The Other “Deniers”

Disclosures with Salt

I'll always answer to "atheist," but in truth  I'm more of an apatheist. Which is to say, I positively don't care about religious questions. This
has been my outpost since I was a kid, when I shucked the whole grisly
business of Christianity more or less along with the Tooth Fairy. Once
I had the storybook gist of it down, the idea of a 2000 year old bloodgod dying for my sins struck me as quite perverse – and worse, boring. Same with every sold version of the G-Dog from on High. Like
everyone else, I've contemplated the cosmic first-order questions —
about life, the universe, the Loch Ness Monster, and everything — but
the "God" answer never seemed remotely satisfying. It always felt like a
non-sequitur, really — an empty question-begging cul-de-sac
overlooking a happily hopeless void. No way, no how was that shit true, or
even meaningful (except perhaps as psychology). From the time I was
popping zits, I felt sure that  Heaven and Hell were as crazy as
Santa's workshop. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the
Earth" didn't sound like something a reasonable person would ever
say, much less believe. To me, it was just gratingly obvious that a
whole lotta grown-ups were wasting a whole lotta time on a whole lotta
nothing. So
I stopped paying attention. Apathy seemed apposite.

When
I became a grown-up myself, I wondered from time to time if I might
have missed something. So I checked into the work of a few respected
Christian thinkers. Got a big kick out of Chesterton's Orthodoxy,
with all its brain-tickling literary precision and paradox-pumping
razzmatazz. I also took to the miserablist riffs in Kierkegaard and
Saint Augustine. And the pop-tract by that Narnia guy had its moments,
I admit. After dipping here and there, I  came away with a dim
appreciation for the mystique and pomp and crazy moral gravity of the
transcendental temptation in the key of C. And as a more eccentric aside, I
remember how Rene Girard's sublimely creepy text, Violence and the Sacred
,
left me to wonder for a few fleeting seconds whether Christianity might
have been more of a positive force in history than I had allowed

— a way to tame (or sublimate) a universal sacrificial urge. Didn't
really work out that way, but I suppose things could have been much worse.

But
there would be no chiliastic hook. The reasons that reason does not
know would never be reason enough for me. I was left with a stolid and
prideless resignation, left to my cozy redoubt as a careless
couldn't-give-a-shit unbeliever by default. I harbor no animus for
those who celebrate and fear what I cannot grasp and do not believe.
There's no hostility. No fight to pick. I'm content to ascribe it to a
failure of imagination, or a lack of "faith," if that's your out. Even
if I remain confident in my viscera that there is, in plain reality, no
God. There's just one thing after another until it stops. Until the
brakes lock or until you nest down in your deathbed, clutching the
remote, enfeebled and hurting and craving release. That's enough Truth
for me to believe. The best you can hope for is air conditioning.       


Jesus Denial: An Irresponsible Introduction

Of course, it is one thing to believe, as I lazily do, that
the Lord and Savior is a cosmic crock. It is quite another thing to
assert, as a vocal minority of troublesome theology geeks have for centuries, that Jesus Christ never existed in the flesh.
When it comes to Jesus denial, I've never had a strong default
instinct. If you had asked me about it a couple of years ago, I would
have felt reasonably confident that the J-Man of the Gospels was probably
as real as Ernest Borgnine. Not a supernatural bloodgod, but a
peripatetic agitator-magician-priest bearing some crude resemblance to the
canonical character. But that was before I bothered to look into the
controversy. Now that I've read just enough to be dangerous, I'm more
inclined to tip the odds in favor of the Jesus deniers. Off the cuff,
I'd assign 60-70% confidence to the proposition that the rebel Jew of
antiquity is essentially a fictional creation, a composite superhero
patched together out of sundry scraps that were fatefully gathered and
repackaged by scribes and opportunistic power-brokers over a period of
centuries. Those odds could change in an instant, but for now my sketchily informed hunch is that it was a lucky shot, a
good story drawn from the wish-fulfilling ether of Imaginationland

