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Serious Problems from the “Reliable History” view of Christian Origins

July 13, 2013

“Christianity as historically unique (and fact-based)” views hold keys to serious psychological and political problems…. Read on.

The just-prior post entitled “Are Christian Beliefs Uniquely Grounded in History?” is basically part one of a two-part article, continued here.  

There I have introduced a common claim of traditional Christians and shown some of the problems with it.  It should here be summarized that Christianity is indeed more tied to historical events, and/or the writing of events as though historical, than are other major religions.  The accuracy of seemingly historical claims (whether or not the original readers took them as such) began to be seriously questioned in the 1700s by sincere Christians themselves, not to discredit Christianity but to understand the Bible and its setting in more depth.  This was combined with the desire to honor the data emerging from increasingly sophisticated science with its expanded perspectives, plus the study of history and religion (all these developments having roots 200-300 years earlier — change in religious beliefs moves ever-so-slowly).  Now to pick up where we left off:

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea...

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea Province that I created using Illustrator CS2. I traced this image for the general geographic features. I then manually input data from maps found in a couple of sources. Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco: 1998. p. xxiv. Michael Grant. Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1977. p. 65-67. John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew. Doubleday: 1991. p. 1:434. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The claim that the New Testament presents us with accounts that can be relied on as historically accurate is indeed a core element of the linked chain of dogmas which even the majority of  today’s American Christians believe:

  • The physical resurrection and ascension of Jesus to heaven.
  • Jesus’ “could-be-today” bodily return (either via a “rapture” catching up believers prior to the “Great Tribulation” and “Millennial Kingdom” or after such periods – so not actually “today” in the latter view).
  • In this return Jesus will supernaturally fight and win the massive, bloody Battle of Armageddon and judge the nations. (But note the natural antecedents expected powerfully influence Evangelicals’ international policy views, lobbying pressures, voting, etc.; perhaps their willingness to accept Israeli-Arab war [or some combination with Iran, Russia, etc.] as inevitable and thus happen unopposed or only lightly opposed by them.)
  • We need to believe in Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice in order to be “saved,” etc. (This causes great anxiety for many sensitive believers and unbelievers understandably confused about their status.)

There is some variation on these beliefs among traditional Christians but this abbreviated outline fits a giant group of tens of millions, if not the majority of Christians in America.

Just in quick outline, here are just some of the additional major problems with the “historical foundations of Christian beliefs” view which is often thought to demonstrate Christianity’s uniqueness and veracity, its being a belief-system that is based on reasonable evidence that anyone can review (via reading the New Testament primarily, with the commonly-added aspect of the Holy Spirit needing to draw the reader to faith):

  • A reading of the Gospels without bringing in assumptions from things heard already (almost impossible for even unbelieving Westerners) immediately shows an agenda of presenting a “case” (theologically); the literature tells a particular story rather than an account meant to be accurate “reporting” within hours, days or even months of the time of events (a concept not really present in that time).  This does not mean many historical and geographical references and such are not valid–many are! (As they often are in an historical novel.)
  • But even upon first “publication” (little like print-age publishing and at least 30-35 years and more likely 40+ years after the events), important specifics could not have been historically verified at all easily by any typical hearer of a gospel. (Very, very few would have had both literacy and access to read a scarce hand-written copy and most locations had less than our current four gospels until many decades later).  After the 66-70 C.E. Roman war and destruction of Jerusalem, forget even trying to reconstruct or validate events from around 4o years prior, especially in and around Jerusalem where the core of the Jesus story takes place!
  • The strong consensus of biblical scholars is that none of Jesus’ direct followers wrote any of our New Testament (NT) with the possible exception (to some) of a few books by John and one by James (which says very little about Jesus or what to believe about him). I and II Peter are almost certainly by a different, likely later author.  This leaves us without the direct accounts of eyewitnesses unless one accepts the idea of Mark or other Gospel writers getting their stories directly from an original disciple…. The evidence for this is thin indeed, though “traditional.”  In other words, to build a case, as so many do, around “eyewitness accounts” is seriously dubious in itself, besides the many subsequent problems within the texts themselves.
  • As touched on above, there is no way to know in any detail, from the NT or elsewhere, what religious beliefs were the direct result of  whatever kind of “resurrection” experiences Jesus’ disciples had. (It is clear they had some kind.)  What is clear is that they did not take on many of the concepts of Paul and didn’t even seem to know much about what he did believe and teach, being mostly well separated geographically.
  • In other words, whatever was to be made, even according to the NT documents, of the claimed Resurrection was a matter of gradual interpretation over time.  There was no widely-agreed-upon faith “deposited” by either Jesus or the Holy Spirit to the Apostles (11 of the original 12 plus Paul, who claimed repeated direct revelations and not to present a rehash of Jerusalem beliefs – repeatedly!).  This lack of unity or coherence is important as much of the “received” view of early Christianity orients around a false, idealized image about this.

Supporting this, we see that the Jews of Jerusalem seem to have responded as would be expected to a possible human Messiah (the ancient Jewish concept), potentially to return soon.  This as opposed to responding to what seems to be the later-superimposed NT scenario of a widely known-about public miracle — a supernatural resurrection with massive attendant divine signs at Jesus’ crucifixion (something like a 7-8 point earthquake, with tombs opened and “saints” resurrected, 3 hours of mid-day darkness, the temple veil–inched thick–torn top to bottom, etc.) .  The latter scenario, and its prelude of “the Passion,” as described in the Gospels, would have had the entire one million or more Passover population of the Jerusalem area more than buzzing, both Roman occupiers and residents!  This is not the situation described in the book of Acts! And Acts itself is a polemical piece — a supposed history of the nascent Church (which history it does at least somewhat, though very selectively and “biasedly,” reflect).

In other words, what we see described in the book of Acts (you should read or re-read it… dramatic stuff, literarily well-constructed) of the after-Jesus scene in Jerusalem does not fit well at all with the trial-crucifixion-resurrection scenario the author himself presents in Luke and the other Gospel writers present separately…. As you read Acts, run it all through this “grid.”  There are other serious issues outside Jerusalem and Israel also, but that is for discussing another time.  (Luke seems to know just what he can “get away with” according to the literary-religious-historical-legendary standards of the day and proceeds to make the most of it…. such that it still enthralls and convinces the majority of Christians to this day… astounding!)

How do you make sense of seemingly historical narration of events in the Gospels and Acts? 

Do you, like me, see major problems arising from common Christian beliefs about the historicity of many “supernatural” claims – centrally for many, that of Jesus’ bodily resurrection?

Why do you think so many (myself included, earlier) want to persuade themselves of this understanding, or maintain belief in it?   


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