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(or attempt some sort of interpretation) is if it was independently corroborated, i.e. supported by a non-religious historical document.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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And viola, we have we have arrived at the point I was trying to avoid ;)
Irony on a scale of 1 to 10? I'd give it about a 2, but maybe that's just because I'm a bit grumpy...

Jo - one minor point about your first paragraph:
'I would disagree that discussions about Jesus existence, lack thereof, or who the person(s) who inspired the Jesus story might be are pointless. Because Christianity has been so influential on contemporary history I find it quite fascinating to dig into its origins.'

Aren't these the two points I'm trying to separate: 'real Jesus' and 'Christianity'? Christianity pretends they are closely connected. I say they are fundamentally separate in many ways, and it's Christianity we need to worry about. That's why I find theories about 'borrowings' from other religions and the like quite interesting - whether correct or not, they point to the ways in which religion functions, and the way in which people function through religion...

(perhaps this is in line with your point, but I tought it wasn't entirely clear...)
In my sleep-deprived state, yes. That was kinda/sorta my point. To illustrate that any number of historical Jesus(es) theories have solid arguments to back them up and such a heated topic is sure to bring a whole lot of bias. "I am the supreme guru on the subject" rather than open, constructive discussion rife with qualifiers. But the one theory that has little to back it up is that Jesus is just like he was described to us in the bible and Sunday School. Historical Jesus(es) and Biblical Jesus are very, very separate creatures.

And like Dorothy seeing the man behind the curtain pulling the strings of the Wizard of Oz, what if the rest of the Emerald City (Christians) saw that as well?

In the meantime, like you I'm rather fascinated with how such fables arise in the first place, their grand tradition of borrowing from one another, to what extent they shape the culture or the culture shapes them.
It has long been my feeling that any value to be gained from any kind of historical overview of Christianity, lies in the ability to see how the 'message' itself has evolved and changed, in order to arrive at what it is largely recognized to be today. And much, if not more, of that evolution has taken place through the writings of post roman era, catholic biblical scholars, rationalists, and reformers, who have managed to steer the meaning and message off onto widely divergent tracks over time, resulting in that whole raft of spaghetti monsters that we have to deal with today.

But to continue poking around in the minutiae of ancient writings that, as Sigmund indicated, have virtually no value as valid historical records of the time, appears to be an attempt to unlock some kind of hidden meaning to the origins that, in themselves, hold little significance to the many-headed monster that has somehow managed to flourish.

My delimiter would be this: What if you could know, with absolute documented certainty, every exact particular - touching on any imaginable subject - concerning the life and times of Jesus H Christ (and by the way, a light of recognition came on when Jo Jerome mentioned how folks, speaking of events - especially after the fact, can often confuse individuals being referenced, with others of the same name, and unwittingly conflate both the events and the people). My question is simply, what previously unknown circumstance or fact could possibly lend significant insight - let alone meaning - to the myth that is thought of as Jesus today?

That people are not really interested in actually reading the bible now, a limited perusal of the four gospels alone, shows that this Jesus was virtually unrecognizable from the one that is shouted about today.

That he certainly was not, nor ever could have been, the living son of a non-existent god, makes the whole point of how or who this myth came to be, a large non-issue.

The main point that I think Sigmund is trying to get across, is that the search for any such 'evidence' is an attempt to ascribe meaning to hypothetical events, that are completely irrelevant and of no practical use, in dealing with the multifarious and powerfully evolved myth(s) of today.

Kind of like looking at the acorn, and trying to ascribe cause, or blame, for the giant oak tree that's busting up your sidewalk.
Danny, I dearly appreciate your well considered and considerate response to my own efforts at trying to explain myself. I quite enjoyed reading it.

I also appreciate the fact that you are apparently one of the of the most - if not the most - well read religious scholars on this site.

And, coming from a non-Christian background, you have no doubt attained a much wider overview than most, when it comes to understanding how the first beginnings of the Christian church were actually interleaved with all the other religious, political, and secular activity going on at that time.

I would concede that, of course, there is more than a kernel of truth to the larger arc of the whole story. Which point, I think, Sigmund was also conceding, when he said "so what?"

Whether you regard it as history, heritage, or both, it's bound to have a much larger meaning for you, than the meaning I had supposed to describe.

