On Easter Sunday I watched the first episode of A.D.: The Bible Continues. I’d been seeing posters and billboards for it all over Los Angeles. The slogan “the crucifixion was only the beginning” was too hilarious to resist.
As many of you must know by now, I’m a bit of an amateur scholar of the historical Jesus. I’m a big fan of well-researched books on the subject. I was particularly fond of Zealot by Reza Aslan and I like most of Bart Ehrman’s books on the subject, such as How Jesus Became God.
Although most of what you can find in books like these has been known to scholars for a century or more, it’s only recently that books about the historical research on Jesus have been published for mass audiences. It’s good to see these kinds of books gaining popularity.
But riding on the success of these books, there have been a number of very popular fake historic books on Jesus. The most popular and perhaps the worst of the lot is Killing Jesus, allegedly “written” by Bill O’Reilly. For those of you outside the USA, Bill O’Reilly is a loudmouth conservative fake news guy with a show on late-night TV. O’Reilly does not write the books that are published under his name, but pays real writers to write them for him. Lots of books on the “Eastern Religions” shelf at your local Book Barn are also written in a similar fashion.
I was particularly disappointed when I saw billboards and ads on the sides of busses announcing that National Geographic – of all companies – was making a TV movie based on Killing Jesus. It makes me wonder if I can trust anything in National Geographic. I only read bits and pieces of “O’Reilly’s” Jesus book, but it’s abundantly clear from even the most cursory examination that it’s a poorly researched piece of fundamentalist Christian propaganda that has very little to do with real history. Still, I would’ve watched the movie if I had cable. Maybe I will once it becomes available on DVD or streaming.
But back to A.D., which I did watch. Prior to showing the first episode of the 12-part series, NBC ran an hour-long special about the making of it. I tuned in late, so I missed the beginning. Most of what I did see consisted of long interviews with the husband and wife team behind the series, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.
They were clearly Bible-believing fundamentalist Christians. So I knew that I couldn’t expect their show to be very historically accurate. They also seem very into the burgeoning “mega-church” phenomenon in the USA. From a business standpoint that makes perfect sense. The folks who attend these massive, high-tech pseudo-churches are obviously going to be their core audience.
But mega-churches are not churches. They’re far too big and impersonal to provide anything more than spectacle and flash. Nothing the least bit “spiritual” is possible in the carnival atmosphere they provide. It’s like the difference between seeing Bruce Springsteen at a bar in Asbury Park, New Jersey in the early 70s when you could still have some kind of real contact with him and seeing him now from half a mile away as a member of an anonymous crowd at the back of some massive stadium. Buddhist centers that grow too damn big will eventually end up the same way. The day is coming when we’ll have our own mega-Buddhist centers. You mark my words, whipper-snappers!
One of the things Burnett and Downey said in their interview really struck me. They were asked about movies like Noah and Exodus and why those films didn’t do as well as their makers hoped. They said that Christians don’t like it when filmmakers change or reinterpret the Bible as the makers of those movies did. Their series, they said, adheres strictly to what is written in Scripture.
Well, not really. A.D. is hardly any truer to Scripture than those other films. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew we get a single line about Pontius Pilate’s wife, who is unnamed in the Gospel, having a dream about Jesus. In Matthew 27:19 it says, “When he (Pilate) was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.” In the first episode of A.D. this is expanded into a large subplot concerning Pilate’s wife who is named Claudia in the series. Pilate’s wife did not gain the name Claudia until 1619 from a writer we now know as “pseudo-Dexter,” to differentiate him from the real Dexter, the serial killer who tracks down serial killers.
Furthermore we get a crucifixion scene that follows more or less Mark’s account followed by a resurrection scene that follows Matthew’s account. It’s commonplace these days for fundamentalist Christians to make mash-ups of the Gospels, ignoring their disagreements and simply including whatever parts they happen to like better.
These are just two of the most obvious examples of scriptural embellishment engaged in by these “fundamentalist” producers. Someone who was geekier than me about the story of Jesus could have spotted dozens more.
So what we get in A.D. is no more accurate than anything else we’ve seen on screen, even if you happen to hold the view that the New Testament is historically factual. It’s just more like what folks who go to mega-churches have been told is in the New Testament.
