This is the latest post in a series about Bertrand Russell's essay Why I am not a Christian, in which I run through his various arguments and show that for the most part (there are a few exceptions) they either don't apply to classical theism, or they don't apply to any form of theism. The first part of Russell's essay discussed the existence of God; the second part the moral character and wisdom of Jesus. In this post, I discuss the second section of his discussion of Jesus' character.
Writing at the height of liberal Christianity, and as an outsider, Russell was reluctant to demand that Christianity was based on the view of Jesus as the unique incarnation of God; the word of God made flesh and setting up his tent among us. He instead restricted himself to saying that a Christian should believe that Jesus was a uniquely wise and uniquely good man. He discussed each of these in a section; and in this post I will discuss his comments on Jesus' wisdom. His aim is to find statements by Jesus (as recorded in the gospels) which were, to his eye, blatantly incorrect, and conclude from these that Jesus wasn't especially wise. His focus was on the statements concerning Jesus' second coming; and in particular the claim that Jesus believed that His return would be in the lifetime of His disciples.
Before getting onto that, though, he makes a side comment about the historicity of Jesus.
Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Jesus existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one.
The idea that Jesus never existed, but was (presumably) just a figure made up by later Christians to justify their religion, was first suggested in the late nineteenth century, popular for a short while before being thoroughly debunked in the middle of the twentieth century; only to be resurrected from time to time in popular atheist literature from the 1950s onwards. The most recent attempt to resurrect the idea is here. Responses to the idea can be found here, here and here. However, most scholars, even the most sceptical ones, give the idea little credence. It simply runs too much against the evidence.
The idea that Jesus didn't exist is based on several ideas:
The Christian gospels are claimed to be late sources, well removed from the early eye witnesses. They are claimed to be largely the invention of later Christian communities, and contain little genuine historical information. This was first proposed by the German higher criticism of the nineteenth century. The higher critics accepted the principles of the enlightenment, including the arguments that miracles are impossible. They noted that the miracle stories in the gospels are inseparable from the rest of the narrative, and particularly from orthodox Christian tradition. They examined other cultures and religions, and noted that the earliest documents for those religions are usually non-miraculous, but over time the descriptions of the founders of the religion start to acquire miraculous powers and abilities. The earliest miracle stories generally start to appear 150-200 years after the events they are meant to depict. So it is with Buddhism, Islam the ancient Greek, Roman and Germanic legends, and so on. For example, the Qu'ran denies that Mohammed performed miracles -- baring the supposed miracle of the book's existence itself. There are a few miracle stories in the Hadith, the earliest of which was collected together about 200 years after Mohammed's life. Concluding that it takes a couple of centuries for miracle stories to enter the tradition, and since the earliest New Testament manuscripts known at the time were relatively late, the higher critics dated the gospels and the other New Testament writings to the late second century at the earliest. And if they were that late, they would obviously contain little information of value concerning Christianity's founder.
However, this theory was debunked, soon after it was proposed, by the discovery of early second century fragments of the gospels, and the rediscovery of the writings of other early Christian writers with clear allusions to and quotations of the new testament texts. The earliest fragments, coming from Egypt, were not generally of a good quality, and clearly copies of copies several times. This process pushes the New Testament into the first century, within the life time of the original eye-witnesses. The internal evidence pushes the texts back further. There is no evidence inconsistent with the traditional dating of the gospels; the first three between 20-40 years after Jesus' death (written as the apostles were getting older, and to preserve their testimony for posterity), and John's gospel towards the end of his life at the end of the first century. Every new discovery pushes the upper limit of the gospel composition closer to those dates. Modern liberal scholarship has thus had to try to compress the myth-making process into the span of a few decades, something which would be unparalleled. There is no valid evidence that causes us to doubt the early date or general reliability of the gospels, and thus this leg of the Christ-Myth theory fails.
It is claimed that Josephus' mention of Jesus was a late Christian interpolation into his text, and is therefore of no value.
Josephus was a Jewish historian, born shortly after Christ's death and resurrection. Following the rebellion against Verspasian and Titus, he switched sides to the Romans, and wrote several notable histories of the Jewish people. His works provide our main source of information (outside the New Testament) of first century Israel.
