'Did Jesus exist?' vs. 'Did God exist?'

In the beginning was the word, and the word was, like all words, a human invention, to label something that humans want to label. This gave shape to a concept that eventually led to an ontological fallacy (God-the-greatest-thing-I-can-imagine does indeed exist as a concept - that's the whole point - but that doesn't mean that God-the-greatest-thing-I-can-imagine also exists) ...

Whether a word represents 'the truth' is beside the point - labelling something tells us nothing about the thing itself (thank you, poststructuralism), but it may well tell us something about the labeller. In this case it tells us that the lebeller was concerned with conceptualising a higher force who might provide some explanations and relieve some of the responsibility of his/her existence.

In the not-beginning, i.e. since the conceptualisation of 'God', many other words have been spun, whose provenance is almost constantly the subject of furious debate in this forum and many others. I have vented my spleen about these debates before (see my final word here, sorry to all you promoters of non-self-promotion), but have only recently crystallised precisely what it is that bugs me about them in its simplest form:

Pondering questions such as 'did Jesus exist?' or 'how/why/when/where/by whom was the Bible written?' distract from a simple truth: God does not exist. Writings about 'him' are incidental to this fact, and discussions about religious sources are at best tangential to the more important questions, like 'God does not exist - why do people believe in him anyway?'

That is why I find that the 'historical approach' is of limited use when debating with theists; it is merely a curiosity that avoids the real issues. Of course it is interesting as an example of various aspects of religion, but the heated debating of 'facts' tends to miss even those points - such as the factors contributing to the development, codification and development of religious ideas and practices...
I'm not suggesting that there is anything 'wrong' with debating these matters, but the venom with which they are addressed never ceases to amaze me. An understanding of the Bible is in no way necessary for an atheist - indeed one might say more generally: religion is tangential to atheism, and affects it in no way whatsoever.

To return to 'the word' - surely questions such as 'what was it based on?' and 'who wrote it?' are insignificant compared to 'why does it exist at all?'

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Comment by Jo Jerome on September 28, 2010 at 6:53pm
I gotta agree with Matt that derailment is underrated. Worked fantastically for the Teabaggers infiltrating town hall meetings on health reform last year. The goal was to halt productive discussion on the topic that might make sense to the outside world. Shout insults, get the congressperson on the defensive and off topic, preferably by misrepresenting what he/she said, and whatever you do make sure no one looks to any source but you and yours for information. "Fox news: We'll decide for you dammit!"
Comment by Matt VDB on September 28, 2010 at 5:01pm
I already acknowledged the points you made. Do I have to bang on about the fact that I agree indefinitely?

Derailment is underrated ;)
Comment by Sigmund on September 28, 2010 at 3:45pm
and right there we've derailed again... happens every time...
Comment by Matt VDB on September 28, 2010 at 12:16pm
Diana,

Points taken. It's absolutely true that much of Biblical analysis remains what you might call crypto-Christian: you only have to look at the large amount of conservative scholars to figure that out.
Still, I don't think merely pointing out that many of them are Christians is an argument against them immediately; most biologists are naturalists too, but that's not any reason for concern either. By and large, when books get through peer-review, the arguments are at least plausible; but you still have to be careful. It's for that reason that I rarely pick up a book from the participants to the Jesus Seminar (even though some of Crossan's stuff is really good): I know that they are liberal Christians and I think it's just a little bit too clear that their biases are shining through in their research.

I'm also continually surprised by how wishy-washy many Christians in Biblical scholarship are. Someone like Dale Allison has continually argued for an apocalyptic and very Jewish Jesus, even though he still considers himself a liberal Christian. How he does this when he himself admits that this Jesus fellow really was a product of his own time and not quite what you'd expect from a divine prophet, I really have no idea (though I suspect it takes buckets of cognitive dissonance).

"I am trying to broaden the conversation about what Early Christianity was all about and get beyond the Jewish Jesus."

Which is a fantastic subject.
Personally, I find the evolution and spread of early Christianity makes the most sense from a perspective of a Jewish apocalyptic sect branching out to Gentiles, which lead to a thorough 'un-Jewing' of many elements of the sect (one of the climaxes probably being the Gospel of John which goes as far as to exactly villify the Jewish people) and - because of the devestation of the First and Second Jewish wars - the eventual prevailing of these un-Jewish elements. In that sense I regard modern-day Christianity as the mix of forgotten Intertestamental Judaism, half-forgotten apocalypticism and enthusiastically embraced misunderstandings of Jewish concepts ("Son of God").

