William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Just In Time For Easter, The Annual Skeptical Article Denying Jesus Existed

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It’s that time of year again, friends; the holiest in the secular calendar. It’s a time of contemplation, yes, but in the newsroom it’s also one of celebration.

For this is when journalists flood the æther-nets, filling them with heart-chilling stories suggesting Jesus and John may have been more than just friends, that Mary was a serial divorcée, that the apostles were paid double agents in the service of Rome, that a new fragment of gospel has been discovered which reveals an appalled Jesus lecturing the world about global warming. And that perennial favorite, Jesus never existed.

It’s usually long about Monday of this week that these stories begin cropping up, posted by reporters anxious to be noticed for their “brave” acts—of writing stories their comrades wholeheartedly agree with. The flood turned to a slow leak this year, however, mainly because of events.

One story made it, through. Predictably, its theme was the commonest trope, this time given a new twist. “Did Jesus really exist? Memory research has cast doubt on the few things we knew about Jesus, raising an even bigger question“, appearing in Maclean’s.

It’s the story of frustrated academic Bart Ehrman, who examined “what the science of memory might offer to separate the historical wheat from the theological chaff in the Gospels.” Turns out the “frailty of human memory turned out to be more profound than Ehrman suspected.” The kicker?

The reason Biblical historians cannot find even the outline of a historical Jesus, argues an increasingly persuasive chorus of challengers, is that there is nothing to find: Jesus Christ never lived at all.

Stay sharp, dear reader, because the irony is about to get delicious.

Ehrman, who has a history of softening scripture, said that he has been reading what he could about memory.

[E]very act of oral transmission, Ehrman cites one memory expert as declaring, “is also an act of creation.” That means one of the few pieces of common ground between believers and skeptics–that the oral transmission of stories about Jesus in the time between his death and the composition of the Gospels could be (more or less) trusted–is turning to quicksand.

Now, if this is so, if indeed every act of oral transmission, which must include recalling one’s own memories through a sort of “internal dialog”, is an act of “creation”, how can one ever trust what one believes? Every memory you have could be challenged on this ground. Even dramatic memories are suspicious. You weren’t in Fukushima, Japan on 11 March 2011 where “allegedly” there was a tsunami and nuclear reactor accident. How do you know it really happened? According to these scientists, you can’t trust your memory on this—or on anything.

This distrust must include memories imbued by written transmissions of facts. Why? Because you had to have heard, and at some point believed, that reading things is a good way of passing on information. That could be a bad memory!

According to the theory of these memory experts theory you must doubt what you read, because what you read relies on your memory. If you don’t believe that, define the word imbued, which appeared above. Does this, and the definition of every word and fact you read, come from your memory? Of course.

Who’s to say oral memories are more fallible than visual? Visual memories are not made just on what you’ve seen, but on what you have read. And just think: who is doing the writing? People remembering, that’s who. So even if your recall of what you read is perfect, the source material itself is up for doubt.

No, it just won’t do. The Gospel accounts and Paul’s and the other Biblical epistles were not some childish game of Telephone, where each witness whispered to the next about what color Mary’s robe sash was, the details undergoing subtle changes from one man to the next. No: these men were writing of world-shaking, monumental, stunning, undeniable events.

The miracles performed by Jesus were witnessed by enormous numbers of people. As John said, “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written.”

This is significant for a reason no memory researcher ever mentions. If Jesus didn’t exist and didn’t perform these shocking deeds, where are all the concurrent texts denouncing the apostles as frauds? Surely contemporaries anxious to deny the obnoxious Christian faith would have hit upon the happy idea of putting into writing affidavits saying things like, “A crowd of a thousand claims to have seen this man Lazarus raised from the dead. But I was there and the man never stirred from his tomb.”

But wait. Even if these contrary documents existed, scholars would be obliged to disbelieve them. They, too, would have been written from memory.

Scholars believe in the existence of Pontius Pilate, and about many another historical figure, people about whom almost nothing is written, but what little there was was also written from memory of witnesses. Yet we wonder whether the same critical techniques applied to Jesus’s existence will be applied to these others.

