• Abel Dean’s Case for an Historical Jesus.

    On Facebook, we have a dicussion forum called ‘Bible Geek Listeners,’ so named for Robert M. Price, “The Bible Geek.” Abel Dean, a somewhat regular poster for the group, has lately written a piece defending the historical Jesus.

    Abel writes:

    Jesus was the founder and leader of a DOOMSDAY CULT. Sounds like just an insult, right? But it is actually the leading theory among secular historians of Christianity, first popularized by Albert Schweitzer and today advocated by the most highly-accomplished historians of early Christianity, such as Bart Ehrman and Mark Goodacre. They don’t use the phrase “doomsday cult leader.” They say “apocalyptic prophet.” But, the idea is the same.


    A “cult” is not just a religious group you don’t like. A “cult” is a group of people extremely devoted to the wishes of a single human leader (or single small council of leaders) who are unaccountable to higher authorities and whose beliefs or practices are in sharp conflict with the surrounding society.

    Abel points to Michael Langone’s article on characteristics associated with cults, and it is striking how many of the characteristics Christianity shares. Abel continues:

    In every cult, the members target their founding leader with extreme praise and devotion. When the founding leader dies, most of the time the cult disbands, but in a few cases the cult lives on, diversifies and evolves into a religion, always maintaining their praise and devotion to the figure of the founding leader. This was apparently the case with all cults that have survived their founders, including Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Mormonism, Christian Science, Scientology, Unification Church, and Christianity.

    Buddha, Mohammed and Zarathustra (founder of Zoroastrianism) have been thought mythical by some scholars (for Buddha: here, Mohammed: here and here, Zoroaster: here). Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, did indeed exist, but it is important to remember that Mormonism began with revelations of a mythical figure: the angel Moroni.

    In no confirmed cases of a cult with a reputed human founder is the reputed human founder a mere myth. There are thousands of cults existing today with not a single known exception. In those cases with MANY reputed human founders, such as Mormonism, the theory of cults does not require that ALL reputed human founders existed–only at least one of them. There are some cases of cults where we don’t know whether or not the reputed human founder existed, such as the John Frum cult (my guess is that he existed). There are some religious groups that adulate a god but no reputed human founder. And there are some movements that adulate a reputed human founder who never existed but the movement is not a cult, such as Ned Ludd.

    Christianity could have a single human founder without a historical Jesus: maybe Cephas gathered the early Christians together, had the first vision of Christ (as is implied in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5) and that got the ball rolling. Abel, though, may have already thought of this, since he specifies that each cult has a reputed founder, and in each case the reputed founder existed. However, the cultural context in which Christianity was born was one in which gods and divine offspring were routinely invented, and I think that has some bearing on the issue.

    In the gospels, Jesus is reputed to be the founder of Christianity, but on the other hand, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 can be taken to imply Cephas was the founder (or the human founder, at least). There’s a sense in which the angels Gabriel and Moroni are reputed founders of Islam and Mormonism; the mythicist hypothesis entails that Jesus was to Cephas what Moroni was to Joseph Smith, or what the extraterrestrials were to Bo and Peep (Wikipedia: Heaven’s Gate Cult). Abel seems to have thought of this, too, because he says:

    Jesus was a HUMAN, not a god, in spite of the claims of Christians and mythicist authors.

    Jesus was never called a god in earliest Christian literature (Jewish monotheism may be the reason), but nonetheless it is safe to say that the earliest Christians thought of Jesus as something more than a regular human (example: Jesus was supposed to be the instrument through whom God created, 1 Cor. 8:6).

    When Judaism went monotheistic, figures who previously would have been called “gods” were relabeled as heros, patriarchs, angels, etc. It was a big distinction without a difference, and still is. Jesus’ not being a “god” is semantics: though he was not called a god in Jewish terminology (in which Yahweh was the only god), Jesus would’ve met all the criteria you’d need to be considered a god by the surrounding polytheistic culture (for comparisons, see here, here, and here, and the topic is also covered in Carrier’s book at some length).

    Abel is making an argument for Jesus’ historicity based on prior probability: Jesus fits a category (“reputed human founder of a religion”) and most figures that fit that category were actual, not mythical, so therefore (all else held equal) Jesus probably existed. My main doubts about the argument are:

    1. The specified category may be too narrow: if we broaden the category include ‘reputed religious founders (human or divine)’ the probability would favor mythicism. Narrowing the category in this manner is justified since we have evidence that Jesus was thought of as something more than human and because Jesus is continuously portrayed as analogous to mediterranean gods and is also identified as the semi-divine ‘logos.’

    2. The specified category may be too broad: I know it sounds like it contradicts the first point, but what I am saying here is that Abel’s category is too narrow in one sense and too broad in another sense. It is too broad in that if we create our category from gods/heroes/divine figures worshipped in roughly the same time and place (and not just from cults that have sprang up all throughout human history) the probability, again, would favor mythicism.

    3. Jesus only fits the category if we take the gospels and other later Christian literature as something other than non-allegorical literature (the Pauline epistles, for example, don’t imply Jesus had been a regular guy on earth who founded Christianity, and the epistles even imply that Cephas was the human founder of Christianity, as in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

    4. The argument holds if ‘all else is equal;’ but all else is not equal, there are evidential arguments for mythicism. Of course, an argument for a high prior probability of Jesus’ existence would need to be recognized and taken into account under Bayes’ theorem, but even if correct it is unclear that it would actually demonstrate Jesus’ existence after the evidential considerations are taken into account.

    All in all, I don’t think Abel’s argument is successful, though historicists should take notice of his approach: he has made an inductive argument for the existence of Jesus, and he avoids the common fallacy of ‘Possibly, therefore probably’ by making the kind of argument which would demonstrate ‘probably…’ if Abel had used the closest comparisons available. He came very close to doing this, but when his comparison is tweaked in certain ways (point 1 and point 2) mythicism becomes the most likely.


    Category: Uncategorized

    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, Politics and what I call "Optimal Lifestyle Habits."