There are two mentions of Jesus in the standard text of Josephus' antiquities of the Jews, written towards the end of the first century. The second is a passing mention in book 20, as he starts approaching the time of the Jewish revolt that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the second temple. While describing the life of the high pries Ananus, he mentioned that the high priest arranged the execution of James, the brother of Jesus and head of the Jerusalem Church. James was well regarded as a righteous man, and this atrocity lead to the downfall of the high priest. The passage reads,
[He] brought before them the brother of Jesus called Christ, whose name was James.
This passage is almost universally regarded as being authentic.
The second, major, mention of Jesus occurs in book 18, while Josephus discussed the rule of Pontius Pilate.
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
Many people regard this passage to be wholly or partly inauthentic, for the following reasons:
- The writing style is seen as not being consistent with Josephus'.
- Josephus, as a Jew, is unlikely to make such bold statements about Jesus.
- The passage is rarely cited by early Christian writers. Several of them were familiar with Josephus' writing, and had the opportunity to cite this passage, but failed to do so. The earliest mention of this passage by a Christian writer is by the fourth century historian Eusebius of Caesarea, and most subsequent early Christian mentions of the passage were dependent in some way on Eusebius' writing. In particular Origen, in the third century, stated that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Christ.
On account of arguments such as these, it is concluded by many that the passage is most likely in full or in part an interpolation by a later Christian copyist.
So what shall we make of these arguments? I have never personally been convinced by arguments from style, unless it is really blatant. We know from general experience that while a few writers are consistent in style, most vary their literary style from place to place. Most obviously as writers age, or adapt to different readerships; but even within a single work there can be great variance between one section and the next. This is particularly manifest if the writer is alluding to or satirising some other source; but even in their normal writing there can be consistency. When we have a short sample of writing -- even several pages is not enough, certainly not a short paragraph -- we cannot be sure that a variation is genuinely suspicious or just a standard statistical fluctuation. The passage does differ from Josephus' most common writing style in a few places, but not by so much that it is outside the range of writing styles that he offers. This argument then doesn't offer much evidence at all, especially if Josephus was drawing from a source he only infrequently used for this passage.
Equally, the argument from silence is not much of an argument at all. There are many reasons why a writer might not mention this passage. Perhaps he felt that he didn't need it to make his point. Perhaps he simply forgot about it while writing that passage, or didn't have a copy of Josephus or his right set of notes to hand while writing that passage (they couldn't re-edit their works as we do today -- no printing press, computers or inexpensive and readily available paper to make notes on); or thought about it but couldn't find the passage (an experience I have had many times when searching for a half-remembered citation). An argument from absence is never strong enough to draw a conclusion.
The argument from contradiction with early sources is a little stronger. For example Origen, Ambrose and others recorded that Josephus did not regard that Jesus was the Christ. That is something easy to infer, since Josephus remained a Jew, but contradicts the standard recension of the passage. One possibility is that these writers forgot about, misinterpreted or held a corrupted copy of this passage. More plausible is that the copy we possess is corrupted, at least in that sentence.
The argument that Josephus wouldn't have said He was the Christ and other such passages is stronger. This to my mind does constitute good evidence against the authenticity of this passage, but not irrefutable evidence. If Josephus was copying from or adapting a Christian source for this information, it is quite likely that some rather bolder statements might creep in. Or perhaps he was being satirical. Or perhaps he did genuinely have some respect for what he had heard about Jesus -- his parents were, after all, of the generation that Jesus ministered to, and though they rejected Jesus' teaching, might still have retained some sense of awe about him. Josephus is not confirming the truth of Christianity in this passage; he is writing what a Jew who has some cultural memory of Jesus but rejected the religion (or tribe) founded by Jesus' disciples, or had too much inertia and fear to leave the synagogue over somebody they wondered at, but not wholeheartedly. So while it is unlikely that a devout Jew would write this passage, it is not impossible.
So what are the arguments against this passage being a later interpolation?
Firstly, while the passage is not exactly what a Jew would write, neither is it what a Christian would write. If indeed one ought to call him a man. No Christian would deny Jesus' humanity. Somebody unfamiliar with Christian doctrine, or only a superficial understanding of it might react in this way, but not a Christian scribe. Equally, a Christian would not describe Jesus as merely being a wise man; to a Christian, this description of Jesus is offensive (one wouldn't deny that Jesus was wise nor a man, but the phrase carries the connotation that He was no more than that; no different from a host of secular philosophers). No Christian would use the expression surprising deeds to describe the miracles. No Christian would use the phrasing "The tribe of Christians has not yet disappeared." And so on.