 
Jesus
deniers are often ridiculed by mainstream scholars and biblical
historicists, but I'm not entirely sure why. The arguments put forth by
deniers — the better of them, anyway (as usual, there are kooks in the soup) —
are well developed and come with a pedigree that dates back to the
Enlightenment if not earlier. And it's not as though the consensus
view  is supported by much in the way of first order evidence, despite overconfident
assurances to the contrary that one immediately encounters upon
visiting the controversy. Once you understand that the canonical
Gospels were essentially plucked from a once robust literary genre of
Jesus yarns written generations or centuries after the alleged
biographical events, you see that they provide evidence only of a
Christian tradition, which nobody disputes. Then you're left with
little to nothing. Seriously. As far as I can gather (and please correct me), a few late 1st and 2nd century shards are what remain, and
these are either muddled in ambiguity or discountable as hearsay. When
you look for solid prime-time, contemporaneous historical corroboration of
Jesus's life and deeds, the record is eerily silent. Scholars of
antiquity agree that extant documents from the period when Jesus is
believed to have lived  make no mention of the central events of his
life, ministry or execution. Save one dismissibly absurd, oblique, and ambiguous
line from the Mishnah, there's not a word about him, for
example, in surviving Rabbinic texts from the contemporary period. (The
famous slurs appear to have come much later, after the Jesus story was culturally entrenched.) No
writings have ever been directly attributed to Jesus, and despite
the supposed popularity of his cult — and the spectacle of his execution — it doesn't appear that any of
his followers bothered to take notes. Maybe something will turn up, but
as things stand, this is the Big Problem that the deniers' counter-narrative, in its ambitious form, seeks to resolve. Given
the absence of clear-cut contemporary evidence — and the dearth of
near-contemporary evidence — for Jesus' physical existence, it seems most reasonable that the burden should rest with those who claim otherwise to put
up or cop to agnosticism on the central question. "Absence of evidence"
may not be "evidence of absence," as the apologists snort, but it sure
as fuck isn't evidence of an historical Jesus.

I
think it's important to understand that the counter-narrative advanced
by those who deny the existence of a literal Jesus is not based some crass
theory of a hoax or conspiracy. For the deniers, the Christ god-man story
is a long-evolved social construction formed over generations through
the accretion of disparate and confluent literary and mythic clips and
tropes, reconciled and amplified through the
theologically uncontroversial process of syncretism.
Maybe you begin with the cultural backdrop of Hellenized Judaism, where
restive currents of messianic prophesy are scripted and professed by
dispossessed and disappointed adherents. Against this backdrop, you
soon find dissident proto-Christian Gnostics cribbing liberally from
the already cross-pollinated mélange of pagan mystery-cult-rehearsed mythemes
and motifs, from which they will form a germinal  image of an ethereal
salvific figure that will be called the Christ. But this Christ – or
"Christos" – comes with no secular baggage, no carnal biography or
pretense thereof; he is more akin to a godhead (or perhaps a safely
guided acid trip). For the initiated, the Gnostic Christ will provide a
spiritually accessible inner path to salvation and
enlightenment, ritualized within a rarefied narrative of resurrection.
But such a high concept isn't easily packaged and sold to the teeming
multitude, so, over time, the esoteric hook comes to be refashioned —
dumbed down and vulgarized for mass consumption.  Through allegorical
stories and pageantry, a ghostly fount is given corporeal form, is
anthropomorphised. Screen-tested into the more apprehensible visage of a
man become godman — a walkin,' talkin,' miracle-workin' heroic messiah
built to scratch a nagging cultural itch. Something like that. Of course, it would have taken several
human lifetimes for things to crystallize. 

I don't think it's difficult
to imagine a situation where a high concept is rebranded for the mass
appeal, where mystically layered esoterica is revamped to slake popular
tastes. Think of the aesthetic and intellectual disconnect between the
old Universal monster movies and the Victorian novels on which they
were based. While Mary Shelley's Creature was an existentially haunted
incarnation of rationalist anxiety, James Whale's Creature was a
grunting monster who most viewers still believe answers to the name
"Frankenstein."  And maybe that's the grain of it. People make up
stories, then the stories are absorbed into the cultural mire where
they are hacked and garbled and reimagined and embellished and gussied
up with iconographic ornamentation, or special effects. The story of
Jesus, according to the deniers, is just a spiralling clusterfuck of confusion and invention, pitched through common recital. Made to sell.

