Saturday, July 29, 2006

The gospels: middle ground?

I’m quite surprised at the amount of debate and discussion that is taking place under the last post. As I read through the various lines of argument put forward by marc, eddie, Bishop Rick and others, my mind kept on coming back to the whole aspect of historical documents. Where do we draw the line between belief and non-belief when it comes to claims made by documents of antiquity?

On the one hand, there are Christians literalists who believe that every event recorded in the gospels, including the miracle accounts, are historically true. I don’t think this position is very defendable, for reasons that were covered in the discussion. However, is it also valid to disregard everything in the gospels as pure myth? Although there are no non-Biblical references to Jesus during his lifetime, can we not regard the gospels themselves as evidence of some sort of historical truth?

At this present time I can accept the proposition that a man, who might have had the name of Jesus, caused a brief stir in ancient Palestine, and was responsible for starting the cult that was to eventually transform into Christianity. However, I don’t believe that this man was born of a virgin, conducted miracles, rose from the dead, or was the son of God. These mythical attributes of divinity were only ascribed to him by his followers at a later stage. Although it can be argued that the gospels are heavily coloured by myth, are there not some grains of truth that we can detect within the texts?

Do you think this ‘middle ground’ view of the gospels (i.e., believing that Jesus might have existed, but rejecting the miracle claims) is defendable?

Comments, anyone?


marc said...

People can claim to Jesus existed and that he performed miracles. People can also claim anything they want...its a claim not a fact.

Dave said...

I think you have that middle ground with the people conducting the Jesus Seminar.
Kevin, you mentioned the literalist interpretation of Scripture, but there are other ways that people have come to read the Scriptures. To try to squeeze the gospels into a mere historical account, well there's not much point to that, is there? I mean, who really cares about this guy if what people wrote about him wasn't true?
Of course, Christian theologians have pointed out that even people back 2000 years ago understood what was and wasn't supposed to happen within the physics of the world. If they did see something out of the ordinary, they would recognize it as being out of the ordinary.
I find it hard to believe that a group of enthusiastic people would embellish and continue to embellish the stories of a man they admired and deified.
There's a huge conversation that has been going on since the the mid 1900's about the cultural dynamics among the Jews before, during, and after Jesus came onto the scene. Some major players are Marcus Borg (and the Jesus Seminar), NT Wright, John Dominic Crossan, EP Sanders, and many others who are approaching the subject from several different viewpoints. I recommend checking them out...

marc said...

Kevin - NT wright is great, he's the Bishop of Durham and he's such a brain box:~)

eddie{F} said...

Well, I admit that the mythisist position is the minority opinion, but I have multiple reasons for asserting that Jesus is a myth. It’s a collection of a whole bunch of arguments. Perhaps there was a person that started the movement, a political revolutionary of sorts, or someone coming out of the various Hellenistic sects of the time. But the person described in the Gospels is straight out of the playbook of Paganism, so that person is not real to me from everything I researched, instead, he is a highly fictional and invented character.

The Gospels aren’t history, as they fail the historical markers used by historians to determine if something is history or not. The added problem to this is the fact that they were written decades after the supposed events, and as I said, even Luke admits not being an eyewitness. In the Pagan world, people believed all sorts of bizarre stuff, as even Paul attest to. In contrast, the historians that DID live in the time Jesus was supposedly alive don’t suffer these issues in their writings. All the Gospels are second hand accounts, and the history of Jesus surfaces too late to determine if the story had any veracity to it.

I’ll leave it a that.


wflooter480 said...

I think that anything within the realms of Christianity and matters based largely on faith can be "defendable". However it is when xians or any other religious zealots bring up so called facts and evidence to support their views and then when they are questioned about such things they go right back to defending their beliefs because they are just that: belief based on faith.

I have heard time and time again the defense of Jesus being the son of God based solely on the biblical account that he himself made such claims in the gospels. If he was such a great guy and healed so many and taught such important and revolutionary ideas and provided hope and peace and inspired thousands to better their lives, then why would he then lie about being the son of God and willingly die for such a claim? He must have either been crazy, a liar, or the true son of God. They dismiss the crazy part because the truths and aid that he provided was not that of an insane man but that of a truly loving and concerned individual. They dismiss the liar theory, mainly for the same reasons. If he said to "do unto others as they would have them do to you" and then lie about who he was inherently, then you wouldn't be able to take his other claims as anything other than lies as well. So the only other option then ofcourse would be that he was in fact the son of God and our Saviour.