But the strongest argument in favour of the authenticity of this passage is the manuscript evidence. To understand the strength of this first of all understanding how texts were copied before the invention of printing.
Copying manuscripts was crucial in preserving them. Except in extreme climates, such as the deserts of North Africa (and even here only a handful of truly ancient manuscripts have survived), or special efforts are taken to preserve them, papyrus in particular but also parchment rots and decays on average within a few centuries. There are some outliers, and the occasional manuscript can even survive for as long as a thousand years, but hardly any beyond that. This means that, unless we get lucky in an archaeological dig in Egypt, our earliest manuscripts of classical works generally date from the tenth or eleventh century. Only if vast numbers of copies were made do we have any chance of a manuscript surviving longer than that (with the same exceptions I mentioned earlier). It is the same with Josephus. Our earliest Greek copies date from the tenth or eleventh centuries. In addition to the original language texts, we have translations (the translations were generally made early in the document history, and we have to piece together the original translation from the surviving manuscripts), and citations by other writers. These are the three main sources to uncover the original text of a document.
In the Christian period, it was primarily the monasteries who were responsible for copying ancient manuscripts. In the classical period, scribes were commissioned by the wealthy elite or by libraries. The procedure in either case was similar (I'm simplifying a bit, but not much). The scribe was asked to make a copy of a book. They would go to their nearest library, find an earlier copy (or perhaps two or three copies, but all sourced locally), and write it down word for word. The scribes were professional and well trained. They did occasionally make mistakes, but the copies were for the most part exceptionally good. They took pride in their work, and what mattered most to them was accuracy. Common mistakes were misspellings; repetition or omission of a word, line or phrase; attempts to correct an earlier obvious error, and occasionally marginal notes made in the original copy would be incorporated into the main text. Most of these errors are easy to spot and account for. Occasionally, of course, there might be a deliberate falsification of the text.
The scribes would take the copy nearest to them. This means, for example, that the document history in Caesarea would develop independently of that in Constantinople. Mistakes would be copied from one generation of the manuscript history to the next; but only in the direct descendants of the originally corrupted version. The other branches of the tree of manuscripts would be unaffected.
A simple mistake, a common spelling variation for example, or the omission or insertion of a single word or simple clause, might well occur in several manuscripts independently. However, anything more complex than that, for example the addition of a coherent sentence or paragraph which significantly alters the meaning of the text is most unlikely to independently enter into two different manuscripts. Manuscripts would share the change only if one was copied from the other (perhaps via several intermediaries), or both were copied from a common source or by the same hand.
For example, suppose that we have an original text authored in Rome. Two direct copies of this text are shipped elsewhere: one goes to Spain, the other to Constantinople. We thus have three branches of the manuscript family. Scribes in Spain would copy the Spanish version, make copies of those copies, and so on. Similarly, there would be independent Roman and Greek versions of the manuscript. Now suppose that some unscrupulous Greek wanted to insert a new passage while making a copy of his manuscript. He would alter his copy, and all descended from it. But there would be other Greek manuscripts without the change, and the manuscript history in Rome and Spain would be completely unaffected. Now fast-forward to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when people started collecting ancient manuscripts. A handful of manuscripts would survive from Greece (some early, others later), a handful more from Rome, and some more from Spain. When those scholars compare the manuscripts, they would find that the Greek family would be split between those which contained the change and those that didn't, while none of the Roman or Spanish manuscripts contained it. They would conclude that the common ancestor of all three families (which in this case is the original copy, although that would be almost impossible to prove) didn't have the change. If they had enough manuscripts, they might be able to point out the very individual who did the dirty deed. But every part of the manuscripts which the three families had in common could be traced back with great confidence to their common ancestor. In this idealised situation (reality is, of course, always a bit messier; but not by very much) the scholars would be able to reproduce the text of that ancestor with almost perfect accuracy.
Thus to modify an entire manuscript record is an almost impossible task. It would require a major conspiracy by either an imperial edict or a demand from some other authority. Such an edict would have to be well publicised, and backed up by force: evidence for it would survive in the historical record, and even then it would almost certainly fail. Such attempts have, of course, been made: for example by the Islamic Caliph Abd al-Malik. Originally the Koran was written without vowels. The Arabs borrowed from the Persians the idea of adding dialectic marks, small sequences of dots to indicate the vowels. But different Muslim authorities used different systems of these symbols. In order to standardise the text, the Caliph declared one reading to be authentic, and ordered all other copies to be destroyed. He wasn't wholly successful -- there were still variations in the early copies of the Koran, but he attempted it. The Koran is obviously central to Islamic life; the Caliph attempted this because to allow for different versions of the text would destroy the foundation of his empire. There is no record of any similar attempt to modify the text of Josephus, nor would there be any real motivation to go to the effort.