The denialist case is famously adorned with references to conspicuously similar parallel narratives and archetypes from antecedent
religions and traditions where key plot-points and motifs of the Jesus
story can be cornered in the manner of comparative mythology.
As
the heretics are quick to point out, the fetish with "dying and rising
gods" long predates the Christian resurrection narrative. It goes beck
to Osiris and Dionysus, and can be found in  myths across a wide range
of cultures, as this working list of "life-death-rebirth deities"  from
diverse religious and mythic traditions illustrates. What's more, some
of the most ostensibly Jesus-centric story elements and
iconic images seem to find precedent in more ancient
traditions. According to theology writer Tim Callahan (who is officially not a
denier [more on which below]), "Jesus’ crown of thorns, along with most of the specific
details of the Passion — his being clothed in a purple robe and given a
reed as a scepter, the mocking and scourging by the Roman troops, even
his being put to death — were probably elements of the Zagmuku Festival,
which the Jews brought back with them from Babylon after their
captivity there (587–538 BCE)." And as the Bible scholar Robert M.
Price
— a moderate Jesus skeptic — notes, accounts of crucifixion
survival (and empty tombs), were a staple trope in 2nd Century novels,
just when gospel stories were competing for public attention. Indeed, it doesn't
take long to discover probable non-Christian precursors for just about every
element of the Christ story, from the Eucharist to the virgin birth to
the miracles, all of which can be deconstructed in the scheme of 
literary criticism.

Jesus deniers and
skeptics are especially fond of drawing attention to a coterie
of conspicuously Jesus-ish motifs that run through the theology
of Mithraism (or "Sol Invictus" as it was called in ancient
Rome), a rival religion to Christianity (with deeper roots) that
held official Roman sanction prior to the Constantinian twist. Hardcore
Jesus denier Ken Humphreys considers Mithraism to be a practical mirror
image of early Christianity, with one crucial distinction. To wit:    

 

Mithraism's
failure to have anthropomorphised its god into a man – something which
was to be accomplished so successfully by Christianity – weakened the
cult's appeal to the uneducated and opened the door to the competition.


Savior narratives were common enough back when, and it
shouldn't be surprising that one version would have risen to top the
heap, perhaps with a little prodding from officialdom down the line.
I think
Price sums up the problem neatly when he likens the situation to that
of a modern comic book reader who acknowledges that the entire
superhero pantheon is fictional, except for Superman.   

Of course, the parallels, intriguing though they are, do
not in themselves demonstrate that Jesus did not exist, and the deniers
do not rest their case on comparative grounds. It could be, as Jesus
historicists contend, that the kernel of truth in the Jesus narrative
was just grandly embellished with recurrent archetypes and culturally
embedded themes.
In this respect, it is interesting to note that deniers sometimes argue that the Egyptian deity Horus provides a salient example of how a legendary figure can be anthropomorphised
over time. The analogy is striking, but the sword is double-edged
because the transformation can certainly go in the opposite direction.
And maybe that that's what happened with the Greatest Story Ever Told
— much the way the story of Santa Claus comes to us so distantly
removed from the life of of "Nicholas of Myra," who probably existed;
or the tenuous route through which Bram Stoker's Dracula traces to the
expoits of a medieval Romanian badass. Flesh and blood figures can be
and are radically and sensationally reconceived in the process of modern mythmaking, and there's certainly a credible possibility
that a real Jesus could have been subject to such a cultural makeover.
The problem with this, again, is that there is no clear-cut secular
corroboration of the historical Jesus, when reason tells us should be . .
something. You have two possibilities: the mythicists' account, by
which an invented god is transformed into a man; and the historicists'
account, by which a living man is tranformed into a god. We know who
won. We don't know who's right.         
        

The rest of the denialist account isn't tough to unfold. You
fast forward a few generations to where the mystical origins of a
narrative become obscure, to where the Christ cultists have done their
thing and created their own infights and factional rifts, and somewhere
in the fan club culture that emerges you end up with collection of 
midrashic and novelistic narratives, developed so that once abstruse
spiritual themes can be funneled into the
edging form of a practiced and biographically situated savior
narrative, ripe for codification.  And codification seals the deal. I
suppose that would be where Constantine would fit in, along with subsequent
thugs who would police the form of an emergent orthodoxy.
Give the stew a  few centuries to percolate and and you end up with a
body of intertextually derived storybooks that come to comprise a
dominant narrative about a shitstirring god-dude who ambled around
Palestine doing magic tricks and causing trouble until the bastards cut
him down, all for you. Pagan and Gnostic residue will crust at the margins, but in
muted form, nested against a literally insistent hagiography that gains
the imprimature of a ruthless church-state. By this point, all you need are a few attentive editors
to tidy things up for posterity. A bit of retrofitting and gloss, perhaps abbetted
by a churchstate-sponsored cottage industry of propaganda and forgery.

