Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Was Jesus Real - does it matter or not?

This morning, a member of an email group I belong to posted his (so far) reactions to reading Richard Carrier's book, "Proving History".  Out of that email of his, he made this statement:
"Frankly I don't consider the question about whether Jesus actually existed as a person to be interesting. It is obvious that the mythic stories that have evolved since his possible existence are so totally unrelated to anything that is real that it does not matter."
My reaction was pretty much this:
Then why do so many Christians defend it so staunchly? 
One certainly can argue (as you seem to be doing) that it doesn't matter whether the religion is based on myth or fact, but the Bible (which many Christians hold as factual) makes real claims as to the truth of his birth, ministry, death and resurrection.  These are the basic foundations upon which Christianity rests.  Even the Protestant Reformation took away these basic beliefs from the RCC when they split off, and many Protestant churches even today still use the Nicene Creed as the basis for their theology - reciting this creed virtually every week, in some cases. 
Taking the RCC as an example, given its position as the founding sect of the religion, huge numbers of Catholics are even today at the cusp of leaving the church.  Huge numbers already have.  I personally know at least a half dozen who have and there are any number of ex-Catholics in both our Rockville Discussion Group and WASH itself.  If at some point in the next few years, Carrier's idea of using Bayes Theorem in examining the issue of Jesus' historicity is accepted and that results in a significant number of independent biblical scholars coming around to the mythicist position, this could eventually have an interesting catalytic effect on many people who now sit on the fence.  For one who is looking at doubts as to the truth of their religion of birth, this kind of scholarly examination could prove the difference between staying on or leaving the faith. 
After all, if the Bible is mythical about the "facts" surrounding Jesus, why would you believe the even older "facts" relating to god?  I think to many, it may matter very much.  It all comes down to the issue of credibility.  Even emotional issues can turn on the problem of whether someone seems credible or not.  As Christianity, at least the fundamentalist sects, lose credibility, their numbers will drop.   The less credible they seem, the faster that process will play out.  Look at how much credibility they are losing today, just on the basis of their leaders' public statements.  The more they open their mouths, the more they push people away.   
If scholars begin an earnest and more wide spread examination of Jesus' historicity and the mythicist position gains credibility, that process will accelerate.
 In regards to the RCC, I often concentrate on it because it is the founding sect for Christianity, and it does still regard the Gospel stories about Jesus as true, in large part.  Certainly the miracles are still taught as true.

Virgin birth?  Check.
Wise men?  Check.
Nazareth?  Check.
Shepherds?  Check.
Singing choirs of angels?  Check.
Literal ministry on earth?  Check.
All the little details of the crucifixion?  Check.  (Even the contradictory ones)
Resurrection?  Check.

All of these details are pretty much required of all Catholics to believe - if you want to be a good Catholic.  Yeah, yeah, I know, there are degrees of belief, and a lot of priests, when pinned down in private, will allow for some slippage into allegory on some of the more outrageous miracles or contradictions.

As noted, many Protestant groups took these things with them when they broke off from the RCC, and still claim them today.  A lot of the more liberal ones have slipped on the contradictions and allow for a lot more allegory.  As a matter of fact, information collected in 2009 shows that only 55% of Christians actually believe in the sinless divinity of Jesus!

So, yes, this is hardly a universally held set of beliefs.  A lot of Americans don't really believe in miracles, so the importance of the question of whether Jesus was real or not isn't an earthshaking matter to many people.

But Carrier's idea has merit, and has even been suggested by earlier scholars, so the more rigorous his work is shown to be, the better the chances it has of being accepted by the critical biblical scholars of the field.  Should the techniques he demonstrates be even partially successful in convincing a wider number of scholars that the mythicists' positions have merit, the implications for how people view the bible and its credibility are potentially huge.

A big part of this is social media.  It won't take long for the reactions to Carrier's upcoming book which will actually use Bayes Theorem to examine the issue of Jesus' historicity to hit the social media.  Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest will light up with news, discussions, arguments and who knows how much anger and invective over the different opinions.  A lot of the scholarly reactions will make their way online and be passed around from place to place, and undoubtedly, the reactions of scholars that end up agreeing with Carrier will get a whale of a lot of attention.

And that social media will spread the word, and a lot of the credibility of the fundies will slip even more than it already is, based on their wild and crazy grandstanding of late.

Will that spell the end of Christian influence in the US?  No, unfortunately.  It will increase the speed of the death spiral Christianity has created for itself, though.

Will the recent backlash of fundamentalist anger and claims of "oppression" and "persecution" slow the decline?  Will the Republican partial return to power slow it also?

I don't think so.  Both the Republicans and the leaders of the fundamentalist groups have been filling the airwaves with such crazy and ignorant claims about women, health care, rape and contraception, and their attempts to regulate these things in very oppressive and dictatorial manners has alienated almost every voting block except white southern males, which is likely to actually accelerate the process should the voters manage to overcome Republican gerrymandering.

Like it or not, the fate of both the Republican Party and Christianity itself in the US are intertwined, and if the bible is shown to be lacking in credibility for its claims of the very basic foundations of the religion, the recent shenanigans of the Republicans combined with widespread doubts of Americans regarding their religion are likely to combine to shake the foundations of both groups.

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