commentary, and you’ll know it’s true. Yes, I am getting snarky.

    Gilson’s is a painfully ridiculous argument, a caution to anyone who thinks that historical evidence and context are overrated. First of all, even if we granted that the Jesus of the canonized Gospels — yes, I keep stressing the canonized Gospels; this is to remind us that the Gospels themselves have historical origins and precursors, and that other non-canonized Gospels and writings exist — is both ethically perfect in a certain way and completely devoted to others, this perfection-devotion combination cannot serve on its own as evidence of Jesus’s historicity.
    – See more at: http://www.skepticink.com/atheistintermarried/2014/05/04/super-ethical-jesus-no/#sthash.fDTCwm9T.dpuf

  73. scbrownlhrm

    Ah yes, Jesus never existed.

    My atheist history professors (all of them) strongly disagree.

  74. SteveK

    We have no way to verify them one way or the other, so they have no value.

    [snip]

    …this is to remind us that the Gospels themselves have historical origins and precursors, and that other non-canonized Gospels and writings exist…

    Let’s see. You assigned a value to the Gospels based on non-canonized texts that you haven’t verified one way or the other. Nice bias you have there, Larry.

  75. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    My assessment of Larry’s assessment, also (slightly edited) at his blog.

    Larry, one of the rules of reasoned discourse is that a rebuttal is not a rebuttal if it doesn’t address the argument it purports to stand against. I don’t think this shows any evidence that you get the argument. But I’ll start with this, since you did:

    Evidently, the folks who have been trumpeting C.S. Lewis’s “trilemma” as if it solved anything finally realize that what Jesus is reported to have said about himself — as interpreted through later Christology and religious indoctrination — carries zero weight.

    False. The trilemma answers the question it answers: Was Jesus a good man but not God? It wasn’t intended to answer every question, but it does answer that one. It was a fairly common view of Jesus in the early to mid 20th century, and Lewis answered it effectively. Now other questions are more prominent.

    other non-canonized Gospels and writings exist

    And they are excluded from the canon because they are second-century additions offered under false pretenses: in other words, because everyone at the time knew they were fakes.

    But on its face, the argument would have to accept God the Father as no less perfect and devoted than Jesus.

    You do understand that’s not a problem, don’t you?

    Moses, Joshua, David and the heritage of Jewish prophets, prophecies, and messianic ideas that form an active, dynamic culture in Jesus’s Second Temple Era context: all these make models of ethics and self-sacrifice that can be seen as inspiration for the Jesus story.

    They are obviously part of the background. We Christians knew that. You knew that about Christianity, right? But just because there is a history behind an incredibly unique character does not make his uniqueness any less incredible.

    For example, Karin Hedner Zetterholm’s Jewish Interpretation of the Bible reviews the early Jesus movement and demonstrates how the historical situation and rabbinic parables preceding and responding to the Jesus movement allow us to see how both Jesus and Christianity emerge from a Judaism that is itself emergent and differentiating itself from the Christian movement.

    Fine. Clarify, please. Just what was it in her look at the movement that’s different from Ehrman-style explanations? What was it about first-century Judaism that supported the deification of a human, a la John 1? What was it in the process that allowed ethical perfection to be introduced?

    If my argument is so ridiculous it should be easy to explain why in a few paragraphs, rather than just mentioning that someone somewhere has a different view of the matter.

  76. Larry Tanner

    False. The trilemma answers the question it answers: Was Jesus a good man but not God? It wasn’t intended to answer every question, but it does answer that one. It was a fairly common view of Jesus in the early to mid 20th century, and Lewis answered it effectively. Now other questions are more prominent.

    Exactly my point. Others who bring out the the trilemma to an atheist are bringing out something that’s irrelevant to the atheist’s question.

    You do understand that’s not a problem, don’t you?

    No, I don’t understand. God is a precedent for a character who is both powerful and other-directed. Isn’t he? If not, why not?

    But just because there is a history behind an incredibly unique character does not make his uniqueness any less incredible.

    It makes your reading of Jesus’s uniqueness understandable from a literary point of view. Someone trying to differentiate Jesus from other would-be messiahs, miracle workers, prophets, and demigods has lots of existing material to work with. Jesus — even your super powerful and perfect Jesus — is able to emerge from already existing ideas and beliefs. He was not too good and too powerful to be anything but true.

    Just what was it in her look at the movement that’s different from Ehrman-style explanations? What was it about first-century Judaism that supported the deification of a human, a la John 1? What was it in the process that allowed ethical perfection to be introduced?