45 Comments

  1. So these guys “forgot” that Jesus had died, had not delivered a radical ethical system, and or an eccentrically self-oriented scheme of OT interpretation and therefore attributed those things to him? Whoa.

  2. If Bart Ehrman, author of 30 or so (real) books, with an actual job as Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a “frustrated academic”, than what are you?

    Aside from an eager wielder of the limp sword of ad hominem, I mean.

  3. Briggs

    March 27, 2016 at 9:08 am

    Lee,

    I’m a guy who knows the actual definition of “ad hominem.” From the lead paragraph of the article (emphasis mine):

    Now, for the first time, one of America’s most prominent New Testament scholars has gone outside of his narrow field, driven as much by frustration as curiosity, to examine what the science of memory might offer to separate the historical wheat from the theological chaff in the Gospels.

    All,

    Subtitle of Ehrman’s latest book is “How the earliest Christians remembered, changed, and invented their stories of the savior.” Ehrman doesn’t pass into the dark hole of complete disbelief, however. But the article does (as do other “scholars” mentioned in the article).

  4. So where are the brave articles saying Allah is not real and Muhammad never existed or was just a narcissistic creature seeking validation and a bunch of groupies? (Hans, this is directed mostly at you—you are very open about your contempt for Christians and I wondered if you were equally open to telling women in burkas their religion is a fairy tale and laughing at men on prayer rugs.)

    Ehrman just said Native American religions are hogwash and followers are being duped by their leaders. Wonder if he said it their faces? He also seems to share my belief that history is as fluid as the dangers from global warming, covering whatever needs to be covered for the purpose at hand.

    Actually, his theory could make history classes a week long study—we relied on memory for the stories of the settling of the Americas, the fall of Rome, the existence of the Mayan civilization (I’ve alway been suspicious of that one—I think someone made it up so conspiracy theorists would have something to chew on 🙂 )., etc. I’m sure a lot of students would love that idea.

    (Ehrman seems more anti-theology than theologian. He appears to hate Christianity and all that is associated with it. I’m not sure what he studies, other than ways to tear religions apart. His frustation seems to be that he cannot destroy religions he doesn’t like. Perhaps he should have studied something he actually liked and believed in.
    Being employed does not make one a viable human being nor an expert. It just means someone writes said person a paycheck. Doesn’t even mean they do any work. Do we know the books weren’t ghost-written by a graduate student? Memory is not as reliable as one thinks. Perhaps he forgot someone else wrote the book for him?)

  5. Sheri, there is this:

    http://www.jihadwatch.org/2014/12/salon-no-proof-that-jesus-even-existed-muhammads-existence-established-beyond-the-shadow-of-a-doubt

    Briggs, I sympathize with your position but in fairness you should mention Celsus.

  6. I guess we can agree that you’re the guy who knows one of the definitions of ad hominem.

  7. Briggs

    March 27, 2016 at 9:24 am

    Lee,

    Nice to see you agree the quote is accurate.

    Scotian,

    True enough, though there is doubt since his original writings are lost. But this is only one partial instance.

  8. Nothing new really, the first texts about a Jesus-myth were written in 18th century France.

  9. … than what are you?

    How much credence should I give to the blather of someone who never learned the difference between “than” and “then”?

    According to the folks at Wikipedia:

    An ad hominem (Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”), short for argumentum ad hominem, is an attack on an argument made by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, rather than attacking the argument directly.

    Is there another definition

  10. Oops. Left off the ? at the end.

  11. Lee,
    I’d suggest you look up the following definition too.

    description
    noun | de·scrip·tion | \di-?skrip-sh?n\
    a : an act of describing; specifically : discourse intended to give a mental image of something experienced
    b : a descriptive statement or account

    Just because the idea of an ad hominem exists, doesn’t mean the above word and it’s meaning doesn’t.
    Let us also not ignore the fact an ad hominem argument is an informal fallacy. This means the personal attack is fallacious only as a result of context (which requires logic to figure). For instance, if I were to attack you mental facilities at this moment, it would not be fallacious, since the crux of my argument is literally your failure of logic and reason in the application of your attack against Mr. Briggs. Therefore, such a personal attack against you would be logically sound and appropriate. Additionally, if your mental facilities are actually sub-standard, such a statement would not be an insult, but rather an honest description of your character.

