The Truth About Jesus?

Jerry Coyne at “Why Evolution is True” shouted a few weeks ago that “Joe Hoffmann Knows the Truth About Jesus.

I am much beholden to Jerry for the good news [sic] since I didn’t know I knew. But as Jerry seems to like the word “truth,” let’s talk about it..

First of all, truth is a quality of propositions in logic, not a set of facts. People are always getting that wrong, but it’s high time we got it straight.

Even the Greeks–especially the Greeks–were too smart to equate truth with facticity. It is possible, not to mention fun,  to create a valid deductive argument that is completely false: A syllogism can be true, but not valid (i.e. make logical sense). It can also be valid but not true. It depends, as an annoying logician friend never tires of telling me after two gins, on knowing your modus ponens from your modus pollens, as in

All men who rise from the dead are gods.
Jesus rose from the dead.
Jesus is a god.

But count on it: There is always some wanker  in the corner (usually a mathematician) not sufficiently drunk who will say, “The problem is, you see, he didn’t” (smile).  Exactly.

Second, truth is a slippery word in the sciences and that is because the sciences are more comfortable dealing with epistemological variables of a scalar variety like “certainty.” Colloquially “truth” in the form of conclusions or warranted assumptions is what you get when all the evidence stacks up in favour of a hypothesis.  And the language of “falsification” (falsifiability) was widely used in the mid-decades of the twentieth century in philosophy to refer to the testability of hypotheses  through experimentation– a very deliberate attempt to move discussion away from the receding goal of  “truthification” meaning a level of certainty that scientific method cannot provide.

But truth in metaphysics means something completely different.  Scientists normally have no interest in metaphysics because if they do they end up having to discuss things like the soul and the eternity of ideas, and if you want to make a scientist squirm start talking about those things.For that reason, scientists often group theology and metaphysics together as belief in fairies, while philosophy and theology have poignantly rejoined, Oh yeah?

To be a little more serious,  it is is perfectly reasonable to ask the question, What are the facts about Jesus?  I am happy to approach that question without the obvious rejoinder, It depends on what you mean by fact. Facts should not be subject to what you mean by them; if that’s your fancy you are talking about opinions. In my little outline of the Jesus book, I was not talking about what I mean by facts that I ascertain from some private knowledge or speculation; I was talking about what might be plausibly concluded on the basis of certain very limited and provisional criteria for establishing historicity: context, conditions, and coordinates.  This does indeed leave much in the realm of opinion, but it is the kind of working opinion that Socrates (and science) calls θεωρία–theory, and as all scientists know, theories are susceptible to grades of proof based on types of evidence. The same goes for historical inquiry.

Sometimes in such inquiry,  facts hide behind, under and on top of opinions. This is especially true in the artifact evidence we call the gospels. It is a fact for example that Mark or someone who wrote a piece of lore that goes by his name, said that Jesus was the son of God. Even if you take that statement as, properly speaking, false or fraudulent, it remains a fact that it is said.Saying it does not make it a fact that Jesus was the son of God.  If to be logical we want to put it this way, the statement is not falsifiable. But neither does it mean that Jesus is not the son of God.  Because the prior question (which too many mythicists and amateurs take for granted at their methodological peril) , is what did the writer mean when he called Jesus the son of God? That is not a metaphysical or theological question–though heaven knows after almost 2000 years it is hard to see it any other way.  It is a linguistic question.

More important, the gospels are full of pesky questions like that–language that taken at face value won’t even get you a nose.  To get at the facts we have to distinguish layers of meaning, cope with ambiguity, linguistic disparity, translation difficulties.  We also have to be aware of the type of literature we are dealing with: no one is quite sure what a gospel is (though theories abound),but there are a few works like them in the ancient world. But one thing we know they aren’t:  collections of facts.

Jerry is quite right that much of my outline sounds very much like a plausibility argument and that plausibility is a weak place to begin discussion of the historicity of Jesus:

While I haven’t yet read his book, since it hasn’t been written, Hoffmann’s analysis seems to be more a matter of opinion and plausibility rather than of solid historical documentation. And, when it comes to the existence of Jesus, “plausibility” arguments are all that historicism can adduce. They’ve never settled the issue, or even come close.

