Four Elephants reveal non-existence of Jesus?
(Top Posts - Distance From Belief
in christianity - 122504)

From Religion to Rationality
Address by Earl Doherty to
Atheists United Awards Banquet
(Los Angeles, September 11, 2004)


Jesus' life and death was God's revelation that our
personal salvation from sins --like torture and murder--
is to be effected by our torture and murder of the
divine emissary himself. This ultimate blood sacrifice
was prefigured in God's Old Testament revelation
about his personal will and requirements.

Much of Leviticus --the same biblical book which gives
modern fundamentalists that handy revelation about
homosexuality being an abomination-- is taken up with
directives for the practice of animal sacrifice, to create
a pleasing aroma rising from the altar of God's temple
to fill the divine nostrils, to placate and intercede with
him in one way or another.

The same book, right next to the pronouncement on
homosexuality, also contains divine directives not to
weave clothing from more than one type of material,
nor to hold back the worker's wages longer than the
evening of each working day. These days, certainty
and the timelessness of truth are apparently applied
somewhat selectively.

But there's the trouble with revelation. Not only is so
much of it irrational, in principle it's fixed. It is indeed
timeless, in that time is not allowed to move on. The
minds of those trapped within it become petrified,
creating fear of change, fear of discovery, fear of
new techniques, whether of birth control to put the
brakes on the world's destructively burgeoning popu-
lation, or medical experiment to relieve some of its

But -- what does it matter anyway? This world is only
an antechamber to a more perfect and blissful destiny.
Our bodies are inherently of no worth, except perhaps
as a testing ground. They are weighed down by evil
tendencies which cannot be improved by our own
efforts, and we need God to make any ethical judg-
ments for us. All in all, there is little point in trying to
better this temporary material existence.

Let it be said that Christians aren't the only ones to
blame for such a bizarre and debilitating philosophy
of life. Plato also espoused an outlook on the world
similar in some respects, and he had a huge influence
on subsequent thought, including that of Christianity.

Misunderstanding. The human mind, in the course of
evolution, has generally gotten it wrong. It followed a
non-rational approach to analyzing the world -- though
hopefully this was a temporary expedient. Fortunately,
that same evolution has also produced other strands
of development, and these have come increasingly to
the fore in modern times.

Those not afraid to exercise their minds in more rational
directions, who have not surrendered to a fear of the
uncertain, have come to realize that the path of religion
and revelation has been a colossal mistake, detrimental
to the human spirit and potential, and with many injurious
side effects: superstition, divisiveness from the indivi-
dual to the international scale leading to wars and perse-
cution, a stultifying of knowledge and education and the
development of human rights.

The world desperately needs a fundamental change.

We sit here today not as some eccentric or insidious
fringe element bent on undermining society, but as a
growing vanguard of the future. The atheist does not
have all the answers, but we know we are on a brighter,
healthier and more promising road. We may not be
entirely sure where that road leads, but not only do
we have our eyes and our energies directed forward
instead of back, not only are we driving a modern intel-
lectual car instead of a first-century buggy, we are to
a great extent constructing the road we are traveling

The rational mind, eager to attain and hone its own wis-
dom, has so much more control over its environment,
over its own progress and achievement, than the mind
which bows its head and awaits divine guidance and
grace, fearful of everything around it, even of everything
within it.

While we may not know exactly where we are headed
--that dreaded Uncertainty which the religious mind abhors
and fears-- we are convinced that this world is all that we
have, and that we are not destined for some fantasy place
of reward or punishment after death.

Indeed, evolution is open-ended. Human beings are,
after all, the universe becoming aware of itself, a fashion-
ing of awareness for itself, through the development of
intelligent self-aware life, made not out of spirit souls which
have never been shown to exist, but out of its own material
ingredients and their behavior. This has been the inherent
course of evolution, even if undirected and unconscious.

As such, the awareness each of us carries is the aware-
ness of the universe, which will go on as long as intelligent
life continues, and thus we need not fear the death of the
individual or some dark oblivion. All of this may not be as
simple or as clear-cut as the religious outlook --reality sel-
dom is-- but we may be headed for something far more
exhilarating than the Rapture, or the Second Coming of
Jesus Christ. . . .


Now, I suppose no talk from me would seem complete
without at least a glance at the question of the non-exist-
ence of Jesus. It's an idea that's been gaining ground,
with more defensive posturing from the apologetic side
in response. Much of this debate is taking place on the
Internet, on sites like my own The Jesus Puzzle, and on
discussion boards such as the Internet Infidels.

There have been several books on the subject in recent
years, including two by myself. In my few minutes remain-
ing, I won't try to give you even a slimmed-down version
of the whole mythicist case, but let's look at it this way.

If Jesus did not exist, and the Gospel story was essen-
tially fictional or allegorical, not meant originally to repre-
sent history, what would we expect to find in the record?

I would characterize what we do encounter as a quartet
of elephants in the room, which the defenders of an his-
torical Jesus must try to ignore or work their way around.

- - -

--The First Elephant--

The first elephant in the room is the pervasive silence
on the Gospel figure and events found in all the earliest
Christian writings: the so-called genuine letters of Paul
and most other New Testament epistles, as well as non-
canonical writings from the same period.

As we progress through the second century, this elephant
takes on increasing colors of the Gospel picture, until by
the latter half of the century we finally see widespread
reference to the events and characters of the Gospel
accounts, and to their reputed authors.

