Chapter 7: What Should an Atheist Do About Jesus?
In this chapter Marshall attempts to refute the several claims about Jesus that are spread by the New Atheists and other skeptics, such as questioning Jesus’ existence. Marshall begins by addressing Richard Dawkins and his view of the gospels.
The Gospels, Dawkins tells us, are “legends,” written “long after the death of Jesus” and copied over many generations by scribes with their “own religious agendas.” No one knows who those scribes were, but they “almost certainly” never met Jesus. The first four books of the New Testament were chosen “more or less arbitrarily” from a dozen or so candidates, including “Gospels” of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew, and Mary Magdalen (Dawkins offers an endorsement of these alternatives by no less than Thomas Jefferson). But all “Gospels,” Christian or Gnostic, were “made up from start to finish.”
Jesus was one of many such “charismatic figures” of the day, around whom legends accumulated. The Christian story was borrowed from other religions and stitched together by Paul of Tarsus. Jesus probably never claimed divine status. Even if he did, he may have been “honestly mistaken.” […] The Gospels do three things to disarm all such criticism. First, they pass strict historical interrogation with flying colors. (N.T. Wright’s acclaimed Christian Origins and the Question of God series may be the best material on this.) Second, they portray a person who convinces those with the most acute insight into human nature that, as M. Scott Peck put it, “no one could have made up the man described.” Like fingerprints on a windowpane, the Gospels reveal the complex and unforgable identifying marks of a unique mind. And third, as we will see in the following section, they have changed the world for the better. (116-117)
Those are some very strong claims. Let’s see how Marshall plans on defending them. He continues,
Each of the Gospels, Dawkins supposes, was “copied and recopied, through many different ‘Chinese Whispers generations’ by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.” […] [Robert Funk said the “oral tradition” circulated for two decades before being written down.] But look at the dates. Two decades? I just attended my uncle’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, at which stories were not circulated, but told first hand, about events that happened six decades ago. [Paula] Fredriksen claimed the Gospels were written 40 to 70 years after the events they describe. Most skeptical scholars say Mark was the first Gospel written, about 40 years after the fact. Other scholars put the dates a bit earlier. (117-118)
Marshall does not note which “skeptical scholars” argue that Mark was written 40 years later, but the consensus seems to be that the gospels were written much later than Marshall argues.  The approximate dates are as follows:
Even if Marshall were correct about his dates, the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t take much time at all for errors and exaggerations (if not outright myths) to develop and distort a story. There are examples in history of this taking mere days or weeks, so twenty years is more than enough time for errors to creep into the stories.  That’s not even accounting for the the fact that memory is not always very reliable.
Marshall argues next that those who knew Jesus must have still been alive when the gospels were written. He writes,
Most wandering countercultural movements are made up of young people. Jesus’ followers were probably in their twenties or teens. Those who dodged the brisk scythe of the Grim Reaper could easily have lived decades after the writing of the first Gospels. […] Many of Jesus’ first followers would have been alive, and ready to talk, when the Gospels were written. Nor would it have been hard for Luke (say) to track them down: The Christian community was a compact, highly social group, like an extended family. Everyone knew who the elders were, and who had walked with Jesus. In such a tight-knit community, it would have been child’s play to look them up. (118)
Without taking into account the fact that memory is often unreliable, and stories can be dramatically distorted within such a short period of time, the average life-span of someone in the ancient world was 46 years old. Because Marshall is assuming the age of those who “walked” with Jesus Marshall’s argument is one assumption built atop another assumption and is highly improbable.
To quote Richard Carrier,
In the ancient world, the average life expectancy (for anyone who survived to age 15) was 46 years, while fewer than 1 in 20 would live to 70, and fewer than 1 in 200 would live to 85. Any witness, who survived the war and was at least fifteen years old by 35 A.D. (and thus could recall events of previous years with any kind of reliability), would probably be dead before 75 A.D. (having only a 34% chance of survival, even without an intervening war and persecution), and would almost certainly be dead by 100 A.D. (with only a 1.5% chance of survival, and that’s again without an intervening war and persecution, which would have reduced the probability of survival a great deal more). […] Likewise, Josephus himself says 20 years is enough time for witnesses to no longer be available to rebut a story (Life 360; cf. Jewish War 1.15 & Against Apion 1.55). 