There are a little over thirty surviving Greek (the original language) manuscripts containing book 18 of Josephus. These were found across Europe, and show no obvious family dependence. Additionally, there are several hundred Latin manuscripts, from several translations each made at an early date, and in the East a few surviving Syriac and Arabic translations. In all but one of these, the disputed passage is present, albeit with the usual minor variations one would expect. In all but that one case, no sentences or clauses are missing. The early quotations of the passage again follow the standard reading up to minor variations. The Latin translations follow the standard Greek text closely. The Syriac text follows the Greek manuscripts closely, but records the passage as "He was called the Christ," rather than "He was the Christ," which is in line with a few citations of the passage by early Christian writers (other early citations stated "He was the Christ"). The Arabic translation is the only one that differs significantly from the others. It still contains a version of the disputed passage, but with the obviously Christian elements toned down and softened.
Josephus was a well known and popular writer; among Christians obviously given the background he gave to the founding events of Christianity, but also among the pagan Romans. Those who claim that the manuscript was not authentic would usually date the insertion of this passage to the third century, between Origen's lack of mention of the passage and Eusebius' mention of it. By this time there would have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of copies of Josephus' work scattered around the libraries of the wealthy nobles and schools of the Roman Empire, not to mention in the East. Note that the argument from omission assumes that the supposedly uncorrupted text was widespread. So is it remotely credible that all the Greek manuscripts, and all the translations were descended from that single corrupted manuscript? The first rule of textual criticism is that if a passage occurs in all the manuscripts, or all the manuscripts baring one, then we can be sure that it goes back at least as far as their common ancestor, and in this case there is no reason to suspect that the common ancestor wasn't Josephus' original text, or at least one of the first copies of it.
For this reason, while the evidence against the passage's authenticity might be strong, the evidence for it is immensely stronger. If the manuscript evidence was the only consideration, or the passage was on a less contentious topic, nobody would think to question the standard Greek and Latin reading. There might be minor errors in today's received text (for example the alternative variation of "He was called the Christ" rather than "He was the Christ;" it is easier to see Christian monks independently omitting the word called than all independently deciding to the exact same sentence into the exact same place in the manuscript). The majority position among textual historians is that the text is basically sound, but partially corrupted in a few places such as this; accepting those manuscript variations (even if they are not so well attested as the standard text, relying on citations and translations even if usually these are not given the same weight as original language manuscripts) which would make it particularly unpalatable to its Jewish author. But the basic core of the text is unquestionably authentic.
The third primary source of the first temple period in Israel is the Jewish Talmud. Although written down early in the third century, it was originally based on traditions, commentaries and disputations from the time before the destruction of the temple. It also mentions Jesus, admittedly not in complementary terms (calling him the son of a Roman and a prostitute; that his miracles were works of the devil, and so on), but that is what we would expect from a Jewish tradition very hostile to Christianity. Nowhere does it imply that the figure of Jesus was invented by later Christians.
The fourth source which is sometimes claimed for this period is the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. He lived in Egypt, and was a contemporary of Jesus. The most important of his surviving writings date from the 10s and 20s AD, before Jesus' public ministry. His later works on the whole didn't discuss events in Jerusalem. He died in the 40s, around the time (according to tradition) that Mark the evangelist first founded the church in Alexandria. So he would not have had much personal contact, if any, with Christians; and if he did it would not have been until the very last years of his life, after almost all of his surviving writings. The one exception to this was his disputation to the Emperor Caligula, where he was one of a selected group of Jews who travelled to Rome to protest the erection of a statue to the Emperor in the Jewish temple. In that address he discussed atrocities committed by Pilate (namely the erection of engraved shields in the temple grounds). Surely, it is argued, that Philo would have mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus then, as another example of Roman cruelty against the Jews?
But why should he? If Philo paid any attention to Jesus, he would have just been seen as another failed messiah and blasphemer. His execution would have been regarded as one of the few good things the Romans did. What reason would he have for bringing it up in this disputation>
And aside from the odd inscribed tombstone or monument, those four are the only sources we have of Israel in the time of Jesus. The gospels make a friendly case for Jesus, and in depth, as we would expect. Josephus is a neutral witness to Jesus, and the Talmud a hostile one. Philo doesn't mention Jesus, but there is no reason why he should.