    Interestingly, by focusing upon attacking Mr. Briggs with a descriptive designed specifically to deride, silence, and stain his character; you yourself are committing the very fallacy of ad hominem attack you accuse Mr. Briggs.

  12. Briggs,
    Indeed.
    Many of the writings of ancient persons have been lost to time (also the destruction of 90% of ancient knowledge… but I won’t harp on why or how here).
    Of course, and I’m sure you will agree, this doesn’t mean these writings can not be used in evidence.
    For example the apology of Pilate (actual name may vary) was a well known letter, referencing Christ and the crucifixion, which contemporary writers and scholars of the time referenced as very real and even well known, both in existence and content.
    Through the description of second hand sources (which are themselves first hand witnesses to the existence of the material) we can infer with assurance the content of the material and thus still use said material as evidence for the historicity of the subject.

    Perhaps this was a tad obvious and minor point to many of your readers. Yet, if all understood this, then such arguments as your post today covers would surely not be as frequently bandied about.

  13. I am still trying to comprehend the fear and hostility of atheists (and their alignment to the left wing).

  14. Geezer:
    “Oops. Left off the ? at the end.”

    Oh no, you made a typo. Guess I shouldn’t lend you any “credence”.

  15. otian: Quite interesting. Thanks.

    Hans: I love your history reports—so very different from everyone else’s.

    MIchael 2: Hostility is what is expressed by groups that fear their beliefs might be wrong and are trying to suppress all contrary opinions. (Alignment to the left wing may be due to that political party’s habit of wanting to become the nanny of the country and their lack of absolute morality. Atheists are taken care of and allowed to do whatever they please.)

  16. Michael 2 and Sheri, The irony. Talk about hostility.
    Morality is what Jesus taught.
    Part of that was kindness and charity, love and most importantly, Sheri, hope.
    Morality is not all about pointing at people and claiming superiority.
    Anger and hostility won’t convince anyone of anything any more than an attack ‘at the man'( Ad means to towards at or near.)
    It is always is a side show . Plenty of it is demonstrated on this blog, today’s no different but when swords are bent it’s a whole different story.

    Jesus said I come not to bring peace but a sword!
    More hostility?

  17. Joy: Hostility? Really? You must live a very sheltered life if you consider discussing behaviours of groups of people “hostility”. My definition probably would induce panic in you. Sorry, sweetie, I’ve experience REAL hostility and it’s nothing like what goes on on this blog.

    Hope is like blind faith—useless where no hope or object of faith actually exists.

    I wasn’t attacking anyone. I was explaining the psychology of hostility. So now psychology becomes hostility? Really?

    Oh, and the attack Jesus made on the money changers in the temple, turning over tables and shouting—that was peace, love and caring? You word definitions are quite difficult to understand most of the time.

  18. Nate Winchester

    March 27, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    If we can’t trust our memory, wouldn’t that include the scientists’ memory of science and their data?

    Then again we also live in a high information age with our poor brains frequently overclocked, I wonder if the researchers curved the study any to account for more primitive, lower information cultures possibly having better memories because of less brain stress.

    Oh there I go again, remembering how science is supposed to be done. Curse my memory.

  19. Christianity started out quietly, an underground movement, as they say today. As well, those were heady times in that part of the world, similar to today, with the rise of big new world powers tussling over the lands of simpler, smaller cultures. All this makes the historicity of the events of his life, all recorded much later, very difficult if not just plane impossible to substantiate. It’s one of those things you have to believe by faith. The only evidence would be the books of the New Testament, and Josephus to a lesser extent, all recorded later, and recorded with the founding of a new religion, or acclaim in Josephus’ case, in mind. How the story of Jesus was assembled fits the way we designate myth. The only reason we do not designate his story as such, in non-academic settings, is that many Christians get offended when you use that word regarding their particular tradition.

    JMJ

  20. Did I write “plane” again! I keep catching myself doing that. This game programming I’m doing now is messing with my vocabulary!