Furthermore, there is no evidence that, even if Jesus’ original disciples lived until the writing of the first gospels, those in the ancient world fact-checked what they believed. To quote Richard Carrier once more,
It was the same in antiquity, [the modern New Age community strongly prefers to trust emotion and intuition and to distrust reason, critical thought, and skeptical investigation [and] that the same community carries significant emotional hostility toward both skeptics and their methods] and the earliest Christians were clearly more analogous to modern New Agers than modern skeptics (as I’ll demonstrate in Chapters 13 and 17). […] For the difference between acceptance and rejection may very well have been a result of adopting different strategies of judgment. That is, in fact, what both modern New Agers and ancient Christians blame as the very reason skeptics reject their claims – as we can see, for example, in 1 Corinthians 2: skeptics can’t see the truth because their methods blind them. […] Therefore, Christians didn’t respect those methods. To the contrary, they regarded them as a handicap that one had to discard in order to be saved. […] For that reason we cannot rest any argument on what “we” think “they” would have done. Rather, we must examine the evidence for what they actually did. And we have no evidence that any Christian in the first hundred years did anything like what [Marshall] expects as far as “checking the facts” is concerned. […] Moreover, when we look at the evidence of what they actually did do, we find essentially the opposite of what [Marshall] claims. 
Marshall’s next argument is about why the gospels can be trusted. He writes,
Not only were the Gospels written while eyewitnesses were still alive, they sound like eyewitness reports. Read a few paragraphs at random. You can cut the tension with a knife. Jesus is subject to nitpicking, entrapment, barbed comments, and catcalls. “Is not this the carpenter?” (Mark 6:3). He’s accused of low status, sin, breaking the law, failing to pay taxes, lack of education, madness, and black magic. Find me a hagiographer who writes like this. As Peck put it, most of the Gospels “reek of authenticity.” The Gospels give names, surprising replies, and facts about Jerusalem only an inhabitant or archaeologist would know, like the details about the pool of Siloam or Jacob’s well. (119)
As I just discussed, it does not appear likely that the “eyewitnesses” were still alive when the gospels were written. Marshall’s claims to authenticity are purely subjective and contradict the facts. Are novels and films not written in the same fashion today? Are heroes or main characters not subject to “entrapment” or “barbed comments” in today’s entertainment media? Of course they are. The same likely occurred in the past as well.
Just because a story mentions authentic locations and landmarks doesn’t mean the overall story is true. The same is done in today’s entertainment media. How many fictional stories have been written that take place in a city that exists in reality, or in the backdrop of an actual event? There have been many. According to Marshall’s argument that would make the 2001 movie Pearl Harbor an accurate portrayal of everything that took place, when there were many historical inaccuracies.
Dawkins swallows what I call the “neo-Gnostic myth” hook, line, and seaweed. The Gospels were chosen “more or less arbitrarily,” he tells us, from a sample of a dozen or more including such “Gospels” as “Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew, and Mary Magdalen.”
Thomas probably comes first in his list because radical scholars consider it the best potential source of alternative “Jesus material.” Thomas is not, however, a Gospel in any important sense. Analyzing the work line by line, I found Thomas shares only four to seven characteristics out of 50 that define the Gospels. It was less a Gospel than any other ancient work I studied – even China’s kung fu epic, Journey to the West.
Gospel means “good news” (Greek, euangelion). At a minimum, a Gospel should therefore tell a story. Dawkins is under the impression that this work does. “The Gospel of Thomas,” he writes, contains “numerous anecdotes” about Jesus abusing magical powers “in the manner of a mischievous fairy,” turning playmates into goats or mud into sparrows, or miraculously lengthening a beam for his father the carpenter. To pre-empt the expected retort, he adds, “It will be said that nobody believes crude miracle stories such as those in the Gospel of Thomas anyway.”