    I am not giving “Ehrman-style explanations.” I don’t even know what this means. I am simply pointing out that the reported life and deeds of Jesus can be understood in historically interesting and enlightening ways when seeing their connections with contemporaneous rabbinic literature. Is that so controversial or threatening?

    If my argument is so ridiculous it should be easy to explain why in a few paragraphs,

    Your argument is ridiculous because no matter how unique or unprecedented you think Jesus is or was, these qualities are not themselves evidence of any story being true. What do you do with stories that are clearly fictional — in whole or in part yet are unique and unprecedented? Ulysses fits the bill as unlike most anything that came before. Should we consider it true? Don Quixote represents a radical break from previous literature. Is he true?

    The legend challenge is a historical and evidentiary challenge. It cannot be ducked by retreating to the text because the text is the very thing being questioned.

    Is that clear enough?

  77. Ray Ingles

    Tom –

    Who were the “people who knew [the stories] weren’t true in each case? Who was “keeping them silent” in each case?

    That’s part of the problem. Who says that people were being kept silent? People were pointing out problems with the Satanic Panic, and the anti-vaccination movement, and the popular narrative of Kitty Genovese’s murder, and young-Earth creationism from the start. That didn’t stop any of them from growing. (Indeed, quite a number of scholars regard Matthew’s account of the guard at the tomb a later reply to then-contemporary claims that the body had been stolen.)

    What kind of stories did they develop, as in (since it’s the point of the post, after all!) what kind of moral character did they assume or invent (if they did) in each case?

    Stories that could on the one hand account for their persecuted, unpopular situation – their own Savior had undergone similar hardships, and hadn’t defended Himself! – and on the other hand promise salvation from that situation, if only they were patient and faithful.

  78. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Your examples are of legendary processes producing stories of imperfect people following imperfect practices. I think they support my point, don’t you?

    As for your proposal in the last paragraph, it’s confused. Given “their persecuted, unpopular situation,” how would it help them to make up a perfectly self-sacrificial savior? Why not make up one whose example included a bit of self-protection and/or retaliation? Why make salvation dependent on following a made-up version of Jesus who allowed them to fight back?

    And again: how did such a psychologically screwed up, mixed up community produce the only character of such perfection in all literary history? You’re waving you’re hand and saying they could have. That’s easy to say. There’s no evidence in all the rest of human history of it being easy to do, even for literary geniuses.

    You’re not grappling with the real problem.

  79. Post
    Author
  80. Post
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  81. BillT

    People were pointing out problems with the Satanic Panic, and the anti-vaccination movement, and the popular narrative of Kitty Genovese’s murder, and young-Earth creationism from the start. That didn’t stop any of them from growing.

    Actually, in time it “stopped” all of them. Just where are we now with those stories. The Satanic Panic is a long forgotten news item, (the anti-vaccination movement is too new to draw conclusions from), the popular narrative of Kitty Genovese’s murder has been thoroughly debunked, and young-Earth creationism has become a minority view in the Christian world. Christianity, on the other hand, became and remains the world’s largest religion and continues to attract more converts than all the rest of the world’s religion combined.

  82. BillT

    In other words Ray. Just naming a bunch of things who’s veracity is/was questionable and might have had their moment in the sun is a non sequitur as it relates the Christianity. If Christianity couldn’t verify the facts it is based on we’d not even know as much about it as we do about the Satanic Panic. However, just the opposite happened with Christianity. It flourished. What can and does explain that is it’s ability to verify the facts it is based on in the face of all comers.

  83. G. Rodrigues

    @BillT:

    Just naming a bunch of things who’s veracity is/was questionable and might have had their moment in the sun is a non sequitur as it relates the Christianity.

    This is indeed a very puzzling way (read: fallacious) to argue. Unless Ray explicits what principle allows him to go from X (UFO reports or whatever are false) to Y (Christianity is false), it is all pretty much a futile waste of time. And in the measure that such would-be principles have been made explicit, they have been shown to be self-refuting.

  84. Ray Ingles

    BillT –

    Actually, in time it “stopped” all of them.

    That’s rather bold, and you immediately go back on it and admit “the anti-vaccination movement is too new to draw conclusions from”. There are still people pushing the notion of “satanic ritual abuse”, there are still people parroting the Genovese legend.

