CS Lewis once wrote that it is always worth studying good philosophy, if only because there is so much bad philosophy about. Much the same could be said of history. Misguided understanding of history can feed misunderstanding and conflict in the world, and lead us into terrible ignorance and dangerous ideologies that will do us no good. I thought I would start this blog in order to create a place where I could share a little bit of common sense, current scholarship, and critical thinking about some of the subjects where misguided historical claims on the internet spread confusion and ignorance. I hope to be of some assistance replying to some of these claims.
For my first subject, I thought I’d take up a theme that I found cropping up with some frequencies on Yahoo! Answers and which turns out to have a number of websites dedicated to it.
Did Jesus of Nazareth really exist? That is, was there any such historical person as the man described in the gospels of the Christian New Testament?
The question does not involve any of the religious claims about Jesus of Nazareth – that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, that he was resurrected, etc. I do not intend to take up any of these theological questions. I only want to address the historical question: was there such a human being?
For examples of the kinds of arguments I intend to refute, here is a list of “no-historical-Jesus” links:
THE GENETIC FALLACY
One issue that is important to get out of the way is the issue of bias. Many people have heard that the bias of an author affects their reliability. This is true. However, it is not so simple as that.
Suppose that someone wrote a memoir about their late, beloved mother, telling stories about their mother from their childhood. Does such a person have a bias? They certainly do. They love their mother and want to cherish her memory.
Does this bias make the memoir unreliable? In some ways, yes. Affection for their subject may cause the writer to pass over some unflattering stories in silence. It may cause them to interpret something the mother did or said in the most positive possible way. It may even cause them to embroider the stories with details that didn’t actually happen.
But does it mean that the stories are completely false and fictional? Normally, no. The stories will be colored and “shaped” by the memoirist’s affection, but they will not normally have been made up from whole cloth. And, indeed, it would hardly mean that no such person as the mother ever existed! “This person loved their mother: therefore their account of their mother is biased, and unreliable: therefore it can’t be used as evidence: therefore the mother did not exist.”
This is precisely the circular, fallacious reasoning that is used to discount the use of early Christian writings (the gospels) as historical evidence. The writers of the gospels were Christians: therefore they were biased in favor of Christianity: bias makes their accounts unreliable, so we must discard them as evidence; therefore the person described in those accounts did not exist.
The obvious, common-sense problem with such an approach is that in order for the bias to have emerged in the first place, something needs to exist that the person is biased towards (or against). There needs to have been a mother for our memoir writer to be biased by love for her; there must have been a Jesus for gospel writers to have been biased toward saying he was religiously significant.
When interpreting a text, the historian must always consider how the author’s biases have affected it. So much is clear. But that does not warrant the complete exclusion of a text from consideration.
The “genetic fallacy” is an accepted rule of logical thought. It holds that to discount a proposition on account of the person who articulates the proposition is a fallacy. Rather, the truth or falsehood of the proposition must be judged on its own merits. A smart person can make a mistake and an idiot can speak the truth sometimes.