What needs to be said is that the Oxford professor of the public understanding of science and his reputable publisher have got the wrong book! These stories are found not in the Gospel of Thomas, but in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The former contains no stories at all, which is one reason it isn’t a Gospel. And this kind of sloppiness is one reason Dawkins is not a historian. (120-121)
Out of the “50” points that a manuscript supposedly needs in order to be named a gospel, Marshall lists only the one, about it needing to tell a story. What are the other 49? He doesn’t say. It also seems that even this criteria is purely subjective. Does the Infancy Gospel of Thomas not tell a story? Of course it does. It tells of Jesus’ life when he was a boy. I will point out, however, that Marshall is correct in that Dawkins did mistake the Infancy Gospel of Thomas for the Gospel of Thomas. Of course, this error is very minor and it’s easy to see how one could get the two documents confused. It’s also ironic that Marshall makes the comment about how this is the kind of reason why Dawkins isn’t a historian. I could level the same accusation towards Marshall with his absurd criteria for historicity. No truly objective historian would ever accept Marshall’s criteria for authenticity. In addition, his horribly poor “research” skills leave much to be desired as I’ve demonstrated as well.
Nor was there anything arbitrary about the selection of the four first-century Gospels in favor of their second, third, and even fourth-century “competitors.” (121)
Actually they were chosen arbitrarily. To quote Josh McDowell,
We don’t know exactly what criteria the early church used to choose the canonical books. There were possible five guiding principles used to determine whether or not a New Testament book is canonical or Scripture. Geisler and Nix record these five principles:
1. Is it authoritative – did it come from the hand of GOD? (Does this book come with a divine “thus saith the LORD?)
2. Is it prophetic – was it written by a man of GOD?
3. Is it authentic? (The fathers had the policy of “if in doubt, throw it out.” This enhanced the “validity of their discernment of canonical books.”)
4. Is it dynamic – did it come with the life-transforming power of GOD?
5. Was it received, collected, read and used – was it accepted by the people of GOD? 
Each of these categories are entirely arbitrary. To quote Gary Lenaire,
There are problems with every one of the listed criteria. The first four categories are subjective judgments. We can’t know if a book is authoritative if we don’t know who the author is! We know the books are not prophetic because none of the alleged prophesies have been verified or proven to come true – absolutely none. We don’t know if a book is authentic because the manuscripts were written many years after the events were said to have occurred. How can we know if a book is dynamic? Dynamic is just another way of saying “lively” [and is a pointless criterion for determining truth]. […] The fifth criteria can be approached somewhat historically. There at [sic] least two problems in applying this to one’s faith, however. If you study how religious groups use a book, you are studying the conclusions reached by humans. The books they chose reflect their own religious views; this is another form of circular thinking. Naturally, they chose books that agreed with their particular religious group. We cannot know the perfect word of God by studying fallible humans, even if those humans are Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, or the Pope. 
The next subject Marshall tackles is the common argument that Jesus is nothing more than a myth. He writes,
To Dawkins, Jesus was “one of many such charismatic figures who emerged in Palestine around his time, surrounded by similar legends.” Since David Strauss’s Life of Jesus in 1835, it has been common to say the stories in the Gospels are full of mythological or legendary elements. […] Others compare Jesus to Apollonius of Tyana, a pompous windbag (his part best played, I have suggested, by Steve Martin) who, according to a second-century tale, chatted up local kings, then went off to India and witnessed levitating Brahmins, pepper-growing monkeys, and crested dragons. Many efforts have been invested in finding legends that look like Jesus. The search has come up spectacularly empty. The failure of informed, intelligent scholars to find any parallel that is even remotely believable is really a success – like the failure to find jackrabbits in the pre-Cambrian. (123)
It’s strange that Marshall says the “search has come up spectacularly empty” when later on he admits that Buddha has many similarities to Jesus. He says,
Marcus Borg compares Buddha and Jesus and finds them much alike. You can indeed find a bit of Buddha (moral teachings, psychological insights) the cynics (one-liners) and fourth-century Jewish miracle workers (miracles) in the Gospels. (124-125)
In addition, there are other individuals who bear striking resemblance to Jesus. The Roman god Romulus is said to have many significant similarities to the Jesus tale. Such examples are, among several others:
1. Both were incarnated gods (Romulus descended from heaven to become human and die).
2. Both became incarnate in order to establish a kingdom on earth (for Romulus, the Roman Empire; for Christ, the Kingdom of God, i.e. the Church).
3. Both were killed by a conspiracy of the ruling powers (Christ, by the Jewish and Roman authorities; Romulus, by the first Roman senate).
4. Both corpses vanished when sought for (in the earliest and canonical Gospels Christs’ tomb is found empty).
5. Both appear after their resurrection to a close follower on an important road (Proculus on the road to Alba Longa; Cleopas on the road to Emmaus – both roads 14 miles long, the one leading to Rome, the other from Jerusalem). 
Mithras had a story circulating about him in which he participated in a “last supper,” or “sacred meal,” just as Jesus did. Adonis, Dionysos, and Osiris are said to have been killed, buried, and resurrected, just as Jesus is said to have been. 
For coming up “spectacularly empty” there sure are several characters who have much in common with Jesus, and these are not the only examples.
David Marshall begins a similar discussion to the previous one where he attempts to downplay the many similarities between the gospels and other legendary stories. He writes,
One of the latest crazes in Jesus spinning, developed by a few serious historians but more often in Internet conspiracy pages and the books that derive from them, is that the Gospels borrowed from earlier myths. Dawkins plucks this fruit readily: “All the essential features of the Jesus legend” are borrowed “from other religions.”
That is a historical claim, which requires historical evidence. Stolen money can be traced by serial numbers. But how do we know if an idea or pattern of action has been borrowed from an earlier source?
Just finding similar stories in two places doesn’t prove copying. If I say, “The neighbor [sic] dog growled,” how do you know the claim wasn’t borrowed from the legend of Cerberus, the three-headed canine that guards the gates of Hades? Or perhaps Buck in Call of the Wild, or Levin’s dog in Anna Karenina? The literary growls came first. As Joseph Cambell shows in Hero with a Thousand Faces, motifs crop up in widely scattered cultures. Real life can “copy” myth, and myth can “copy” real life. […] As skeptics often remind us, people are “pattern-seeking” animals. (123-124)
This is easy to show why his argument is false. If we can find a sure case of a story that predates Jesus’ time then that story is surely the earlier one, and we do have several examples of just a story. The story of Romulus who was said to have lived hundreds of years before Jesus. As another example, Buddha, as Marshall even admits, has many similarities to Jesus and was said to have lived several hundred years before Jesus’ birth as well.
I have shown conclusively that the bible does contain some legendary elements and I’ve refuted Marshall’s arguments about no other individual being like Jesus. The next question is whether or not Jesus is also a myth and whether or not the biblical writers borrowed those older stories to either create Jesus, or Jesus was a real person and those other stories became woven into the stories of Jesus over time. To those questions I must plead agnosticism. I don’t believe there is a way to know either way for sure because there isn’t enough evidence.
1. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/ – accessed 7-24-11
2. Jesus is Dead, by Robert M. Price, American Atheist Press, 2007; 36
4. Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed, by Richard Carrier, Ph.D., Lulu.com, 2009; 167-168
5. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith, Vol. 1, by Josh McDowell, Here’s Life Publishers, Inc., 1979; 29
6. An Infidel Manifesto: Why Sincere Believers Lose Faith, by Gary Lenaire, Publish America, 2006; 90
7. Not the Impossible Faith, by Richard Carrier; 33
8. The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?, by Earl Doherty, Age of Reason Publications, 2005; 15-16