But to use his favourite word, this is not true. Look at the phrase “solid historical documentation.”

It is a good phrase but totally useless in sorting through much of ancient literature, where much of what we have to go on is neither solid nor (in the modern sense of objective reporting)  historical .

That is where plausibility comes in. Plausibility’s no a substitute for argument and evidence. It is a precondition for argument based on interpretation  of facts–meager, disguised, reversed, buried and otherwise hard to catch by the throat. Without establishing that Jesus in one stratum of the tradition about him–namely, the gospels– is a  plausibly historical figure there would be no sense saying that he is arguably historical. A Jesus who in all or most particulars violates the conditions, coordinates and context of his time would certainly be mythical, because mythical figures tend to operate in the service of an enveloping story–the sort of thing Paul does with Jesus by transforming him into the Lord at whose name every knee must bend–a timeless symbol of salvation and redemption from sin.

There is no doubt at all that there is a is a mythical Jesus, and we already know where to find him.  My point is simply that the plausible Jesus of the gospels is not that figure. This is where the process begins.

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28 thoughts on “The Truth About Jesus?

  1. I don’t know why Dr. Coyne would want to weigh in. If Dr. Hoffmann were commenting about evolutionary biology (Dr. Coyne’s speciality) then Dr. Coyne would have the full expertise to comment in response. I respect Dr. Coyne as a scientist. But I would hate for him to make the same mistake that Richard Dawkins did. Dr. Dawkins tried his hand at being a philosopher of religion with his amateurish book *The God Delusion* only to make a clown of himself. I don’t want Dr. Coyne to marginalize himself. It’s great if he sticks to writing books about evolution and popularizing science for laymen such as myself. I don’t want to see Dr. Coyne make a case for mythicism only to consign himself to the fringe realm of Jesus scholarship like Richard Carrier is doing. But I can’t stop Dr. Coyne.

    • I don’t want to defend Coyne’s or Dawkins’ remarks on Jesus or the Bible or early Christianity. But how did it come to pass that such highly-educated people (and throw PZ Meyers into that mix) are so woefully ignorant of subjects which interest them so much? I’m familiar with the “fundamentalist atheist” accusation, and it certainly has some merit, but I wonder whether it alone can account for a state of affairs in which someone as brilliant as Dawkins is so far from brilliant when he begins to pontificate about the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion. Is it not the job — one of the jobs — of scholars to educate the public about their specialities? If the average layman is much better-educated about evolution than about Jesus, shouldn’t New Testament scholars take just a little bit of the responsibility for that? Is it necessary, for example, to use the term “kerygma” when writing in English, instead of “preaching”? Should Biblical scholars continue to complain about the public not understanding them, or should they try harder to be understood?

      • One of the curiosities of the fundamentalist atheist clique is that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopalian Church knows a great deal more about evolution than the vast majority of the ardent devotees who stand in line for Richard Dawkins to autograph their books; she did post-doctoral research in marine biology.

        Admittedly squids and human beings may not, at first sight, look hugely similar but on the one occasion that I heard her preach she tackled the question of the fear of the ‘other’ in evolutionary terms.

        Of course, she’s married to a mathematician…

      • I suppose ‘interest’ in a subject could identify an obsessive compulsion to destroy indiscriminately…

        Stevie, that is indeed a delightfully curious fact. :-)

      • Stevie, steph, you both assiduously avoided my point, which has to do neither with the scientific competence of religious leaders nor with the compulsions of fundamentalist atheists, but is, more plainly put: what are Biblical scholars going to do about the public’s ignorance of the current state of your scholarship? Mockery and fault-finding will only get you so far.

        But perhaps you enjoy being misunderstood. Which I can understand. Many’s the time I have only half-ironically sung along with Pete Townshend as he only partly-sarcastically sang:

        Just wanna be misunderstood
        Wanna be feared in my neighborhood
        Just wanna be a moody man
        Say things that nobody can understand

        I wanna be obscure and oblique
        Inscrutable and vague
        So hard to pin down
        I wanna leave open mouths when I speak
        Want people to cry when I put them down

        I can understand what Pete is singing about there, most definitely. But like I said, and go ahead and ask Pete about this too, it’ll only take you so far.

