OK, Smart Guy—YOU Tell Us What Happened

Is Jesus the son of God?I’ve been on the offensive with a series of posts on the historicity of the New Testament. In conversations with Christians, however, I’ve been asked variations of this: “Okay, smart guy: you make clear that you don’t want to interpret the gospel story as literally true. Enlighten us then—how do you explain the facts? What do you think happened?”

That’s a fair question, and I’m happy to make a claim and defend it. Even if you accept my contention that the Bible is just legend and that the supernatural stuff didn’t happen—that it’s the surviving fragments of the blog of a prescientific tribe of people who lived two to three thousand years ago—that only tells us what didn’t happen.

So what did happen? That the New Testament exists is undeniable; what explains it? Here we go.

1. Jesus lived. The Christ Myth Theory, which argues there is insufficient evidence for a historical Jesus, is another possibility, but the simplest argument seems to be that a real man grounded the Jesus story. It’s easy to imagine false legend being built on a foundation of an actual person in history.

2. Jesus was an influential rabbi who had a following. He was killed, and stories grew up about him after he died.

3. The stories were passed from person to person orally for decades, eventually touching thousands or tens of thousands of people. The religion spread quickly by evangelism and trade through the Ancient Near East, from Palestine to Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and beyond.

4. The stories were corrupted as they went. Some of this might have been inadvertent, but some was deliberate. Embellishments were added to improve the story, either to satisfy imagined or real prophecy from the Old Testament (for a Jewish audience) or to duplicate a supernatural feature of a competing Greek, Mesopotamian, or Egyptian religion (for a gentile audience). Starting from a Jewish community that spoke Aramaic, it found a home in a far-flung community that was culturally Greek.

5. Christianity relied initially on oral history. After decades, when it became clear that the imminent second coming wasn’t coming, the apocalyptic element of the religion was toned down, the religion settled in for the long haul, and the stories were committed to parchment. A handful of these gospels were written in the first century, including the four that made it into the New Testament. Dozens more were added in the following centuries.

6. Some of these later gospels were benign, but others were dangerously incompatible. A Christian community that accepted one tradition might consider another community heretical, and vice versa. Church fathers wrote books against particular heresies: Irenaeus wrote against Gnosticism, Tertullian against Marcionism, and Origen against Platonism. Different philosophies were debated, and the collection of dogmas that we think of today as orthodox Christianity was hardly the obvious winner.

  • In opposition to Paul, the Ebionites saw Jesus as preaching an extension of Judaism, not a new religion. Paul himself documents this internal disagreement in the debate over circumcision (Gal. 6:12–13).
  • Other heresies fragmented the church before the Council of Nicaea—Montanism (an early kind of Pentecostalism), Nicolationism (hedonism), Antinomianism (an extreme view of salvation through faith alone), Sabellianism (Jesus and God the Father were not distinct persons but two aspects of one person), Doceticism (Jesus was only spirit, and his humanness was an illusion), Arianism (Jesus didn’t always exist but was a created being), rejection of Trinitarianism (God exists in three persons), and others. But of course these were heresies only from the standpoint of the church that eventually emerged victorious.

7. The gospels and epistles were copied over the years and modified in small and large ways to adapt to different communities’ beliefs.

8. What we think of as the official Christian canon of books was largely fixed at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Point out anything that doesn’t fit, but this sketch best explains the facts as far as I can tell. It is far more plausible than accepting the gospel stories as history.

Read the first post in this series: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

The word “belief” is a difficult thing for me.
I don’t believe. I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis.
[If] I know a thing, then I know it.
I don’t need to believe it.
— Carl Jung

Photo credit: fradaveccs

8 thoughts on “OK, Smart Guy—YOU Tell Us What Happened

  1. “… the simplest argument seems to be that a real man grounded the Jesus story.”
     
    Or men.

    The Biblical Jesus looks like an amalgam assembled from a Chinese menu, a little from Column A, a little from Column B, etc., just the way any witty saying you aren’t sure of gets attributed to Mark Twain.

  2. Pingback: OK, Smart Guy—YOU Tell Us What Happened | Galileo Unchained « Secularity

  3. most of what you said is just your opinion. the archaeological evidence alone substantiates many new testament recordings. just for instance, they found all the micvas that were used on Pentecost to baptize those that converted. it was not a slow and gradual telling of the story orally and over time, growing of the religion. this shows you know nothing of the historical facts of the age. over 3,000 people were baptized at once on that day. the church was launched very quickly, with thousands of people being added daily. that is the reason why rome persecuted the christians. at the time, it was against roman law to start a new religion. christianity was seen as rebellion against the state.

    • Jim: Thanks for the comments. Come to the new blog location to see what’s happening (this version of the blog is inactive).
      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/

      the archaeological evidence alone substantiates many new testament recordings.