So they defend the gospel's relevancy and it's accuracy by itself. And a few shoddy historical documents here and there. While I do believe that Jesus did probably exist, I think that his fame and godly status was imposed on him by writers of the next few generations. The rules to be a canonized book in the bible was under the "strict" rules of being either somehow how closely related to the Apostles by one generation and some other stuff I don't quite remember. But I just don't even buy that because they don't really know who wrote alot of the books; in the NT Hebrews is a glaring example off the top of my head. And the bible also wasn't canonized until generations later and it was highly politicized. And while they say that the gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it is widely believed, even by scholars, that they were most likely NOT the original writers, they don't even know who Mark really was. They also believe that the gospel writers borrowed from each other, but alot of them got the timing of the events all mixed up and the don't agree on alot of things.

So sure, you can defend the Bible off itself, but barely. And sure you can have a middle ground. Anyone can "believe" anything they want. And we can debate over anything as well. Just look at the state of world affairs. We can barely agree on who did what to whom last week and who started what war. So am I going to believe a book written a couple millenia ago and see inconsitencies and outrageous claims and base my whole life and afterlife off of it? No thanks.

Bishop Rick said...

To Kevin's question regarding whether Jesus' existense is defendable, I think it is. It is defendable because so many writers close to that time period mention him, and Josephus mentions him as well.

Now that does not in any way prove his existence, but does lend some defense.

I believe the writings attributed to Jesus are very wise counsel and could be used as a general guideline for living one's life. This can be done whether you believe in Jesus, the miracles, or nothing at all.

marc said...

Bish - I tend to agree with you, but again it does come down to faith.

One thing I have noticed here some of the contributers such wflooter480, they tend to state things like 'So am I going to believe a book written a couple millenia ago and see inconsitencies and outrageous claims and base my whole life and afterlife off of it? No thanks'

I would have to ask them this. Who is telling them to believe in a book, Jesus or anyone - it all seems rather aggressive and to be honest a little weird.

Stardust1954 said...

Who is telling them to believe in a book, Jesus or anyone - it all seems rather aggressive and to be honest a little weird.

Christians (mostly fundamentalists/evangelicals) proseltyze quite aggressively (and even more-so here in the US since Bush has taken office). They are rabidly preaching a message to those of us who reject the christian mythology, telling us we are going to suffer eternal damnation. It's the "ultimatum" that christians are giving us while using "scare tactics" and constant "evangelizing" and attempts to incorporate these beliefs into our secular government that is causing a response/aggressive backlash from the atheist/agnostic and liberal population.

While we may be able to take some of Jesus' teachings to live by, but we are weary of these beliefs being shoved in front of our faces on a regular basis. To me, believing in an all-knowing invisible man in the sky who knows when we are sleeping, knows when we're awake, knows when you've been bad or good, etc. is about as weird as an adult who believes in Santa Claus.

marc said...

stardust - I do understand what you mean, we are starting to see touches of that here in the UK. It is the most dsigraceful use of the bible and our my faith. The word of God used as a weapon to beat people into submission.

I'm sorry that is your experience, many of us are nothing like these conservative chrsitians, I think they are a very dangerous bunch indeed...especially George Bush.

SuperSkeptic said...

Kevin -- there is definitely a middle ground that exists.

When I came back to Christianity a few years ago, I studied it a lot. I decided that the evidence wasn't contradictory for about 60 to 80% of the Gnostic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). I put more credence in many of the quotes that are given to Jesus, rather than the stuff about him fulfilling prophecies. Because of the hundreds of inconsistencies in John, I rejected that Gospel pretty much in its entirety.

The rest of the New Testament I view as literary criticism. Much of it has interesting philosophical points, and contain useful information about how one can positively influence society. Some of it is the product of its time and it has, I believe, human errors (the stuff about slavery, etc). And some of it is not worth following or is contradictory.

I went to a United Church of Christ whose members were all over the map in what they believed. Our associate pastor didn't believe in the existance of heaven or hell, thinking instead that Jesus was talking about the Kingdom of God as a philosophical place we can experience on Earth, by doing good for the sake of doing good. (As Jesus was a rabbi, he probably subscribed to the concept of Sheol.) The main pastor believed the book of John should be thrown away. As I grew up in (and rejected) a church that taught biblical inerrancy, the UCC was a breath of fresh air.

