Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?


I was unable to join a podcast for the Owensboro Humanists recently, but I wanted to take time on my blog to respond to a few questions that they posed:

1. Do you think Jesus existed? Why or why not?

In all my reading of the debate over Jesus’ historicity, probably the best site I’ve come across is Early Christian History‘s entry on the topic: The Historicity of Jesus. It is brief yet comprehensive, and, above all, fair and balanced. There is no axe granding, no attempt to sway the audience one way or the other. And its conclusion is, I think, the most reasonable one we can come to: Was there a historical Jesus? We don’t know. And we can’t know. The evidence is inconclusive, either way.

To begin with, there are no contemporaneous references to Jesus, i.e., no written records of him from the time that he is said to have lived. This hardly rules him out as a historical personage, since many historical figures go unattested until some years later. But, it certainly doesn’t bode well for his divinity. Absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence, but it is where such evidence should be expected. Had Jesus actually been a miracle-working, death-defying Son of God, there are authors from the time who not only could have mentioned him, but should have mentioned him–most notably the Hellenized Jew, Philo of Alexandria. Philo had ties to both the Priesthood in Judea and the Herodian Dynasty, and he likely visited the Temple in Jerusalem not long after the supposed death of Jesus. Moreover, he waxed philosophical about a “First-Born Son of God” and “High Priest,” a “being most perfect in all virtue, [able] to procure forgiveness of sins” (Mos. 2.134). Though this was, for him, an abstraction, it is inconceivable that he’d fail to mention someone in nearby Palestine who literally embodied those ideas.

Not to mention, those attributes of Jesus that would mark him as divine bear too close a resemblance to the gods and heroes of contemporary myth and legend. Like Asclepius, he healed the lame, the blind, and the paralytic, and had the power to raise the dead. Like Osiris, he conquered death himself and extended immortality to his devotees. Like Perseus, Dionysus, and Romulus, he was the offspring of a High God and a mortal woman. Where we recognize the mythic character of one, we ought to do so in the other, or else we are guilty of special pleading.

Still, there may have been a historical Jesus whose story was embellished to mythic proportions, as had happened with Pythagoras and even, to an extent, Augustus and Alexander. But, how can we know? While the lack of contemporaneous reference certainly doesn’t rule out his existence, it doesn’t securely lock him into history, either. What we do have in the way of secular testimony from outside the Bible, e.g., Josephus and Tacitus, doesn’t help us much. They’re reporting from a generation after the so-called events, and they may only be passing on hearsay from Christian contemporaries. Josephus’ most widely known reference to Jesus, the Testimonium Flavianum, is fraught with problems; it is at least heavily interpolated (even Christian scholars admit this), if not an outright forgery. But even if the passage is partially authentic, it doesn’t provide us with anything conclusive.

Granting that Josephus did mention Jesus, we take him at his word concerning the existence of other 1st century messiahs–Athronges the Shepherd, Judas of Galilee, Simon of Peraea, etc. Like Jesus, Josephus could only have known about them secondhand. But, none of them bear the telltale signs of a figure born out of myth. It is Jesus’ correspondence to the Mythic Hero Archetype that warrants special consideration, a skepticism which needn’t apply to other, more mundane figures. But even this only takes us so far. Apollonius of Tyana bears some of the same mythic traits as Jesus, yet we know nevertheless that there was a historical Apollonius. We have his own correspondence with various kings and philosophers of the time. This is precisely the kind of thing that we don’t have for Jesus, but it still goes to show that conformance to mythic archetypes doesn’t necessarily render one ahistorical.

As you can see, this topic is complex, and there is much to be weighed on each end of the scale. For every point there is a counterpoint, and so on and so forth. Scholars who are far more mathematically inclined than I are now applying Bayesian Methods to determine the probability of Jesus’ existence. While I applaud their groundbreaking work, I suspect that the debate is far from over. In the meantime, I remain agnostic on the question of Jesus’ historicity.

2. Lord, Liar, or Lunatic: Who was he?

Granting for the sake of argument that there was a historical Jesus, what might I make of him? C.S. Lewis popularized the “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” argument as follows:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis%27s_trilemma#Lewis.27s_formulation)

To one unacquainted with biblical criticism, this may appear to be a sound argument. But, in fact, it is logically fallacious. Lewis has committed a false trilemma by limiting us to only three options, when there is indeed a plausible alternative: Legend. The Gospels were written decades after the supposed death of Jesus, so we cannot simply assume that they accurately portray the words and deeds of the “Savior.” To make matters worse, they are undeniably works of fiction, wherein the authors had plenty of creative license. Classicist Matthew Ferguson explains:

The Gospel authors are silent about their identities and give context about their relation neither to their sources nor to the events they contain. The Gospel narratives instead just read like novels, told from a camera-like perspective, that merely follow around the characters with no critical analysis whatsoever … [They] are not historical biographies but hagiographies written in unquestioning praise of their messianic subject … Such works, written for an audience of converts, are not concerned with being critical or investigative, but merely serve the religious agendas and ideologies of the communities that produced them. (Matthew Ferguson, “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament‏,” is available online at: http://adversusapologetica.wordpress.com/2013/08/18/ancient-historical-writing-compared-to-the-gospels-of-the-new-testament/)

Case in point: How do we know what Jesus prayed while away from his disciples on the Mount of Olives, with no one nearby to hear him (Luke 22:39-46)? Because Luke made it up. Without knowing what, if anything, can actually be attributed to Jesus, we can make no assumptions therein. Lewis’ argument falls apart on that basis.

But, if I had to take a shot in the dark as to who the historical Jesus was, assuming there was one, I’d follow John Loftus and Paula Fredriksen in estimating that he was an apocalyptic prophet, heralding the coming Kingdom of God in the tumultuous, political climate of 1st century Judea. “The end is nigh” may well have been his message. So, where does that place him within Lewis’ triadic scheme? This is a question we cannot answer without considering cultural and historical relativism. For his time, Jesus would have been pretty run-of-the-mill. But, by today’s standards, he’d be on par with David Koresh and Jim Jones. For the sake of sparing Lewis any “patronizing nonsense,” I’ll answer him within a 21st century context: Lunatic.



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