The great mathematician Pythagoras discovered around 600 BCE that the earth was spherical. A few hundred years later, Aristotle determined the earth and sun were in orbit, and that the sun revolved around the earth. Aristotle got the relationship wrong, but it wasn’t a half-bad guess for a guy who didn’t have a telescope nor any real comprehension about how gravity worked.
Despite a great Greek knowledge enlightenment that lasted until around 200 BCE (but was by no means over), no one had a working model of the relationship between observed phenomena and their underlying causes, particularly when it came to matters of disease, weather, and the spectrum of biological processes.
Even in modern society, it wasn’t until after Watson and Crick’s discovery 62 years ago that scientists realized the underlying reason for the phenotypes Gregor Mendel stumbled upon in the mid-1800s, is because of nucleic acids inside the cell’s nucleus, and the orchestra of chemical reactions going on inside each of our 100 trillion+ cells.
Modern people who lack a scientific understanding are the most inclined to believe things that are supernatural and mystical in nature. More informed people tend to reject these things once they understand how the world really works.
Therefore I don’t think it’s unfair to paint our Iron Age relatives who were early adherents Christianity as profoundly ignorant – more ignorant than the most ignorant person you’ll ever meet. Though its inventors were quite philosophically astute, they lacked the benefit of a surrounding world which understood more than they could ever imagine.
Seeing things in this way had a meaningful impact on my journey to atheism…I guess I could be described as an agnostic atheist, because I don’t know what happened that gave rise to the big bang, and I can’t recite the chemical underpinnings which gave rise to inorganic material replicating itself…I just know that modern religion fails at an astounding level to accurately explain anything that would be perceived as remotely useful; in a world where explanatory power is the lingua franca of progress, this is an unforgivable defect.
For years, I’ve been agnostic about whether I believe Jesus Christ actually existed. Most mainstream historical scholars agree he did; however, the skeptic in me recognizes that it’s not hard to arrive at that conclusion when you presuppose it.
One of the reasons I struggle with the [did Jesus exist] question is because I struggle with the definition of the word “exist”.
Consider this statement:
Tim is a computer programmer, atheist, and occasional blog writer.
The above statement is true, and the Tim described in the sentence exists, can be historically verified, matches the actual characteristics of the historical Tim, and we can use different evidence sources to support his existence – blog posts, FBI records, family accounts, pictures, phone book entry, etc; however, what if I change it to the following:
Tim is a computer programmer, atheist, and occasional blog writer. He also cures sick people with magic.
Does the above Tim exist? I suppose he does, although there’s a lie in the sentence, in that Tim has supernatural magical healing powers. He doesn’t, and I know this because that statement violates natural rules – it’s supernatural nonsense. However, at the foundation of the sentence is some truth. We can scrape away the supernatural claims, smooth the embellishments, and come away with a human being who demonstrably exists.
Let’s try this one:
Tim is an accountant, atheist, and occasional sky diver. He also cures sick people with magic.
I’m not an accountant or sky diver, nor (as earlier mentioned) can I heal sick people with magic. But maybe there is another person who is an accountant and sky diver. In that case, perhaps two people were merged together, and some supernatural characteristics got added to this fictitious merged-person.
I’ve always assumed this was the historical trajectory the Christ story took – I believed Yeshua of (perhaps) Nazareth was a real, apocalyptic preacher who claimed to be a messiah (not a unique claim in those days), and over time inherited characteristics from John the Baptist, Judas of Galilee, competing religious characters, such as Mithras, Osiris, and Dionysus; and of course, there extra embellishments tacked on to fulfill prophesies from the Old Testament, such as his virgin birth in Bethlehem and his relationship to King David.
The question I struggle with is this: how many lies and omissions of truth does it take to make someone fictitious?
Here’s a threshold to consider: if there was a person of significance in history who was going around the geographic area in question, Lake Galilee, in the early 1st century talking about end of times, collecting a moderate number of followers, saying something about ethical behavior, and who remotely resembles the human being depicted in the Gospel of Mark (the earliest gospel, and the one who paints Jesus as most human and least supernatural), I presume this person was the foundation of the Jesus story. This framework requires nos evidence for the supernatural aspects of the story – for instance, Pliny the Elder and Seneca the Younger (prominent writers in the Roman Empire during the time Jesus supposedly lived) never wrote about zombies rising from the dead, earthquakes, or darkness on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, as described in the gospels. To me, this fact does not violate the existence definition because I already presuppose the supernatural aspects of the gospels were embellishments.
Here’s my conclusion: the fact that Pliny the Elder, Seneca the Younger, Justus of Tiberias, Philo of Alexandria, and Nicolaus of Damascus never wrote about a character resembling Jesus almost certainly implies there was no one with even a moderate amount of following or significance who resembled the Jesus Christ depicted in Mark in any way whatsoever. All of these writers would have certainly written about him if he existed, and plenty of their writings still exist – this period in history is not some black box. It is remarkably well-documented and preserved, considering how long ago it was. The fact that none of these writers wrote anything at all about any such character means that not only do the supernatural claims fail, but the natural ones do too.
In my estimation, the closest figure, who meets the criteria of geography, the messiah archetype, and anti-Roman inclinations is Judas of Galilee. The problem with that assumption is that Judas of Galilee would have never said “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”, because his claim to fame was a staunch anti-tax movement which he led.
In that sense, I find Jesus Christ not guilty of existence.