The important thing is this. Once the victor's script is embedded in
every nook of a culture, you've got yourself a world class religion.
And with that much done and done, radical doubt about the germ of the
thing can be safely branded — and prosecuted — as heresy. Or
in modern fashion, dismissed as absurdity.  This is the context that
leads me to suspect that Jesus was a spook, and nothing more. Now, rev up
the time machine and prove me wrong. 

Embarrassment and Difficulty on Baker Street

When you encounter an
argument that radically challenges the prevailing consensus, it's
always a good idea to look up what the most respected critics have to
say.  In most cases, that's where it will end. You'll find that the
dissident position is deftly checked by credible research and the
seductive appeal of the underdog's narrative will deflate like a
patched raft. This doesn't seem to be the case with Jesus denial.
Consider the defense of the historical Jesus proffered by Skeptic
magazine's aforementioned religion editor, Tim Callahan, where, in the
context of an otherwise competent debunking of the entertaining
crackpot webumentary, Zeitgeist, he presents a scholar's response to Jesus denial.

Here's Tim:  

Was there a real Jesus? While the historical evidence is meager, it does exist. In his Antiquities of the Jews,
book 20, chapter 9, item 1, referring to the execution of James,
Josephus refers to him as the brother of “Jesus, who was called the
Christ.” It is quite plain that Josephus didn’t see Jesus as the Christ
(Christos, the Greek word meaning “anointed”), he merely
recorded that James’ brother was the Jesus who had been called or was
alleged to be the Christ.

Beyond this scrap, valuable though
it is, we can imply the existence of a historical Jesus from the
criteria of embarrassment and difficulty. The criterion of
embarrassment says that people do not make up embarrassing details
about someone they wish to revere. So, if they say such things about
the person, they are probably true. Now let’s apply this to what the
Roman historian Tacitus had to say about Jesus early in the second
century. Concerning rumors that had spread that Nero had deliberately
set fire to the city of Rome, Tacitus says (The Annals of Imperial Rome, Book 1, Chapter 15):

To suppress this rumor, Nero fabricated scapegoats — and punished
with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were
called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign
by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this
temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not
only in Judea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All
degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capitol.

That Tacitus is
obviously a hostile witness makes it much more likely that he accepted
Jesus as a real person. Had he reason to suspect he was nothing more
than a fabrication, Tacitus would certainly have said so. That author’s
claim that Jesus had been executed by Pontius Pilate could only have
come from one of two possible sources: Either Tacitus knew this to be
true from extant imperial records or he was repeating what Christians
themselves had said of Jesus. Were Jesus a mythical character they had
invented, they certainly wouldn’t have gone out of their way to invent
his being a criminal who had been executed.

In like manner,
people do not go out of their way to invent difficulties for a
character they have invented. It is clear from the Nativity narratives
of the gospels of Matthew and Luke that they were faced with having to
explain why Jesus grew up in Galilee if he was born in Bethlehem. Both
gospels had to invent rather convoluted means to get Jesus born in
Bethlehem in accordance with the messianic prophecy in Micah 5:2, then
get him moved to Nazareth. Clearly they were stuck with a real person
known to have come from Galilee, when he should have come from
Bethlehem. Had they been making Jesus up out of whole cloth, they would
simply have said he came from Bethlehem: end of story, no
complications. So the evidence for Jesus as a real, historical
personage, though meager, is solid.

First, it should be kept in mind that Callahan's rejoinder is
presented in the context of a review of a film promoting madly
far-fetched conspiracy theories, which  is very different from
appraising the more scholarly traditions of Jesus skepticism. I don't
want to fault Callahan too far on this point, because such is his beat
at Skeptic. However, I do think the kook-debunking context
makes it a helluva lot easier for him to soft-peddle a half-hearted
rejection of Jesus denial without considering the counter-responses
that would inevitably come up in a more considered account of extant
research.