      • Ironically I wasn’t disagreeing with your comment Steven, and my comment was directed at Dawkins and the other ‘highly educated’ celebrity atheists, who devote so much time to critique and little to inquiry. I should have left it unsaid in this context. Coincidentally, yesterday I listened to an hour long repeat recording broadcast again from October 2012 (and I remember listening to it then – I always tune into Kim) of a wonderful interview on Radio New Zealand with Kim Hill. She was talking to Pete Townshend who had just published his autobiography ‘Who I Am’ about his life, music and the others. Speaking of being misunderstood and as you so sweetly gave us Pete’s song, I’ll respond with a song for you from Aotearoa – a local band here born in the 70s: Split Enz (Tim or Neil Finn wrote it ;-)

        Nobody listens to a word that I say
        And at work I’m just a foremans tool
        Sitting in the corner with my coffee & tray
        All the secretaries think I’m a fool

        I don’t wanna suffer these conditions no more
        Haven’t I the right to say
        I don’t wanna suffer these conditions no more
        Nobody takes me seriously anyway
        Nobody takes me seriously anyway
        Nobody takes me seriously anyway

        Loves not a glimpse, it’s a permanent rinse
        And it keeps you on your toes all day
        Every girl I met seemed to get apathetic
        When I looked at her that special way

        I can’t get nobody else to take me for real
        They like to keep me tucked away
        Even if they listened to what I had to say
        Nobody’d take me seriously anyway
        Nobody takes me seriously anyway
        Nobody takes me seriously anyway

        If war broke out I’d be the last one to know
        If there was a fire they’d just leave me to burn
        I got just as much to say as any man
        But I never seem to get my turn

        I don’t wanna suffer these conditions no more
        Haven’t I the right to say
        I don’t wanna suffer these conditions no more
        Nobody takes me seriously anyway
        Nobody takes me seriously anyway
        Nobody takes me seriously anyway

        (Nobody takes me seriously)
        Nobody.. no, no, no-nobody…

      • It happened because we naturally give far more weight to voices in our own tribe. The voices that Coyne & co. feel are tribes-people are those that advocate fringe historical ideas, and so they give far more weight to them. When we read or listen to someone outside our tribe we already know we disagree with them, so we hear everything through the lens of knowing they’re wrong. When we listen to those within our tribe, we know we agree, and the agreeing comes naturally.

        The same thing happens with creationists, of course. Intelligent people can believe the worst science, because their knowledge is weighted by the beliefs of the person speaking.

        That we’re here is partly the fault of academic biblical studies. It has not, and does not strongly enough distance itself from confession.

        And that is because the discipline is so overwhelmingly funded by vested interests. Even in the most ardently secular institutions, religion departments are the size they are because so many religiously motivated students pay to take their courses. Historians of Alexander would love access to such student cash!

        Then you look at scholarly bodies. Say, the SBL, with its denominational special interest groups. Or the uneasy entwining of many secular religions school with seminaries. Particularly in the UK, all the secular theology departments I know get part of their cash from training ministers. It is easy to conclude that the whole thing is fundamentally allied to religious motive and purpose. Which is a clear marker, if you’re a particular kind of atheist, of the enemy tribe.

        This is why Coyne can drop inuendoes about James McGrath being a creationist. That’s just indicative of the tribal boundaries he’s drawn, and how he perceives people in the enemy tribe.

        This whole mess has almost nothing to do with facts, arguments, or any other such thing. And its solution is not better arguments, or clearer presentation of the facts, I don’t think. It is finding ways to break down the tribalism.

      • Ian: at long last, a reply which finds some of the fault for this tiresome feud on the side of Biblical scholars. It’s not 100% clear to me whether you’re accusing Biblical scholars, as well as New Atheists, of tribalistic tendencies: if not, let me just go ahead and explicitly make that accusation myself.

        Biblical scholars’ criticisms of New Atheists are not necessarily inaccurate, but Lord Shiva the Destroyer, they do get monotonous at times. Not less monotonous than the New Atheists’ attacks against the Biblical scholars.

