Christian “Truth” in Shreds: Epic Takedown 5

The weak, vulnerable Christian foundations  

In 1935, a professor of Christian history at the
Sorbonne, Charles Guignebert, published a book titled simply, Jesus. I still have the worn copy that I read in college. In it he summed up the problem that has plagued New Testament scholarship for generations: “It was not the essence of Jesus that interested the authors of our gospels, it was the essence of Christ, as their faith pictured him. They are exclusively interested, not in reporting what they know, but in proving what they believe.” He also observed: "The Gospels are propaganda writings, intended to organize and authenticate. . .the legend represented in the sacred drama of the sect and to match it to the customs of the mythology of the time.Wikipedia describes Guignebert as “ of the first French historians who approached this subject in a scientific way and not confessional.”


I suspect now that the doubts that chipped away at my faith began with this book. I should have listened to Charles Guignebert: the gospels are propaganda to authenticate the “sacred drama of the sect.” We find very little reference to Guignebert these days—well, that was 1935. Still, it’s a curiosity that his insights had so little impact. Generations of New Testament scholars have carried on with determination to flesh out—from the gospels—the story their sect hero. Indeed, the last verse of John’s gospel appears to have been predictive of what happened in Christian academia: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did, if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)


Indeed many books have been written—though not about “other things that Jesus did. It would take dozens of huge volumes to catalogue all the books, articles, and doctoral dissertations that have been written about the New Testament over the centuries. There are many hundreds of seminaries that drive this intensiveongoing study of scripture—and that’s part of the problem: this passionate study of Jesus has been hobbled by faith bias. So many scholars have dedicated their careers to this endeavor because Jesus is their Lord and Savior. They are ordained; this is their ministry.


Some of them have risen above faith bias, and have adjusted their theologies about Jesus accordingly. They have put distance between themselves and evangelical scholars who are determined to find what they want to find in the Jesus stories. But that’s not really good enough: what do secular historians have to say about Jesus? Well, it’s not what priests and preachers want to hear. Richard Carrier reports this:


“A conference sponsored by the Center for Inquiry’s Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion in Amherst, New York, in December of 2008 gathered numerous reputable historians to begin debating how much we could even claim to know about the historical Jesus—and most agreed the answer was very little, or even nothing. In fact a growing number of mainstream experts are expressing doubt that much of anything can be reliably known about the historical Jesus, as I showed in the first chapter of Proving History.” (On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, p. 11)


Carrier was hired by Atheists United to apply his skills as a specialist in ancient history (PhD from Columbia University) to the Jesus problem: how much can we, do we know? His research culminated in the 700-page work just mentioned. There are sections in this book, and in a couple of his other books as well, that combined, qualify as an Epic Takedown of Christianity. Actually, anyone who has read On the Historicity of Jesus cover-to-cover has to wonder how devout apologists can keep on with their gaslighting. They know they have a problem, as is clear from the level of Carrier-alarm they express, e.g., “...he doesn’t come from the ranks of Christian academia,” “...he’s one of those fringe cranks who claim that Jesus never existed,” “...he’s a raging atheist with an axe to grind.” Anything to avoid facing the stunning impact of Carrier’s scholarship.


Carrier has said candidly that On the Historicity of Jesus was not intended to “settle the matter,” but to provoke serious discussion of the issues he raises: what is the status of Jesus studies after his analysis of the gospels especially? And what to do in the wake of the weaknesses/failures he has identified in the methods commonly used in Christian academia? 


The folks in the pews have access to the unending flow of devotional books turned out by preachers and theologians, but I suspect there is very little real scrutiny of Christian origins. Nor are the devout aware of what goes on in Christian academia: thousands of careers devoted to intensive study of scripture, and heated controversies that swirl about almost any Bible chapter we randomly point to. As surveys have shownmost of the faithful can’t even be bothered to read their own scriptures—let alone erudite books written to explain them.


So there is little awareness that Christianity has been falsified—and the frantic denial of this by apologists is futile.


The list of Epic Takedowns goes on and on, but here I want to focus on four Carrier writings that qualify as blockbusters knockouts:

·      two from On the Historicity of Jesus, and others from 

·      Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus  

·      Jesus From Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ


ONEOn the Historicity of Jesus, pages 402 through 509: in Chapter 10 the sections titled The Mythologies of MarkMatthew, Luke, and John, concluding with Weighing the Evidence. He highlights abundant evidence that the gospel writers created fiction, and concludes:


“The Gospels generally afford us no evidence whatever for discerning a historical Jesus. Because of their extensive use of fabrication and literary invention and their placing of other goals far ahead of what we regard as ‘historical truth’, we cannot know if anything in them has any historical basis—except what we can verify externally, which for Jesus is next to nothing. They are simply myths about Jesus and the gospel. They are not seriously researched biographies or historical accounts—and are certainly not eyewitness testimonies or even collected hearsay.” (pp. 506-507)


In this section of just over a hundred pages, the footnotes, some of which are long, are of exceptional value. Here Carrier provides a wealth of information and scholarly sources. Is this book daunting? That might be the first impression when picking up a 700-page book, then spotting massive footnotes. But this book is accessible to the lay reader! In the introduction Carrier explains that he avoids a stuffy academic writing style. But pious folks who think they know what Bible study is would need to brace themselves!