Of course, many skeptics of this middle ground argue that the middle ground is just as indefensible. Honestly, whenever someone like John W Loftus asks a bunch of questions about the nature of God, I have to admit that it sounds extraordinarily unlikely.

One thing, however -- many of the words attributed to Jesus in the first 3 Gospels have a lot of value to me in how to live my life. The parable about The Good Samaritan, the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule, etc. This way of thinking has led me on a path where I'm looking at the New Testament more like the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution (um, if you couldn't tell, I live in the U.S.). They are both great but flawed documents about how we should treat each other. (There are more analogous things too -- I'll deal with that in my blog in more detail.)

Secret said...

Hey Kev. I read you 2nd last post "finding tranquility in unbelief", and it rung true, back when i was younger and I believed (yes, i did, but not that i would run around saying "GOD LOVES YOU!!!!") I also used to pray and say "God if you are there, give me some sort of sign that you are listening), I saw, feel, heard nothing. I kinda gave up on the story i am happy athiest. yay for me!

Francois Tremblay said...

"Do you think this ‘middle ground’ view of the gospels (i.e., believing that Jesus might have existed, but rejecting the miracle claims) is defendable?"

Given the path of belief taken by the church fathers, as well as the correlation with other myths existing at the time, I think your position is wholly indefendable. Anyone who tries to argue that "Jesus" is not a myth faces very, very high evidential barriers indeed.

bookjunky said...

Bishop Rick? so many writers close to that time period mention him, and Josephus mentions him as well.

NO contemporary writers that I am aware of mention an historical Jesus. Josephus' references were clearly interpolated (added by a later scribe copying the document) as many modern scholars agree. Christian apologists disagree, unsurprisingly. The only other references that are close to being contemporary (within 100 years) refer not to a historical person but to "Christians" or to a "Christ" or "Chrestus". None of these are defensible as historial references to an actual Jesus the Christ, much less documentation of the myth.

Casey Kochmer said...

I can only give you my Taoist point of view. In Taoism we have many stories about the origin's of The Tao Te Ching, and other older tales. Some people the these stories as facts, others as myth.

The truth is:

Some of these stories could be true, and some could be fables. As a Taoist, the point is to learn from the mixing of our reactions to the tales. Veracity is best left to history; time will change “truth” for each generation.

The very same thing is true for the bible and gospels. No arguement will win the day here. What matters is how we react, how we learn, how we discover our own nature reflected in stories of humanity.

The goal is acceptance. Don't fight over the nature of acceptance since its always personal.

Thats why I relabeled the whole issue as "A Personal Tao". be yourself and follow your path. Endless debates on such personal issues on the truth of the gospel just end up being: well endless...


Dar said...

I lean toward Casey's beliefs these days. The time during my "deconversion" I had harsh thoughts toward Christianity as I felt so brainwashed and betrayed, fearful and ashamed. When I stopped fighting with what I had been taught since childhood and started listening to my heart and mind, my new belief system blossomed...along with my self esteem and confidence.

I became comfortable in my own skin and relieved to denounce a god that I would never know. It was only then that I could open my mind and arrive at the assumption that there's never going to BE an answer to this God thing. Never. (I know there are others who would debate that, but it's my conclusion nonetheless.)

I have since adopted a Unitarian (possibly Taoist) manner that seeks tolerance for each person using their religion in their own personal manner. Although my search for an answer to the existence of a god is over, there are millions who are still/will be seeking theirs.

My search has transferred to becoming understanding and tolerant of earthy matters, and what I can do to make a difference and somehow help mankind. I still have a major problem with fundamentalists, but I'm working on it. The bible was right about this: patience is a virtue.

All the best right back to you, Kevin.

tichius said...

Do we only subscribe to that which we comprehensively understand?

What is the motive for so scrutinizing the bible? I think that if we analyze all historic documents in greater detail, the accuracy of the bible would be shed in different light. (I am in process of doing this, and have responded in detail on my blog site).

Tim said...

Here are two sides to the existence of Jesus:


(I'm an atheist and very skeptical, and I'm rather skeptical about this author and his arguments)

Read them if your interested. I think Jesus was a real person.