During the program NBC ran a commercial for Focus on the Family with adorable children quoting and embellishing John 3:16. According to Wikipedia, Focus on the Family, “promotes abstinence-only sexual education; adoption by married, opposite-sex parents; creationism; school prayer; and traditional gender roles. It opposes abortion; divorce; gambling; LGBT rights, particularly LGBT adoption and same-sex marriage; pornography; pre-marital sex; and substance abuse.” No comment there.
At the very least A.D. was entertaining. I’ll give it that much. The story of Jesus Christ and his early ministry is a damn good story. I’d have been interested in something more historical and real. But I suppose that’s asking too much from a company like NBC and executive producers like Burnett and Downey.
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Bayes’ Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Dr. Richard Carrier
(A more detailed explanation of Dr. Carrier’s preferred method for estimating the probability of historical events. Lecture begins at about 9 minutes. Many of the images projected on the screen are almost impossible to read, but the audio is OK.)
“So you are saying that you really, really like the Gospel of Thomas, therefore Jesus must have been a real person? That is what is known as the fallacy of non sequitur. Sure, somebody wrote the Gospel of Thomas. It might even contain philosophical truths. But that has no evidentiary value, none at all, regarding the existence of Jesus.”
I’m saying that there is a unique voice in the Gospel of Thomas, as there is in the Pali Sutta volumes, as there is in the writings of Yuanwu. Lao Tzu, not so much, but the emphasis on everything being done without any doing seems original to China.
Whether that unique voice belonged to a Jesus of Nazareth, or to someone else, is not important to me. But I’m convinced there was an individual who delivered the teachings recorded in the Gospel of Thomas. Why someone would record the Gospel as belonging to Thomas, and record that the teachings were the teachings of Jesus, if they were themselves the source of the teaching or if they came from some other source, beyond me; I suppose it’s possible, but I still think those teachings came from one person, simply by their character.
I’m no expert; you knew that.
“Why someone would record the Gospel as belonging to Thomas, and record that the teachings were the teachings of Jesus, if they were themselves the source of the teaching or if they came from some other source, beyond me…”
One reason to intentionally falsely attribute the words of one person to someone else is to imbue those words with a stamp of authority that they would not have otherwise, such as when the Tea Party attributes quotes to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers that they never said. Or when Joseph Smith said that he did not write the Book of Mormon, he just translated it from the “reformed Egyptian” language written on gold plates that were revealed to him by the angel Moroni.
I find this argument about whether Jesus really existed rather stupid. Look, St. Paul says in Galatians 1:18-20 that he stayed with Peter in Jerusalem and met James, the brother of Jesus. Then he swears he is not lying. If Jesus never lived, how could he have a brother? If I wrote I stayed with Brad’s sister, would a historian a hundred years from now say that Brad never existed?
No. But they might if he walked on water, or at least turned water into wine.
As Dr. Carrier has explained in his lectures and books, at the time that Paul was writing, all baptized Christians were referred to as “brothers of Jesus,” “brothers of the Lord,” and “brothers of Christ.” It had nothing to do with familial relations.
Addendum: I just remembered that the reason that Dr. Carrier gave in one of his lectures for Paul specifically referring to James as a “brother of the Lord” was to distinguish him from another person named James who was NOT a baptized Christian.
Another good lecture, with some differences.
Dr. Carrier points out that there were at least 40 other non-canonical Gospels that we either have in fragments or know the title of, but were destroyed (by the Church authorities?). All correspondence within the church before the early second century, except for Paul’s, was destroyed (by the Church authorities?). And more…
You’re of course entitled to see Carrier’s arguments as logical and evidence-based, but I simply don’t agree. He seems just as ideologically driven as the apologists, but in the opposite direction. He makes statements of certainty that simply aren’t certain at all, and characterizes any evidence going against him as “ambiguous”. He also makes analogies to completely different cultural-religious traditions as if they are interchangeable, which they are not. By his logic, all religious figures could be interpreted as being ahistorical, including the Buddha.
The stuff with Paul is certainly among the worst. As I’ve pointed out, it isn’t even just his interpretation of Paul’s letters that is sketchy, it’s his willful refusal to look at the fact of Christian communities in these early times, and Paul’s active involvement with them, his conflicts with the apostles such as Peter, the politics with the traditional Jews, the long history of the Acts, and most of all, Paul’s own version of Christian theology.