For example, it turns out that Christ deniers
have a lot to say about that drive-by reference by Josephus. Any
reading of Callahan's "scrap" ("valuable though it is") should thus
fairly be weighted against contrapuntal arguments of deniers, which
rest on contextualization, the possibility of mistaken identity, and
the credible suspicion of posthumous editorial errors — or mischief –
made by 4th century Christian scriveners. Specifically, deniers
dispute the authenticity of that "who was called the Christ" clause,
which they suspect to have been spliced in to harmonize the passage
with the Jewish scribe's famous
Testimonium Flavianum, which is now widely believed
to have been significantly altered by Christian PR men.
Allegations of posthumous tampering might seem a bit paranoid on first
pass, but forgery appears to have been common practice among early
guardians of orthodoxy, and Josephus' surviving work comes to us
through Christian provenance. It's also possible, as George Albert
Wells
has conjectured, that the line came about less nefariously — as a
transcription error lifted from marginalia. When you read the full text, it does seem like an awkward clause. 

 
Deniers also point to the subsequent section in the same text, where Josephus refers to one  "Jesus, the son of Damneus," or Jesus bar Damneus.  It's somewhat confusing, in part because a
gaggle of "Jesuses" – like, at least 20 — populate Josephus' major work, but
the dissident interpretation is that when the passage is stripped and
arguably suspect of the oddly parsed "who was called the Christ"
flourish, it can be seen that both references are to the one and the
same "Jesus," that is: Jesus bar Damneus. Their point is strongly contested and I have no idea what
to make of it except that it illustrates why it is important
not to dangle your modifiers. This Wikipedia article provides a decent introduction the controversy that Callahan fails to mention.      
 
Apart from ignoring potential problems with Josephus, notice more generally
how Callahan flirts with straw man argumentation. By angling his
rejoinder against the claim that Jesus was "made up out of whole cloth"
he leaves readers with a baldly conspiratorial impression of Jesus
denial. But
religious syncretism and social construction are central to more sophisticated strains of the Jesus-as-myth thesis, and reasoned denialist theory simply doesn't jibe with Callahan's glibly
pitched account of a pure concoction. I think Callahan is either being coy or
disingenuous with his phrasing, but there's no question that he knows
better.
  
Because no serious proponent of
the Jesus myth conceives of the story having been formed in such crude
manner — of it having simply been "made up." The deniers may be guilty
of rhetorical overstatement at times, but the essence of their case is
that the fixation on a living Jesus arose through the complex and
largely unconscious intermelding of culture and myth over a long
duration. As Ken Humphreys is careful to emphasize,
"No one 'just made-up' Jesus."

 
If we step around
the centuries of fabrication and glorification which informs everyone's
perception of Jesus Christ and closely examine the two hundred year
gestation period of the current Lord and Saviour we can see a perfectly
plausible and, indeed, convincing process by which, upon the legacy of
earlier times and from piety and scripture alone, the Christian godman
emerged into the light. Beliefs created the man; the man did not create
the beliefs.


The problems of "difficulty" and
"embarrassment" that Callahan relies on to render the skeptic's
position less tenable would have more persuasive force were they cited
against a tightly scripted propaganda campaign, i.e. something "made up
out of whole cloth." But if things unfolded more organically, as the
deniers contend, the skein of Jesus lore could be expected to come with
myriad knots and convolutions and problems in need of
fixing. When people separated by time and geography play at
editing and embellishing a story, there are going to be hanging issues
and inconsistencies. Ironing them out is parcel to the sociology of
myth construction and synthesis. Wikis might be relevant.

 
What's more, Callahan's ostensibly telling "criteria of
embarrassment and difficulty" can be found to apply to at least one
fictional personage. I'm sure you've already guessed.

I've only ever read the one about the dog
that didn't bark, but my wife is au fait with the more
obsessive strains of Baker Street fan culture, where Sherlock
Holmes can be fairly described as a "revered figure" and where
"biographers" wrestle with problems of embarrassment and difficulty as
a matter of course. Consider this searching inquiry written by a very confused
— or very self-amused — individual:

Little is known about the education of Sherlock Holmes. It's assumed
from references to "the university" in "The Gloria Scott", "The
Musgrave Ritual", and to some extent "The Adventure of the Three
Students", that Holmes attended Oxford or Cambridge, although the
question of which one remains a topic of eternal debate. Baring-Gould
[1] believed textual evidence indicated that Holmes attended both,
though Dorothy L. Sayers [2] thought he was a chemistry student at
Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, which would fit in with his evident knowledge
of forensics.