    JMJ

  21. Sheri, you say,
    “Hope is like blind faith—useless where no hope or object of faith actually exists.”
    What?
    Hope is useless where no hope exists.
    Faith is useless where there is no actual faith.
    If there is no hope or faith then they cannot be of use
    Tools are useless when you don’t have them and particularly when they don’t exist.
    Blind faith is not no faith.

  22. Ad hominem done properly, Lee Philips this is how good it can look.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UMedd03JCA

  23. Joy: I think you’re saying what I am, but it’s not clear. False hope and blind faith are not useful. Hope that can materialize and faith based on reasons can be useful.

    Why does everyone assume that saying someone else’s behaviour is wrong is being superior? If that’s true, then we cannot jail murderers, pedophiles, theives, etc because that’s being judgmental and saying we are better than them. I don’t think people actual consider the ramifications of their statements. (Actually, the US and Europe are experiencing the ramifications of this now, with invaders from other nations. Rape, violence and murder are commonplace now because no one can “judge”.)

    Of course morality says one belief is superior to another. Without it, sex with a five year old and sex in a marriage are equal. Do you really believe that?
    Jesus judged people and so did his disciples. You cannot have religion or any kind of morality without judgement. You can have violence and anarchy, however.

    What seems to bother you is pointing out someone’s bad behaviour. I refer you to my paragraph above about invaders and violence. The outcome of your belief is a rapid decline into darkness by a society.

  24. Oh no, you made a typo.

    Not a typo. An omission. And admitted it immediately. When did you admit yours? Never? Because you didn’t realize it was wrong until I pointed it out?

    I’m still waiting for another definition of “ad hominem.” Got one?

  25. …and in the time it took you to write this utter nonsense Briggs how many children around the world were abused by “celibate” followers of made-up Jesus; and how many tomorrow, and the next day, and next week, and next month, and on and on and on and….

  26. The only thing I can offer here is that some believe that Mohammed and the Koran are works of fiction made up to unite Arab tribes.

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB122669909279629451

  27. Ye Olde Statistician

    March 27, 2016 at 8:45 pm

    An ad hominem is not an insult. An ad hominem is an argument that we should or should not accept another’s argument because of some irrelevant personal characteristic. “How can we accept Professor X’s conclusion regarding Sumerian irrigation works when he is a known bed-wetter?” Or “Prof. Dawkins should be listened to regarding the existence of God because he is a world-renowned authority on insects.” IOW, it’s whether the insult or approbation is put forth as a reason to reject/accept the argument that makes it an ad hominem.
    http://www.logicalfallacies.info/relevance/ad-hominem/

    +++++
    those were heady times in that part of the world, similar to today, with the rise of big new world powers tussling over the lands of simpler, smaller cultures.

    The first century AD was quite the opposite in that part of the world. A single polity, the Roman Empire, encompassed all of the civilized world west of the Euphrates, and the Parthian Empire all of it east of there. (After that you crossed ecological boundaries into India, which was a separate world.) There was a Nubian kingdom upstream of Roman Egypt and a century later a kingdom at Axum in the Ethiopian highlands. But there were no ‘higher powers’ tussling over them. Most of the tussling was intramural, between Roman contenders, with the occasional rebellion or Parthian invasion. The Jews, in particular, were given to rebellion, but how this affects the historicity of a carpenter from Nazareth is unclear.

    the events of his [Jesus’] life, all recorded much later

    Actually, it was not ‘much’ later. Compared to other bioi of classical civilization, the lives of Jesus were written remarkably soon after the events, within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. The Greeks (and hence those writing in a Hellenized tradition) distrusted the written word, which could not be cross-examined, and much preferred what they called ‘the living word.’ Eyewitnesses could be cross-examined and their credibility assessed. Hence, it was only when these eyewitnesses were reaching old age and beginning to die off that their testimonies would typically be assembled into a bios.