As for miracles. Well if David Copperfield can make the Statue of Liberty disappear, fly, levitate over the Grand Canyon, and walk through the Great Wall of China (not to mention what David Blaine has done and many others), then why couldn't Jesus do some of things he did. Maybe the things he did weren't miracles as such, people in those days just thought they were. And anyway the bible (imo) has a story feel to it, so maybe some of the tales about Jesus were blown up a bit. Anyone ever seen Big Fish? Amazing film. Lots of ifs and maybes, but I think that Jesus did perform miracles. (Let me point out again that I'm an atheist, ie. I lack the believe of God/Gods)

Anyway why does everyone get so work up about proof all the time?

Skywolf said...

Hi Kevin,

I stumbled across your blog when searching for something else, and have been reading it for several days now. It is so refreshing to read your well thought out, concisely written viewpoint, and I can personally align with so much of what you write. I think I've really needed to hear some thoughts from a fellow ex-Christian, so your blog has been wonderful.

Personally, I do think it highly probable that Jesus himself existed. Much as Mohammed or Buddha existed. And I think he, like they, was an amazing teacher and a man from whom a great deal can be learnt. But I do not believe he was God incarnate, nor do I believe the miraculous accounts of his origins or similar myths surrounding him. I also think that perhaps if he were around today to witness what countless millions have turned his misinterpreted teachings into, he'd be dismayed.

Kevin Parry said...

Thank you all for these fascinating comments! Reading through what everyone has said, I think that a person can take one of four positions regarding the question of the truthfulness of the gospel accounts: (1) the gospel accounts are absolutely true; (2) the miracle accounts are unlikely to be true but a man called Jesus might have existed; (3) the miracle accounts and Jesus are both myth; and (4) we have better things to do than debate the issue, as the debate will not lead us to any conclusion.

At this present time, I still sit with position 2, although I think that Francois has a point when he argues that position 2 is also difficult to defend. But then, where do we draw the line? What criteria do historians use to decide if a person mentioned in historical texts actually existed or not? Does the historical figure have to be mentioned outside a mythical context, or in more than one document? If we reject the existence of Jesus using these strict criteria, will we be forced to reject the existence of other historical figures that historians generally take for granted? I think I will do some reading on this issue.

With regards to Tichius’ comment about why there is so much scrutiny about the Bible and not other ancient religious texts: I think scrutiny is essential! Christianity is one of the largest religions in the world, and it has a powerful influence on modern day society. Because of its importance, we have to scrutinize it in order to get a balanced view: what parts of Christianity can harm; what parts of it are beneficial? If there is little historical certainty regarding the claims of Christianity, can fundamentalists use the banner of absolute truth to infuse their ideas into secular society? This is also why I don’t necessarily agree with position 4, although I admire the reasons for Casey and Dar’s stance.

Thank you Tim for the links; I will definitely take a look. And thank you Skywolf for your comment; I hope to see more from you in the future.

All the best

ursa smaller said...

maybe I'm late for the discussion but I just wanted to throw one interesting little tidbit out there.... the term "born of a virgin" at the time that Jesus was out and about, was often used to describe someone whose mother concieved them during her first sexual encounter. I had never heard that before, but it certainly got me thinking.

tichius said...


What parts of the Bible have you found to be harmful?

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Tichius

Not so much the Bible, but more of Christianity in general: (1) fundamentalism; (2) the belief that one has access to absolute truth; (3) the conservative doctrine that man is at heart a depraved animal; and (4) the whole idea of hell.

Mike said...


Points 1, 2, and 3 above do not need to be held by Christians. Some may say 4 as well, but since Jesus talked about hell quite a bit I don't think a Christian can reject the idea and remain genuinely Christian. If you wuld like to discuss the idea of hell sometime I would be more than happy to share why I think the idea of hell actually makes sense when we consider the nature of true love. I know it sounds odd, because most people cannot reconcile hell with love, but love is actually the key to understanding the existence of hell. Let me know.


Spacesocks said...

Kevin, for a look at how the New Testament books can be used (cautiously) as historical sources, I recommend anything by Bart Ehrman. I just finished reading his book "Jesus: apocalyptic prophet of the new millennium," and it was really eye-opening.