And that's because, unlike the DNA in an acorn, the Christian religion jumped the tracks of any prescribed course a long time ago. And to that end I tend to see it as more of a non-lethal cancerous protuberance, that has been able to feed off of the sociological host of western civilization. And while the genesis of any particular cancer may be of interest to those looking into its cause, the surgeon and medical staff are generally tasked with attempting to eradicate it from the patient.

By the way, I was brought up in a largely secular household, except for the influence of my nondenominationalist paternal grandmother, who hauled me around to all the 'meetings,' conventions, and tent-revivals. And I wasn't able to get away from that influence, until right before I turned 16, and the folks moved to Utah.

It wasn't until I was graduating high school, and getting ready to ship out for the Navy, that I wound up getting baptized into the LDS Church. And that, through the concerted efforts of a close friend's mother, who presumed to see me as husband material for her daughter. Being an unthinking moron at the time, I allowed myself to get sucked in by the ward missionaries, who offered answers to everything - along with the addition of an extra 'm' in my moron. Let's just say, it didn't take long . . .

But not before I had read a whole lot of church material, and was able to clearly see the ridiculous claims to divinity, supposedly secured by their 'prophet' Joseph Smith. But I also came away with a look inside the workings of this neo-Christian religious cult, and how one like this can go on to become an established religion. And, in fact, I came to see just how ridiculously easy it is to start a new religion - just get people to believe what they already want to believe. And here, it was not only a case of being one of god's own chosen, but one of attaining personal glory through the proliferation of one's progeny - something I came to view as the church-sanctioned licence to F**k for Jesus, or Screw for Christ. I mean, you just can't imagine how easy it is, to get people to flock to that idea.

So, again, I came from - and am coming from - the whole other end of the spectrum, with respect to the importance of Christianity's beginnings.

Hope I didn't bore you with the tripe.
If I may contribute to our delightful and uncharacteristic little love-in while it lasts: DR - yes, that's pretty much what I as trying to get at (and very nicely said).
Danny - very interesting post, I do see the value of such discussion. My original point was aimed at the many atheists who seem to continually get sucked into debates about the minutiae of interpreting primarily religious sources. If there were no other sources at all, say just the Bible, we would still be justified in speculating about possible factual foundations, but we wouldn't have anything concrete to back it up with - it would be pure conjecture. So when we accept something alluded to in the Bible, for instance the existence of a Jesus figure, we do so because it makes sense in some wider context than Christianity and its Biblical foundations.
Conversely, if we knew exactly what had happened and could prove it conclusively (including, say, that Jesus had never existed in a form that approximates the Biblical construction), I imagine that many Christians would still continue to believe what they believe now. Thus it is the impervious-to-logic-and-evidence 'cancer' version of Jesus that I would like to see peole keep in mind when they are arguing about minor details of what may actually have happened - it puts things in perspective, particularly when arguing with theists...
I can see where you're coming from, but I'll disagree based on my personal experience. The historical origins tends to be a very important subject to Christians, and pointing out the evolution of their belief system is like stabbing them through the heart.
The really petulant discussions, in my mind, are the ones where atheists try to point out the flaws in the first-cause argument, for example. Even if you go back and forth dozens of time, and even if you get the Christian to understand the validity of your position, it still won't make a lick of difference. Why? Because the first-cause argument was not what his belief was based on in the first place.

Historical analysis doesn't work that way. A Christian can have as much faith as he wants, if he ultimately investigates the origins of his religion and finds them so obscure and human, that's much more likely to penetrate the shield that is his faith.

That said, my interest in Jesus and the origins of Christianity is more historical than anything else. How a single Galilean preacher ultimately inspired the world's largest religion.
That's fair enough, although we clearly disagree on one point:
You say:
'The historical origins tends to be a very important subject to Christians, and pointing out the evolution of their belief system is like stabbing them through the heart.'
Yes and no - I agree with the second part, but I'm not convinced that attempting to explain the possible historical eventualities of where the idea of 'Jesus' really comes from is the best way to do this. It's too easy to dismiss and (as we see here and in other discussion forums, time and time again) is still a controversial issue. I would suggest that 'real hard evidence' wouldn't do much to convince them, so a 'plausible theory' isn't going to be forceful enough.
In my own experience, the most uncomfortable angle for theists remains pointing out the similarities with other religions in general - not in terms of specific models for their own religion, but simply the commonalities of religious thought in general, throughout history and geography. The flaws of religion are easier to recognise when 'religion' is dealt with as an abstract phenomenon - all religions fulfil the same functions and stem from the same processes. If a theist can be brought to recognise this, then hopefully he will start to consider the implications... To me the real argument is always 'if Hinduism is wrong, then Christianity must be wrong too', and theists already agree with you on other religions, they just need to be persuaded to intellectualise religion as an abstract concept, they can do the rest themselves...
Suffice it to say that different approaches used by different individuals work on different groups of people. I don't want to get bogged down in an abstract discussion as to what the best type of conversion strategy is. The fact of the matter is that many people find that investigating the origins of their religion is a very disillusioning experience, and many have lost their faith this way (read the introduction on commonsenseatheism.com if you want an example).

