Sorry for not having responded, I too have been busy.
Anyway, here we go:
It seems a little strange that you would say that there are no contemporaneous records of Jesus and then shortly thereafter say that there are records dating to 40 years after the events. 70 AD/CE is about right as I understand it.
I guess when I say 'contemoraneous' I mean contemporary, eyewitness stories of people that were alive at the time of the events. For instance, records of the trial of Jesus from the Romans (or even of Barabas..), Greek or Roman records from the time talking of an inexplicable darkening. Even entries from Philo, who I mentioned, stating that "the sky went dark today" or "5000 people met outside the city to listen to a rabbi" (something that most certainly would have drawn attention - 5000 is a lot of people in the ancient world) etc. Another contemporary stating that that people who were previously dead were seen walking the streets of Jeruselem. Since most people even at the time did not believe in resurrection, they would certainly would have written this down somewhere.
If I write a story about WW2, and claim that during the war Churchill was shot and the only thing that saved him was the pocket NT, which stopped the bullet. This is an oral story that my Granfather told me. If my account of this survived, whould it be taken as fact? No other record of the event exists. I was not a witness. Would a future historian take this as true? Even if documents from WW2 (or from another person who wrote a letter claiming to be a first hand witness) do not mention it? I don't think so. This is a pretty common standard of proof for historical documents. But also remember we aren't trying to determine if a battle happened or a person said something, we are talking about a man who claimed to be able to violate the laws of physics and was raised from the dead. In this case the standard should be higher.
When dealing with such ancient documents 40 years after the event is actually fairly contemporaneous. A fair comparison would be with the records we have to Caesar's Gallic Wars. The closest records we have on this hundreds of years later, but this is considered to be entirely acceptable by scholars. By contrast 40 years is a drop in the bucket. Keep in mind that documents decay. We don't have a single original document that the author actually held in his hand, but this is to be expected when dealing with such a long passage of time. And it is entirely accepted when dealing with other historical events.
Again, like above, I am not solely basing this on the age of documents, but also the sources and quality. In your Gallic wars example, yes the doucments are over a hundred years after the event, but there are more than one, independant sources which corroborate the facts (and have been shown previously to be reliable). Even then, the "truth" of the event is based on the agreement of the contents. If two documents written independantly make a similar claim, it is reasonable to say they are true. If they appear to be copies of each other or report different things, then only those things that are similar can be reasonably be thought tobe true, but still suspect requiring further corroboration. The Gallic wars also have other archeological, physical evidence to back up the claim - potter shards dating from the correct time period, spear points, coins comemorating the event etc. The story of Jesus does not meet this standard - the only sources for the story are related documents from a "single" source. I would be happy to change my mind if new evidence appears.
Of course there is more than one issue here. The first is the historical existance of a Jewish man named Jesus who was executed by Romans. I think what I said fairly addresses that point. The existence of Jesus is fairly widely accepted.
Not as widely as you would think. Given the circumstantial evidence, it is possible, even probable, that an itnerant rabbi or teacher named Jesus or Yeshua lived in the time period in question. Since there is no direct evidence of his existance, we can imply his existance from the available evidence (gospels, Pauline letters). But ALL we can imply is that a person existed. We cannot imply the other aspects of his life, including what he said and what he did. The Jesus Seminar, using this methodology, believes a historical Jesus only actually said about 10-20% of the sayings attributed to him. Even they are only using the gospels, which, given their historiosity, are not as realiable as one would think.
Another issue you raised is the claim that the authors of the gospels are not who they are generally regarded by Christians to be. i.e. Matthew did not write the Gospel of Matthew. This seems to be quite the claim. You state it as though it were accepted scholarship. I'm aware that some recent scholarship has questioned the authorship of the Gospels, but this hardly qualifies as the accepted view even among non-Christian scholars. None of the Gospels were signed, but all of the early Church tradition is consistent with attributing authorship. I believe that a generally accepted history does count for something as it would take a lot to fool a lot of people. Nothing is as certain as videotape, but this is how 2000 year old history is studied. Nothing I've read on the subject leads me to believe that there is strong evidence to contradict the traditional authorship of the gospels. (i.e. that they are in fact eye-witness accounts). Your comments about Josephus are correct as I understand it, although as I said I'm scarcely an expert. It should be noted though that people adding material to some documents does not in fact discount other documents. The probable forging of Josephus' writing doesn't discount the Gospels, even if it does have a bad smell. People in power lying is hardly new.
The commonly accepted histoiocity of the gospels is like this:
1. 27-30 AD: Death of Jesus.
2. 30-60 AD: Oral tradition (story telling).
3. 50-70 AD: Letters of Paul (first "Gospel").
4. 60-70 AD: First edition of Thomas.
5. 70 AD: Destruction of the temple (fall of Jerusalem).
6. 70-80 AD: Mark.
7. 85-90 AD: Matthew.
8. 85-95 AD: Luke.
9. 90-100 AD: John.