    Regarding the unreliability of memories, a useful book is Jan Vansina’s Oral Tradition as History, which examines how traditions are transmitted in actual fact by a variety of oral cultures (Hint: it’s not by casual chit-chat around the watercooler.) as well as the kinds of memories that get transmitted accurately. However, “oral tradition” is a loaded term that leads us to think of folk tales passed on for many generations, whereas the Jesus stories were being written down by AD 60, within the generation of the eyewitnesses.

    Regarding Celsus, his attack on Christianity (apparently written in the time of Hadrian) is preserved in Origen’s work Against Celsus, in which he fisks Celsus, point by point. For example, one point that Celsus thought was telling was that the gospels were not written in a ‘high’ or elevated philosophical language. To Greco-Roman rhetors, this was a devastating argument. One argument Celsus did not put forward was that Jesus had never existed. In fact, when he argued that Jesus worked his miracles by sorcery, not only did he not deny the miracles, he certainly could not deny that the ‘magician’ who performed them existed!
    Text found here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0416.htm

  28. Since there seem to be several here eager to copy and paste something that explains what ad hominem means, maybe this tweet of mine from about a month ago will help:

    https://twitter.com/lpfeed/status/701531822476414976

  29. Shecky R: And in the time you took to write your comment, how many people were murdered by the North Korean dictator or any one of many atheist dictators worldwide? How many were women and children? How many child rapes were committed with the blessings of the government?

    Lee: Yes, your statement on Twitter is correct. However, referring to Ehrman as a frustrated academic is not saying he’s wrong because of that. Much as your example, had Briggs said Ehrman was wrong because he’s frustrated, that would be an ad hominem. However, just to say Ehrman is frustrated is not an ad hominem.

  30. Sheri et al, and I mean you YOS.

    “However, just to say Ehrman is frustrated is not an ad hominem.”

    Nonsense. Most people do not phrase their arguments as syllogisms. The ad hominem insult is added like pepper to whatever other argument is being presented. It is left to the reader to make the connection. A sort of not-so-subliminal message to predispose the reader to reject your opponent. Otherwise why mention it at all? This is the reason that John Doe’s position is incorrect and did you notice what an ugly SOB he is? Just saying. Not an ad hominem your Honour, honest! Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.

  31. Semantic rears its ugly head. I’m out. Things only go downhill from here.

  32. Testing out comment subscriptions!

  33. YOS, those were two fine examples of parsing. Happy Easter!

    JMJ

  34. There have been archeological text found that did mention a person a called Jesus which also has the name of Pontius Pilate.

  35. Sander van der Wal

    March 28, 2016 at 6:24 am

    ” If Jesus didn’t exist and didn’t perform these shocking deeds, where are all the concurrent texts denouncing the apostles as frauds? Surely contemporaries anxious to deny the obnoxious Christian faith would have hit upon the happy idea of putting into writing affidavits saying things like, “A crowd of a thousand claims to have seen this man Lazarus raised from the dead. But I was there and the man never stirred from his tomb.”

    There are lots of accounts of miracles performed by all kinds of humans, gods, demi-gods, and whatnot, and few, or no, accounts of people, gods or demi-gods debunking them. Which means that the lack of accounts debunking the deeds of, say, the Buddha, or Zoroaster, means that they were right as well, for exactly the same reason.

  36. Sheri, No, I am saying that your comment on hope is based on an assumption that you know where hope is non existent. To know this is to know the future. The tool could be substituted for X but I resisted the temptation. It’s always X or Y.
    If X doesn’t exist then it possesses no properties at all.
    To know there is no hope, future prediction is required. This is not possible therefore to use the term hope is useless where there is no hope is to presume to predict the future and then to declare that a thing doesn’t exist.
    I’m not sure why you equate blind faith with anything to do with hope. These two things are not related. Hope and faith are different things.
    I say blind faith is not an absence of faith and must be better than no faith. Unless, of course, faith is altogether a bad thing but nobody sensible would argue that.

    As for behaviour, why when, where, how and which behaviour needs pointing out is always a matter of judgement.

  37. Lee Phillips,
    No you’re wrong because you’re a butterfly.
    Scotian is correct. There is an obfuscatory ad hominem which is not constructed as an argument but is put forward as an answer which is contained within a debate and therefore counts as aa argument.
    Why? because I said so and all of you are consummate idiots.

