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Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists Paperback – November 12, 2015
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About the Author
Raphael Lataster is a professionally secular PhD researcher at the University of Sydney (Studies in Religion) and teaches on religion at various institutions. His main research interests include Philosophy of Religion, Christian origins, logic, Bayesian reasoning, sustainability, and alternative god-concepts such as pantheism and pandeism. He is also an avid rock climber, and is an officially ordained Dudeist priest. Raphael wrote his Master’s thesis on Jesus ahistoricity theories, concluding that historical and Bayesian reasoning justifies a sceptical attitude towards the ‘Historical Jesus’. For his doctoral work, Raphael is analysing the major philosophical arguments for God’s existence (as argued by William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne and Thomas Aquinas), attempts to demonstrate the logical improbability of theism, explores the theological tendencies of Philosophy of Religion, and considers the plausibility of pantheistic worldviews. Being passionate about education, Raphael hopes to continue teaching in Religious Studies and Philosophy, and makes every effort to engage with the public, through popular books, speaking engagements, and public debates.
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In Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate among Atheists, scholar Raphael Lataster assesses the arguments for and against the proposition that Jesus did not exist. The title is somewhat misleading if read as a statement of Lataster’s conclusions. In fact, the title should be thought of more as a theory to be considered and weighed. Lataster from the outset makes clear that his own position is Historical Jesus agnosticism, though he leans toward non-existence.
Lataster describes this work as a “meta-review,” meaning that he will assess the “work of scholars such as Ehrman, Casey, Carrier, and also myself.” Lataster’s selection of authors is based on their scholarly credentials, including having published related peer reviewed articles and books. In the case of Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey, Lastaster finds that they are the only scholars in recent times to directly address the question of Jesus historicity, with a positive conclusion (that Jesus certainly existed). He points out that most scholars who have published on the question of the Historical Jesus assume the existence of Jesus rather than engage in a full-fledged discussion of the source material that can establish Jesus in history. While many books in the popular press have advocated for the Jesus mythicist position, Lataster’s meta-review focuses on Richard Carrier as the only mythicist work (On the Historicity of Jesus) published by an academic press. Lataster feels he is comparing the best positions on the proposition presented to date on each side.
Lataster identifies several logical weaknesses in the historicist case. For example, he finds that both Ehrman and Casey rely heavily on hypothetical documents or records that are not known with certainty ever existed. In fact, there is no certain reference to these hypothetical documents in the ancient record, yet they figure prominently in historicist theories as presented by Ehrman and Casey. The hypothetical sources include the theoretical Q, oral tradition, and a spate of other pre-Gospel sources. Alternative theories exist to all of these hypothetical sources. For example, prominent New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre holds that there is no need to appeal to the hypothetical Q as a source for common material in Matthew and Luke. Many non-mythicist scholars have demonstrated that many, if not all, the Gospel stories are based on Old Testament retellings rather than on oral tradition. Neither Ehrman nor Casey consider these alternative theories or weight them against their own, often unexamined, assumptions.
Lataster points out that both Ehrman and Casey dismiss much of the material often appealed to in defense of Jesus historicism. Ehrman notes that all the non-Christian first and second century references to Jesus cannot establish the existence of Jesus because they might themselves be reliant on Christian sources. Casey, according to Lataster, spends little time even discussing non-Christian sources. The main sources for both scholars tend to be canonical New Testament and non-existent hypothetical documents.
Lataster describes Casey’s attempts to defend historicity as sometimes “bizarre.” For example, Casey argues for a fringe dating of the Gospel of Mark to 40CE but in his argument for that date identifies a range from 39CE to 70CE and does not justify reliance on the earlier timeframe. This is important because according to Casey, the Gospels pre-date Paul, thus justifying a method that assumes Paul knew the Gospel story. However, if the Gospel of Mark dates to 70CE, rather than 40CE, the case for pre-Pauline Mark evaporates.
Also, according to Lataster, Casey often generalizes a mythicist case from the weakest mythicist arguments rather than dealing head on with strongest cases. For example, he quotes Casey stating, “mythicists try to date the Gospels as late as possible.” This is true for some mythicists (Casey cites Archaya S), certainly, but not true of the most prominently known defenders of the theory. For example, Earl Doherty, author of Jesus: Neither God nor Man, who Carrier credits with the articulating the most defensible mythicist position, relies mostly on standard dating of the Gospels.
After dealing with the two most prominent scholarly treatments of the Jesus historicity question, Lataster turns to Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Christ. In my opinion, Lataster is much more kind to Carrier than to the historicists. That could be possible bias or it could be due to Carrier’s more respectable approach. One thing I would say is that Lataster often slips into derogatory language (referring to “imaginary sources” or “bizarre” logic) when dealing with Ehrman and Casey, but not so in his treatment of Carrier’s work which has a much more respectful tone. On the other hand, it could just be that Carrier earned that level of respect. For my part, I would prefer that the derogatory comments be left out.
Ok, final analysis. You should buy this book if you are interested in:
- a discussion of methodology as it relates to the question of the existence of the historical Jesus;
-a critique of three recent scholarly treatments of this question;
-Lataster’s own application of Bayesian analysis.
You should not buy this book if you want:
-new evidence (there isn’t any new evidence)
-a completely fresh approach (Lataster is clear that this is a review of published work and that some might find it derivative).
Lataster’s Jesus Did Not Exist is an important contribution to the literature on the historical Jesus. First, Lataster clearly identifies the Achilles heel in the strongest arguments for the Historical Jesus: reliance on hypothetical sources. Second, Lataster fairly evaluates Carrier’s application of Bayesian analysis to the question of the actual Jesus in history, even pointing to where historicists are most likely to find weaknesses. Finally, He is the first scholar that I am aware of to replicate Carrier’s proposed methodology, coming to mostly the same conclusion that Carrier did. That application of the same methodology resulted in similar results is critical to moving forward in the field. In the past, Historical Jesus scholars have reached wildly disparate conclusions while applying the same methodologies, an indication of the weakness of the methods. One can be skeptical of how Lataster applied the methods, but until a credible historicist scholar attempts to utilize the same tools and reaches a different conclusion, we have to say that right now it is 2 to 0 for mythicism (or really, agnosticism).