    Anti-vaxxers are still quite plentiful and doing real harm. (Hey, welcome back, polio! Long time no see!) And I’m sorry, but you are flat wrong about young-Earth creationism being a ‘minority opinion’.

    And this is in the face of demonstrable, repeatable, explainable evidence in favor of things like vaccination or the age of the Earth. The notion that anything like that kind of skepticism was applied in the early days of Christianity is absurd. Indeed, how many people protested that scientific thinking was totally out of place at that time when I brought up the notion of Jesus covering basic hygiene?

  85. Ray Ingles

    Ah, G. Rodrigues. There you are.

    Unless Ray explicits what principle allows him to go from X (UFO reports or whatever are false) to Y (Christianity is false), it is all pretty much a futile waste of time.

    No, no, you’ve turned it completely around. Again. I’m not claiming that because those were wrong, Christianity is wrong. I’m pointing out that just because Christianity spread doesn’t make it right. I’m pointing out existence proofs – things that can be easily shown to be false that nevertheless become extremely widespread anyway.

  86. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    As for your proposal in the last paragraph, it’s confused. Given “their persecuted, unpopular situation,” how would it help them to make up a perfectly self-sacrificial savior? Why not make up one whose example included a bit of self-protection and/or retaliation?

    Not unlike how the satanic panic types – or any conspiracy theorists, really – deal with the lack of evidence for their beliefs – by doubling down. “There’s no evidence because the conspiracy is just that good!” “We’re persecuted and unpopular… but so was Jesus, we’re supposed to be oppressed!”

  87. BillT

    Ray,

    Even if there are “still” people who believe in the Satanic Panic or there are anti vaxxers, these things have nothing to do with Christianity and it’s growth as I explained in #85. Without credible witnesses to confirm the Gospel stories, Christianity never makes it out of the Upper Room. That’s the difference. If you can’t deal with the facts surrounding Christianity, which it seems obvious you cant, brining up a bunch of unrelated issues hurts your position it doesn’t help it.

  88. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    And Ray, “doubling down” on being oppressed is a left turn off the topic of being uniformly self-giving and other-oriented. It’s changing the subject.

  89. BillT

    And yes Ray I get the point you make in #88. People can believe things in contradiction to the facts. But that’s the opposite of Christianity which would have been a complete non starter without confirmation of the facts.

  90. G. Rodrigues

    @Ray Ingles:

    I’m pointing out existence proofs – things that can be easily shown to be false that nevertheless become extremely widespread anyway.

    Ah there you are, consistently failing to understand the point. Exactly the same lack of a principle that allows you to go from X is wrong to Y is wrong is missing in judging other allegedly parallel claims. And brushing aside all the relevant disanalogies in the alleged parallel cases is really not a good way to proceed.

    And it is highly ironical that you mention conspiracy theorists. That there are local conspiracies no one in his right mind can deny. The kind of global conspiracy needed to make of Christianity what it eventually turned out to be and against the odds it faced? A wholly different beast entirely.

  91. Ray Ingles

    BillT –

    But that’s the opposite of Christianity which would have been a complete non starter without confirmation of the facts.

    Why? So many other things were both (a) “without confirmation of the facts” and (b) starters. How did Islam take off so spectacularly? And we’ve talked about the birth and spread of Mormonism, too.

    Again: this does not argue that Christianity is or was wrong. It simply establishes that it didn’t have to be right to succeed and spread. G. Rodrigues seems particularly unwilling to grasp that distinction.

    Tom Gilson –

    And Ray, “doubling down” on being oppressed is a left turn off the topic of being uniformly self-giving and other-oriented. It’s changing the subject.

    You asked a specific question, and I answered it.

  92. Billy Squibs

    That was more than a touch sarky, Bob. I would add to the list that throughout the post you engaged in grossly uncharitable representations of your opponents views and argued against straw-men. Not once did you attempt to tackle the strongest arguments or beliefs offered by Christianity, and I hope that people can see this no matter their stance on the God question. Let me be clear, Bob, I believe that your post oozes with mendacity.

    For example, you treated us to clangers like –

    Doubting Thomas.
    Therefore blind faith.
    Therefore Jesus = bad.

    Could it be that you actually think that this is both the best or the only possible understanding of this story? Shall I offer a better one? Or perhaps you’re really in this to score some points?

