'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 Frankie Dapper on September 30, 2010 at 4:23pm
Having read so many of your posts, and come away with the impression that you are intelligent, thoughtful and introspective, I am surprised to see you reveal your bias. Not all christians and ex-christians are tenants. Some christians are owners, some are homeless and others are peripatetic farm workers and hermits.
Comment by Jo Jerome on September 30, 2010 at 3:33pm
Mmmmm.... scented candles....

Interestingly though, the $4 candle from Wal-Mart smells just as good as the $19 candle from the New Age store.

Better even, because it only cost me $4.
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 30, 2010 at 12:25pm
We have plenty of the "soap and candles" spirituality of the New Agers here in Oregon too. I think they really expose religion for what it is: business. I like pretty smelling candles as much as anyone; but, telling me that a zen candle will take my cares away exposes classic marketing ploys. Their repackaging of Jesus is just another example of marketing. We all fall for marketing to some degree and like to be cool amongst our group. When Jesus is the hottest product within your group, you are likely to fall for it. Or, it can also feed people's desire to be the unique ones as the more "enlightened/educated" ones in the group.
Comment by Jo Jerome on September 30, 2010 at 12:06pm
Diana - In addition to Christians wanting something less faith-y and more solid, I've seen many an Ex-Christian claim to rise above the religion but in reality, cling to many of its tenants, possibly out of pure pride.

Living and working around New Age Central Sedona AZ, I saw many an Ex-Christian who simply traded "holier than thou" for "I'm more enlightened/educated than you are." I also saw a lot of rewriting/sanitizing of the "Real" Jesus/early church/Bible as having started out as honorable and true but sadly taken over by The Man.

It strikes me as going back to the point we're making about validation of one's religion. Or in this case, validation of aspects of it at least. Easily one of the hardest things for me to face as I shed my Christianity was just how much of the material history was based on likely lies, right down to the messiah himself who, in flesh-and-blood form, is at best lost behind the myth and at worst could plausibly have been completely pulled out of someone's backside.

My ego really, REALLY didn't want to face that I'd fallen for that big a scam and really, REALLY wanted to find any kind of justification or validation that my faith was based on *something* real.

But ultimately, I also had to face the fact that my ego wanting it to be true, didn't make it true. Many a resident of Sedona has yet to come to that conclusion.
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 30, 2010 at 11:57am
If you were more familiar with 1st century CE paganism in Palestine, your perspective would be very different. Your understanding skewed because Judaism is still an active religion today. It is one of those cases of history being told by the victors. And, it is a view that is very much swayed by modern Christian and Jewish theology and their respective romance stories about the origins of their religions.
Comment by Matt VDB on September 30, 2010 at 8:30am

It's one thing to say that early Judaism evolved out of variants of paganism and polytheism, and an entirely different to then say that the roots of religions evolving out of Judaism therefore have pagan roots. Of course it's technically correct, but it's the kind of statement that loses its value. You might as well say that obscure variants of Sufi Islam have their roots in that exact same kind of paganism. Of course, that's technically true, but it's irrelevant: when seeing religious ideas develop, we are interested in the immediate context from which they came. Whether that context itself came from a different context which in turn came from a different one... is of course a worthwhile endeavour, but not one relevant to the initial question.

So I can absolutely agree that initially, Judaism probably started as a kind of paganism. But what is also clear is that it grew to be more distinct, and even dismissive of paganism as time progressed. By the time Christianity came along, Judaism had grown into a religion of its own right (plus of course the various Zoroastrian influences that took place during the Intertestamental period, but again I think it's a long shot to call that paganism), and it makes the most sense to see Christianity evolving from that context.