For example, you say that Paul’s mention of the scriptures refers to Jewish texts, and not to any accounts of Jesus’ life he may have read. Perhaps so, but that doesn’t make things any better. If Paul is pointing to Jewish scripture and prophecy about the Messiah as the basis of his theology about Jesus, it means he cannot believe in a merely “celestial Jesus”, since there’s no basis for that kind of Messiah in the Jewish tradition. The Jewish tradition of the Messiah insists upon an earthly, incarnate man of flesh and blood who dies and rises after three days. That entire narrative does not work if Jesus is a disincarnate archangel rather than a living man. It would completely discredit any such theology, if that’s what Paul were teaching, so he would not invoke the Jewish scriptures as support for what he taught. That he does invoke the Jewish scriptures indicates that Paul was not teaching about an archangel Jesus, and any reference to him as disincarnate or “in outer space” as Carrier likes to put it, would merely refer to the resurrected Jesus, not some notion that he’d never been incarnate at all. “Outer space” would of course, in the cosmology of their day, be “heaven”.
Furthermore, Paul’s theology of redemption through the sacrificial blood of Christ definitely requires a living, breath messiah who is a real man on earth, to die and thereby make the sacrifice that redeems the souls of his believers. If Jesus is an archangel, where’s the sacrifice? Paul’s entire theology would collapse into the ether, and have no power to it, without a genuine blood sacrifice on the part of Jesus. So it makes no sense for Paul to preach the kind of Christianity that he did, if he also believed Jesus to merely be a spiritual presence or angel of some kind. And Paul wasn’t ambiguous at all about the kind of Christianity he wanted to create. Whether or not it was what Jesus actually taught is another question. I agree with those who suggest that most of what we now call Christianity was Paul’s creation, and not what Jesus had taught. I’d suggest that Paul’s theology of vicarious salvation through belief in the redemptive power of Jesus’ blood sacrifice was not how Jesus intended his life and legacy to be interpreted. But that’s another issue.
So we are faced with the fact that even if Jesus was simply made up, and even if Paul is the one who made him up, the Jesus Paul made up had to be a Jesus whose story insists that he lived in the flesh and was sacrificed in the flesh. I don’t see how you can get around that. So Carrier’s arguments that Paul’s Jesus was a celestial archangel just go nowhere. Paul himself certainly wasn’t preaching any such thing, but quite the opposite. So all of Carriers arguments that rest on Paul have no logical basis.
On the other hand, I’d certainly admit that the direct evidence of Jesus’ historical life are pretty scant. It’s certainly true that the early Gospels were written decades after his death. And that Mark is quite “mundane” you might say, with only an empty tomb at the end to suggest his resurrection. It’s not until the later Gospels, John especially, that we come to see a more “celestial” Christ. But this progression goes against Carrier’s theory, which states that we began with a celestial Jesus, and only over time did we arrive at a mundane terrestrial Jesus. The written Gospels go in the opposite direction, moving from a very mundane, matter of fact Jesus preaching in Mark, to an increasingly less “incarnate” or more “celestial Jesus in John. How could that be, if Carrier’s theory is correct? Well, it simply can’t be. It’s a refutation of the euhemerization theory as some kind of historical development moving from the celestial to the earthly. Not only the Gospels, but Christianity itself moves in the opposite direction, with over the centuries an increasing emphasis on otherworldly and abstract theological interpretations of Jesus that turn his earthly life into a grand cosmic drama that the early Christians show little evidence of believing in.
So while that doesn’t prove Jesus actually lived, it does disprove Carrier’s euhemerization theory of how the myths about him developed. He needs to go back to the drawing board. Maybe it will turn out that he’s right, that there was no historical Jesus. But if that’s the case, the claims that he did exist have to be the result of some very different kind of process. As I’ve pointed out, the cargo cult analogy doesn’t work either, not without something very powerful in the real world to initiate the myth. So unless Carrier can point to something like that, it too has no logical basis as an explanation.
