Monday, August 4, 2014

A Christ-Myth Carol

Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticised by some one else. Our faith is faith in some one else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.
—William James, “The Will to Believe” (1896)
Raphael Lataster [Photo credit: Emma Crancher]
Book Review: There Was No Jesus, There Is No God. By Raphael C. Lataster (2013).

The directness of Raphael C. Lataster’s new book is indicated by its title: There Was No Jesus, There Is No God. It’s an easy and informative read, but by no means a lightweight one. The scholarly rigor is there, as evidenced by an abundance of footnotes.

The book includes a discussion of the age-old question of God’s existence, but it’s the larger first half that I find of particular interest: Was there a Historical Jesus on which to build the “Christ of Faith” that we non-Christians reject as supernatural? In just over 150 fast-moving pages, Lataster explains why he thinks there wasn’t.

Criteria Crunch

After some introductions and a brief discussion of Bayesian inference, Lataster begins by describing the “criteria of authenticity” that are “used by Bible scholars to judge the reliability of certain aspects of the Bible” (p. 18). There really isn’t that much judgment going on, though. These “criteria” are waved around by apologists to distract the audience from the Bible’s very real problems and give the show the air of intellectual respectability. It’s a dodge, and Lataster explains why.

Multiple attestation? “Few individual units of the Jesus tradition are multiply attested, and even then, establishing independence is incredibly difficult” (p. 18). Embarrassment? That’s “highly speculative,” for several reasons (pp. 19-20). Coherence? “Without a solid base of certain sayings and deeds that do stem from a historical Jesus, using this criterion would be circular” (p. 21). And on he goes for a couple more pages, dismantling stuff like vividness of narration and the contradictory criterion of least distinctiveness.

Lastaster notes the biased nature of this effort. With one little-used exception, there “are no definitive criteria for inauthenticity” (p. 23). The Bible defenders touting their checklist offer “no criteria that confidently assert that Jesus could not have existed historically” (my emphasis). The game is rigged. It’s all in the direction of “proving” what they desperately need to show.1

Lord, I Believe, Help Thou My Scholarship

Jesus scholars tend to be a goal-oriented bunch. The evangelists’ slogan “You need Jesus” applies to almost all of these guys in a very practical way. Without him, their entire subject of study–and, almost always, their faith–disappears. He’s not just some itinerant preacher and healer wandering around the Levant two thousand years ago. On his historically dubious shoulders rests the full weight of a religion claimed by nearly a third of the world’s people. Being embedded in, and dependent on, a culture with such crying need to assure itself of the past reality of a single man cannot help but influence even those who don’t share that need themselves.2

One Bible scholar who defends the existence of a historical Jesus without worshiping him or even being convinced of God’s existence is Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina. Erhmans’s popular work Did Jesus Exist? is a legitimate point of reference and discussion for any recent book about the Historical Jesus, and Lataster does not shirk from doing so. Yes, is Ehrman’s answer to his title question, but based on arguments that have been fiercely panned by critics.3 Lataster points out (p. 38) problems with one–Ehrman’s claim in Did Jesus Exist? that we “have numerous, independent accounts of [Jesus’] life in the sources lying behind the Gospels.”

Which lurking sources are these? In my view–that of a well-read layman whose rejection of Christianity does not depend on the absence of a historical Christ–they seem about as tangible as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The intellectually guilty consciences of devoted Jesus scholars seem to be giving them nightmares, causing them to see rich visions of source material instead of the handful of decades-late manuscript fragments that actually appear on their followers’ barren tables. The poor faithful souls bowing their heads in prayer over these scraps don’t know how bad off they’ve really got it. The more sophisticated Christian apologists, the elites of the Jesus-Industrial complex, are trying their best to keep it that way.4

The scrawniness of the Gospel goose is evident in Ehrman’s own words. A non-Christian, he is “all too happy to discredit the Gospels when it comes to opposing the resurrection of Jesus,” Lataster says, citing a 2009 debate between Ehrman and Christian apologist Michael Licona. Yet

somehow (and inconsistently) when it comes to the existence of Jesus, he concludes that the gospels “make a convincing case.” Suddenly, these terrible sources are quite good! He completely trashes the Gospels as unreliable, yet feels that at least on Jesus’ existence, he has access to some absolute truth. [p. 33]