But wouldn't a man who went around giving sight to the blind and raising the dead leave a much bigger trial than this? Well maybe He did. Perhaps Jesus was mentioned in private letters and official Roman reports, or perhaps he wasn't. We can't know because none of those documents survive. Few would have been written in the first place (given the expense and rarity of Papyrus), and those that did wouldn't have survived to our age unless they were copied. For whatever reason (perhaps destroyed in one of the sacks of the city; perhaps just left to rot on a long-forgotten shelf), the official Roman reports haven't survived to our day (unless they are preserved in a dusty and forgotten corner of the Vatican library); the temple and synagogue records, and the records of the Roman garrison, were destroyed in the Jewish revolt; and there is no reason why anybody would seek to copy and preserve your average Galilean's correspondence with his friend. Those people who were convinced by Jesus' miracles and most influenced by Him would have joined the Church, and their testimony is preserved in the New Testament and other early Christian writings. Those Jews who strongly opposed Jesus have their testimony preserved in the Talmud. And those who didn't really care one way or the other, or who thought 'He cured that blind man, that's cool,' but didn't do anything about it; no doubt they discussed what they saw over the family dinner table but wouldn't care enough to write it down in the accounts which haven't survived to our day. As for the rest of the population of the Roman world? They tried to ignore the Jews and what happened in Judea (those dirty dogs who refuse to sacrifice to the gods and the Emperor), and the Jews avoided the other Roman subjects (dirty pagan unclean idolatrous pigs). If word of Jesus spread beyond Judea and Galilee from a hostile or neutral source, it would have simply been dismissed as yet more Jewish superstition. Nothing to write home about. And if they didn't write home, how would we know what rumours they did or didn't hear?
Most commonly the mythicists take on the idea that Christianity was a syncretic religion, borrowing from different sources. No Christian would deny that the religion emerged out of second temple Judaism, but the claim is that Christians added Pagan sources to this as well. Then, some time later, the Christians felt that they needed a historical core to their religion, and so invented the figure of Jesus.
The idea that Christianity borrowed from sources other than Judaism is, however, exceptionally dubious. Firstly, similarities are only superficial. Christians call Jesus the "Son of God" and Pagans call Hercules the "Son of Zeus," but what Christians and Pagans mean by those phrases is almost the complete opposite. The various corn Gods who died and resurrected were cyclic, representing the rotation of the seasons; Jesus' resurrection was a unique event, its interpretation expanding popular Jewish belief at the time. Both Judaism and Christianity were fundamentally opposed to the idol-worshipping paganism; they despised the other religions and took efforts to keep themselves away from being tainted by them. Christian theology is based on the same premises as Judaism, which were very different from the ideas of the Greeks. If there was borrowing from the Greeks, then why didn't it influence the theology of Christianity, but only hard details of Jesus' life? Yet the alternatives proposed for the original Christian belief which was claimed to be corrupted into gospel Christianity are more similar to Greek rather than Jewish theology. The pagan myths which most closely Christianity date from after the time of Jesus, so if there was any borrowing, it was from Christianity to the pagans (as occurred with the Gnostics). So not only does this idea lack any positive evidence, it is contrary to the evidence we do have. And why would the early Christians be so ashamed of the true story of their origins (which would most certainly be preserved) that they would fell the need to invent something they knew to be fictitious?
What of the evidence for Jesus' existence? Aside from the historical evidence from the Gospels, Josephus, Tacitus and so on, the strongest evidence is the existence of Christianity itself. Christianity is obviously an offshoot of Judaism, but contains several departures from Judaism. Not only do Christians accept the Old Testament, but every aspect of Christianity has its roots in Old Testament theology. The resurrection and incarnation of Jesus are new (Jews did not expect the general resurrection at the day of judgement to be preceded by an individual example); but how they are interpreted and the impact it has on doctrine is wholly Jewish. Some explanation needs to be found for those departures. Christianity was well well enough established by 64AD in Rome that it was the object of an Imperial persecution, so it has to have originated in early first century.
