Thursday, June 02, 2011

The humanistic Jesus

If you can't trust what the New Testament says when it says Jesus rose from the dead, can we nevertheless trust the New Testament when it teaches that Jesus told people to turn the other cheek? It's the same book.

20 comments:

Walter said...

A secular humanist would not care whether Jesus actually said it or not. The ideas would resonate with the humanist even if the words were the invention of a pious fraud.

BeingItself said...

What Walter said.

It does not matter. We have a confused ancient book which tells a contradictory tall tale about a character named Jesus. The character had some good things to say and some bad things to say. Whether or not the character was a real person does not matter either.

The ideas stand or fall on their own.

Anonymous said...

Whether or not the character was a real person does not matter either.

Sure it does. For instance, denying the character was a real person in the face of much evidence to the contrary could expose someone as kinda adorably nuts. ;)

Hiero5ant said...

What an utterly bizarre thing to say.

"waitaminute... foxes don't even EAT grapes!"

In other news, if Hitler says the sky is blue, that doesn't make it not blue.

___________________________ said...

Why not? Some statements within a text can be more reliable than others. So, if one statement disagrees with our background knowledge, we might consider it false, but if another statement does not, we might feel perfectly fine accepting it as true.

I don't see the problem you are getting at as a real problem. I mean, just in everyday life we deal with situations where we do the same, as few sources of information are so inerrant that we don't pick and choose on some level.

Victor Reppert said...

Let's put it this way. If we decide that the New Testament makes a lot of false supernatural claims, what then happens to the credibility of the non-supernatural claims?

Edward T. Babinski said...

It's the same book? It's actually a collection of sayings and stories, and no two Gospels are exactly the same.

Neither do you have to "trust" that it makes sense to love people rather than hate them. Try hating everybody and try loving everybody and see how each of those works out for you, and how you yourself feel.

Hiero5ant said...

The collection of books by dozens of authors, mostly anonymous and not writing with unity of purpose, contains many false supernatural claims, many false non-supernatural claims, and many false moral claims.

But it's not as though the gospels are our only source of authority for claims like "try not to always seek violent revenge for every pecadillo".

What does it even mean to say that the fact that there never was a Roman census of the kind described "casts doubt on" whether it's a good idea not to reflexively retaliate against coworkers who spread malicious gossip against you?

Victor Reppert said...

What is casts doubt on is the claim that Jesus said that.

Walter said...

What is casts doubt on is the claim that Jesus said that.

I imagine that most skeptics do indeed doubt that Jesus said many of the things attributed to him in the bible.

Ana said...

"I imagine that most skeptics do indeed doubt that Jesus said many of the things attributed to him in the bible."

I wonder if they doubt whether Jesus actually said:

"Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
(Matt 16:28)

Or if for a verse like that -- given skeptics' favorite interpretation of its meaning -- they have no problem agreeing that Jesus said it.

Walter said...

Or if for a verse like that -- given skeptics' favorite interpretation of its meaning -- they have no problem agreeing that Jesus said it.

It depends on the skeptic. A Jesus-Mythicist would say that all of the sayings are pious fiction. I tend to believe that a real human being lies at the core of the gospel stories, and that some of the sayings of Jesus are more probable than other sayings. For instance, I would consider many of the catchy, short aphorisms and parables uttered by Jesus in the synoptic gospels to be the kind of sayings that people would most likely commit to memory and pass on via oral tradition, in contrast to the lengthy theological discourses placed on Jesus' lips by the author of the Fourth Gospel.

JS Allen said...

Obviously, we pick out the statements that we agree with, and say "Jesus said it" in order to get other people to agree with us. The other stuff goes straight under the rug.

I'm pretty sure there is a verse that says you aren't supposed to point out the hypocrisy of people who quote the Bible.

Anonymous said...

what about Herodotus? We often have grounds for trusting some of what an ancient text says without accepting all of it.

Of course no one should accept any moral precept merely on authority. It has to resonate with the conscience (otherwize all sorts of insanity breaks loose)

That's not to say the supernatural claims are false--but if one had a good argument (e.g. if Hume were right on miracles, or maybe some Jesus Seminar stuff were sound), then one can legitimately discount some of a text without discounting all of it.

Hiero5ant said...

Herodotus is a good example of the asymmetry between the ordinary and the extraordinary. I've heard it said that if the numbers he gives for the size of the Persian army were correct, then if they were walking 5 abreast the head of the column could be arriving in New York when the tail was still in Detroit.