So quit complaining and eat up, kids. We’ve got ourselves a fine dinner here:

Ehrman is even able to turn these few Gospels into numerous independent sources, by making reference to oral tradition, hypothetical sources such as Q, M and L, and the “second degree” hypothetical (and supposedly multiple) sources behind these hypothetical sources, which is hardly an acceptable historical method of dealing with the issue of a lack of primary sources. These sources don’t exist. [p. 33]

The sad fact is that the food sucks, and we are entitled to expect better. This Jesus character was an astounding figure, after all: “the King of Kings, who wrought many miracles, died for our sins, and according to the Bible, was known throughout the land.” Yet, as Lataster notes, he “fails to produce even one single primary source” (p. 43). Jesus rose from the dead, for God’s sake (actually, ours), and then appeared not just to a few disciples behind locked doors, but, according to 1 Corinthians 15:6, to five hundred people. And what do we get? A few contradictory and yet mutually dependent accounts, written by devotees at least several decades after the fact. The earliest of them–Mark without its tacked-on later ending–does not even mention a resurrection.5

The Sound of Silence

If this were “a historically significant figure,” Lataster observes, “someone would have written about him, in a time when there were ample historians and authors (such as Philo of Alexandria), and especially considering the Biblical claims of Jesus’ fame, controversies, miracles and other great achievements” (pp. 41-42).

But none of them did. The scholar who summarizes this situation best may well be Ehrman himself, and again Lataster is at the ready to point that out for us. “What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him?” he quotes Ehrman.6 “Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references–nothing.”

As Lataster himself observes,

there exists only one non-Christian attestation to Jesus within approximately one hundred years of his birth: an author who was born after Jesus’ supposed death (Josephus, who was obviously not an eyewitness), and whose two small passages on Jesus attract the suspicion of critical scholars and historians. [p. 26]

Lataster goes into some detail about issues with the Josephus references, as well as a later, problematic one by Tacitus. Both, I learned from Lataster (p. 62), were ignored by the early Christian writers Origen and Tertullian. Those guys would not have hesitated to tout the two historians’ references to the founder of Christianity–what a PR coup that would’ve been! But they didn’t, probably because there were no such references. “Lying for the Lord” is not a new phenomenon; the early fourth-century historian Eusebius, Lataster says, “is well known as a defender of pious fraud” (p. 57).

The crux of the matter, as Lataster summarizes it, somewhat incongruously among his pages of comprehensive arguments:

One of the most curious problems the historian faces when researching Jesus is not posed by the sources, but by the lack of sources. There are no extra-Biblical references to Jesus that are contemporary and by eyewitnesses. Absolutely none. Even when including the Biblical books, there are no primary sources whatsoever, for the life of Jesus. The books of the Bible were penned decades after Jesus’ death, and do not provide us with direct eyewitness accounts. [p. 37]

Paul does not provide as much help as apologists would like to claim, either. Lataster quotes (p. 94) Gerd Lüdemann for his observation of this remarkable fact: “Jesus’ teachings seem to play a less vital role in Paul’s religious and ethical instruction than does the Old Testament. . . not once does Paul refer to Jesus as a teacher, to his words as teaching, or to Christians as disciples.”

Lataster also raises (though not claiming credit for it) the fascinating “possibility that Paul’s Jesus is a ‘celestial Christ’, who appeared in visions, and may have existed in outer space rather than on Earth” (p. 119). Paul, he thinks, adapted into his own Jesus concept the “purely supernatural figure” of the Logos, which Philo of Alexandria posited not too many decades beforehand (p. 120).

