Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday: A Meditation for 2017

I wrote this two years ago for Good Friday, and decided to re-post it this year.  Appropriate to the day, no art for this post; again.
There persists in corners of the internet those who think they are "wise" because they "know" there is no evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, and therefore Christianity itself is simply a sham.  Partly because it is Good Friday, I want to address this contention.*

First, Biblical scholars by and large agree there was a Joshua (Greek:  "Jesus") who lived in Nazareth in the 1st century, and preached in the countryside, and was crucified, dead and buried.  It isn't really a controversial point; even the infamous Quest of the Historical Jesus (which almost no one has read, these days) concluded that there was  Jesus of Nazareth alive at the time specified, and saying pretty much what he supposedly said.

That's not much of an argument, though, and even Biblical scholars don't spend much effort creating an airtight case for the matter.  It really isn't of much interest, there really isn't any sound reason to doubt it (given what we know of many personages of ancient times), so they move on.  Still, that's one response to those who insist Jesus was not "real."

Then there's the example of Socrates.  He lived in Athens, a literate culture at the time where many people apparently knew him.  He was well-known enough to make it into a play by Aristophanes; there's not much benefit to a story that mocks a person almost no one in the audience recognizes.  But otherwise, Socrates didn't leave much of a record.  Yes, there are the dialogues of Plato, but Socrates is a character in Plato's dialogues, not an historical figure whose every utterance Plato duly transcribed.  We know what Plato says Socrates said; we don't know what Socrates said.

And yet the thought, the ideas, attributed to Socrates form the foundation of Western culture and civilization.  You can't overstate the importance of Socrates; but we can't even be sure he is more than a fictional character, at least the Socrates of our knowledge.

Why does it matter that Jesus lived, if it doesn't matter that Socrates did?

The importance of both men is in what they said, much more than what they did.  Even from Plato's accounts Socrates just gadded about Athens, ignoring his wife and children, staying up all night drinking when he had the mind to, and generally pissing off Athens until they decided to put him to death, a sentence he almost dared them not to pass on him.  But it isn't his prodigious ability to drink that we admire in Socrates, or his ability to carry on a dialogue at the drop of a hat, or even his claim that the Delphic Oracle pronounced him the wisest man in Athens.

We remember what he said; or, more accurately, what Plato says Socrates said.  Which puts Socrates (it has been noticed before, this is nothing new) in the same place as Jesus.  In terms of what we know about them, and what we most pay attention to, it is what they said, not what they did, that matters.

Now you may point to the miracles attributed to Jesus, and say those matter.  But to whom?  The synoptics call those actions "acts of power."  John's gospel calls them "signs."  One displays the power of the individual; one seems to signify (literally sign-ify) something other than the act itself.  And whether or not you think the gospel writers recorded them faithfully and truthfully, is an act of faith itself.  You can, rather like Jefferson, read the words of Jesus and skip over the dunamin, the semeia.  You can set aside what he reportedly did, and focus on what he reportedly said.

Nothing, so far, requires proof that Jesus, or Socrates, for that matter, was an actual historical figure.  It is the words attributed to them, the ideas associated with them, that matter.  So why is it so important that Jesus have actually lived?

Maybe because Paul says that, if Jesus didn't die, then the resurrection is a nullity, and Christian faith a pointless endeavor.  A sound enough argument, but it applies only to believers.  If you believe Jesus' death has spiritual or even metaphysical implications for you, then the life and death of Jesus are important for reasons that have nothing to do with history.  If you only believe the words of Jesus are interesting, are perhaps no more valuable to you than the words of Heraclitus, or even Thales of Miletus, then what does it matter if Jesus actually said these things, or if some tradition somehow sprang up that attributed these words to a fictional character (a fantastical idea, actually, which presumes we are far superior to people of the 1st century, an arrogant and unsustainable presumption).  If the words matter, the life of the person doesn't.  And the words of Socrates matter much more than how he did, or didn't, treat Xanthippe.

So why does the life of Jesus matter so much?  Perhaps because the faith of so many Christians rests on the historical figure of Jesus, and presumably, without that history, Christian faith disappears?  Or would that be like the Grinch stealing Christmas?

You cannot convince the faithful that Jesus of Nazareth never lived, and isn't alive now.  If you do convince someone of that, they are no longer faithful (for better or worse).  But it only matters to the world if the reality of the theology mentioned by Paul, above, matters to the world.  As a minister of the gospel, I think it does matter; but that's a far cry from saying I think it should matter to everyone in the world and it's my responsibility to see that it does.  If you don't accept Paul's faith claim, you don't care if Jesus lived or didn't.  His death is not material to you.  His lack of existence is not material to you, either.

So if you insist on arguing that "Jesus of Nazareth never existed!," you are making a faith claim no different from those who insist "Jesus is Lord!" and all the earth must acknowledge it.  You are claiming that the death of Jesus does matter, but you must erase it so it can't matter, so you can be:  what?  Free?

Free from what?

I don't make this as some kind of sneaky evangelical claim meant to prove beyond cavil that my faith claim is the only permissible faith claim.  It matters not to me whether or not you think Jesus was ever alive.  What I don't understand is why it matters to much to you that I believe he was.  Because if he wasn't, what does that change?  A theological claim you reject anyway?

What's really bothering you about the reality of Jesus?*

*I stumbled across this, this morning.  It is a fine summation of the argument I'm referring to, so I add it as a footnote:

It is not an impossible situation. We can start with Jesus, and establish a careful reading of the New Testament shows he was not an actual person. Once that one has been cleared up, I think a lot of the others might just fall by the wayside.
The New Testament, of course, establishes no such thing, in either direction.  We can't escape Kierkegaard's argument about the existence of God:  if you don't accept such existence, it can't be proven; if you do, there's no need to.  I'm going to call this the "Grinch" argument from now on, since it presumes the entirety of Christianity falls if the historical Jesus is removed.  And because that argument (or is it a belief?) rests more on the need of the person making it, than on the needs of the persons who call themselves Christians. 


  1. It is funny how much it matters to them that Jesus didn't exist AND that everyone believe that Jesus didn't exist. I think they protest too much, like those acolytes of P.Z. Myers who mouthed his "it's just a cracker" line in the face of expressed skepticism that the "consecrated host" in his publicity stunt was more than a circle of white paper or a flattened out circle of Wonder Bread. To them it really, really did matter that it had been consecrated and desecrated even though they claimed to believe not to believe in consecration, they desperately needed to believe the desecration which, by their own faith declarations was as meaningless. Only clearly not.

    I still, occasionally, get into it with the resident atheist trolls of Religion Dispatches because it's good exercise to answer their points and to answer what they come up with. Though they never change their lines no matter how much you refute them.

    But I've got to start planting tomorrow so I won't have as much time for that.

  2. I can think of a lot of Protestants who would agree it's" just a cracker,"without agreeing with Myers on anything else.

    These guys really are idiots.