        It’s clear to me that the Biblical scholars have a much better grasp of their own discipline than the New Atheists. (And haven’t I been saying so, repeatedly? Jeebus!) What I’m advocating here is, as you put it, breaking down the tribalism. Reaching across the tribal barriers. Again, I see the biblical scholars behaving as a tribe, and I’m not sure whether or not you do. Sometimes they address the great unwashed as if from a high pulpit. That’s not surprising. It has been the major way of making a living for those who study the Bible for a rather long time now, and the condescending tone of many of the “popular” books of Biblical scholars is very similar to that of sermons. It’s the tone of a tribe which became thoroughly used to being exempt from challenges from those outside the tribe. And sometimes they appear to just be talking amongst themselves. Which for 1500 years or so they were able to do without constant interruptions from layman, so who can blame them if they become a bit testy now and then? But what is Hoffmann’s intent above? Does Hoffmann really want to get through to Coyne? Or is his aim more to give other Biblical scholars a chuckle at Coyne’s expense?

        Answers which boil down to “Coyne started it!” don’t interest me. I don’t belong to Hoffmann’s tribe, or Coyne’s, or anybody else’s.

    • So you are suggesting that we who can see the Emperor is naked spend time examining every intricate detail of his vestments? Dawkins has the exact same qualification as any theologian to talk about religion, which is none at all.

      • Scholarship specifically trained in the cultures, languages and historical contexts of biblical and religious literature and history of religious ideas and traditions, often expressing special interests in other fields such as anthropology, sociology, and ancient and modern history, is sufficiently qualified to discuss religious origins. Dawkins is not qualified, you’re right.

      • Drew


        I don’t have the scholarship necessary to engage in the sort of work which Joe does; I am lousy at languages – little Latin and less Greek, and the little Classical Latin I knew went years ago because it was replaced with the somewhat changed Latin used in the English State Papers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where I am historically most at home.

        Now it may be that you are brilliant at languages and could easily learn all the ones you need; in that case you would do so and move forward to learning all the other skills which Steph mentions in her post.

        Those are going to be a great deal harder for you because your post makes it clear that you are utterly clueless as to what doing
        history involves. Nevertheless, if you do achieve it you will probably end up being profoundly bored by people who tout their abysmal ignorance as if it were something to be proud of…

  2. Pingback: The Truth About Jesus? |

  3. Professor Coyne is a smart guy, but he is burdened with some kneejerk sensitivities and prejudices which ought to be ameliorated by his scientific perspective but which, unfortunately, are not. He is, for example, sensitive about his physical appearance, so it’s really mean of you to post such unflattering photos of him; funny, too! I’m looking forward to the book with great anticipation.

  4. ” … solid historical documentation … ”

    This is something I keep finding with Mythers. Many of them come to the subject from a science background and a high school level grasp of how history is studied. They seem to think that it’s just a matter of looking up the relevant “solid historical documentation” and – presto! – you know what happened. Applying their standards for Jesus to some other ancient figures and showing them that, by these standards, virtually no-one “existed” brings one of two results: (i) sullen silence or (ii) a loud declaration that history can’t be studied at all because it is not science.

    Nuance and interpretation, uncertainty and concepts like “the argument to the most likely explanation” leave these people blinking with near total incomprehension.

    • Tim O’Neill is right.

      Many people come from a science background Iincluding Coyne) and expect solid historical documentation.

      What can be done with such people except teach them not to expect solid historical documentation?

    • Tim, you may well be right about this. I personally think that many Mythers suffer from “Apostate Syndrome”. Many of them are former fundamentalists who feel scammed by Christian fundamentalism and are angry about it. Several of them believe that science is the one true method of finding all facts and truth. If it could be proven that the gospel story of Jesus was pure myth with no historical person as its core, then they would be delighted. They would feel vindicated by it. Proving that Jesus never existed would be the ultimate egg-on-the-face of the churches.This is the biggest reason why so many fundamentalists-turned-atheists find Richard Carrier’s work so magnetic; he is their hero who is giving them the expert tools to humiliate fundamentalism once and for all. It’s tragic but true.