    Earlier you had assured us that the sacrifice of Jesus was but “a painful weekend—frankly, not that big a deal”. You then went on to claim that “Jesus didn’t do much”. Unsupported statements like these are clearly intended to be inflammatory. Red meat to the locals at your blog and something to rile up the “Jesus fanboys”. However, when you decided to go down this dishonest line of argumentation you bypassed what Christianity claims about what the cross means for creation-wide soteriology. In doing so you jettisoned your credibility – at least with this reader.

    I remember when you appeared on the Don Johnson show and it seemed to me that you were possibly interested in having an honest debate. Indeed, I initially defended you when you first appeared on this blog because I though you were on the wrong end of some sharp comments. After reading your post I now realise, Bob, that you were pretending all along to have a conversation.

  93. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Larry

    Why? So many other things were both (a) “without confirmation of the facts” and (b) starters. How did Islam take off so spectacularly? And we’ve talked about the birth and spread of Mormonism, too.

    Again: this does not argue that Christianity is or was wrong. It simply establishes that it didn’t have to be right to succeed and spread. G. Rodrigues seems particularly unwilling to grasp that distinction.

    Right about what? Islam could harmlessly claim to be right about its philosophies and its God, and no one would have the facts at hand to contradict it. Christianity is rooted in actual historical facts. It was (and in a difference sense remains) an empirical set of facts. (You do believe in empiricism?) The two truth tests are completely different.

  94. BillT

    As Tom points out Ray, Christianity is based on the facts in the NT being true. It’s a story about a man and what he actually did. Christ actually lived, actually made the lame walk and the blind see, actually walked on water, actually died and was resurrected. Further, the original believers were also the eyewitnesses to all of the above. That these things need to be actual provable facts as a necessary condition to the beginning, growth and success of Christianity is a concept that the average 5th grader could understand. You understand it too, Ray.

  95. Scott_In_OH

    Tom,

    Thanks for an interesting article and an open combox where I can offer some tentative criticisms.

    You make three arguments (as I understand the article), each of which initially seemed true but which I eventually thought were weaker than they first appeared.

    1. Jesus as described in the Bible was all-powerful and all-giving
    2. No other such character exists in literature
    3. It is unlikely that the four Gospel writers would come up with the same unprecedented character if he weren’t real

    On 1,

    a. To make Jesus wholly self-giving, you want to separate him from Yahweh (you make this explicit in comment 12 above), but to make him all-powerful you equate him with Yahweh (this is how I read your statement in the article that “Jesus created everything and upholds it by his word”). So maybe Jesus himself is not as all-powerful or all-giving as you say.

    b. Even aside from arguably trivial examples like the fig tree, not all of Jesus’s actions were incontrovertibly selfless, even his death and resurrection. Jesus’s short-term self-sacrifice (and God the Father’s short-term sacrifice of His Son) is only laudable in the sense that a mob boss or an abuser “sacrifices” something in order to convince himself not to blow up a business or hit his wife. The whole game is about God’s/Jesus’s self-interest. I think the only way out of that is to define God’s/Jesus’s interests as inherently selfless, which makes the argument a tautology.

    On 2, it might make more sense to compare Jesus to other allegedly divine figures, rather than literary or human ones.

    On 3,

    a. The question isn’t really how the Gospel writers came to an agreement on this story of Jesus’s nature but how they came to an agreement on any story of Jesus’s nature. In other words, it would be just as difficult for the four Gospels to tell a story of a Jesus who was all-powerful and all-giving except for one bad day as it would be for them to tell a story of a Jesus who was all-powerful and all-giving.

    b. I think this means we actually can’t say anything about the veracity of the story based on what’s in the story. Instead, we have to go back to the tools of comparative religion and literary history. How do stories get passed along? How did other religions develop? Etc.

    Thanks again for a place to think.

    For background: I’m here after reading the post at CrossExamined and consider myself a once-strong believer who is now somewhere between very doubtful and fully atheist.

  96. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Thank you for reading through the read and commenting thoughtfully, Scott in OH. (Are you the Scott in Ohio that I’ve spent some time with? Or another Scott?)

    You say that “To make Jesus wholly self-giving, you want to separate him from Yahweh (you make this explicit in comment 12 above).” No, that’s not what I intended to do, at least. What I wanted to do in comment 12 was not to separate Jesus from Yahweh but to separate two problems so as to look at one of them independently.

    That requires further explanation, I’m sure.

    God has a bad rap in the Old Testament. As I indicated in that comment, there is some good scholarship out there that makes a good case that it’s an undeserved bad rap. If we understand the context, the genre, and so on, we see that things that look bad from here amount to a serious case of anachronistic error.

