This began as a response to unkleE in the comment thread of my last post. However, I decided that I was getting too wordy for a comment and decided to turn it into a post. But I’m also pretty lazy and have left the post as though I’m talking directly to unkleE. Here it is:
I want to address your statements about Jesus. You are someone who has actually studied what the historians have said about Jesus, and I respect that about you. Too many people on all sides of this issue don’t do the research they should. That being said, doing that research doesn’t necessarily make someone a believer. There’s not even full agreement among scholars on whether or not Jesus was even a real person. I tend to think he was, but there are some decent arguments that take the opposing view.
But even among those who do think he was historical, there’s a wide assortment of opinion about who he was. Before the Enlightenment, virtually all scholars believed Jesus was divine, because that was about the only option in Western society. I think that’s why there’s broader diversity on the subject today.
So if he wasn’t divine, how did his following begin? I think that’s a question we could ask about every example of hero worship. Why did people follow Joseph Smith, Jim Jones, or David Koresh? What about Sathya Sai Baba? The details are varied, but they mostly come down to charisma. I think Jesus was a charismatic preacher that made a huge impact on his small group of followers. I think his death was quite a shock to the disciples. They had given up so much to follow him, how could they just forget all his teachings and go back to their old lives? So I think they continued to move on and hold together.
More than likely, at least one of them saw him in a dream or during a moment of great sadness, etc. And I’m sure they felt that he was “living on” in the work they continued to do. Regardless, decades go by, and the disciples are successful in bringing others to their manner of life. Stories about Jesus circulate among these new believers — no doubt some of them become embellished. By the time the gospels are written (at least 30-40 years after his death, by most estimates), there are many stories about Jesus’ life and his works. In fact, now that we’ve found some of the “other gospels,” we see just how varied some of these stories were. There are very good reasons for thinking that the 4 gospels in our Bibles were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, so that makes it hard to take them as first-hand accounts.
So at that point, what are we left with? Yes, Christianity grew, but so has every other religion — ones that Christians would consider false. We do have some secular sources of the time that refer to Christ or Christians, but none of them actually verify any of the miraculous things we’re told about Jesus. At most, they just show that some people of the time believed in and followed him.
I guess the crux of the issue comes down to who wrote the gospels. I’m convinced that they were written by Christians who never actually knew Jesus — and probably didn’t know any of the apostles either. Even if Luke actually wrote Luke, he’s not someone who knew Jesus. He only seems to have been an associate of Paul’s. His gospel even seems to use Mark as a source (Mark didn’t know Jesus either). For me, there’s just not enough evidence to make the claims about Christ tenable.
Now I don’t expect any of that to convince you that Jesus was not truly divine. That’s not my intent. I just want to show that someone can be familiar with the gospels, the historical evidence, and the arguments of scholars and still not believe that Jesus was anything more than a man. Granted, I haven’t gone into much detail, but I know you’re familiar with the things I’ve mentioned.
Thanks as always for the great conversation.
So that’s what I had written to unkleE. Let me add just one more thing. In my last post, I talked about the historical evidence that claims Tecumseh was a prophet. Now these accounts were all written after the fact. None of his prophecies were written down before the events he prophesied took place. So it’s easy to assume that he never actually prophesied anything at all. Instead, these could have just been claims made by those who revered and believed in him. Is it surprising that his followers might have exaggerated his abilities because of their incredible admiration of him, especially once he died? No, to me, it’s easy to understand why they might have been inclined to do that. So why should we think Jesus’ situation is so different? Isn’t it easy to see why Jesus’ followers might have told larger than life stories of him out of reverence? In fact, passages like the woman caught in adultery are a great example of that very thing. All evidence indicates that that story was a small bit of fiction that made its way into the book of John many years after it was first written. So if we can understand the very human tendency to add a bit of mythology to life stories of those whom we love and admire, why do we assume the followers of Jesus didn’t do any of that?
Anyway, those are some of the reasons why I don’t believe Jesus was any more divine than you or I. I hope that helps clarify my position a bit more, and I hope you’ll all feel free to comment away in the section below.
Thanks! (and a Happy 4th to my fellow Americans!)