Sunday, March 14, 2010

Historical Jesus Criterion

It's impossible to prove a negative. You can't prove that unicorns don't exist. However, it's reasonable to assume they don't until evidence that they do exist surfaces. Likewise with Jesus. Until we have proof of his existence, assuming that he didn't exist is entirely reasonable.

There are some who claim that the burden of proof should be on those who claim Jesus didn't exist. After all, it's the minority opinion. The majority of scholars believe Jesus existed, so they're right. The problem with this line of thinking is that truth isn't a democracy. There was a time when the majority of people believed the sun revolved around the earth. The popularity of an idea has nothing to do with how true it is. If we really want the truth, we need to examine the evidence. Simply dismissing a theory because it isn't popular is counterproductive.

Another common misconception is that we should assume Jesus existed because of Occam's Razor. It's simpler to say that Jesus existed than to say he was a hybrid Greek/Jewish god who had a biography composed of Old Testament prophecies and a list of Cynic sayings attached to him. However Occam's Razor doesn't state that the simplest explanation is the right one, it states that the simplest explanation that fits all the evidence is most likely the correct one. Stating that Jesus existed simply doesn't fit the evidence as well as saying he didn't exist (see previous posts).

Some try to discredit those who present evidence that Jesus didn't exist by claiming they have an agenda. An agenda is certainly at work behind recent movies such as Religulous, The God Who Wasn't There, and Zeitgeist. I find it unfortunate that when most people think of the Christ Myth theory, they think of these movies which present a highly simplified and oftentimes counterfactual version of the theory. It's easy to dismiss the theory the way these movies present it.

However, scholars who advocate the Christ Myth theory don't believe that similarities between Christ and other deities alone is evidence for his non-existence. Serious scholars don't think that Christianity was a Roman conspiracy or that it was invented from whole cloth by Paul. It was a gradual process which evolved over hundreds of years. Besides, even if mythicists do have an agenda, it doesn't automatically mean that they're wrong.

Why do scholars doubt the existence of Jesus, but not other historical figures? Actually, some scholars do doubt the existence of other historical figures such as Confucius, Muhammad, Aesop, and William Tell. Some scholars even doubt the existence of Paul and John the Baptist. Socrates is another figure which some scholars think may not have existed, but there is more evidence for his existence than for Jesus. (See No one questions the motives of those who doubt Socrates' existence since scholarly curiosity is motive enough.

I could just as easily be writing a blog doubting the existence of Lao Tze, the alleged originator of Taoism. However, I choose to write about the existence of Jesus because I was raised in a predominantly Christian culture and I find the question of Christian origins fascinating. I have no axe to grind, I'm simply interested in the subject. Besides, even if I did have an axe to grind, that wouldn't invalidate the evidence. Shooting the messenger won't change the message.

Except for fundamentalists who believe everything in the Bible is literally true, everyone agrees that the Jesus portrayed in scripture is at least partly mythical. Scholars in search of an historical Jesus use a set of methods to separate the man from the myth. Miracles such as walking on water likely didn't happen, however, could there have been a man named Jesus who was crucified by the Romans? Since Jesus was a common name and the Romans crucified often, there were no doubt numerous crucified Jesuses, but was one or more of them the basis for the Jesus of scripture?

I don't think it's possible to know for sure one way or the other. However, some scholars think there is evidence for an historical Jesus, so let's examine some of the methods they use to look for him.

Criterion of cultural congruency: A source is more credible if it fits the culture context.

This criterion can help us rule out a lot of sources, but it doesn't help us determine if Jesus really existed.

Criterion of linguistics: Since Jesus spoke Aramaic and the Gospels were written in Greek, anything that only makes sense in Greek wasn't spoken by Jesus.

Again, this is helpful to rule out sources, but not rule anything in. However, as an aside, there was a tremendous amount of Greek influence in Israel before, during, and after Jesus' time, so it's not impossible for Jesus to have spoken Greek.

Criterion of ancientess: The older the source, the more reliable it is.

Fair enough. However, most scholars assume Jesus lived during Pilate's time and this hasn't fully been established. Perhaps the historical Jesus lived further back in history than has popularly been assumed. For example, many scholars assume that Christianity predated Gnosticism, but it could just as easily be the other way around. Christianity could have evolved out of Gnosticism.