He was born on January 6, 1854, which would put his student years in
the 1870s, but there's no evidence of a Sherlock Holmes at the college
then, though a photograph from 1878 (one of the earliest college photos
ever taken) has several blanks amongst the captions, and several faces
smeared by the long exposure, one of them suspiciously Holmesian.

During his detective career he visited Cambridge several times,
taking the train from King's Cross. He betrays neither familiarity or
ignorance of Cambridge in these episodes, though there are clues that
he knew something of the surrounding area.

In "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter" he uses a tracker dog in Cambridge.

"In half an hour, we were clear of the town and hastening down a
country road. … The dog had suddenly turned out of the main road into
a grass-grown lane. Half a mile farther this opened into another broad
road, and the trail turned hard to the right in the direction of the
town, which we had just quitted. The road took a sweep to the south of
the town, and continued in the opposite direction to that in which we
started. … This should be the village of Trumpington to the right of
us."

From this one might deduce that Holmes'
knowledge of the centre of Cambridge seems rather vague, though
Trumpington seems familiar to him. In "The Hanover Square mystery" his
older brother Mycroft says

"Assuming that she comes into the town via the London road
-Trumpington Street – she could cycle to Bridge Street and then to the
Huntingdon road. That will get her to Girton. Alternatively, she could
turn left at Silver Street which will bring her through the Backs, a
more sheltered route."

Mycroft's clearly well
acquainted with Cambridge. Perhaps Sherlock never was an under-graduate
but visited his older brother Mycroft while Mycroft was a student. If
so, it's far from unlikely that when he did so, Holmes explored
Trumpington. After all, he was well-versed in the greats of literature
so he may have been interested in tracking down the location of
Chaucer's "The Reeve's Tale" – "At Trumpingtoun, not fer fro
Cantebrigge"

If we could recognise existing buildings in the description of
Holmes' travels then perhaps this connection with Trumpington would be
confirmed. After finding Trumpington to his right, Holmes "sprang
through a gate into a field" where "A footpath led across to the lonely
cottage". There's really only one cottage that this could be. Coming
off the M11 at junction 11 and heading towards Cambridge, Trumpington
will be on your right. On your left obscured by foliage in the middle
of a field is the dwelling where Godfrey Staunton's beautiful wife
breathed her last. 

I defer to my wife's take on this. She writes: 

The fact the author
looks to actual photographs of the period to see if he can find
Sherlock Holmes among the students illustrates how fucked up the debate
about Sherlock Holmes invariably is. It's like the eternal question:  Can the family understand Stewie Griffin?  Do Sherlock fans fully understand that he's fictional?

Of course, Callahan might counter that the search for
Sherlock is typically engaged with a playful wink, whereas the Jesus
stalkers are deadly sincere. But honestly, what would a Martian make of
it? Would the irony of armchair Holmesography be apparent to a future
reader? Keep in mind that that some people persist in the apparently
sincere belief that  Doyle's sleuth was in fact a very real person.
Such Sherlock "historicists" even cite a few curious scraps of
contemporania to support their case. Newspaper clips that really
shouldn't exist. (You remember that old In Search Of episode, don't
you?) And the matter is yet complicated when you consider that Doyle's
character was loosely inspired by a very real individual, a professor of medicine with a knack for induction.  Using Callahan's criteria, It'd be
a cinch to shore up the historicity of Holmes.
I
think Callahan is a topnotch scholar, but the evidence he summarizes
doesn't strike me being close to "solid." I think it's shaky. Built on tenuous, unsupported assumptions and questionable source a material.
 I
frankly suspect that Callahan is aware of this.  Loath to associate
himself with a fringe view, I think he dons the mask of a cynical
defense attorney and lets it lay. It's all done in good faith, but
without conviction. Like when David Hume pulled his punches, with better reason.   

Apathy and Fog

Apatheist
that I am, I'm sure I'm missing a lot. Frankly, I don't know the hell I'm talking about. But unless there's crushing
blow that has escaped my perusal (and please tell me if there is), I see
no reason to scoff at  Jesus denial. The paucity of compelling
secular evidence for Christ's existence just doesn't make sense. And
the deniers' arguments, so lazily caricatured, seem in every respect to merit serious consideration. Before you dismiss the dissident view, it
is worthwhile to reflect on how it all would  have taken place through
a subtle process of borrowing and retrofitting over a period of
centuries. Think about the meaning of just one century in your own
experience — then transpose that frame of reference to antiquity, when
channels of information and communication would have been subject to
caprice, oral adaptation, and manipulation. Had it been Mithra who came
to us in like manner, we would probably find his "history" as
well.