What is Carrier left with other than his supposition that “things like this aren’t real anyway”. Just as he flippantly suggests that the Roswell UFO idea has no logical basis, that it’s all been explained. I’m not in any way a UFO buff, but I know enough about it to know that’s bunk. Roswell very well might be nothing more than a weather balloon, but there’s no way the evidence on that is clear, or that the recent release of information by the Air Force should be believed, given the evidence that goes the other way and the clear cover ups involved. So it’s another example of Carrier’s tendency to declare ambiguous things he doesn’t believe in to be “clear”, and things he doesn’t find to fit his viewpoint to be “ambiguous”
I would not suggest, however, that everyone should believe in an historical Jesus. Or that Carrier should stop pursuing this angle. I think that the preponderance of the evidence and the logical analysis of it strongly suggests that some sort of historical person named Jesus did live and make a very strong impression on a small group of people around him, from whom a religion evolved. But I can’t claim that it’s 100% certain. On the other hand, I wouldn’t call it ambiguous either. I think it’s fairly clear on at least that basic point. Yet nothing in this life is utterly certain, especially not long ago historical matters. I would certainly say that a lot of what faithful Christians believe about Jesus isn’t true, but picking through what is and what isn’t true isn’t terribly clear at all. So I understand the inclination to go all the way and suggest the whole thing is just made up. If all we were talking about is a single man, that isn’t even all that implausible, but when we are talking about a growing community of followers springing up immediately after his death, with no evidence of such a community beforehand, that requires a real world explanation. Without a rational alternative to a living founder, like Mohammed or Joseph Smith, to account for that rapid appearance and growth of a religious community throughout the Mediterranean, I think the Ockham’s razor solution is a living man named Jesus who founded a new sect of Judaism. Anything else requires a pretty sound argument, and Carrier hasn’t made one. Yet. He just throws a lot of mud at the wall, hoping it will stick. Maybe on your wall it does, but not on mine.
“Without a rational alternative to a living founder, like Mohammed or Joseph Smith, to account for that rapid appearance and growth of a religious community throughout the Mediterranean…”
You keep making this same mistake.
Paul and other Apostles were the “living founders,” just like Mohammed and Joseph Smith.
Paul explicitly claimed that he had hallucinations of a celestial Jesus.
Paul also explicitly claimed that other Apostles claimed to have had hallucinations of a celestial Jesus.
We have credible historical evidence that Paul and other Apostles existed and established churches and religious doctrine.
Paul’s authentic letters are the earliest, most credible documents that are available regarding the origins of Christianity and they contain no credible, unambiguous evidence that he knew anything about a terrestrial, historical Jesus, even though Paul claimed to have known some of the other Apostles.
The Gospels are not credible evidence of a terrestrial, historical Jesus because of their blatantly fictitious, allegorical, and mythical content and format.
Grosso modo, I would tend to agree with Conrad, be it only in the light of what I already mentioned about Deshimaru.
We have photographs of a young Deshimaru in company of Sawaki. Therefore, this is proof that Sawaki was not a mere “name” for Deshimaru. Now, we also know that Deshimaru was friends with general Mazaki, which means that he politically leaned very far right. We also know that most people who followed Sawaki insisted that they very seldom saw Deshimaru at his lectures and sesshins.
Now Deshimaru asserted that he was the only “true” disciple of Sawaki, and that the latter ordained him on his death bed, giving him his kesas, bowls and notebooks. Sawaki’s disciples have let it be understood that he, instead, stole them. Then, when the Sotoshu wanted to give D Dharma Transmission, they could find no trace of this ordination in the Sotoshu files (a bit queer, knowing the bureaucracy of the Sotoshu, and that an ordination is always done with witnesses). And the first pictures of Deshimaru as a “Zen Master” in Europe in 1967 show him wearing a typical brocade rakusu with ring, totally contrary to Sawaki’s prescriptions in the matter of Nyoho E. D, when he would have been ordained by S, would have received a Nyoho E rakusu, in plain cloth and no ring.
So, upon examination (and these are matters which all have happened within the last 50 years), we can confront the official truth (that Deshimaru is THE only disciple of Sawaki, that he was ordained by him and that S gave him Dharma transmission) to those elements of history. These don’t mean Deshimaru didn’t exist. They only mean that the Deshimaru that is flaunted by his followers is if ever slightly removed from what objective elements might let us think was the truth.
I suspect it is the same with Jeeze.
As for the multitude of Gospels, they really could come from any kind of sources. They range from fairly realistic accounts, to collections of sayings handed down, to highly imaginative riffing off all sorts of mystical notions, not all of which probably had much of a relationship to any historical Jesus.