G. R. S. Mead presents compelling evidence that Jesus may have lived in 100 BC. The mingling between Jewish and Greek cultures goes back hundreds of years before that. The anachronisms in the Gospels (such as the presence of Pharisees in Jerusalem before the destruction of the temple, Jesus being born and raised in Bethlehem and Nazareth before those cities were founded, and Jesus referring to the murder of Zechariah in Matthew 23:35 long before it happened) prove they were written long after the time of Pilate. Paul provides us with scant details about the life of Jesus. For all Paul tells us, Jesus could have lived earlier than 100 BC. If the Jesus of the Gospels was based on someone who lived hundreds of years before and of whom almost nothing was known, then speaking of an historical Jesus at all is meaningless.

Criterion of embarrassment: Anything that would have been embarrassing to the early Christians must have really happened, otherwise they wouldn't have mentioned it.

The problem with this criterion is that we can only guess what would have been embarrassing to the early Christians. The criterion of embarrassment is often used to prove that Jesus was crucified as a criminal because early Christians would have been embarrassed to admit that. Why would the crucifixion of their leader be embarrassing? Mormons aren't embarrassed by the fact that Joseph Smith was shot to death in jail. Having a leader considered an outlaw by the authorities is far from embarrassing if you consider the authorities evil and your leader wrongfully executed.

Criterion of attestation: If two or more independent sources state the same thing, the event must predate both sources.

This is tricky, because you have to determine what is considered an independent source. Matthew and Luke were both based on Mark, so if all three say the same thing, it doesn't count as three separate witnesses, just one. Even the Gospel of John shows an awareness of the synoptics, so that can't be counted. Historical sources, such as the references to Jesus in Josephus, are questionable at best. The epistles give us no biographical information except the crucifixion, and that's also questionable. Q is often cited as an independent source, but Q is a hypothetical document and much of Q is based on Cynic writings which go back centuries. We have to find independent sources first before this criterion is useful.

Author's agenda: If something fits the author's perceived agenda, it is suspect.

This criterion can be used to rule out pretty much everything in the Gospels. The writers of the Gospels wanted Jesus to fulfill every prophecy in the Old Testament, therefore any time he does fulfill a prophecy, we should assume the author made it up. The Gospel of Mark reads like someone went through the Old Testament and combined all the prophecies together into a narrative story. When you rule out everything with an Old Testament precursor, you're not left with much besides Gnosticism and Cynic philosophy.

Could the historical Jesus have been a Gnostic or a Cynic philospher? Several scholars have advocated just that. However if we're left with no biographical information to speak of, the historical Jesus could just as easily be the collected sayings of an entire community. Proposing that all of the sayings come from a single person is unnecessary and unprovable.

Criterion of difficulty: If a character is invented, material that creates difficulty for the narration will be left out.

It's been argued that Jesus being born in Bethlehem, but raised in Nazareth fits the criterion of difficulty. Both Matthew and Luke create absurd stories to explain why Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but raised in Nazareth. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, but had to go to Bethlehem for a highly unusual census. According to Matthew, Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem but had to flee to Nazareth to avoid the slaughter of innocents. This account contradicts Mark and John which state that Jesus was born in Galilee where Nazareth is located (Mark 6:1, John 7:41-43).

Therefore, Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem, but Matthew and Luke invented stories to say he was so that he would fulfill the prophecy of Micah 5:2. Jesus being from Nazareth creates difficulty for the narrative, therefor Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person. If Jesus had been invented, the authors would just say he was from Bethlehem to begin with and avoid any reference to Nazareth.

This criterion seems reasonable at first glance, but upon closer inspection, it's revealed to be quite silly. Consider Matthew 21:1-7 where Jesus rides both a donkey and her colt into Jerusalem at the same time. If we apply the criterion of difficulty, we'd be forced to say that Jesus really did ride upon two donkeys at once because this rodeo stunt creates serious difficulty for the narrative.

However, things make a lot more sense if we ditch the criterion of difficulty and instead say Matthew misunderstood the poetic repetition of Zechariah 9:9: "Behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass."

As for Jesus being from both Nazareth and Bethlehem, that's easily explained the same way. Matthew and Luke are trying to fulfill two contradictory prophecies: Micah 5:2 and the one referred to in Matthew 2:23 which says the savior will be a Nazorean. Difficulties in the narrative don't have to be caused by trying to fit a real person into prophecy when they can be explained more easily as an attempt to accommodate two contradictory prophecies.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Was Jesus a Cynic?

