My response to the “Did Jesus Exist?” debate between Craig Evans and Richard Carrier

evanscarrierI had the privilege of attending last night’s debate on “Did Jesus Exist?” between two well-versed debaters – Dr. Craig Evans and Dr. Richard Carrier. When I learned of this debate, I wanted to take advantage of listening to Carrier, who is probably the world’s foremost mythicist scholar. In other words, I felt that this debate would expose me to the best arguments scholars could put forth suggesting Jesus was simply made up in history. Now I took plenty of apologetic classes in my undergraduate and graduate studies to become convinced of the overwhelming evidence regarding Jesus’ existence, but I could not pass up the chance to listen to Richard Carrier live. So I piled up my car with a few of my bright students and we took off to witness the debate.

Here are some of my observations of last night’s event:

 

Evans’ Opening Statement

Craig Evans provided a well-rounded presentation with the typical Christian apologetic stance on Jesus’ existence. None of the arguments were new nor controversial. He noted that Paul and James (Jesus’ brother) were converted after the risen Jesus appeared to them. evansEvans pointed out that Paul had conversed with Peter, one of the early disciples of Jesus. He also noted all of the early Greek and Latin authors who mentioned Jesus or who were aware of Jesus’ existence (Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius, Celcus, Lucian of Samosata, and Mara ben Serapion). Evans furthermore indicated that the four Gospels were written within a reasonable time from Jesus’ death to contain reliable information about him. I was actually impressed that Evans noted openly in his opening statement that the ‘Jesus passage’ in Josephus Antiquities 18 had indeed been doctored up by Christians. He gave this PowerPoint slide to note, in italics, evansJosephuswhich sections he felt were added. I applauded Evans for admitting this
honestly, although perhaps he was getting it on the table for discussion early, thinking that it would be heavily discussed (which it eventually was throughout the debate). All in all, Evans demonstrated that, at his age, he is sharp and well-versed in the Christian responses to historians and mythicists.

 

Carrier’s Opening Statement

Richard Carrier stuck me as a very eloquent speaker. He appeared very confident and was not afraid of being in the minority in regard to scholarship. I suppose taking a mythicist position requires you to develop thick skin. The first thing Carrier presented was basically that early Christianity was really no different than other pagan religions which honor a carrierdying and rising savior deity, albeit packaged into a Jewish form. I was struck at how he tended to take the position that if there was any possibility at explaining away the evidence for Jesus’ existence that it should be considered. Carrier did admit that it was plausible that Jesus historically existed, an admission which I found interesting coming from Carrier. I was disappointed that he dismissed the existence of Q, citing Mark Goodacre as one of the Christian scholars who does the same. Then things got interesting. Carrier suggested that Philo believed that an archangel was called ‘the firstborn son of God,’ the ‘image of God,’ and was depicted as God’s agent in creation in addition to being the celestial high priest. Then he cited Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 Cor 8:6; and Heb. 4:14 to suggest that early Christians believed the very same things about Jesus. Of course there are different ways to interpret Jesus’ title of ‘firstborn’ and the meaning of 1 Cor. 8:6, but Carrier seemed adamant that his reading was the correct reading. He continued by noting that Mark, Matthew, and Luke, being the earliest Gospels, possessed a christology without preexistence. So far, so good (I thought). Then he suggested that these early Gospels had deliberately suppressed an early high christology of Paul, who, according to Carrier, believed and preexcarriertaught that Jesus was an archangel who became incarnate in the human Jesus. He cited Phil. 2:5-11, which he repeatedly referred to throughout the debate, as the primary evidence for Jesus being a preexisting archangel (more on this later). He also suggested that angelos in Gal. 4:14 was best understood as an angel rather than a human messenger (as I would argue Paul intended). He then suggested that Jesus knew Moses according to 1 Cor. 10:4 (despite the fact that a few verses later Paul declared that he is speaking typologically). Carrier ended his opening statement by noting that early Christians spoke of resurrection appearances of Jesus in a way which he best felt are explained as ‘visions,’ visions which other pagan cults (ancient and modern) cite to validate their made up religious claims. In sum, Richard Carrier felt that Christianity is no different than other dying and rising savior deities in the ancient world.

