Friday, November 06, 2015

The Historical Evidence for Jesus

I recently read G.A. Wells's book "The Historical Evidence for Jesus", which was written back in the early 80s. Considering some of the books I have read in the past few years, this was basically 'more of the same' with a few interesting nuances and insights along the way.

Wells believes that there was no historical person at the origin of the Jesus stories. Rather he, along with a number of other 'mythicists' hold that the gospel stories are myths made into history, rather than history wrapped in legends.

The book is exhaustive and goes into all the relevant 1st and 2nd century writings, as well as going completely off at a tangent and asking questions about the Turin Shroud. But when its on track, the book is interesting, even if much of this has been said in other ways many times since then (and a few before). 

Wells sets out a timeline of the early writings, beginning with the letters of Paul, then going through some of the later epistles, including some non-canonical ones, the gospels, the church fathers, and so on. 

The strongest part of his argument is in the parts he talks about Paul. It is quite clear from this analysis that Paul (or whoever wrote the 'authentic' Pauline epistles) says very little about any historical Jesus. The highlights of this are those passages where Paul is writing to whichever church and issuing advice for right living, etc. Sometimes, indeed most of the time, he does not claim these instructions come from Jesus, and there are several instances of things Paul is trying to convince his readers of where it would have been very useful if he could have quoted Jesus, but doesn't. But funnily enough, in the gospels, Jesus addresses those issues in clear and unambiguous ways. Wells's case is that if Paul knew of these sayings, he would have used them. He doesn't use them, so he didn't know them. Which suggests either that there was a lot about Jesus that Paul simply didn't know, or that those stories about Jesus were not in circulation at the time of Paul, perhaps because those stories about Jesus had not been devised yet.

In this I am convinced, it is clear that Paul had no knowledge of some of the gospel stories. Does that mean there was no historical Jesus? No it does not. It only means that Paul did not know the stories and, assuming he had interactions with Peter and James, as claimed in the epistles, it suggests that they did not know or did not pass on those stories.

So I am convinced that the gospel stories grew and developed after the time of Paul, and that Paul does not know or care much about a historical Jesus. I remain to be convinced that there was no Jesus.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Life beyond belief

It looks a lot like I have written a book.

Or rather, someone else has written a book which, essentially, says everything I would write in a book, if I had the time to actually write a book about my journey through belief in the past decade.

The book is "Life Beyond Belief: A Preacher's Deconversion" by Bob Ripley. Aside from the details that Bob Ripley is about 15 years older than me, is Canadian, has had a divorce and had no interest in science as a teenager, the rest of the story of his loss of faith pretty much mirrors mine. He read similar books, he wrestled with the same issues, many of which came from actually taking the Bible seriously, and he came to the same conclusions - that the Bible is the work of men, not of a God, and that the God described therein is a fiction. There may be a god, but if there is, he isn't the God of the Bible.

He starts with a chapter describing his life, growing up in the church, his calling to the ministry and his life as a pastor, eventually beginning to doubt the words he was preaching. After this, the book deals with various themes, chapter by chapter, as if he dealt with them in turn. I expect that, much like me, many of these doubts were simultaneous and jumbled together, not in a coherent linear progression, but it does make for a more readable book this way.

Chapter 2 dives right in and addresses the subject of the God of the Bible, in all his jealous, bloodthirsty and unreasonable glory, head on. This chapter will be a hard read for many Christians, but as it is completely Biblically based, they will find it hard to actually disagree with the evidence presented, even if they will reject the conclusion. After this comes a chapter where he goes through several bits of the Bible that don't get expounded from the pulpit very often and you certainly don't get in Sunday school. The point being that the Bible is not the 'good book' its cracked up to be.

In Chapter 4 he turns to the New Testament and Jesus and goes through the evidence, such as it is, for a historical Jesus. Here he actually doesn't stray as far from orthodoxy as I was expecting, but still we come away from here with a very human Jesus who wasn't the son of anyone divine. For Bob Ripley, Jesus was a historical preacher who got on the wrong side of the Romans and was executed. And stayed dead.

Following this, we wander through some of the more unpleasant bits of church history - the atrocities committed by believers in the name of God. It is a hard read, and it is very simple to say that these people weren't really Christians, but then again they got their direction from the Bible and the list of offenders includes heroes of the church like Luther & Calvin. A chapter on morality and related themes follows this, showing that you don't need God to exist to know the difference between right and wrong.

Chapter 7, somewhat unusual in a book like this, tackles the subject of prayer. Does it work? How do we know if it works or not? He gets to the feedback loop that I have blogged about before. If the believer prays for something (no matter how mundane) and it happens, the believer's faith is boosted. If the believer prays for something and it 'isn't granted', the believer's faith isn't reduced, so whatever happens, the net effect of prayer is to boost faith, even if there is nobody to hear them. Chapter 8 goes further into this and looks at faith.

Chapter 9 seems to me to be the big mis-step in the book as he looks at science. To me, a scientist, this chapter is a bit simplistic, but after all the good stuff before, and still to come, I forgive this.

The final chapter is the longest and possibly the most interesting. It looks at the question I am still wrestling with; where do I go from here? What is life after belief like? The thing I liked most about this chapter is the very strong defence he gives of the claim that he is still exactly the same person he was as a pastor - he has the heart of a pastor, the generosity of a pastor, the compassion of a pastor, etc. In every way that matters he is exactly the same person as he was 20 years ago. Why should the fact that he considered some facts and as a consequence changed his beliefs change his personality? It shouldn't and it didn't.

In summary, I like this book, it is a little short and doesn't go into as much detail of the issues as I would have liked, but if you want to know what I think about god, the universe and everything, then this is about as good a summary as I could write myself.

If you are a Christian, I recommend you read this book as it shows clearly why some people have come to the point of rejecting faith, and it does it in a clear and easy to read manner. There is nothing anti-Christian in here, but there are some real issues that Christians should really think about.