A real Cynic well prepared will not be satisfied with having been well-trained himself. He must realise that he has been sent as God's messenger to his fellow humans, to show them where they've gone astray over what is right and what is wrong. (Epictetus III xxii 23)

The material common to both Matthew and Luke (designated as Q) lacks any reference to an historical Jesus, yet some scholars believe Q is where the teachings of the genuine historical Jesus are to be found. However, as we shall see, the sayings found in Q are quite similar to the teachings of the Greek Cynic philosophers.

Cynicism was a philosophy popular between the 5th century BCE through the 5th century CE. The Cynics believed in living a life of virtue according to nature. They scorned possessions and often lived as beggars, traveling from town to town preaching their message.

The Cynics desired to do away with traditional societal structures, including the family. Luke 14:26/Mattew 10:37 expresses a very Cynic idea: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."

F. Gerald Downing has compiled numerous examples of Cynic ideas found in the Gospels in his book Christ and the Cynics. I'll list a few of them below:

Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20/Matthew 5:3)
Only the person who has despised wealth is worthy of God. (Seneca EM XVIII 13)

Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves. (Matthew 10:9-10).
Wearing only ever one shirt is better than needing two; and wearing just a cloak with no shirt at all is better still. Going bare-foot, if you can, is better than wearing sandals. (Musonius XIX)

Salute no man by the way. (Luke 10:4)
Keep to yourself, quite unsociable, exchanging greetings with no one, neither friend nor stranger. (Lucian)

Seek, and ye shall find (Luke 11:9/Matthew 7:7)
Seek and you will find. (Epictetus)

For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. (Luke 12:2/Matthew 10:26)
The Cynic [...] ought to have nothing of his own that he wants to hide. Otherwise [...] he's begun to feel the need for concealment. And he couldn't possibly keep anything concealed even if he wanted to. Where or how could he possibly hide himself? (Epictetus)

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. (Matthew 10:28/Luke 12:5)
What tyrant or thief or court can frighten anyone who does not care about his body or its possessions? (Epictetus)

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. (Matthew 10:29/Luke 12:6)
Isn't God such that he oversees everything, and is present there with everything, and is able to be in touch, in some way, with everything? (Epictetus)

What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. (Matthew 19:6)
God brings into balance aspects of things that are out of true, he puts together again what has been broken apart, he hurries to press down what has started to slip out of place, he collects together again what has been scattered (Psuedo-Herclitus 6.3-4)

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Matthew 6:28-30)
When someone has God's kind of peace proclaimed by God through his reasoning mind (not by Caesar - how could he effect it?) hasn't he enough to satisfy him? ...Now no evil can happen to me... Another takes care to provide me with my food and my clothes, my senses, and the structures of my mind. (Epictetus III xiii 12-14)
Hunger, cold, contempt? Poverty doesn't necessitate any of these. Not hunger, for lots of things grow from the earth and can satisfy hunger; for the dumb beasts go without clothes and don't feel it. (Psuedo-Diogenes)
Practice reducing your needs, and so come as close as possible to God. (Crates 11)

And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment. Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? (Luke 12:22-24)
"Good God, that's all very well, but I'm a poor man without property. Suppose I have lots of children, where am I going to get food for them all?" "Well, where do the little birds go to get food from to feed their young, though they're much worse off than you are--the swallows and nightingales and larks and blackbirds...? Do they store away food in safe-keeping?" (Musonius)
Why not consider the beasts and the birds, and see how much more painlessly they live than humans do, how much more pleasantly and healthily. (Dio)
The philosophic wise man...without being concerned or anxious about more than the bare necessities, will give his stomach and back what's due to them. Carefree and happy, he'll laugh at people busy with their riches, and at others scurrying around trying to get rich, and he'll say, "Why postpone being yourself into the distant future?" (Seneca)

Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. (Luke 18:22/Matthew 19:21)
Crates sold up all his property--he was from a prominent family--and realized about two hundred talents. This he shared among his fellow citizens. (Diogenes Laertius)

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. (Matthew 6:20/Luke 12:33)
Our soul knows, I tell you, that wealth does not lie where it can be heaped together. It is the soul itself that we ought to fill, not our money-chest. It is the soul that we may set above all other things, and put, god-like, in possession of the universe...when it has taken itself off to the great heights of heaven. (Seneca)

It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. (Luke 13:19)
However small a seed is, once it's sown in suitable ground, its potential unfolds, and from something tiny it spreads out to its maximum size... I'd say brief precepts and seeds have much in common. Great results come from small beginnings. (Seneca)