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Moderation

I was disappointed at the moderator of this debate, who seemed to be infatuated with the discussion taking place to the point of multiple times forgetting his moderating responsibilities. During the cross examination time, he never called Evans out when he spent three minutes making a rebuttal to Carrier which was not in the form of the question. Carrier was, however, polite and did not appear upset that the moderator was failing in his responsibilities. When it came time for audience Q&A, the moderator furthermore seemed unprepared of how the questions were to be asked and where the audience members were to form a line.

 

Audience Q&A

I do want to share the question which I asked both Carrier and Evans. I posed a challenge (at first to Carrier) that his argument regarding how the earliest christology was supposedly high, depicting Jesus as a former archangel according to Phil. 2:5-11. I read the Greek from Phil. 2:5-6a and asked what sense was Paul supposedly making to his Philippian converts if he expected them to “have this attitude among yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus [Phil 2:5]” if Jesus used to be an archangel and, one day, decided to become a human? “How in the world,” I asked, “were Paul’s converts to imitate that attitude?”

Carrier responded to my question gracefully, but in a way which only proved my point of how Phil. 2:5-11 is to properly to be interpreted. Carrier admitted that Paul didn’t expect his audience to imitate Jesus becoming incarnate from an archangel, citing instead examples from Jesus’ human life which could realistically be modeled for Christian behavior. In sum, Carrier confusingly said that Paul argues in Phil. 2:5-11 that although Jesus was formerly an archangel, he does not expect his readers to “have this attitude among yourselves [Phil 2:5],” thus indicating that Paul commands something for his converts to do which he believes is impossible.

I grabbed the mic and asked Evans if he would mind responding. He told me rather casually that, “Well, I think he [Carrier] hit the nail right on the head.”

I rest my case.

 

I also wanted to share something funny which one of my students (Nathan) told me. During the scheduled break in the middle of the debate, Nathan was washing his hands in the bathroom and Carrier was washing his hands in the sink next to him. Nathan noted how short Carrier was and almost told him, “You are about the same height that the historical Jesus was – 5 foot 7!” But he didn’t. He told me afterwards and I laughed with him.

I still feel that the arguments for Jesus’ existence are strong and that Christianity is actually more different from the local cults of its times rather than being similar to them.

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Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Preserve a Better Version of 1 Samuel?

One of the most significant discoveries in the cache of texts discovered in the caves near the Qumran settlement is the scroll containing 1 Samuel. This scroll, which is several centuries older than the oldest 1 Samuel texts scholars possessed prior to the DSS discovery, contains a noteworthy passage at the end of chapter ten. Most modern translations, which are based off of the Masoretic text, reads as follows:

(10:27) But certain worthless men said, “How can this one deliver us?” And they despised him and did not bring him any present. But he kept silent. (11:1) Now Nahash the Ammonite came up and besieged Jabesh-gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a covenant with us and we will serve you.”

However, the scroll in the DSS which records 1 Samuel adds the italicized text as follows:

But certain worthless men said, “How can this one deliver us?” And they despised him and did not bring him any present. But he kept silent.   Now Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had been grievously oppressing the Gadites and the Reubenites. He would gouge out the right eye of each of them and would not grant Israel a deliverer. No one was left of the Israelites across the Jordan whose right eye Nahash, king of the Ammonites, had not gouged out. But there were seven thousand men who had escaped from the Ammonites and had entered Jabesh-gilead.   Now Nahash the Ammonite came up and besieged Jabesh-gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a covenant with us and we will serve you.”

As you can see, there is a section between what we call 1 Sam, 10:27 and 11:1 which was preserved in the DSS which was unknown to the Masorites. This small passage, known as 4QS1, seems to be the appropriate transition between the end of 1 Sam. 10 and the beginning of 1 Sam. 11.

What is even more interesting is that Josephus seems to be aware of this passage when he recounts the Antiquities of the Jews (6:68-71). The text is, however, absent from the LXX, which itself was forced to add the words “about a month later” in order to smooth over the rough transition between 1 Sam. 10:27 and 11:1.

Thus far (correct me if I am mistaken) it seems that the only translation which has included the lost passage into the main body of Scriptural text is the NRSV. Others have moved it to a footnote (Holman, TNIV, JPS, NLT).

DSS 4QSambHow have scholars of 1 Samuel addressed this issue? Ralph W. Klein, in his contribution to the Word Biblical Commentary includes the passage and views it as a restoration of the original text (p. 103). In the New Interpreter’s Bible, Bruce C. Birch offers commentary on the passage as if it was a legitimate as the rest of 1 Samuel’s text (pp. 1053-4). He also points out that the NIV has chosen not to include it in their translation.

