I suppose this is tangiential to the many 'Jesus Myth Theory' discussions that have popped up recently, but for me it is central.

Most religious figures (say, Zeus or God) have never existed, so accounts of them are easy to dismiss. Sources on figures that did exist, or may have existed (for instance Jesus), are potentially more difficult to evaluate. It has always struck me, though, that religious sources such as the Bible must automatically be discounted as historical sources of information.

Consider the following points:
* Religious sources are necessarily based on a false premise (most obviously the existence of God), which will automatically influence the interpretation and presentation of 'facts'. For example: Christian sources will construe Jesus as a prophet, or the son of God. Religious sources by their very nature propagate a worldview distinct from 'what really happened'.
* Some information in religious sources may be accurate - I'm not suggesting it's all made up - but the only way we could accept this information (or attempt some sort of interpretation) is if it was independently corroborated, i.e. supported by a non-religious historical document. In which case we believe the non-religious document. If there were only the religious document, we would be justified in dismissing it because, as already noted, the information it contains is at least potentially based on false premises, and may be a result of an accordingly skewed viewpoint.

Continuing with the example of Jesus and the Bible, if we dismiss all religious sources, we know very little about the 'real Jesus'. Although this is significant in itself, the real point is of course that the 'real Jesus' is both irrelevant to cultural history and of little interest in general. Heated debates about 'real Jesus' are thus somewhat pointless (did he exist? who cares?).

The real Jesus is not the one we need to worry about - he is an insignificant figure. The problem is the 'fake Jesus', as constructed by Christianity, who certainly didn't exist 'in real life', but whose influence on intellectual and moral standards continues to be very real...

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Maybe it's not your intent, but you sound like this ("interpretation and presentation of 'facts'") is specific to religious texts. It's not. E.g., we know next to nothing about the 'real' Socrates. The idealized Socrates is a construct we owe, mainly, to Plato.
Maybe we should rewrite history backwards. Like, Alejandro Amenábar created the fictional character Hypatia, who gave a fictional account of the meta-fictional Plotinus, who in turn created the meta²-fictional Socrates. Conclusion: the movie industry is the source of all reality.

We might start this as a collective project here on Atheist Nexus. Under the patronage of Jorge Luis Borges and the Monty Pythons.
In the sixties a publisher made a lot of money by putting out a “Bible, Designed to be Read as Living Literature.” The editor fixed up the books of Moses by simply cutting out all the laws. Leviticus was reduced to half a page or so, including one verse that seemed worth holding on to Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The movie industry is the source of all reality.

I though that was already a given. D;
An important distinction between a myth and a real person is how the figure impacts history.

The historian Thomas Carlyle said, “No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”As Carlyle notes, it is real people, not myths, who impact history.

What is Jesus’ Historical Impact? Let us see:

More books have been written about Jesus than about any other person in history.

Nations have used his words as the bedrock of their governments. According to Durant, “The triumph of Christ was the beginning of democracy.”

His Sermon on the Mount established a new paradigm in ethics and morals.

Schools, hospitals, and humanitarian works have been founded in his name. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Oxford are but a few universities that have Christians to thank for their beginning.

The elevated role of women in Western culture traces its roots back to Jesus. (Women in Jesus’ day were considered inferior and virtual nonpersons until his teaching was followed.)

Slavery was abolished in Britain and America due to Jesus’ teaching that each human life is valuable.

Former drug and alcohol dependents, prostitutes, and others seeking purpose in life claim him as the explanation for their changed lives

Almost 3 billion people call themselves Christians. While some are Christian in name only, others continue to impact our culture by teaching Jesus’ principles that all life is valuable and we are to love one another.
One could make the same argument about many, many fictional characters, such as Zeus, Adam and Eve, Shiva, Odin, Romeo and Juliet, etc, etc. Carlyle was overstating his case in a terrifically naive way.
Dear Phil,

There are many Christians who do not observe the religion, who yet would like to know a lot more about it. There are non-Christians, too, who now and then grow curious about the old apostolic faith.

But the literature is so vast; it is usually so scholarly in tone, and so much of it is not in English (but in Latin), that such readers are often at a stand, not knowing where to begin.

I offer my comments as a beginning because I think that many atheists in this web-site have a genuine interest in knowing the historical facts.
Dear Phil,

As a non-believing tourist frequently I find myself impressed by the Bible.

Introducing sense into senselessness is an attractive act of atheistic assertion. In essence, I want to approach the Bible in the same way Einstein approached the unknown in science: there is a logic and sense to everything – we just have yet to figure it out!

Think, for example, of the Gospel of John and the various ways the evangelist tells us that “God, our Creator, loves us” and God “sent Jesus to show us how to come to know, love and serve God.”

What can possibly be a credible explanation for this Johanine statement? What is the ground of this teaching? What does “God loves us” mean? (No, really) Yet it is not all this simple. I am particularly interested in how it became the operating theory with which people function.

Similarly, if it is determined that there is a heaven, access to which depends on appropriate earthly behavior which is mediated by religious figures and then divinely judged, then that becomes the guide to what people who are committed to the system do.
Seriously, Claudia? You're impressed by the Bible? It's a hopeless tangle of contradictions, nonsense, bad advice, crappy poetry, fearmongering, wishful thinking, propaganda, and just plain incoherence. That you see the possibility of any sort of design behind it is just astounding. There is, in actual fact, most emphatically not "a logic and sense to everything". Believing that there is is your first mistake.

Here's a credible explanation for the Johanine statement that impresses you so: He was smoking dope, or trying to get others to smoke his. Given the number of frauds and charlatans running around, why would you bother to look further for an explanation? The fact that many people use it as the "operating theory with which [they] function" is no more meaningful than that many people believe in the power of crystals or try to live their lives according to their horoscopes. Glomming onto a fantasy belief system is so common it would laughable if it wasn't so sad and frightening.
Well, the Bible as a whole is a mess because it's made of heterogenous and contradictory material, but its individual parts are much more internally coherent.

If that's what Claudia is after ("Introducing sense into senselessness is an attractive act of atheistic assertion"), I see her journey into the Gospel of John as not very different from Borges' Pierre Ménard into the Quixote. And I wish her good luck and good fortune.
What's sure is he didn't copyright his work.
Sorry Claudia, but I have to disagree with you on two counts - first of all your point about the 'teachings of Jesus' - we will never know exactly what those were, or whose those were, more pertinently to my discussion - it doesn't matter. Sentiments are not the issue - I'm all for equality and brotherly love, but to attribute them to Jesus is simply wishful thinking. The dialectical view of moral progress (which is the only defensible one) attributes moral progress to social change rather than the rigid 'truth' taught by a random individual. Giving Jesus credit for the progress made by society (on its own - even if it had to invent religions to get it done) is to completely miss the point.
Secondly, and genuinely without wanting to repeat myself (but you leave me no choice), the whole point is that what you apparently accept as 'history' is by no means historically correct. Some of it might be, but we simply don't know, and very probably never will. More to the point, the historical truth is irrelevant, it is the false construct of history (teaching children that 'this is what happened' when it clearly did not) that we must be wary of.



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