Christian theology is centred around the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. No part of the religion makes sense except in the context of those. So suppose that the individual of Jesus was invented sometime relatively late in Christian history (by which I mean any time after the Church expanded beyond Jerusalem). It had to be specifically invented and i; there are two many details (Nazareth, Capernaum, Pontius Pilate, the trial before the council, and so on) for the story to have evolved dynamically. How then could the canonical story of Jesus be added to the faith without people noticing and complaining? What would this Christ-less Christianity resemble? Could Paul have invented it? No, because Paul was neither the first nor the last nor the most important of the apostles. While Paul unquestionably influenced the development and understanding of Christian theology, if he had contradicted the basic facts of the religion then he would never have been accepted in the first place, and his teachings would have been repudiated by the likes of Peter and John. It would be as though I went around claiming that Winston Churchill was a Nazi, and demanding that all history books should be re-written to reflect that "fact", all records to the contrary destroyed, and everyone went along with it without making any sort of fuss.
A core tenet of Christian belief is that our standing with God depends on our relationship with Jesus. So let us suppose that that before a certain time, Christianity was a Christ-less religion, or preached a Jesus that wasn't crucified or resurrected. Then somebody comes along and says that there was this bloke Jesus who was the son of God, crucified and resurrected, and that's what your religion has really been all about even though nobody heard of this story until now. What would the reaction be? They would at best be laughed at and mocked, and not change anyone's opinion. They would be endangering people's salvation by presenting a false view of God. And if they did make headway, they wouldn't win overnight and there would be some record of the conflict in the early Christian literature. Instead the early Christian's most vigorous opponents were the Gnostics, who were basically a pagan sect which absorbed some aspects of Christianity into a non-Jewish world-view. They could not have been the original Christianity, since they were a syncretism between a Persian religion and the Christian religion; both pure Persian Gnosticism and Christianity had to therefore pre-date the Christian-influenced Gnostics.
Let me be more specific. Suppose that in the original Christianity, Jesus was seen as an angelic like or spiritual figure, who underwent a purely spiritual resurrection in some spiritual realm. Now suppose that you are a first century Christian in Ephesus. It is the late fifties AD. You were originally a Jew, and about ten years earlier you heard Paul preaching this religion, and believed him. Your conversion cost you a lot: you were expelled from the synagogue, lost most of your family and friends; but you were happy with it. You have devoted your life to this spiritual Jesus; you will defend it with the fervour and zeal of a convert. Now suppose that somebody comes along without evidence or the authority of someone like Paul who had known the originators of the religion, and says that Jesus was an actual historical figure who lived at a particular time. Born in Nazereth, ministered in Capernaum, crucified in Jerusalem and so in, in a particular historical period and interacting with particular historical people. The death of Jesus was a physical death; the resurrection a physical resurrection. Suddenly Jesus turned from a spiritual figure to someone born in the flesh of David. Now you have to do this ritual mimicking Jesus' actions involving bread and wine on the night he was betrayed, deeds which could not have taken place if He was a merely spiritual figure. Would you accept that this was the same religion that was originally preached to you? Would you have abandoned everything you believed before without a moments reflection? Would you not have demanded to see evidence? And even if you did convert again, would not some of your friends continued with the original religion, causing a bitter split and division in the congregation? Wouldn't your new Bishops have written texts criticising the old religion, texts which would have been venerated and preserved (or at the very least cited) for centuries and millennia? Wouldn't there be some mention of the old version of the religion surviving somewhere in your texts? And it would not just have to be Ephesus, but every centre of early Christianity would have to simultaneously and spontaneously discard what was to them the most important things that they believed and replace it with some novelty, without leaving any record of dissension or questioning. Is that even remotely plausible?
Drifts in religious beliefs happen, but they take centuries. One can either have a gradual drift, with no real founder or instigator (as a Protestant, I would cite the gradual evolution of the Roman Church away from reformed truth from the fifth to sixteenth centuries as an example of this); but in this case it is not the central aspects of the religion which are affected, but matters more around the edges and buried in the deeper aspects of the theological systematising. Or we can have the rising of a heretic (Roman Catholics would cite Martin Luther as an example), but these are tied to a specific time and place, grow slowly if at all, and rarely convince the whole Church. The complete turnaround of an entire religion in the most central aspect of their doctrine, including the complete amnesia of its true origins, which the Jesus-myth conspiracies (or the Mohammed-myth conspiracies as well for that matter) within just a few decades is unprecedented. That's not how revealed religions work.