And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27/Matthew 10:38)
If you want to be crucified, just wait. The cross will come. If it seems reasonable to comply, and the circumstances are right, then it's to be carried through, and your integrity maintained. (Epictetus)

Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it. (Luke 17:33/Matthew 10:39)
Socrates cannot be preserved by an act that is shameful... It is dying that preserves him, not fleeing. (Epictetus)

But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. (Luke 6:24/Matthew 6:2)
The King, said Diogenes, was the most wretched person there was, surrounded by all that gold, yet afraid of poverty. (Dio 6.34)

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other as well... Love your enemies, and do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. (Luke 6:27-29/Matthew 5:39-44)
A rather nice part of being a Cynic comes when you have to be beaten like an ass, and throughout the beating you have to love those who are beating you as though you were father or brother to them. (Epictetus III xxii 54)
How shall I defend myself against my enemy? By being good and kind towards him, replied Diogenes. (Gnomologium Vaticanum 187)
Someone gets angry with you. Challenge him with kindness in return. Enmity immediately tumbles away when one side lets it fall. (Seneca, de ira II xxxiv 5)
It's a pitiably small-minded person who gives bite for bite. (Seneca, de ira 11 xxxiv 1)
Socrates said, Follow these instructions, if you are willing to listen to me at all, so that you may live happily, letting yourself look a fool to others. Let anyone who wants to, offer you insult and injury... If you want to live happily, a good man in all sincerity, let all and sundry despise you. (Seneca EM LXXI 7)

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them. (Luke 6:31/Matthew 7:12)
Take care not to harm others, so others won't harm you. (Seneca EM CIII 3-4)
If you want to be loved, love. (Seneca EM IX 6)

Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch? (Luke 6:39/Matthew 15:14)
You can no more have a fool as a king than a blind man to lead you along the road. (Dio 62.7)
Some people prefer to be provided with a blind guide rather than a sighted one. They're bound to take a tumble. (Philo)

For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil. (Luke 6:44-45/Matthew 7:16, 12:33-35)
Who would think to be surprised at finding no apples on the brambles in the wood? or be astonished because thorns and briars are not covered in useful fruits? (Seneca de ira II x 6)
Evil no more gives birth to good than an olive tree produces figs. (Seneca)

And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. (Luke 9:58/Matthew 8:20)
I've no property, no house, no wife nor children, not even a straw mattress, or a shirt, or a cooking pot. (Epictetus)

And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:59-60/Matthew 8:22-23)
A little while before Demonax died someone asked, "What instructions have you given about your burial?" "No need to fuss," he said. "The stink will get me buried." (Lucian)

Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves. (Luke 10:3/Matthew 10:16)
Crates said that people living with flatterers were in as bad a way as calves among wolves. (Diogenes Laertius)

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? (Matthew 7:3)
And you, are you at liberty to examine others' wickednesses, and pass judgment on anyone...? You take note of others' pimples when you yourself are a mass of sores... It's like someone covered in foul scabs laughing at the odd mole or wart on someone of real beauty. (Seneca)
When the Athenians do philosophy in your way they are like people promising to heal others of ills they've not managed to cure in themselves. (Pseudo-Diogenes)

As you can see, the wording isn't exactly the same, but the ideas are similar. Since the Cynics preached amongst the land for centuries before Christ was allegedly born, it's not surprising that Jesus would have absorbed many of their ideas. However, isn't it also possible that the sayings attributed to Jesus were really the sayings of a community?

Alexander the Great conquered the known world in the fourth century BCE. Greek philosophy, including Platonism and Cynicism, greatly influenced Jewish culture at the time Christianity emerged. In fact the word "synagogue" (refering to a Jewish congregation) is a Greek word. By 200 BCE some Jewish worship services were actually conducted in Greek. The gospels were written in Greek, and in fact, several of Jesus' disciples had Greek names such as Andrew, Philip, and Simon.

The epistles of Paul read like they were written by a Platonic Jew, while the sayings of Jesus have more than a passing similarity to Cynicism. Jesus was both Jewish and Hellenistic. In one instance, Matthew even quotes from Aesop's fable of the Fisherman Piping ("We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced." Matthew 11:17).

In the end, Christianity seems to be nothing more than the result of Jewish and Greek cultures merging together. According to some scholars, there were 80 different factions of Jesus followers including Marcionism, Ebionism, Encratism, and Gnosticism. The fact that there were originally dozens of versions of Christianity speaks quite loudly against the single founder hypothesis. There is no need for a single great man to have started the Christian movement when the simple collision of cultures is explanation enough.