But we have a very good model for how a true account of a Very Big Army invading could accrete fantastic details like this. Whereas it is extremely unlikely that a story would begin with the fantastic number, and then accrete mundane details such as the point of crossing from Asia Minor. There is a credibility asymmetry.

Note also that this example very clearly does not rely on "the dogmatic assumption of metaphysical naturalism". It is simply easier in our experience to explain how a ship may have grown barnacles than to explain how barnacles grew a ship.

My extremely nonexpert "for what it's worth" best guess is the Cynic-sage model for the historical Jesus, specifically because so much of the red-letter ethical content of Jesus is so similar to the teachings of other Cynics and Stoics in the Greco-Roman world. It is much easier to imagine how stories of such a person, who bumped up against the authorities in the wrong way, could accrete fantastical elements during the century it took to write the stories down, than it is to imagine that the stories were conscious fabrications from the whole cloth, with each element of falsehood casting equal doubt on all the others.

Boz said...

"If you can't trust what the New Testament says when it says Jesus rose from the dead, can we nevertheless trust the New Testament when it teaches that Jesus told people to turn the other cheek? It's the same book."

The prior probabilities of these two claims are extremely different.

Victor Reppert said...

That might depend on whose priors.

Papalinton said...

And depends on what you wish to believe.

IlĂ­on said...

"If you can't trust what the New Testament says when it says Jesus rose from the dead, can we nevertheless trust the New Testament when it teaches that Jesus told people to turn the other cheek? It's the same book."

Or, to paraphrase Lewis' famous (and famously misrepresented) "trilemma" -- "this is the only Jesus on offer -- take him, or leave him, but do cease your silly patronizing blather about him being 'a good humane/ethical teacher'."

Victor Reppert said...

It is popular to disconnect the plausibility of naturalistically acceptable claims made by the New Testament writers from those involving a supernatural commitment. This kind of an issue has come up before, when people have argued that no amount of accuracy on the part of the New Testament writers in recording mundane matter (such as we find in the Book of Acts), provides any evidence that the supernatural claims are also true.

First, it is interesting that some of you who are very eager to affirm the unity of the New Testament when you are arguing against the claim that the New Testament provides independent, or even partially independent strands of evidence for the claims of the New Testament, seem to want to argue that the New Testament is a diverse source when arguing that maybe we can accept the non-supernaturally involved claims while rejecting any element of the supernatural.

First, accurate reporting is a habit of mind. Even in mundane matters, you have people who take varying degrees of effort to get things right. If we conclude that a good deal of what our sources have to say is false, then that reflects poorly on everything they have to say, in much the way that evidence that a witness in a court case is untruthful about one thing can damage their credibility in other matters.

Admittedly, there are differences amongst the scenarios which conclude that the miracle claims are false. On some views, the writers experienced what they said they experienced, but were wrong about the causes of what they experienced. Hallucination theories of the Resurrection fit into this category. If the disciples hallucinated the risen Jesus, then they were "appeared to Jesus-ly," but were mistaken in supposing that the real risen Jesus was the cause of their being so appeared to. Or,t they might have seen lepers walking away from Jesus apparently cleansed, when the cause of this recovery was psychosomatic rather than divinely caused.

But other views treat the claims to be pretty much made up out of the whole cloth. If the New Testament contains a lot of material that was just made up, then it seems to me it would then be hard to credit passages that say Jesus taught that you should turn the other cheek.

I think the Gospels record actions on the part of Jesus that are mostly connected to his supernatural claims in one way or the other. Telling someone their sins are forgiven isn't directly supernatural, but if we accept it, we give ourselves the problem of figuring out how someone could believe that he had the prerogative to do so. Even Jesus's manner of teaching is a little odd from a naturalistic standpoint, in that you have a Jew who speaks on his own authority and even puts his own words (But I say unto you...)
in the place of the Law of Moses.

Now, you can argue, of course, that there are some good moral ideas that you can take from the New Testament even if Jesus didn't do or say much of anything he is supposed to have said. That's a different issue. I think something stronger can be claimed here; I believe that there is an ethical mind behind the Gospels that possessed true moral greatness, and that that is something that would have to be explained by any naturalistic theory. But that is a subject for another time.

But what I do maintain is that an easy separation between the naturalistic and the non-naturalistic is going to end up being a whole lot harder than it looks to carry off. It is indeed what the Trilemma argument is driving it.