Of course, the idea that original Christianity spoke of a purely spiritual Jesus (one contemporary version of the Christ myth theory) is not plausible in the first place. Firstly, the earliest records of Christianity we have speak of a physical Jesus. There is simply no evidence of an original purely spiritual Jesus; but plenty of evidence of an original earthly Jesus. Paul speaks of Jesus "born of the flesh of the line of David", who broke bread and passed around the cup of wine, who gave testimony before Pilate, who had brothers still living and leading the Jerusalem Church, that he was born of woman under the Law of Moses, who was hung from a tree, who was made man. If a conversion from purely spiritual Jesus to physical Jesus took place, it had to precede Paul. Furthermore, the concept of a spiritual Christ is a Greek idea (it would make Jesus similar to the pagan gods). The concept of a physical Christ is Jewish (in line with Old Testament prophecy). So are we to believe that a Greek religion emerged from Judaism, only to become more Jewish as it permeated into Greek society? Is not the historical Jesus scenario, that a Jewish religion emerged out of Judaism and remained Jewish as it spread among the Greeks, Latins, Coptics, Ethiopians, Armenians, Parthians, and Indians? Albeit with the Greek and Latin versions adapting Greek philosophy to express their doctrines more formally a couple of centuries later.
So if the story of Jesus, and in particular the key doctrines of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, was invented, it had to be by the first Christians, those who the New Testament records as the original five hundred or so disciples who remained true to Jesus after His execution, before the Church spread from Jerusalem. But it is equally not plausible that they could have done it and got away with it. Suppose that I went out to the street corners and proclaimed that a certain Jesus of Grimsby came to the earth in the previous few years, healed the sick, raised the dead, claimed to be God, ministered to multitudes of people, became a nationally known of figure, abused all the political authorities and was eventually publicly tried and executed by them. People would immediately say, "But I don't remember any of that; you are just making it up." What chance would I have of being believed? The one charge that it is not recorded in either Jewish attacks on Christianity or the Christian responses is the early Christians just made up all the stories. The Jewish church existed, and the Christians lived along side the Jews, until the second Jewish revolt around 130AD. Is it plausible that a story about a man who had a public ministry and was known to the religious and political authorities would be left unchallenged if it were wholly fabricated? And what motivation would the early disciples have for making up those stories? They would be telling lies about God, and condemning themselves (according to Jewish belief and teaching) to hell.
The idea that Jesus never existed is so implausible that it is a wonder that anyone would take it seriously. Given Jesus' central place in Christianity, it is more plausible to argue that Richard Carrier never existed. Bertrand Russell was wholly wrong to call it a difficult question.
Anyway, that is a rather long digression.
Was Jesus the wisest of all men? Bertrand Russell offers one example to suggest that He wasn't.
"Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes."
Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 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."
From these passages, Russell drew the conclusion that Jesus believed that His return would be imminent. Correctly interpreting the Bible, however, takes a little more effort than taking a few words out of context. One needs to bear in mind the literary form, the cultural context in which the words were first written, the immediate textual context, and references and links to other parts of the text. The New Testament writers, and their intended readership, knew the Old Testament inside and out, and they kept putting allusions to the Old Testament as a means of expanding what they meant. Before using a passage on a different topic to draw out a meaning on the topic we are interested in, we should first search for any passages which address the issue directly.
Neither of these passages are specifically about the timing of Christ's return. The Matthew 10 passage cited first is discussing persecution against the Christian missionaries (initially in the context of a short mission by his disciples of the time, but also more generally for later generations), and is instructing them on how to deal with it: move to the next town. This mission of the 72 was short (just a few months at most); it was to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the Kingdom of God. But when Jesus discussed the Kingdom of God, he did not mean something that would be instituted at the day of judgement; he meant something that was at hand, which would be instituted in his own life time. The Kingdom was opening up as Jesus ministered and spoke, and lives on in the life of the Church. The beginning of the Kingdom would be the birth of the Church. The context of the second passage (Matthew 16) is perseverance in the face of suffering and loss. Jesus is reminding his disciples that they are going to suffer on account of their new religion. But whatever they suffer on account of the faith now is an irrelevance in the context of the final judgement. His final statement is once again referring to the Kingdom which Jesus established in his earthly ministry, resurrection and ascension.
When Jesus used the expression "Son of Man" to describe himself, he did not pick the title arbitrarily. He was referring back to the Old Testament. Specific prophecies were made about a Son of Man, and Jesus was claiming that those prophecies referred to Himself. Both He and His first audience were well aware of what He was doing.