Since the 2nd century, non-Christian historians have written
voluminously about Christianity and Christendom, but they have had little original to say about
the wizard behind the curtain. What we are told about the life of Jesus
Christ comes overwhelmingly through removed and profoundly biased Christian sources, and the
story is perhaps hopelessly entangled in borrowed iconography and mythic
trappings of obscure etiology. Beyond this, the received account is polluted with so many fantastic supernatural claims that it's hard to know what would remain. And even the most generous secular appraisal cannot pretend to confirm a single word spoken by Jesus himself. It all comes second-hand, through ghostwriters of a different time. At the core of the legend, there might be a man,
or there might be only an idea, which is to say, nothing at all. Inevitably, we visit the question under
the spell of history ordained. This alone is reason to consider the
second possibility.       

The professional historicists will
busy themselves poring over orts and retracing circles. When they're
troubled to address the deniers, they will unpack the usual
sarcastically intoned assurances. Scholars
have reputations to preserve, and Jesus denial, however delicately its
seasoned, comes with a bitter stigma. It seems gauche, disrespectful,
and superficially unsatisfying. Because everyone knows what they know.
Because Jesus the Man is clotted in the intricate cogwork of  too much
cherished history and superstition to be dethroned without a fight. If
the deniers are right, their vindication will be slow in coming. And it
may never come at all. 

At least they no longer face persecution. It's the
other "deniers" for whom such special treatment is now reserved. Times change. And these
things take time.

___________________

Links and Resources

If you're curious about what Jesus deniers and skeptics have to say, the following resources may be of interest.

Books

Links

Films

Post-bleg: If anyone knows of good non-apologetical
sites or print resources devoted to rebutting/debunking Jesus denial
(something like Nizkor for Christ myth theory), please let me know and
I will append the list with a "rebuttals" section.   

Memento mori.

6 thoughts on “The Other “Deniers”

  1. There is absolutely no reason to scoff at this stuff, Chip. Naturally, there’s a spectrum of scholarship from just above conservative, to kooky. I think the approach is only considered a maverick one because these guys voice the question that’s stuck in the throat of their somewhat more conservative brethren (fundamentalists are on another planet in this regard, btw). One thing is clear- whether or not there’s a germ of a real person at the core of Christianity, the Jesus as portrayed in the gospels is a syncretistic invention. There’s really no questioning that.

  2. Thanks for chiming in, Jim. I know this is your beat, so if you have any links to suggest for the “sources” section, let me know and I’ll plug them in.
    Also, I just re-edited the post a bit — mostly to correct typos.

  3. Well, believe it or not, the first work I usually reference is ‘The Age of Reason’ by Thomas Paine. It’s not particularly scholarly, nor was it meant to be. But it gives a good, Everyman’s overview of the obvious fictitious nature of parts of the bible. There are passages that always make me laugh out loud. Here’s a sample concerning the rising up from the graves of various saints and prophets, right after the resurrection:
    “It is an easy thing to tell a lie, but it is difficult to support the lie after it is told. The writer of the book of Matthew should have told us who the saints were that came to life again, and went into the city, and what became of them afterward, and who it was that saw them — for he is not hardy enough to say he saw them himself; whether they came out naked, and all in natural buff, he-saints and she-saints; or whether they came full dressed, and where they got their dresses; whether they went to their former habitations, and reclaimed their wives, their husbands, and their property, and how they were received; whether they entered ejectments for the recovery of their possessions, or brought actions of crim. con. against the rival interlopers; whether they remained on earth, and followed their former occupation of preaching or working; or whether they died again, or went back to their graves alive, and buried themselves.
    Strange, indeed, that an army of saints should return to life, and nobody know who they were, nor who it was that saw them, and that not a word more should be said upon the subject, nor these saints have anything to tell us! Had it been the prophets who (as we are told) had formerly prophesied of these things, they must have had a great deal to say. They could have told us everything and we should have had posthumous prophecies, with notes and commentaries upon the first, a little better at least than we have now. Had it been Moses and Aaron and Joshua and Samuel and David, not an unconverted Jew had remained in all Jerusalem. Had it been John the Baptist, and the saints of the time then present, everybody would have known them, and they would have out-preached and out-famed all the other apostles. But, instead of this, these saints were made to pop up, like Jonah’s gourd in the night, for no purpose at all but to wither in the morning. Thus much for this part of the story.”