  38. Re: Pontius Pilate

    Until 1961, many skeptics suggested that the Gospels had it wrong.
    There was no “concrete” record for Pontius Pilate.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/historical-notes-pontius-pilate-a-name-set-in-stone-1084786.html

  39. Ad hominem:

    Dan Ackroyd: Jane, you ignorant Slut!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k80nW6AOhTs

  40. … there seem to be several here eager to copy and paste something that explains what ad hominem means ….

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

    That might work for Humpty and Lee, but most of the rest of us prefer to rely on “common usage” — which is what dictionaries report. Most of the rest of us are also able to tell the difference between a definition and an example.

  41. Geezer : Apologies!

    Joy’s post just took me back to SNL’s Point Counterpoint (which was a parody on “60 Minutes” debates of the same name between Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick).

    Actually, it wasn’t a true example of ad hominem, because Ackroyd would address the issue at question. (I’m not even sure if it was true parody).

  42. Shecky R “and in the time it took you to write this … how many children around the world were abused by celibate followers of made-up Jesus?”

    Anyone? Does anyone have eyes on all 7 billion people with a database of who is a celibate follower of made-up Jesus (rather than followers of Jesus Christ)?

    No?

    Let’s go for easy: define “abuse”.

  43. Ye Olde Statistician

    March 28, 2016 at 10:22 am

    Most people do not phrase their arguments as syllogisms.

    Yes, that’s part of the problem right there. Ever since the Renaissance replaced the syllogism with the witty insult.

  44. Ye Olde Statistician

    March 28, 2016 at 11:11 am

    YOS, those were two fine examples of parsing.

    Which two? Where? Inquiring minds want to know.
    ++++

    There are lots of accounts of miracles performed by all kinds of humans, gods, demi-gods, and whatnot, and few, or no, accounts of people, gods or demi-gods debunking them.

    a) We’re only interested in the humans and in those humans that can be pinned down to a particular time and place. Miracles performed by Athena or by Bacchus or Herakles did not happen in an historically identifiable time frame. Who exactly was going to write such a critique?
    b) An argument from silence is less convincing when there are simply no records from the era. “We haven’t found any” ? “There weren’t any.” This is especially true for India, where writing on paper made from palm leaves did not have a high survival rate.
    c) Somewhat more convincing is when an individual who has every reason to bring up an issue fails to do so. The example of Celsus is instructive precisely because while, to debunk Christianity, he brings up such things as the lousy Greek in which the gospels were written and the Jewish tale about Jesus’ father being a Roman soldier, he never suggests that Jesus did not exist at all or that the miracles he performed never happened. He merely ascribed the latter to sorcery.
    +++++
    in the time it took [Briggs] to write this … how many children around the world were abused by celibate followers of made-up [sic] Jesus?

    If we assume it took Briggs one hour to write the post, the answer to the question (assuming an 8-hour exposure day) is 0.0006.4 at the level of accusation. For public school teachers, the figure is 0.2 at the level of actionable offenses.

    These estimates are based on the 15 allegations leveled against Catholic clergy from 2000 to 2007 as reported by Nussbaum and Nussbaum and the 2,570 public school teachers who had their teaching licenses “taken away, denied, surrendered voluntarily, or restricted” as a result of sexual misconduct with minors from 2001 through 2005 reported by an Associated Press investigation.

    However, molestations by professionals comprise only 5% of all such occurrences, ‘clergy’ is a subset of ‘professionals,’ and ‘Catholic clergy’ is a subset of ‘clergy.’ Neither Catholic priests nor public school teachers are significant sources compared to mother’s live-in boy friend or funny old Uncle Jack, iow family and friends.

    Times change. I recently heard an episode of Dragnet on the car radio in which the perp was sentenced for child molestation and “the child was returned to her parents.” The “child” in the case was 19 years old. (Because the age of majority was then 21.)

  45. Ye Olde Statistician

    March 28, 2016 at 11:12 am

    Addendum: Those were figures for the US. I don’t have “around the world.”

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