Christmas and Easter time typically brings with it a renewed interested in the issues surrounding the historical Jesus and the historicity of the infancy narratives or passion accounts depending on their respective seasons. Over the past couple of years, there has even been a bit of noise from those who think that it likely that Jesus never existed at all. Noted atheist apologists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have stated they believed that there was plausibility to the idea that such a figure at Jesus never actually walked the earth. Most recently, Richard Carrier has published his defense the theory that Jesus Christ began as a mythic figure in the writings of Paul and evolved to become the concrete prophet wandering around Palestine with his followers in the middle of the first century that we find int he Gospels.
Carrier and other proponents of the “myth theory” seem well read and reasoned to the non-specialist observer. Carrier’s arguments make sense and he seems to know the writings of the 1st century well. The Christ myth theory, however, is not held by any reputable historical New Testament scholar – believer or not. In fact, the possibility that Jesus never existed receives little attention in books on the subject. In the guild, the question of whether or not Jesus actually existed is a bit of a dead issue. The fact that most of the New Testament writings (including at least some of the gospels) appeared within living memory of the events that they report, and that sources outside the Christian community confirm that a Jewish teacher was crucified in Jerusalem is enough to convince scholars that enquiry into a historical investigation of the life of Jesus must begin with a historical bedrock that a figure such as Jesus actually existed.
It is always possible that Jesus never existed, but our resources for defending such a notion are few if any. All ancient writings we have that refer to Jesus appear to assume that he actually existed as historical person. Any attempt to suggest otherwise, requires a denial of the validity of some of the ancient sources while offering radical re-readings of others. The issue that I am interested in, however, is the not the issue of whether or not Jesus existed, but rather why people like Richard Dawkins believe that it is possible that there was never a historical Jesus despite the broad consensus among historians of Christian origins. In fact, despite Richard Dawkins’ rigorous defense of belief based on evidence, his statement that “a case could be made that such a figure never existed” is in some way similar to those of conservative politicians when asked if they believe that evolution should be taught in schools and responds with statements like “evolution is one theory among many.”
In both cases: the denial of fact of a certain understood truth by specialists, on the one hand evolutionary biology and on the other the historicity of the figure of Jesus, by non specialists. Dawkins may be a learned biologist, but he is certainly not a historian of Christian origins. And, from what I hear from those who have read the God Delusion he isn’t much of a philosopher either. Of course, all of our opinions are informed by our biases, but I am more interested in the reality that a lot of our beliefs about matters of science or history are informed on who we are willing to trust. In my next post I want to explore two observations. The first, is that many subjects which are up for discussion in the public sphere depend often on knowledge that is not easily attainable outside of the academy (topics such as global climate change or a particular fiscal policies effect on the economy). The second is that we often fail to recognize the reason that we have beliefs is based on our trust of the judgments and knowledge of other people.