    But that’s a complicated case to build, involving lengthy explorations of of context, genre, and, well, you get the picture. I accept the conclusion that the OT God is very, very good, but I didn’t want to go into the discussion to explain why I accept it.

    And I don’t think I have to go into that discussion for purposes of the current argument. The story of Jesus is one that can be examined for what it is in the pages of the four Gospels. Naturally if there were external evidence contradicting that story it would cast doubt on the conclusions I’ve drawn from it. I’m not opposed to having conversations about those kinds of questions, but I like to focus on one thing at a time. For now, that one thing is this: that the four-time told story of Jesus is remarkable in itself, each of those four times. It’s remarkable in ways that make a legendary provenance unlikely.

    Now, this comment deserves a blog post of its own, which I hope to do sometime over the weekend:

    Jesus’s short-term self-sacrifice (and God the Father’s short-term sacrifice of His Son) is only laudable in the sense that a mob boss or an abuser “sacrifices” something in order to convince himself not to blow up a business or hit his wife. The whole game is about God’s/Jesus’s self-interest.

    If that were true I wouldn’t worship God for a moment. It isn’t. I’ll save the explanation for a bit later.

    On 2, it might make more sense to compare Jesus to other allegedly divine figures, rather than literary or human ones.

    I’ve opened the door to that. From my Touchstone article:

    The scope of the question is intentionally broad. I exclude biblical personages for reasons that will become clear later, but include everyone else: both historical and quasi-historical figures, as well as characters that are purely the products of human imagination, whether from literature, mythology, film, TV, or even comic books. And I define power in this context as the ability to do and/or obtain whatever one wants without constraint.

    You go on to say,

    a. The question isn’t really how the Gospel writers came to an agreement on this story of Jesus’s nature but how they came to an agreement on any story of Jesus’s nature. In other words, it would be just as difficult for the four Gospels to tell a story of a Jesus who was all-powerful and all-giving except for one bad day as it would be for them to tell a story of a Jesus who was all-powerful and all-giving.

    How is a more ordinary character less extraordinary to devise than a more extraordinary one? I don’t get that.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  97. Jenna Black

    Scott, RE: #99 and Tom’s response #100

    You appear to argue that the 4 gospel authors (as in The Gospel according to …MMLJ) “agreed” upon their representation of Jesus. This is a rather elaborate conspiracy theory, not an argument for the process of legend creation. A legend isn’t an account or narrative that is agreed on by a limited number of people (writers, authors, story-tellers, etc.) nor is a legend the testimony of eyewitnesses. If atheists are going to argue that the gospels are legend, you jolly-well had better know what a legend is and how one come about, most especially since your claim is that, if I understand you correctly, the gospels, all four of them, are a single legend.

  98. Scott_In_OH

    Thanks for the reply, Tom (at #100). I look forward to your additional posts on the goodness of Yahweh and how God is a loving, rather than abusive, parent. I’ve believed those things in the past, but I’m less convinced now.

    In the last comment you quoted, I was trying to say (clumsily) that it would hard to explain how four separate authors came up with the same character independently, regardless of the specific attributes of the character. I’d be pretty amazed if four different people created Superman–complete with Krypton, Lois Lane, Kryptonite, x-ray vision, and so on–independently. Or if they each created Macbeth on their own.

    Of course, the Gospel writers didn’t come up with Jesus independently, as the later writers read the earlier ones. That, and any editing by later members of the Church hierarchy, would make it less amazing that the Gospels all tell a similar story.

    Overall, I think you raise interesting points to think about, and it’s enough to generate some hypotheses about the provenance of the Gospels. Testing those hypotheses, though, requires empirical analysis of, I think, comparative religion and literary history.

    (I’m pretty sure we don’t know each other, by the way.)

  99. Scott_In_OH

    Thanks for your comment, too, Jenna Black (at #101). I fear I was unclear. I didn’t mean that the four Gospel writers got together and agreed on their texts. Rather, I meant (as I think Tom meant) that the four Gospels themselves agree on many of Jesus’s characteristics. Indeed, Tom’s argument is that the agreement across the Gospels is in need of an explanation.

    One possibility is that they were each recording the life of an actual man and described him essentially correctly. Another possibility (which I guess doesn’t rule out the first) is that the accounts were written in succession, and the later writers had the earlier writers’ works to refer to. Another is that the texts were edited over time. My point is simply that the similarities don’t prove the stories are true.

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