The average life expectancy at this time was 45 years. If the authors of the gospels were the Apostles, they would have been between 25 and 35 years old...peers of Jesus. Thus, in order to be authors of the gospels, they would have had to live to between 80 and 100 years old. That is a feat even today, let alone in first century Judea. It is possible, but not probable.There are other reasons to doubt that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses as well.
Look at the order. We can assume that earlier writings, closer to the events are more accurate. Paul's are the earliest yet they make no mention of the events of his life. Only later versions, starting with Mark add the "details". Matthew copies and "corrects" Mark as short time later. Luke copies and embelishes both. John changes things around again, at times contradicting the others (read the ressurection story in all 4 and see if you can reconcile them...especially the version in John). Or how about the Gospel of Thomas, which shares some facets with all of them but has many differences (which likely gott it banned from the Bible anyway...it didn't follow the orthodoxy). My reading is that a sect of Judaism, wishing to gain converts, did just as you have argued here..take the pagan god-man stories, set them in Judea, and win said converts with your very "see our God did all those things too, only better and more recently." From that simple desire grew all of Christianity as we know it.
An entirely different issue is whether or not Jesus ever claimed the things that are recorded in the Gospels. Assuming that Matthew & co. wrote the Gospels, they could have lied about the events. This claim is a more common one and although you didn't make it, I bring it up for the sake of completeness. I assume you didn't make it due to the obvious answer: If you were going to lie and create a religion wouldn't you create one that wouldn't get you tortured & killed? I see no benefit to the early Christians to lie. There are simpler ways to get yourself killed. Note that this isn't the same as the guy who forged Josephus. In 70 AD/CE the early Christians were hardly in positions of power.
Ironically, I would say all of the reasons you present are the foundation of why earlier Christians would lie - in order to prevent persecution and torture. The Roman Empire was polytheistic and quite tolerant of most religions. You could worship any god(s), so long as you were faithful to the Empire as well. Remember, it was the Romans that put Herod the Great on the throne as their puppet and let the Jews practice their religion. And up until 70 CE, the Christians were not a separate religion, but a sect of Judaism.
But that 70 CE is an important date. It is the historical date of the destruction of the second temple in Jeruselem. The first of the Gospels, Mark, appears very shortly after. Now the temple was destroyed because of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman occupation. Around and after 70 CE, the Romans were no longer tolerant of Jews and percecuted them mercilessly( Massada, for example). It was no longer a good idea to be Jewish. With the destruction of the temple there was a religous and cultural vaccum in Judea and the early Christians tried to fill it. The author of Mark goes to great lengths to distance the followers of Jesus from the other Jews and to ingraciate them to the Romans - so that they won't be percecuted along with the Jews. From that, we see a mythology slowly grow that incorporates or imitates the pagan religions (Mithranism, for example, a pagan parrallel to Christianity, was the religion of soldiers and the Legions) that were "acceptable" to Rome. This resulted in the improbable stories of Pilate. Pilate is a historical figure, who was known as a brutal, vicious prefect of Palestine. The story of him not finding fault with Jesus and washing his hand of him is completely out of character, as documented by many of his contemporaries (including Josephus and Pliny the Elder...yes the same Josephus whose work was altered later by Escibus). The story of the night-time trial by the Sanhedrin is also an example of this. It was clearly not written by a Jew (since the Sanhedrin would not meet after sun-down on the Sabbath, and certainly not at Passover). But these stories tell the Romans that "Hey, you guys were ok to us, Pilate was a nice guy, but those Jews you hate, there even worse. They didn't lsiten to you guys and wanted Jesus dead anyway...". This was done for revenge on the mainstream Jewish community that had rejected them, currying favour with the Romans so that they didn't persecute them so they could fill the vaccum created when the Jewish religious infrastructure was destroyed with the temple. All of the embelishment and lying served the purpose to ensure they survived. Ironically, these are the seeds of the anti-semitism which still haunts the world today.
Now the lack of records concerning Jesus' death. Rather than "no records" it would be more accurate to say "no non-Christian records". As addressed earlier, but the standards of the day, Jesus was a nobody. He wasn't important at the time so why would his death show up in a lot of official records? The romans executed a lot of people. We don't have records detailing all of the other executions either. Of course those that witnessed his resurrection would tend to become Christians thus their records are religious. (Perhaps they might be included in something that we now call the Bible?) oh, and the computer modelling. I've never really thought about this one. I suppose it's because I never assumed that an eclipse would be required. If I was God I suppose I could darken the day any way I chose. I'm not going to comment on the star thing. It's sort of like people who wonder about spontaneous appearance of a Y chromosome in an unfertilized egg to explain Jesus' birth. Sort of missing the point...