I understand you to be quite into pagan roots though. I personally think that to largely be a dead end, but I'm sure we'll talk more about that some day ;)

Kind regards,

Matt
Comment by Sigmund on September 26, 2010 at 3:06am
An excellent point, Diana - the fact that religions, or interpretations of religious principles (so much religion needs to be 'interpreted' today) evolve with society and its codes of behaviour very clearly demonstrates, all on its own, that religion is inherently false. In the simple act of acknowledging that religion does not rovide a moral absolute (which a sensitive reading of pretty much any religious text will amply demonstrate) it becomes untenable.

Humans like moral absolutes - everyone always thinks they are 'doing the right thing', other wise they wouldn't do it - but, conveniently enough, practical behavioural codes/moral barometers like laws and social etiquette allow for evolution in a way that dogma does not. Morality is a dialectical process that actively demonstrates the falseness of religion.
Comment by Jo Jerome on September 25, 2010 at 11:01pm
Putting it another way, keeping that open mind helps prevent us from taking too many closed-door assumptive leaps. The "probably" gets dropped and we start discussing hypotheses/theories as facts without ever revisiting alternate hypotheses/theories (such as "Historical Jesus existed ... we can find him in the bible ... I know the real Jesus and you don't...).

Reinserting the "probably" in that first phrase is at least a reminder that we are going ever deeper down a rabbit hole of probably/maybe/might be.

Change one of the "probablys" in a hypothesis and the entire picture can change. Change one little context of that artifact, this document, those groups of people, and it can drastically alter everything downstream.

It's messy, but that's the fun of science; the upside-down pyramid of neverending questions and avenues to explore!

Ok, now the fever is really talking...
Comment by Jo Jerome on September 25, 2010 at 10:48pm
More precisely, I think if a future archaeologist 20,000 years from now finds that dog's grave, they would be right to hypothesize that ritual burial of the dog with objects used in this life, strongly suggests:

- Veneration of dogs

- Emotional connection to dogs

- Some kind of belief, probably in an afterlife ("taking objects with them").

Indeed, I can think of no models in human history where there is ritualized burial that is not religious in nature. I'm sure some exist, but I have to believe they are the rare exception; not the norm. However; though ritual burial strongly suggests religion, the future archaeologist is always wise to keep that door open, if only a crack. We just never know when new information will come in and blow the old assumptions out of the water!

While keeping that open mind though, I say there's little reason to expect prehistoric religions did *not* have religion/spiritual belief (the two are often described as separate entities). I think of religion/spirituality as some of the most basic forms of philosophy. "Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is the meaning in my life?" The natural world is very large, very mysterious, very complex. I can see where it would be very easy to assume there must be hidden 'wills' behind it all.

Right now in Physical Anthropology we're delving ever deeper into DNA and genetics. It is absolutely mind-boggling to consider that 4 little nucleotides - adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine - in a relatively simple structure - DNA - is the recipe for every living thing on Earth, from you to me to my cat to a pine tree to the fly on my windshield to the air we're breathing to whatever nasty plague I'm currently coming down with: All made of the same, painfully simple ingredients.

Albeit, in horribly long, unique sequences.

I can kind of understand how so many believe there simply *has* to be a willful designer behind it all. For even wilder than grasping the concept of DNA and the beauty of the double-helix itself, is wrapping our minds around the couple of billions of years of "failed progeny" it took before a random mutation hit on that magic combination.

But I digress. It's the fever talking. :-P
Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 25, 2010 at 5:31pm
WRONG Diana! One explanation only. There is no god But Allah and Mohammad is his prophet. WAIT: Jesus Christ-son of god whose mother was a virgin died for your sins 2 thousand years ago. I get confused cuz the bible tells me so.
Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 25, 2010 at 3:29pm
Fish aint bitin good Diana. My comments are not completely on point. However, and I aint seen it suggested on AN but I believe a major function and hook of religion is to give the rank and file an explanation, to make life intelligible and to give it order. Catholicism has cradle to grave STEPS and sacraments. Follow the dots or your brain hurts.
Second I think our evolutionary biology makes us susceptible to fire and brimstone. Hero worship is an extension of alpha male hierarchy. Human infant frailty increases demands of monkey see monkey do behavior. Early exposure to the lord results in imprinting just like it does on Konrad Lorenz' ducks. Imprinting has survival advantages.
Comment by Matt VDB on September 25, 2010 at 5:57am
"o_O

*Goes back through the 100 page "Do You Believe Jesus Existed" thread to try and ascertain what exactly Matt is preaching...*"


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