My question is this: if the DSS have truly preserved a passage of 1 Samuel which was accidentally lost before the Masorites composed their text, should modern translations start including it?

 

 

Review of Bart Ehrman’s book ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 11 – burial of Jesus)

down-from-crossIn this segment of my ongoing interaction with ‘How Jesus Became God’ I want to spend a moment responding to Ehrman’s suggestion that it is historically unlikely that the Romans (particularly Pilate) would have given Jesus’ corpse to his followers. He argues instead that the body would have been eaten by wild dogs or other animals. Ehrman devotes ten pages on his reconstruction of what he thinks likely happened to Jesus. He summarizes this section as follows:

In sum, the common Roman practice was to allow the bodies of crucified people to decompose on the cross and be attacked by scavengers as part of the disincentive for crime. I have not run across any contrary indications in any ancient source. (160)

I would like to take this opportunity to argue from nonbiblical sources that it is certainly plausible to suggest that Pilate, as a Roman, would have made an exception for the Jewish burial custom during the Passover, especially if the burial of the supposed political revolutionary Jesus would decrease the likelihood of a violent response on the part of his followers. My first witness whom I wish to call to the stand is Josephus, who indicates that the Romans were certainly sympathetic to Jewish customs:

We, on the contrary, owe our position in the city of Alexander, our privileges were extended by the kings, and those privileges the Romans have pleased to safeguard for all time. Apion has consequently attempted to denounce us on the ground that we do not erect statues of the emperors. As if they were ignorant of the fact or needed Apion to defend them! He should rather have admired the magnanimity and moderation of the Romans in not requiring their subjects to violate their national laws. -Against Apion 2:72-3 (Loeb translation)

The Romans, knowing the persistent stubbornness of many Jews during the first century to honor their ancestral traditions, made exceptions for them, as Josephus recounts. A similar exception is recorded by Philo of Alexandria, specifically in regard to Pilate:

[The Jews] entreated [Pilate] to alter and to rectify the innovation which he had committed in respect of the shields; and, which had hitherto been preserved without any interruption, without being in the least degree changed by any king of emperor. -Embassy to Gaius 300 (Yonge translation)

As we can see, there are first century texts which indeed speak of Roman tendencies to make exceptions for the Jews in regard to their ancestral customs. I therefore argue that it is certainly plausible, from a historian’s perspective, that Pilate would allow a council member like Joseph of Arimathea to take the body of Jesus in order to perform a proper Jewish burial. Ehrman’s skepticism seems ill founded on this subject at least.

John 3:16 is not as simplistic as we might have thought…

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John 3:16 says, …whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (i.e. the life of the age to come).

It sounds as if you only have to believe in Jesus to attain eternal life. This assertion suggests that not even an understanding of the death and resurrection is essential to salvation.

The problem comes with the Greek verb pisteuo, which gets translated almost every time as “believe.” The verb actually carried with it the combined commitment involving trust, loyalty, and obedience. These three ingredients are absolutely crucial to both understanding the meaning of pisteuo and recognizing the standards which Jesus expect of his followers. The same can be said of the noun pistis.

Consider the parallel from Josephus, who describes an incident where he encountered a rival political revolutionary and attempted to persuade him to give up his fight:  “I was not a stranger to that treacherous design he had against me, nor was I ignorant by whom he was sent for; that, however, I would forgive him what he had done already, if he would repent of it, and be faithful to me hereafter (εἰ μέλλοι μετανοήσειν καὶ πιστὸς ἐμοὶ γενήσεσθαι)” (Life 1:110). The act of becoming faithful to Josephus clearly involved a turning away from one’s former manner of life, submitting to Josephus as the new leader, following him, and obeying his commands.

The understanding that “belief” encompasses trust, loyalty, and obedience can be observed in John 3:36, where one can either “believe in Jesus” or disobey him.

Obedience to Jesus means adhering to his commands. The first command of Jesus, according to Mark 1:14-15, is to repent and believe in the gospel of the kingdom. Therefore, one cannot believe in Jesus without believing in his gospel, which is defined as the message about the coming kingdom of God, a kingdom to be consummated upon the earth at his return.