TWOOn the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 56-234. These pages are a book within a book, in which Carrier describes 48 Elements for understanding Christian origins. Just one revealing sample, Element 4: 


“Element 4: (a) Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individuals to announce they had found the messiah. (b) It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults. (c) That it among them would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection: so many variations of the same theme were being tried, odds are one of them would by chance be successful, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the right bullets. The lucky winner in that contest just happened to be Christianity.” (p. 67, emphasis added)


The cumulative impact of the 48 elements is devastating. Of course the pious have been taught about Christianity’s divine origins, with a simple story line distilled from the gospels into Sunday School lessons. The ancient context—other than proof-texts from the Old Testament—doesn’t get much attention at all. But belief in the uniqueness of Jesus—his status as the first and only dying-rising god—is destroyed by study of the ancient context.  


THREEProving History, pp. 121-192 of the chapter titled, ”Bayesian Analysis of Historicity Criteria.” The time came when Jesus scholars—finally savvy enough about how history is written—had to develop workarounds for the total lack of contemporaneous documentation for anything Jesus did or said, as reported in the gospels. There are no letters, diaries, journals, or transcriptions—created by people on the scene—by which to verify supposed Jesus events. So conjecture, supposition, and wishful thinking came into play in the development of various “criteria of authenticity.” We’d been told, “This is how we get at the real Jesus.” But, as Carrier demonstrates, this doesn’t work.


For example, the criterion of embarrassment: surely the gospels writers would not have included details that are embarrassing to the faith—unless they really happened. But that’s not evidence; it’s supposition. And Carrier points out that so many conflicting, irreconcilable versions of Jesus have emerged when scholars advocate so many different criteria of authenticity. In this chapter he discusses eighteen of them, with lengthy attention of the embarrassment criterion. The bottom line is that these cherished workarounds fail to deliver evidence about Jesus. In his conclusion, Carrier writes:


“Even the conservative Mark Strauss concludes that Jesus historians have yet to produce any valid methodology from all the confusion of criteria. He observes that these ‘criteria are often used subjectively and in a circular manner to prove whatever the investigator wishes.. .especially since they can be used to contradict each other,’ in fact all ‘too often the criteria are used selectively and arbitrarily to ‘prove’ whatever the investigator wants to prove.’”  (p. 191)


FOURJesus from Outer Space, in a section titled: “Do the Epistles Attest a Real or Only an Imaginary Jesus?”


In my article here on 17 September I made the point that Question Everything is an important rule for Bible reading. This is especially so when we study the letters of the apostle Paul. For example, Romans 13 should puzzle most Christians; here Paul defends government authority: “ is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” Question everything: was Paul unaware that the Roman authorities had killed Jesus? And this is part of the larger issue: why does Paul fail to include details about Jesus of Nazareth in his letters? Carrier asks:  


“Why does he never say Jesus’ death occurred ‘in Jerusalem’? How can Paul avoid in some 20,000 words ever making any clear reference to Jesus being on Earth? How can every question, argument, or opposition he ever faced have avoided referencing things Jesus said or did in life? He never referenced them. He never had them cited against him. He is never asked about them. That’s weird. And weird is just another word for improbable. Unless the only Jesus any Christians yet knew, was a revealed being, not an earthly minister.” (Kindle, p. 42) Yet knew. At the time of Paul, did the Jesus stories we're so familiar with even exist?


Thus the question: Is it possible that the first man to write about Jesus Christ knew only a Christ whose drama unfolded in heavenly realms—all details of which were based on his visions/hallucinations? It was not uncommon at all for “earthy biographies” of heavenly beings to be made up, as Carrier notes:


“His [Jesus] biography, from the very first, is substantially built out of prior religious heroes he is meant to supersede, including Moses, Elijah, Romulus, and others, and is rife with fabulous and improbable events. This biography names no sources, discusses no sources, and has no known sources. Instead, it emulates known counter-cultural hero narratives and popular ascending-sage legends—with even miraculous birth and appearance narratives added on later. And not one detail about Jesus in any of those biographies is demonstrably true.” (Kindle, pp. 115-116) 


Why does Carrier place Jesus in outer space? No, it’s not a frivolous title:


“By the time of Christianity, Judaism had long incorporated what was then ‘modern science,’ which taught that multiple spheres of heaven physically surrounded the earth, with a spherical earth at the center, and that those heavenly realms were held up not by pillars as in more ancient teachings, but by gaseous or ether-filled spaces, extending all the way to the moon and beyond. All of that encompassed what we today mean by outer space. So the most accurate English translation of words that meant ‘the heavens’ in antiquity is quite simply ‘outer space.’”  (Kindle, pp. 5-6)


Oh the irony: the writings of the apostle Paul fuel the speculation that there may never have been an historical Jesus. 


As David Fitzgerald has pointed out, “Christianity had a good, long run. But it is not too big to fail.” Religions and their gods eventually die—those with colossal bureaucracies last the longest. But they too can be pulled down. I can name a few ex-evangelicals whose work has exposed just how feeble and vulnerable Christianity is:  Dan Barker, Bart Ehrman, John Loftus, Hector Avalos—all of whom have authored Epic Takedowns. When the death of Christianity is someday recorded by historians, Carrier’s work too will be given major credit.


The links to the four previous articles about Epic Takedowns:  Number 1   Number 2   Number 3    Number   4

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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