I don't really expect that there would a Roman record saying " 30 CE Crucified a guy name Jesus today for sedition" between the name of two guys killed for thievery. But I would expect there to be some mention somewhere of the other events, which should have been witnessed by by believers and non-believers alike and recorded - the sun going black, the dead saints rising and walking around Jeruselem, a man floating into the sky. Again, since ressurection of the dead was not a common belief, having it happen in the presence of so many witnesses would have been unusually enough that contemporary records would have at least recorded the rumor. But even without those, what of the other events? The ancients were voracious sky-watchers, recording the movement of the stars and comemorating even obscure celestial events. Most ancient astronomers\astrologers had the ability to predict celestial events, like solar and lunar eclipses. So, it the sun went black for 3 hours, some one, somewhere would have written it down because it was so unusual, since it was either an unexpected celestial event. I also don't think everyone who witnessed the ressurection would become a Christian. Some would refuse to believe it, clinging to there old religion, some would rationalize it away as a trick and other may see it as proof the person was in league with the devil, rather than the Messiah. So some of these witness would have recorded something, if only to refute or ridicule what they saw.
All of this, combined with the similarities with other god-man ressurection stories (and the internal contradictions between the Gospels on the story as well) make you wonder if it really happened at all. Some of the "similarities" are actually verbatim sequences of events, times and methods of death, the only differences being the name (replace Dionysus with Jesus and the story is the same).
Occams razor... It seems that the simplest explanation of the facts in this case seems to be a matter of dispute. I would have thought the simplest explanation of the facts is that pagan religions had claims of X, Y & Z and that Jesus one upped them by showing it done. It's similar to Moses' confrontation with the Pharaoh's magicians. Both they & Moses threw their staffs on the ground where they turned into snakes, but Moses' snake ate the others. The message being that the competing religions of the day couldn't match the God of Israel. So the similarity to pagan religions of the time is consistent.
As I stated earlier, there are other simpler explanations that explain the similarities. Is it more likely that an unprovable supernatural being imitated other religions to show them how powerful he was, or is it more likely that, through a series of historical events, the story grew to incorporate and imitate pre-existing religions in order to can converts and power?
So what would pagans of the time have thought when Christians came to them with a story of God who became a man, died for their sins and then came back to life. Well, given your information, you'd think they would say "Hey, you clowns just stole those ideas from our religion, what a crock!". Seriously. Isn't that what you'd expect? I would. Yet it didn't happen that way. Why not? I suspect that it was that something was different about the story of Jesus' resurrection. For instance that it was true.
That's exactly what they thought, for about 300 years after the appearance of Christianity. Christianity was Roman religion with few converts. Christianity only took off after Constantine "converted" (probably for political not spiritual reasons...early Christian hooligans were destabilizing the Empire). Christianity took off under Constantine because he outlawed and persecuted the pagan religions. You had no choice but to be a Christian. He even called the Council of Nicea which mad Jesus God, moved the CHristian Holy day to Sunday (from Saturday) to be in line with the Mithrians in the Roman legions, moved Christmas from April (when it probably really happened if that part of the Bible is true) to December 25, the Birthday of Mithras (and a bunch of other Pagan gods). Also, its still December 25 because even though Christianity was the top dog, they couldn't prevent people from celebrating their festivals. Christianity moved even closer to the pagans than the otherway around. I think that better explains the spread of Christianity than the possiblility that Jeus's life and resurrection are true.
I'm really enjoying our exchanges here as well, and I hope I haven't been too late in posting this to get a reply. (Long day today)
On an entirely separate note, if you want to look into comparisons between pagan religions and Christianity, you might try looking at Genesis. Rikk Watts is the guy I heard this from, but the Genesis narrative is strikingly similar in form to contemporary pagan creation stories. According to Watts the form is neither allegory or history so the typical "7 literal days" vs. "creation allegory" argument off track. The pagan stories are about how the gods build a temple to themselves. What's the last thing you put in a temple? The idol, or the image of the god. What's the last thing that Yaweh puts in his temple? Us. Implication? Human beings are vitally important and therefore you can't treat them like garbage. You can't throw people out of work to make a quick buck. You can't exploit them for cheap labour. etc. etc. This article used to be on the web, but I can't find it on a googling. It's in a book, but you might have trouble finding it in a library. The Genesis thing is a sidenote to our discussion, but I thought it might show why I'm not surprised to see parallel's in pagan religion. Christ would want to challenge & answer other religions in his actions wouldn't he?
Well, feel free to surf around some of the links I have provided. I am aware of their source, but you don't usually find the evidence and arguments on Christian sites ;)
A few final thoughts:
I don't think that the possibility that Jesus did not exist, or was merely a man whose name and time was borrowed for the continuation of a legend or myth detracts from Christianity at all. I agree with Tom Harpur, that it actually enriches the religion and give it more breadth and depth. Christianity is just the latest religion to promote some universal values that almost all religions, before and since, have espoused - the values of compassion, forgiveness, selflessness, kindness and love. Essentially "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, the rest is just commentary" (from an old Jewish folk tale)
I think we can all agree on the values. Our only differences would be on where these values came from. I say they are just the natural way of things and are part of evolution (they are the best long term survival strategy) and you would say they came from God. We aren't going to solve that debate until we are dead, so I won't bother.
But that hardly matters. So long as we follow the values, it doesn't matter where they came from.
I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
Talk to you later...
We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another - Jonathan Swift
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