The expression concerning the Son of Man coming is specifically a reference back to Daniel 7:13-15. The passage in Daniel refers to the Son of Man (Jesus) coming before the Ancient of Days (God the Father), after the Son's work is completed, and being granted an everlasting kingdom of all peoples, nations and tongues. The Son comes to God in the clouds of heaven. Jesus' reference in these passages is not his coming back to earth, but his coming to God to receive the title of King. (This is, of course, in some sense all allegorical language. It is a picture used to illustrate in common terms some far more complex truth.) In Christian theology, Christ comes to God in the clouds at the ascension. It is there, when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come, he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. So the references to the Son of Man coming (into His kingdom) were not to His return (to extend His kingdom) but to His ascension (to first establish His kingdom). And the ascension certainly (in orthodox Christian theology) occurred within the lifetime of the first disciples.
An analogy that can be used to explain Christian doctrine on this matter is to say that Christ was crowned following the ascension, but this world is like a province of that Kingdom in rebellion against its rightful ruler. The natural thing we think of when a province rebels is that the Government will immediately sweep in with overwhelming force to take it back. But Jesus isn't like that. He has loyal supporters in the rebellious city, and before coming in Himself, he gives those supporters the chance to resolve the matter peacefully. This is partly to win over some of the rebels, but also partly to build up the strength and resilience of those followers. Eventually the King comes in with force; that is what the second coming is all about. But the Son of Man's reign dates not with the capture of the rebel city, but when He was proclaimed by the loyal capital city.
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you."
Christ's kingdom was instituted with his resurrection and ascension. He is currently a king in a far country, but still King. As Jesus said, My kingdom is not of this world. Thus the apostles in their writing, while they sometimes wrote as though the Kingdom of God was something to be inherited in the future, also expressed the kingdom of God as something here and now. Its citizens are the Church.
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
It is also true that many of the first Christians believed that Christ's return would be imminent. The first apostles certainly seemed to believe this to be most probable, as recorded in various New Testament passages. For example, Paul wrote,
Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
But these are the apostles, not Jesus himself. Nowhere did they say that Jesus was coming in their lifetime; they just thought that He might be. The sense of urgency might well have been inferred from Jesus' repeated commandment for his followers to always be ready. Yet, when it came to naming specific dates, they adamantly refused to do so. Some of the early Christians certainly believed that the day of judgement would be in the next few years; and the apostles warned them against being so certain. This is the context of Paul's proclamation in the second letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 2, or Peter's warning:
This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, "Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation." &hellips; But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
People believed that Jesus should have come, and Peter was correcting them: it might be three days, it might be three thousand years. That shouldn't bother you. Keep remembering what you were taught, practice it, and be ready.
When we try to extract a doctrine from the Bible, we first of all turn to the passages which address the subject directly. Passages which don't specifically address the topic often contain hyperbole and other literary forms. So what did Jesus say directly about the date of his return?
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
This passage is alluded to in several places in the epistles. Jesus was saying, "You don't know when I will come again. It might be soon, or it might be later. Don't make predictions, just be ready at any time." Be ready, it's not coming when you expect, was the message Jesus repeated throughout his teaching on the subject.
So if Jesus' main teaching was that expectations were likely to be wrong, then how could He be definite in saying, "But it is going to be in the next four decades." That contradicts the main teaching.
With regards to the apostles (the people who knew Jesus and Jesus' beliefs best), the thing we note most when they directly addressed the topic was that they tried to dissuade people that the day of judgement was imminent. Many of the first generation of Christians did think that it was coming in their lifetimes, but the Church leaders knew it wouldn't be immediately, since the signs Jesus warned them to watch out for had not yet taken place. As Jesus commanded, they instructed their flock to be ready; as Jesus also commanded, they instructed them to continue doing the work of the Kingdom in the meantime.
So my answer to Russell concerning whether Jesus was wrong to believe that He would return within a few decades is that it is not clear that Jesus did believe this. Some of the evidence suggests that He might have done so, but once we look more closely, and at the links between the New and Old Testaments (the New Testament is full of these call-backs to the Old, it is something we always need to watch out for when reading it) we see that this evidence is not as strong as it might seem. But when Jesus directly addressed the issue He warned people against guessing about any dates; His return will come when it is not expected. Some people in the early Church expected it to be soon, so it was not going to come then.
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