The following is based on a post I made three years ago at MUBI.com, of all places. I happened to be rereading old posts there this morning, and I wanted to put this one down here so I could think more about it. I was in conversation with someone who had asserted that believing in God can be compared to belief in the future, which, even though it doesn’t yet exist, we believe in anyway. I begged to differ with the aptness of the comparison.
I’d love to hear what others think about all this. Please leave a comment below if you’re so moved:
As Richard Carrier explains in this talk given at a skeptic’s conference at the University of Wisconsin at Madison last spring, most academics who are paid to think, write and teach about Jesus will tell you that, while it’s really impossible to know for certain if Jesus was a historical figure, even the most secular of scholars in the field agree with near certainty that he probably did exist in some form or other. The key word there, of course, is the weasel word “probably.” Carrier doesn’t say so here, but these scholars are also very impatient with the alternative idea that Jesus probably wasn’t historically “real,” even though the degree of difference in certainty between their position and Carrier’s (and my) position is virtually non-existent. What the “historicists” have that Carrier and I don’t have is numbers in the academy who agree with them. That’s all they have, and when you get right down to it, that isn’t much at all.
When people who believe in a historical origin for the Jesus story find out how shaky the theoretical ground really is under their feet, they sometimes turn the conversation to less discomforting terrain, stating, for example, that it actually doesn’t matter if Jesus was real at all in the way the Bible says he was or was just made up out of thin air. The point is the wisdom in the religion and the good (or evil) that it hath wrought–or more neutrally, the impact it had on the rest of history. I disagree that this evasion is a suitable response to the challenge posed by Carrier and other mythicists. Their challenge is not aimed at the content of the religion. It’s aimed at the methods of historical research and the question of whether Christian history should be treated as a special case from other types of history, one where it is not permitted to get too close to the central questions about its origins.
If you think whether or not Jesus existed in history is an interesting question, you’ll probably find Carrier’s cogent presentation on reasons not to believe in it provocative, to say the least. Let me know what you think in the comments below.