The four canonical Gospels were chosen as scripture simply because they were the most popular. And they were popular because they were fairly down to earth in their story-telling. There were certainly a lot of politics involved in their construction, but it’s also clear that they relied on other written material, collections of sayings of Jesus, that were being passed around. Obviously someone had to edit them down into a story, using material from various sources, not all of them reliable. It’s actually a good sign that there are inconsistencies between them, because that makes them more authentic. Not infallible of course, but it means that people were making separate attempts to reconstruct the life of Jesus.
Others weren’t even making that kind of attempt. What’s clear is that somehow, the entire Jesus movement unleashed a whole lot of creative energy, and that people were inspired by it to write many different kinds of scriptures from that, some of it inspired by Divine Revelation and not paying a lot of attention to historical facts. I have no idea where the Gospel of Thomas came from, for example, or how ‘authentic’ it is. It does contain some great wisdom, even some non-dualism, and it may well represent an aspect of Jesus’ teaching that isn’t well represented in the other Gospels. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene offers other interesting angles on this whole matter. I’m even inclined to believe that Jesus was married to her, and that she may well have born him a child after his death. It’s all quite plausible, if unproven.
But I really don’t see how the fact of these later, imaginative and gnostic and even “forged” scriptures tell us anything one way or the other. The people of the time didn’t even have a concept of “forgery”, much less of history itself in the journalistic nuts and facts way we think of it now. The fact that there’s a lot of Buddhist scripture attributed to Nagarjuna that is clearly not written by him doesn’t mean Nagarjuna doesn’t exist as an historical person. Someone had to write the original Madhyamika philosophy. So let’s just call that guy Nagarjuna.
Likewise, someone had to suddenly come up with Christianity and its stories and teachings in early to mid-1st century Palestine, and then spread not just those ideas around, but the actual practices and customs and culture, or there wouldn’t be Christian communities for Paul to persecute and then preach to after his conversion. I’m not sure how, if Paul invented Christianity and Jesus from his visions, he was able to convince people that he’d also been persecuting imaginary Christians up until then, because there couldn’t have been any before him if he created the whole thing. Again, these things just don’t make logical sense given the actual history of the Jesus movement.
So there’s real problems if one tries to assemble this theory into a timeline that corresponds to the actual growth and spread of these Christian communities during this early time. That’s way more important than the scriptural accounts, and for that reason Carrier ignores it, as if it doesn’t matter.
And I’m still open to the idea that there was no historical Jesus at all. I’m just not seeing how the pieces fit together that way. If Carrier is doing the best job out on there on this angle, there’s not a lot going for it.
There is one book of the Bible that most clearly demonstrates whether it is a credible, historical document or just the hysterical hallucinations of anorexic schizophrenics…
On that I would agree, but it doesn’t reflect on the Gospels or Acts. Not sure why they decided to include that, but I assume politics was involved.
Or perhaps the compilers of the New Testament knew exactly what they were doing and believed that the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation were all equally mythical, all equally allegorical.
you’re imputing modern a scholarly/journalistic/literary perspective to people in a time and place that simply didn’t think that way.
over the last year’ish…literally, my only link left to Buddhism (other than sitting) has been this blog. I’ve tried to go the local sangha but i find it too annoying, not interested in any other Buddhist site, Brad’s teaching style is the only thing i seem to click with. I check for updates every few days and read most of the comments. So thank “god” or i guess i’d have nothing.
But even Brad can’t make anything about Christianity the slightest bit relevant. That whole subject falls under “don’t care”. I could care less who did what and who didn’t exist. Rise from the dead, save people…walk on water…show me actual footage or maybe do it in front of me and i’ll still be like “and…this helps me how?” Who gives a fuck. All the ISIS shit going on in the world, fuck all religion. Enough already. I watched a documentary on ISIS and honest to god, creepiest, darkest thing i’ve ever seen…similar to holocaust stuff. Beyond morbid and comprehension. The savagery…1000’s of people are all crazy slaughtering everyone? I doubt they are all clinically crazy or had such a shitty childhood that they are all murderers. Start with ending all fucking religions cause they are all useless and meaningless. Life is happening now “live in the now, man” as Garth once said. We can’t go on about fucking Christianity as though it’s the answer but expect others to drop theirs. Lead by example…bye bye religion, permanently filed under “don’t care”.
“…Imagine no religion…it isn’t hard to do”
Vincent van Gogh once said that “Christ was a greater artist than all other artists”.
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