The sources are so bad, Lataster concludes later, that “it is entirely rational to doubt the existence even of a stripped-down, insignificant, non-miraculous Historical Jesus” (p. 123). And nobody should fault us for doubting, either. “If the great Apostle Paul was only convinced due to the miracle on the Damascus Road, and supposedly lived around the same time as Jesus,” Lataster asks, “surely we lesser mortals, raised in an increasingly-secular and rational world, far-removed from those impressive times, should be given at least the same opportunities?” (p. 148).

But we’re not so fortunate, concerning Jesus, as we’ve seen, or indeed even concerning the existence of God. For reasons that Lataster discusses in the second half of his book (not reviewed further here), God “gives us no good reason to accept his existence. He just refuses to come out of the closet” (p. 148). The Historical Jesus is right in there with him.7

A Recommended Read

I highly recommend this book, though with a couple of complaints. First, Lataster really could have benefited from some editing, for grammar and punctuation. It was also a bit jarring to see this problematic statement right up front: “Ehrman is an atheist (formerly a Christian) who believes in a historical Jesus, [Robert M.] Price is a Christian who promotes the JMT [Jesus Myth Theory], while Carrier is a sceptical historian previously critical of the JMT” (p. 10).

Ehrman is actually an agnostic who says, “I no longer know whether God exists.”8 Bob is a friend of mine, and I know how much fondness and respect he has for Christianity, as well as other religions. He has attended an Episcopal church “for the music and the stained glass,” though not much anymore. But he doesn’t believe in God or the probable existence of even a historical, non-miraculous Jesus. To call him a Christian would be stretching that label far beyond any real meaning, indeed farther than I think he would himself.

But, those quibbles aside, this is an excellent work. It’s full of valuable insights and information, and presents them in an engaging way. It’s also a bargain at $2.99 for the Kindle version. With that reasonable price, Lataster seems to know what he’s doing in the marketing department as well as Jesus scholarship: There Was No Jesus, There Was No God has been selling very well ever since it came out in September of last year.

Its success is justifiable, and gratifying to see in an ocean of bestselling nonsense. If you wish (and dare!) to learn a bit about why some of us aren’t too convinced about even the most basic historical grounds for Christianity, take a look at this book.


  1. For further reading on these bogus criteria and the motivated reasoning of apologists, see my essay Myth, Method, and the Will to Believe

  2. “The worst-kept secret in the academic world,” says Lataster, “is that the majority of Biblical scholars (as well as Philosophers of Religion) are Christians who believe in the Christian God and in the Biblical Jesus” (p. 133). 

  3. See, e.g., my review of Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth, Frank R. Zindler and Robert M. Price, eds., American Atheist Press (2013). 

  4. October 1, 2015: I wish and had hoped I was the first to use this phrase, inspired of course from Eisenhower’s 1960 warning to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” It does show up on the first page of Google search results for those three words, and I’ve gotten page views from that. Alas, the phrase appeared elsewhere at least four years earlier. See this article about the separation of church and state by Bruce Barry, January 7, 2010: “The simpleminded mistake that FACT and other organizations comprising the Jesus-Industrial Complex make is assuming that the absence of the “separation” phrase in the Constitution means that the doctrine of separation has no legal value in our constitutional system.” 

  5. As discussed later in my review, there are also a few vague spiritual references by “Paul,” traditionally dated to within a decade or so of Jesus’ death. But it has been argued that the Pauline epistles were written late in the game, too, and by people other than Apostle Paul. 

  6. Lataster’s cite is: Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 56-57. I haven’t checked the source, but I’ve read something similar elsewhere in Ehrman’s writings. 

  7. Such divine caginess is not inconsistent with the disturbing principle that Jesus describes in the Gospel of Mark. He spoke to the public only in opaque riddles, explaining things to his disciples in secret. Only to them were the mysteries revealed. To “them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them” (Mark 4:11). So much for Jesus’ claim, in the words of a later Gospel, that he “spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing” (John 18:19-20). Did Jesus lie, or is one of the Gospels in error? Christians who know about this must pick one of two unpalatable options, besides dealing with the cruelty and absurdity of a savior who would deliberately withhold the opportunity for salvation from all but a select few. 

  8. See Ehrman’s intereview at​powells_interview/​powells_interview.htm