Again my personal experience is that debating the beginnings of their religion is much more engaging to Christians, and the ease with which you can dismantle several key aspects of their religion is very disconcerting to them. Much more so (again in my experience) than talking about the ontological argument or the similarities with other religions.

But again: different people, different approaches. I think we can leave it at that.

You are attacking a strawman though: as I said many times before, I wouldn't be debating this subject (the historicity of Jesus) nearly as much if there weren't a great deal of atheists making positively wrong pronouncements on the issue and using downright horrible historical arguments against Christianity. They are wrong, and it's not at all pedantic or useless of me to point that out.
Matt, You would almost think that the fossil evidence and the scientific 'proof' would convince most Christians about the truth of evolution. But that's why I think the roads to stabbing Christian religious belief through the heart, are as varied as the number of individual churches and those members of their respective congregations.

The beliefs are so varied, and the hold on delusion so profound, that it really is like herding cats to even get most of them to listen - let alone reflect - on any one particular argument.

By the way, I think that this tough, ingrained defense of delusion, arises from the true source of their ethical imperative, which seems to trump not only various nuances of Christian belief, but religions belief altogether. And that is, in seeing one's first duty as the responsibility to mindlessly defend the status quo. The Us-versus-Them team loyalty that can, no doubt, best be explained by the ethics of game theory.

It would be easier if we were asking folks to believe something else, when what we are doing is attempting to get people to engage in critical thinking - and many for the first time.

After all, " thinking is Harrrrrrd, and why should I let you burden me with trying to weigh your particular argument - what do you think believing in something is for? "

It winds up being a largely personal journey, begun by people already at the fringe of their belief systems. Those willing to tease apart the fabric of sometimes incredibly complex belief, in their search for real meaning, and absolute truth.

So, while I tend to feel, as Sigmund does, that the most ubiquitously effective argument is going to be through getting people to see that their own particular faith is, in many respects, the same as everyone else's - and can be equally discounted - the situation has always been one of "let those who have ears to hear, hear."

That said, I can watch hours and hours of historical documentary programs myself, delving into the intricacies of many of those same subjects that Danny is so incredibly knowledgeable about - and with equal fascination.

It is only when I see religious scholars sitting around a table, attempting to parse obscure meaning out of particular words or verses, of their unknowingly sullied and meaningless 'scripture,' that my revulsion compels me to turn the damned thing off.

How many times have I watched bible thumpers leafing wildly through the pages of their bible, in search of those particular passages - usually taken completely out of context and decried as ' living proof,' from the mouth of gawdalmighty himself - in support of their own particular position, and not wanted to snatch that evil icon of Christendom from out of their hands long enough to ask "now, just tell me what you think - and why."

BTW, civility rules !
You make largely the same points as Sigmund so I can only offer pretty much the same answer as above. I don't find at all that pointing out the similarities with other religions is very effective at all, because, let's face it, the core story of Christianity is unique enough to not be discarded by vague similarities. Trying to explain religion psychologically just leads to the Christian saying "That might be how other religion work, but mine is the real deal."

If it works for you, that's great though.

Still, it would work much better if arguments used by atheists were as strong on every aspect as they tend to be in terms of science (which most believers regard to be largely inconsequential to religion). The horrible historical arguments used by atheists are the main things I want to debunk: not to make atheist feel bad, but to make sure they don't use them in debates.
Actually, that soap opera comparison is very fitting - I'm surprised it hasn't occured to me before. It's a very dramatic, severe and serious sort of soap opera, doesn't it? Which is what I imagine early Christian soap operas would have been like if they had existed (well, they probably did in some shape or another). Soap operas, then, like religions, reflect the 'mood of the people' for and by whom they are formulated...
Next up: Jesus! The Musical (oh wait, it's been done. Many times over... urgh)
Buddhy Holly - perhaps you mean Buddha Holly? ;)



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