And that's just talking about the broad Jewish context. When we're talking about the apocalyptic culture (the immediate heritage of the early Christian sect), the adherence to the most radical of Jewish ideas becomes quite clear. Even Jesus is made from this cloth, although it's also tempered by his love of wine ;)

Take care,

Comment by Diana Agorio on September 29, 2010 at 7:29pm
Well said, Jo. Christians don't want to need too much faith. They want a story that adds an air of plausibility to their belief in Jesus.
Comment by Jo Jerome on September 29, 2010 at 7:06pm
Thanks Sigmund - back to reiterate my point on your topic: I think this kind of derailment is indeed the problem when one tries to tie historical-Jesus to biblical-Jesus. The evidence we have suggests, to varying degrees of strength depending on one's interpretation, that the Jesus myth likely began with a flesh-and-blood real Jesus as a template/inspiration/whatever.

But there is no evidence linking the teachings/sayings/ideology of flesh-and-blood template-Jesus (assuming he exists and assuming he said or did anything of significance) back to the teachings/sayings/ideology of bible-Jesus.

To that end, Saul of Tarsus makes a far better historical-Jesus than historical-Jesus does.

I'm with Diana on this that when Theists get into this with me, it feels like an attempt to validate their religion by 'proving' their messiah was real.

"You believe in supernatural bible stories, why not believe in supernatural Thor or Hercules?"

"Well for one thing, historians have proven that Jesus was a real person!"

Even if there is a 'real' Jesus, there is not a real god-messiah.
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 29, 2010 at 12:15pm
You and I share a humorous view of how this topic gets sidetracked into the very argument that we are trying to set aside.

I think your view highlights the twin problems with discussions of Early Christianity. The discussion is obscured by two highly romanticized stories from the 1st century CE: The Christian romance of Jesus and the Jewish romance of the revolts and destruction of the temple. Both of those perspectives are looking backwards, through the last 2000 years, rather than getting behind the story and looking at the cultural developments that led up to the beginning of Christianity and the Jewish revolts.

Over the last 2000 years, both Christians and Jews developed a belief that their faiths were starkly different from paganism. But, that is simply not true. The archaeological evidence is clear that Judaism evolved from Yahwistic paganism. Judaism was not cut from a different cloth than the rest of West Asian religion. It was part of the cultural fabric of Palestine and just a variation on the same themes as found in Palestinian paganism. Even if Early Christianity was more Jewish than I claim, it still had pagan roots.

Even a 1st century CE Pharisee, Josephus, used Palestinian pagan mythology to embellish his stories about the Hasmoneans and the Herodians. He wrote in the same style as pagan historians, who rationalized myths as stories of real people. The pagan roots of Judaism were still evident in the writing of a man from the sect of Jews considered the most anti-pagan.

But, the broader spectrum of what it even meant to be a Jew during the 1st century CE is very muddy with paganism. Here is what Bart Ehrman says about the state of Judaism in Palestine:

“I should emphasize that most Jews in Palestine did not belong to any of these groups. We know this much from Josephus, who indicates that the largest sect, the Pharisees, claimed 6,000 members and that the Essenes claimed 4,000. The Sadducees probably had far fewer.” (The New Testament, A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, pg 205-206)

In addition to those small figures, some scholars even claim that the Essenes never existed. It isn’t just Golb and his crazy son making that claim. Elior, who is pretty well respected, also thinks Josephus made up the Essenes. Regardless, the first Christians were not Pharisees or Sadducees. The estimate is that Jews made up about 5% of the total population of the Roman Empire. That means there were a large number of people called Jews who were not members of the sects responsible for defining what it meant to be Jewish. And, the archaeological evidence from the 1st century CE shows that paganism was thriving throughout Palestine. Most Jews were not very different from pagans. So, to focus on Judaism and disregard paganism in looking for the origins of Christianity is an extremely distorted view. It is based on modern Christian and Jewish biases about paganism, rather than an honest look at 1st century CE Palestinian culture.
Comment by Sigmund on September 29, 2010 at 10:00am
i just think it's funny how discussions on the pros and cons of historical discussion of jesus/bible/etc. always turn into discussions about historical jesus/bible etc.
just sayin...



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