      P.S. Tim, if you are the fellow I think you are, then you have a blog where you post book reviews. How is your response of Fitzgerald’s review of your book review coming along?

  5. Brilliant Joe. As usual. Right to the heart of the matter. You are doing everyone an enormous favour actually taking time to respond to this kind of thing. Thanks.

  6. My point is simply that the plausible Jesus of the gospels is not that figure. This is where the process begins.

    True, but far too often in the field of historical Jesus studies, and from all points on the spectrum I might add, there is a whole lot of time spent on plausible in the hopes that no one will notice that the probable part isn’t much more than smoke and mirrors.

  7. I follow the present understanding of those I perceive to be our top NT Studies historical scholars: NONE of the writings the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT are apostolic witness to the HJ, thus our traditoinal canon is not a reliable source for knowledge about Iesus. Our knowledge of the real Jesus is derived from a non traditional canon, the NT source which contains the original and originating faith and witness of the apostles. This has been identified to be the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3 – 7:27). This is suffieiently documented in the NT. If anyone finds the interest, I will be pleased to attempt further discussion.

    • This is to say the solution to the “Jesus Puzzle” can only come from the Guild of NT Studies, I make the uncoditional claim that we have the solution in the works of our top NT Studies scolars. Those who have reached ther understanding under the force of present historical methods and knowledge. Basic to this undedrstanding is the conclusion that none of the writings of the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT satisfy the fundamental criteria of apostolic witness to Jesus, thus all are not reliable sources for knowledge of Jesus. We have a dfinite historical path well documented in the NT which leads to the text Matthew 5:3 – 7:27, named the Sermon on the Mount by Agustine, which is our most certain source containing the original and originating faith and witness of the apostles.

  8. With all due respect, I believe premises are either true or false, while arguments are either valid and sound or valid and unsound, at least according to Irving Copi and his book “Introduction to Logic”, which was the standard text used in my university when I was a student.

    • We don’t disagree but a syllogism does not require a premise to be true for the conclusion based on arranged terms to be valid … That is the point — that truth is a quality of propositions

  9. Pingback: Mythicists at Long Last Ready to Embrace Mainstream Historical Methods Like Divination?

    • Who has equated plausibility with historicity. Not me. At the same time mythical and legendary figures are normally totally implausible, so establishing context (etc.) becomes a precondition for any serious discussion of historicity. I have already said that the Jesus whom Paul makes the centre of his theology is a mythical figure, Christ the Lord. I have begun to suggest that the Jesus of the gospels is historically plausible given the three criteria I have used and which now need to be examined in detail using a systematic process. Quibbling over equivalences that have not been made and in fact are contrary to the way the argument must unfold is not very helpful. You seem to have committed yourself to the untenable axioms of mythicism, beginning with the ludicrous proposition that if Paul knew there was an historical Jesus he would have mentioned him. In fact of course, he does; and he also tells us why he can’t really use him for this theology except as a kind of “conditio sine qua non” because his crucifixion is a scandal and an embarrassment. I wish you would adopt a pre-canonical view of the evidence and consider for a moment that the letters of Paul and the gospels are two entirely different sorts of “information,” the latter a late second century religious memoir, the former a glimpse of how early believers under the guidance of a number of competing torrents of interpretation began to view the significance of a dead leader. (I have a feeling your immediate response will be to mention the resurrection: control your urge and spare me the trouble of explaining here what the book will make clear) -rjh

  10. It seems the goal of all the study, research and speculation is as it has been stated before: the pain-staking task of separating ancient history from ancient myth-laden history.

  11. Beyond “what migfht be plausibly concluded”, our sole “solid historical documentation” of New Testament evidence for knowledge of Jesus is the original and originating faith and witness of the apostoles. The origins of this historical evidence is the NT documentation of the event of the key disciples, neaming Peter, James and John, returning to Jerusalem soon after the execution (witin weeks?) purposing to again take up the teachings of their revered Master. From this beginning collections of sayings of Jesus were made to produce our most certain source containing this apostolic witness, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3 – 7:27), dated mid first century a contemporary of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. All sufficiently documented in the New Testament.

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