The Dish

Book Club: Occam’s Razor And The Gospels

[Re-posted from earlier today. The whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God is here. Please email any responses to rather than the main account.]

A reader turns the conversation toward something I wrote:

You clearly do not believe in Occam’s Razor. You write that “Jesus was not the only first-century who was deemed to have a virgin birth, martyrdom and resurrection. In fact, these were quite common tropes in the Greek and Roman world at the time.” Next paragraph: “And in that astonishing vision of a Jesus fully alive after death, so much that had mystified his disciples in Jesus’ life and teachings suddenly became clear. This man truly was God.”

So you’re acknowledging that there were a fairly large number of Jesuses running around Judea at the time, all making similar claims.  But in the next breath you declare your certainty that the one you worship really was the Son of God (whatever that means) and the rest were phonies.

So which explanation is simpler, and infinitely more probable: (1) you are right, the universe is ruled by an immortal, all-powerful entity that shares attributes with some creatures living for an ungraspable brief period of time on one tiny planet among a countless number of other planets in an infinitely large universe, and who had a son that was identical to these isolated creatures, and decided to sacrifice his son to pay for the follies of these creatures, or (2) the Christian myths of the resurrected man/god, which had been around for a long time before your cult figure was born, for a variety of historical reasons, became centralized in this one figure?  The question answers itself.

Andrew, I’m sorry, but you have to see why most Christians must put on the blinders and believe in rote dogma. The whole mess otherwise falls apart so, so rapidly.

Another reader:

I’m always confused when I’ve read you write things like “Even through [the Gospels] obvious literal imperfections, a deeper perfection shines.”

I don’t really know if you mean that the Gospels don’t actually need to be literally true AT ALL – that it’s really just their deep metaphorical, spiritual meaning that matters – or if you still believe that in some areas they do have to refer to literal truths.

If it’s the first, then I could agree with that view of the Gospels – spiritual truth can be conveyed by all sorts of texts that are not literally true. But if it’s the second, then I wonder how Ehrman’s book doesn’t create a core doubt in you or in Christianity in general. Because it seems to me that it pushes the answer to the question of whether or not modernity and Christianity can co-exist towards “no”.

For example, Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected in the flesh. But we’ve learned that Jesus and the apostles lived in a world where virgin births were not unique to Jesus, and neither were people who were half-god and half-human. So I imagine that resurrection stories also existed outside of Jesus’ story. (And maybe that’s answered in a later part of the book than I’m currently in!)

A glance at the biblical record:

Nine individuals in scripture are clearly presented in the Bible as being raised from the dead. Of these miraculous resurrections, three occur in the Old Testament. At least three individuals were raised from the dead by Jesus. Both Peter and Paul raised a person from the dead and most importantly of all, Jesus himself was resurrected. In addition, an untold number of saints were resurrected at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:52-53). Also, it is incredibly possible that Paul himself was resurrected after he was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19-20).

The reader continues:

If so, why is Jesus’ resurrection any more special than any other resurrection from a different tradition? If we believe Jesus’ story, shouldn’t we believe the others’ stories? Other people in other religions had equally strong faith. And if we don’t believe the other stories, why believe Jesus’? Couldn’t the apostles have been hallucinating, under some form of mass delusion? What makes Jesus’ story so special that you must believe it is true when others aren’t?

For me, Ehrman’s book bolsters the argument that the answer is that it’s not special. It shows that the Gospels are, as you say, messy, inaccurate, internally conflicted, human. They took from and paralleled other traditions of the time. Like many other religious stories, the story of Jesus is a universal spiritual quest filtered through the particular individual, cultural and historical conditions in which it existed. It’s not really special in the way that I think Christianity requires.  So, without that specialness, how DOES Christianity survive?

Another wants clarification:

“Does this book effectively debunk Christianity’s core claims in modernity … or does it point to a new way of understanding and believing them?” Of course the answer to your question depends on what exactly the “core claims” of Christianity are.

If the core claim is that Christ is the Son, co-equal with the Father for all eternity – or similar “high” Christological claims – I do think this book and books like it erect additional barriers to that belief, by shedding light on how they came to be formulated and exposing the gulf between them and the beliefs of the earliest Christians.  It’s very hard to believe that powerful men with very specific interests, writing hundreds of years after Jesus, would have more accurately grasped his nature then men and women closer to his own station, who had learned of him from his own disciples and others that knew him.

If the core claim of Christianity, on the other hand, is that Christ was in some sense God – for example, that Christ represented the extent to which a fully human life could be infused with the power and purpose of God – and that, furthermore, the manner in which he was God allowed him to conquer death and sin, the book does not impact this belief much one way or the other.

The challenge for every Christian is to understand how Jesus, fully human, was nonetheless God; and thereby to understand how we, fully human, can participate in God’s kingdom.  A critical, historical reading of the gospels is an aid in this effort, not an impediment.  If anything, the high Christologies of later years are the impediment, obscuring as they do the real, full extent of Jesus’ humanity, and thus relieving from us the burden of Christ’s greatest challenge to us – to live like him, and through doing so, to act out God’s kingdom in our own lives.

Update: My response to these arguments here.