I never intended for this to be a series, but maybe it would be useful after all.
Recently, there was/is a bit of back-and-forth both online and in certain literary and academic communities over Bart Ehrman’s latest book, ‘Did Jesus Exist?‘ Most of that had to do with his rather dismissive and arrogant demeanor towards other scholars and researchers who came to different conclusions than he did, but the underlying point of the book is that jesus of Nazareth was an actual historical figure, rather than (as some say) a myth built around old testament predictions and various local legends.
Now, there are some important distinctions to be made here, and three main bodies of thought (with an untold number of splinters within):
1. The figure of jesus in the christian bible was actually the son of god, performed miracles, and fulfilled prophecies;
2. The stories of jesus were built around a real person by that name, but likely myths in themselves;
3. The stories of jesus are entirely mythological and no such person existed.
Most scholars settle on either points 2 or 3 – only christian apologists attempt to maintain that point 1 is accurate, but they have no evidence whatsoever to back this up, relying solely on conjecture and, to be blunt, word games. Ehrman himself maintains that there is a strong case for point 2, and says that those who follow point 3 are missing the boat.
I’m not going to bother getting into the various arguments, since they’re all red herrings (multiplying magically, donchaknow) which miss one very important detail: that point 1 is the only one that has any bearing on anything at all.
Look, it’s simple. If several hundred years from now, someone begins spreading stories of the miracles that George Porqphat performed in 2010, plugging up a volcano in ChilĂ© and turning Flavor Aid into beer, it really doesn’t matter if there is anyone in the 2010 census named “George Porqphat” or not – that doesn’t prove or disprove any miracles. No matter what the subject, if anyone wants to create stories to be taken seriously, they have to ground them in fact somewhere. Think of Hans Gruber in Die Hard, using the name of an actual executive in the Nakatomi Tower to throw John McClane off. It didn’t become less of a lie, it simply became a more believable lie. That is, if your standards of critical thought are near rock bottom.
The only importance of jesus’ existence is that he was really who the gospels claimed, and the only way to establish that is to find support for the miracles – and let’s be fair: there’s no way you’re going to find that. Even a pile of fish bones and bread crusts dating to 2000 years ago isn’t going to mean anything. Local parlor tricks witnessed by a handful of people are never going to get any higher in status.
So the debate over a historical jesus is, really, a bunch of short-sighted pedants with too much time on their hands, but if that’s the way the game is played, let’s take it a step further. The only way any figure named jesus could be considered historical is by establishing that those miracles actually occurred; anything else is not historical. George Porqphat being alive today has nothing to do with history, unless he actually gets involved in some event other than collating the minutes of meetings. Finding a rock inscribed with “Jesus [heart] Mary” doesn’t support rising from the dead unless you’re a child, and our standards should be a little better than that. Historical events are those that had some lasting impact, such as Constantine I’s promotion of the stories later to be considered scripture (and even that presents countless questions about the bias of the chroniclers.) People believing that Paul McCartney died in 1966 is history, but that doesn’t make his death at that time historical. [He actually shot John Lennon in 1980 and set up Mark Chapman to take the blame. Mark Chapman, McCartney; Mark, John, and Paul; think about it!]
So let’s play adult games now. All that matters is whether jesus was magic, and there’s no way of ever finding this out. In fact, his ability to perform any miracles doesn’t mean anything either, but serves only as incidental support for the idea that he was a special being whose death obligated all mankind to fealty – even when his death was to atone for the lack of fealty. None of which makes any sense alongside the concepts of judgment, which already addresses fealty anyway; or omniscience, which implies that any supreme force is simply being emotionally manipulative since it would have to know what everyone is going to do; or even creation itself, which implies that mankind was made to behave exactly this way.
Biblical scholarship, while an interesting pastime, will never provide any pertinent information – not when the concepts outlined within scripture are such a clusterfuck of pointlessness. Whether some guy named Yeshua existed at any time is irrelevant and not worth even 1% of the effort expended thus far. If someone has an interest in it, fine, go nuts, have fun. If they think they’re providing something useful to science or knowledge, however, they’ve lost all sight of the vacuity within the original premise.