  4. Thanks, Jim. Paine’s unpacking of Matthew is entertaining, but I’ve never had much interest in the inerrancy debate since I begin with the assumption that the Bible is laced with fabulous bullshit. I don’t believe in miracles or supernatural healing powers or resurrection or any of it, and if someone tries to convince me that such accounts are literally true, I will become very sleepy. The historical Jesus stuff is different, I think, because it’s just plain fishy (no pun). To introduce a bit of perspective, I’ve never believed that Socrates was a real person; when you read the Greek dialogs and the account of his trial and death, it seems obvious that he was a literary creation conceived as a device through which to do philosophy and impart moral lessons. But Plato and Aristotle and the Stoics and other ancient scribes left behind bodies of writing that are easily distinguished. They existed. Someone did. Jesus reminds me of Socrates.
    Of tangential relevance, check out Heather Mac Donald’s comment and link over at the Secular Right blog on the “Third Man” phenomenon experienced by people in extreme situations. Makes me think about the “Footsteps” poster at grandma’s:
    http://secularright.org/wordpress/?p=2567
    Key up the Depeche Mode, I suppose.

  5. I figured Jesus was a real guy puffed up through oral tradition. I think I’ve mentioned before Koenraad Elst’s “Psychology of Prophetism” which tries to use some literary analysis to distinguish the original material from the mythic fabrications. An interesting take:
    http://koenraadelst.bharatvani.org/books/pp/index.htm
    I just learned that an atheist participant in “The God Who Wasn’t There” has converted to Christianity. Razib blames social influence, more specifically Dawn Eden (whom Udolpho seemed to have a special interest in):
    http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2009/08/john_mcwhorter_michael_behe_bl_1.php#comment-1885413
    I thought much of the “sayings” of Socrates were made up by Plato, but he was nevertheless real. It would make sense that Plato had a teacher, just as Aristotle had Plato. I think Socrates also appears in some Athenian plays, though in a less flattering light.
    My understanding was also that the Gnostic gospels were all written later than the more canonical ones. Also, many Gnostics denied that Jesus had ever died or been resurrected. That would make him too mortal a figure. I’ve heard others theorize that the original (Jamesian?) Christians did not make Jesus into a deity, but merely a great man (in keeping with the usual Jewish take on the Messiah and how blasphemous it was to try to expand the godhead).

  6. TGGP,
    I don’t doubt that Plato had a teacher who may have been the inspiration for Socrates — and may even have been Socrates. My reading is simply that Socrates translates more as a presonification than as a real individual. And of course, it’s interesting that he didn’t write anything. If the relationship between the literary Socrates and the “real” man were known to be as tenuous as that between Dr. Bell and Sherlock Holmes, or between Samuel Wilson and Uncle Sam, I would say that he is essentially an invention. The Trial and Death “feels” more like a cautionary parable than an historical account. And throughout the dialogues — as I remember them; it’s been a while — Socrates “feels” more like an embodiment of pure thought. A minority of scholars have held this view for a long time. I don’t know that it is correct; I only know that it sounds about right to me.
    The dating of the Nag Hammadi texts is hugely controversial in theo-nerd circles, but there seems to be grudging agreement among a plurality of scholars that Christian Gnosticism probably arose from earlier gnostic traditions, and probably most significantly from Jewish gnosticism. I wouldn’t hang too much on this, though. I think it’s most credible to consider how Christianity could have arisen out of preoccupations simmering in the world of Hellenized Judaism, as a messianic projection. Perhaps there was a guy — or perhaps there were a number of guys — who came to be garbled into the iconic Christ figure. But the alternative view that it could have been just another mythic tale rooted in sundry traditions and removed history seems at least as plausible to me. More so when you consider the problem of special pleading; again, if Mithraism had taken root and received the endorsement of the state, I think it’s likely that Mithra would have been reified in corporeal form to satisfy the public appetite for a literal foothold. And the same argument would emerge.
    The Psychology of Prophetism has been on my long list for a while. Don’t know what to make of the Raving Atheist. Ravers rave, I guess.

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