In Paul and the other non-Gospel writers of the first cen-
tury, we find none of these things, only a lofty divine re-
deemer figure; and even the handful of human-sounding
descriptions of their Christ are linked to no historical time,
place or figure, and seem to be in a Platonic mythical-
world sense. He is much like the many other savior gods
of the day.

None of the ethical teachings of the Gospel ministry are
attributed to their Jesus; there is no sign that any of the
apostles of that early time were appointed by him; no one
quotes his preaching about the imminent end of the world
which they were all expecting; and references to the anti-
cipated coming of this Messiah are not to a "return".

The rational reading of such a void and later progression
is that the earliest Christian cultists who worshipped a new
divine Savior knew of no past incarnation to earth, and that
the latter was a later development.

This particular elephant is often dismissed as an invalid
argument from silence: that "absence of evidence is not
evidence of absence." Well, the best refutation I've seen
of that platitude is by Frank Zindler, who points out quite
logically that in some cases silence can indeed be evi-
dence of absence. He offers the theoretical example of
a claim that the U.S. once exploded an atomic device on
a Caribbean island.

If we were to go there today to test for the evidence of
such a detonation and found none, this would indeed be
evidence of absence, for an event of that nature could
not fail to have left behind some trace of its occurrence.

Similarly, the career of a man --let alone a god-- who
would have given rise to the detonation of Christianity
could not fail to have left behind much more evidence
than we find, which is to say virtually none at all, and
this applies to both early Christian and non-Christian

- - -

--The Second Elephant--

Our second elephant crowding the room is really the re-
verse twin of the first. It's not just that a writer like Paul
fails to provide us with any view of the Gospel story and
character, he and others give us a full and integrated pic-
ture of their faith, their object of worship, the beginnings
of their faith movement.

No recent historical figure forms a part of that picture.

Indeed, such a figure is often clearly excluded; there is
no room made for him. Instead, they tell us that all know-
ledge, even about Jesus, comes through revelation and
scripture, God is the source of the ethics and gospel they
preach, and the one who has "called" them. Jesus the
Savior is an entity who has been "revealed" in these last
times, not come to earth or lived a life. His redeeming
sacrifice is never located in historical time or place.

- - -

--The Third Elephant--

Our third elephant comes from Galilee, from the other
half of what went into the composite picture of the Gos-
pels courtesy of Mark. While Paul's Christ is represented
by the crucifixion and resurrection part of the story, the
ministry portion of the Gospel is based on the Kingdom
of God preaching movement centered in Galilee. Its
teachings and activities are embodied in the so-called
"Q" document, a collection of sayings and a few miracle
anecdotes imputed to Jesus.

Q no longer exists, but scholars have extracted it from
parts of Matthew and Luke, and it's also present in spirit
in Mark. But just as Paul makes no mention of an earthly
career for his Jesus, the scholarly reconstruction of Q
reveals a corresponding void on the other side. For what
we find missing in Q is any reference to its Jesus as the
Messiah or any kind of Savior figure, to any crucifixion or
resurrection. Nor is there a biography of Jesus included
in Q, and the few traditions about a ministry, mostly relat-
ing to miracles, are thought to belong to a later stage of
Q's development.

Considerations like these would lead one to think that
the character of the Q Jesus was imposed on the say-
ings collection later in its evolution, and that a founding
figure even in this limited area is also a fiction, symbolic
of the community itself. This invented figure, combined
in the Gospels with elements of the cultic Christ found
in Paul and the other early epistles, was the basis of the
Jesus of Nazareth we've known for two millennia.

Progressive scholars today, like those of the Jesus Sem-
inar, have seized on Q and its earliest stratum of sayings
as revealing the "genuine" Jesus. He was an enlightened
sage who taught a new ethic and had nothing to do with
all that apocalyptic nonsense or with crude miracle-work-
ing. These are later overlays, they say.

Of course, this is simply one more reworking of Jesus to
make him acceptable to the contemporary mind. But it
also closes its eyes to the fact that these so-called "gen-
uine" teachings not only lack a Jewish character, they are
suspiciously similar to those of the Greek Cynics. How
ironic that the heart of Christian ethics may well be de-
rived from a pagan source!

- - -

--The Fourth Elephant--

Our fourth and final elephant is the apparent source of
virtually all the details of the Passion story, as first con-
ceived by Mark and enlarged on by the later evangelists
-- as well as much of the content of the Galilean ministry.

All of it can be traced to stories and passages from the
Jewish scriptures, through the scribal process known as
midrash, the reworking of old material to create new
stories and lessons for the community. Scholars such as
John Dominic Crossan have acknowledged that in regard
to the tale of Jesus' trial and crucifixion, after midrash on
scripture there is nothing left that can be attributed to "his-
tory remembered."

- - -


In the face of the overwhelming presence of this elephan-
tine quartet, historical Jesus defenders are reduced

o to appealing to two passages in the Jewish historian
Josephus that are highly unreliable --even in part-- as
authentic to the original text, but are rather Christian

o to a mention by Paul of James as "the brother of the
Lord" which is ambiguous at best, since "brother" else-
where in the epistles refers to a member of the sect;


o to the plaintive claim that references in the epistles to
crucifixion and rising, as well as terms like "blood" and
"flesh", can only have an earthly historical meaning. This
ignores the entire Platonic philosophy of the time and
the workings of its two-tiered universe with spiritual and
material equivalents, something into which all the other
savior gods of the day fitted perfectly. Their saving
activities were seen not as historical, but mythical.

They say the devil is in the details, but in this case, he's
right up there in the big stuff, front-row-center with those
hulking, braying elephants.

- - -