      Does it substantiate the miracles? If not, this adds little.

      it was not a slow and gradual telling of the story orally and over time, growing of the religion.

      Oh? Prove it. The natural explanation is the default one. If you think the supernatural explanation is the better explanation, you’ve got an enormous burden of evidence to provide.

      over 3,000 people were baptized at once on that day.

      How do you know? Because the Bible says so? That’s a story, no more compelling than the story of any other ancient religious book.

      the church was launched very quickly, with thousands of people being added daily.

      Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian holy man who died recently, had millions of followers on his death. Does that mean that he’s cooler than Jesus? He could raise the dead and be in two places at once–or at least the stories of his followers say so. And this is a story from the 21st century! Are you convinced? If not, why be convinced by the Jesus story??

      • over 3,000 people were baptized at once on that day.

        How do you know? Because the Bible says so? That’s a story, no more compelling than the story of any other ancient religious book.

        1) how do you know alexander the great existed at all? that’s just a story. and there’s more historical record for jesus than for him.
        2) since the jews required running water, as in a stream or river, to be baptized, where could one find so much in jerusalem to baptize so many? the answer is the micva. think of it like an ancient bathtub. water flowed in one end and out the other, overflowing. they have found the site where the baptism on Pentecost took place. there are over 3,000 micvas.

        it was not a slow and gradual telling of the story orally and over time, growing of the religion.

        Oh? Prove it. The natural explanation is the default one. If you think the supernatural explanation is the better explanation, you’ve got an enormous burden of evidence to provide.

        if you are looking for proof in life, you will NEVER find it. i could tell you that mice LOVE peanut butter. prove it. well, i stick peanut butter on the mouse trap, and i have 5 dead mice to prove they love it. well that doesn’t prove anything. least of which that mice love peanut butter. all it means is that they were willing to investigate the smell long enough to get smashed. did the speak to you and tell you that mice love peanut butter? and even if they did, they could be lying!

        but lets face facts… don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. mice love peanut butter. alexander the great was a real man, ALSO foretold of in the book of daniel, and that his kingdom would be divided into 4 kingdoms. when he came through israel the priests showed him daniels writings and he fell on his knees and worshiped the God of israel. and, 3,000 people converted on pentecost. the church exploded in numbers rapidly, which is why rome tortured and persecuted them so much. sometimes you have to weigh the evidence and decide what is more likely to be true than not.

        listen buddy…. i could give you a 100% guarantee or your money back, that if i pushed you out of a plane at 30,000 feet you would die on impact. and if we were in that plane, standing at the door with no parachute, and a gun in my hand, you would be begging me not to shove you out that door. why? because you would believe that guarantee that i gave you. and yet, there is a man alive today, who fell from a plane and his chute didn’t open. he bounced twice on impact, and lived to tell the tale.

        there are no GUARANTEES in life man…. there’s no PROOF of anything. you can’t even prove to yourself that what you see is true. when you look at your hand you aren’t looking at your hand. high energy photons in the spectrum of wavelength that your retina are able to attune to are bouncing off of the atoms in your hand which are mostly EMPTY SPACE and passing through the lens of your eye. your brain receives an electrical signal to the visual cortex in the back of your brain and your cerebrum interprets the input. everything you see around you is all photons and force fields man. just because you SEE your hand is not proof that it is actually there. you just assume it to be true because you’ve lived with it your whole life. but without the sensory input your brain receives you would not even know it was there.

        your entire understanding of the universe is based on an electrical impulse from 5 senses. it could be an illusion for all you know. science is IMPORTANT…yes. it helps us understand and live in a natural world. but if you want to understand LIFE, science cannot help you. God created life… so if you want to understand life you have to understand God.

        • Jim:

          1) how do you know alexander the great existed at all? that’s just a story. and there’s more historical record for jesus than for him.

          Alexander and Jesus look pretty much the same to you? I’m pretty sure that the historical account of Alexander assigns no miracles to him.

          they have found the site where the baptism on Pentecost took place.

          I suspect that more careful archeologists would say that this is where it might have taken place.

          Even if you found it, what miracles does that prove?

          if you are looking for proof in life, you will NEVER find it.

          I can accept that. Then give me evidence that your view is the most compelling one.

          ALSO foretold of in the book of daniel

          Uh … just when do you think Daniel was written?! Many scholars place it in the 160s BCE.

          because you would believe that guarantee that i gave you.

          Similarly, I don’t believe your guarantee that the afterlife exists.

          but if you want to understand LIFE, science cannot help you. God created life… so if you want to understand life you have to understand God.

          A groundless theological claim. I need evidence.

          (Please post at the new site. All these posts are there. Thanks.)

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