Myth-Managing History: A Reply to Aron-Ra by Don Mcintosh
Introducing Our Newest Member, Don Macintosh of the Transcending Proof Blog. More about Don in Comments
Someone pointed out to me recently that on his blog Aron-Ra had announced his conversion to mythicism (the view that Jesus Christ was a religious invention rather than a historical figure) and supported it with arguments. Link to that post below:
Given that Aron's post received plenty of attention (generating over 1,500 comments), I thought it deserved a serious if brief rebuttal, which begins below:
I saw an article in Inquisitor today, wherein someone read through 126 historic documents from 1st century Israel, written by people who should have known about Jesus, yet had never heard of him. This includes Josephus, whose only mention of Jesus is now known to have been a forgery or redaction inserted later by someone else.Josephus also wrote extensively about Herod the Great, but never mentioned the Slaughter of the Innocents, the story of Jesus’ childhood which mirrors the tale of Moses’ childhood. This is because they’re both just stories following popular themes. This is only part of the evidence that Jesus never existed, or at least among the reasons to suspect that Jesus never existed, which explains why I am now a mythicist.
Failure of various contemporaries to mention Jesus hardly entails their never having heard of him. It might signal nothing more than a lack of interest. I have written many thousands of words over the years, often referencing well-known contemporaries; but concerning the vast majority of quite famous people I know of, I have written nothing at all. I hope everyone can agree that my failure, or the failure of millions of other writers, to mention certain famous people should not count as a strike against their historicity.
As to the standard mythicist reading of Josephus, it merely illustrates the impossibility of meeting the mythicist's burden of proof. In Josephus we have not only incidental mention of Jesus "who was called Christ" as the brother of James; we also have the Testimonium. Even if the Testimonium were forged, the mention of Jesus in connection with James would remain. The fact that we have two mentions of Jesus, one with no theological leanings whatever and another offering a charitable (if perhaps sardonic) reading acknowledging the Christian perspective – not to mention discussion of John the Baptist, whose greatest claim to fame was baptizing Jesus – suggests that Josephus was well acquainted with the historical figure of Jesus. The author of the Inquisitor piece cited by Aron nonetheless declares:
"But, despite making his home just one mile from Jesus’s supposed hometown of Nazareth, Josephus appears totally unaware of the famous miracle worker who later went to Jerusalem where he became such a political threat that the Romans found it necessary to execute him by crucifixion.
The few mentions of Jesus in The Jewish Wars… were added by later editors, not by Josephus himself."
That isn't exactly accurate, since the mention of Jesus in connection with James is basically uncontroversial. And of course the main reason critics give for rejecting the authenticity of the religiously significant Testimonium to Jesus is that Josephus wouldn't have said anything like that. In other words, per mythicist reasoning, there are no reliable secular texts by non-Christian historians affirming the historical Christ of the Gospels, because the only secular text purportedly affirming the historical Christ of the Gospels was written by… a non-Christian historian!
One begins to wonder if there could be any sort of evidence even in principle that could ease the doubts of mythicists. An incidental reference to Jesus as the brother of James is not enough evidence to "prove" anything; but at the same time a detailed elaboration of just what it meant for Christians to understand Jesus as the one "who was called Christ" (i.e., what made Jesus worthy of mention historically) is somehow saying too much. Paul mentions Jesus frequently in human terms, literally "according to the flesh" (Rom. 1:3), recounting not only his teachings (on divorce for example), but his birth as a Jew, his brother James, his crucifixion, his burial, and of course his bodily resurrection. But because Paul didn't write a history of Jesus' life and ministry – a fifth Gospel! – and sign his name to it, the evidence to historicity from Paul is insubstantial. The upshot of all this is that mythicism, despite rhetorical appeals to science and objectivity, is unfalsifiable.
It’s not just that I don’t believe that Jesus is a god, nor the son of God, nor a prophet of God. There is no such thing as gods, just like there’s no such thing as ghosts, and magic doesn’t really work either. Russell Brand criticized “atheistic tyranny” for denying the supernatural, but there is no supernatural to deny. The whole concept of the supernatural is evidently a product of human imagination, deceptive pattern recognition, confirmation bias, and a host of other perceptual, logical, and intellectual failures to discern fact from phantasm.Where do you go when you die? Where does your data go when the computer says, “Hard disk failure: Operating system not found”? It’s the same thing. You don’t ‘go’ anywhere; you just don’t exist anymore. You don’t have a soul. Even the Bible says you are a soul. You are the behaviors and knowledge generated by your brain, and you cannot be separated from that.
That's dangerously close to being correct. A ton of evidence suggests that we (whatever we are exactly) are indeed dependent on our brains to remain alive in the observable world. Unlike a computer with a failed hard disk, however, the functionality of a dead body cannot be restored by simply replacing the defective part. Transplants and transfusions work only on currently living systems. This is strong evidence that there is more to human life and consciousness than physical arrangements of particles in space. "It is appointed for man to die once" (Heb. 9:27).
If we are to think scientifically, then we don’t have to prove a negative. We don’t have to prove something doesn’t exist to be justified in not believing that it does.
That's well stated (if characteristically brash), but a personal justification for skepticism falls way short of an objective justification for pronouncing Jesus a myth for the rest of us. To my knowledge there is no rigorously defined, widely accepted criterion, scientific or otherwise, governing what sorts of beliefs are or are not rationally justifiable. Unfortunately, that means that we cannot avoid carrying the baggage of subjective probabilities and metaphysical assumptions into discussions of philosophical questions like epistemic justification of existential negatives.
The mythicist position is essentially an argument from ignorance – that because the historicity of Jesus has not been proven true, it has been proven false. Even if we generously grant the premise the conclusion simply does not follow. And it was a scientist (Martin Rees) who stated that "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Thinking scientifically, then, will not get us very far toward establishing the unscientific conclusion, "Jesus never existed."
We can be unconvinced of something, and thus not believe it, yet still allow for any possibility—when there is one. But in this case, there isn’t one. Remember that miracles share essentially the same definition as magic, being inexplicable by science because it defies the laws of logic as well as physics, meaning they’re physically impossible by definition.
Aron should be advised to read (or review) Hume's treatment of induction. As scientists and philosophers of all stripes have acknowledged since Hume, there is nothing logically necessary about a certain pattern of events conjoined in space and time, no matter how often observed. So there is nothing logically impossible about a divinely ordained interruption of that pattern – i.e., a miracle. As to defying the laws of physics, we are not sure exactly what those laws are. This is why, for example, there is a fundamental inconsistency between quantum mechanics and general relativity. So-called "laws" of physics are but our best approximations of physical reality.
Moreover, the process of scientific discovery continually introduces new and unexpected information, which not only ushers in new "laws" altogether but often displaces the old ones. Given that laws of physics as defined by Aron-Ra are "impossible" to transgress, they would have to be permanently and intrinsically valid (like the laws of logic); but then such laws could not be displaced, as they often are in science.
That's pretty much the philosophical groundwork for mythicism. I would go on to address the remainder of Aron's post, such as the comparisons of Jesus with the likes of Robin Hood and Hercules, but those are not really arguments. In the same way it would not be logically sound for me to debunk Aron's belief in evolution from a common ancestor by comparing it with ancient Greek and Hindu creation myths, or fairy tales like The Frog Prince by the Brothers Grimm.