This may be the popular influence of 20th century liberalism and postmodernism (just another form of ancient skepticism) which would trade the historical method and the primary evidence for poor late-dated gnostic sources and sociological reconstructions (which have little data to go on). And sadly, sometimes people just believe that the Da Vinci code was non-fiction, and that the church was in cahoots in the 3rd century.
In fact, the historicity of the New Testament is astounding. If you wanted to take seriously the claims of Jesus, you couldn't ask for better. Here are a few examples off the top of my head:
1. Primary sources dated as close as 22-25 years and as late as 70 years after the event of Jesus' death and resurrection.
2. Thousands of transcribed copies in several ancient languages, from different locations and periods.
3. Many manuscript fragments with early dates, e.g. the earliest, the John fragment (Papyrus P52) at the John Rylands Library in Manchester in England, dates from as early as 125 AD.
4. Multiple independent accounts of eye witness testimony including hostile sources.
5. Biographical accounts written as history.
6. The evidence and weight of the incidental accounts, the New Testament letters, which contain numerous historical details, facts, references and mutual understanding, taken for granted and mentioned in passing.
7. The disciples are frequently portrayed in a negative light in the gospels.
8. The testimony of women is relied on at various key points in the gospels, something which a 1st century fraud would not likely have included.
9. Integrity of the eye witnesses under intense pressure and scrutiny and brutal persecution. Most of the original apostles died horrific deaths, refusing to recant what they saw and heard (1 John 1). In contrast, the Watergate scandal lasted all of a few days before the group fell apart.
10. Many accurate geographical and political references, often of a very technical nature (e.g. various political offices and ranks, shipping navigation, climates, architecture).
In summary, Christianity is an historical claim about an historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. Anyone is free to investigate these claims for themselves, according to the historical method.
For more on this, read Paul Barnett's "Jesus and the Logic of History" (http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-History-Studies-Biblical-Theolog...), or "New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?" by FF Bruce (himself a Rylands Professor).
The historical method is not equipped to discuss supernatural events, so however trustworthy any of the gospels are, the pivotal event of Christian theology is still an article of faith as far as history is concerned.
22-25 years is still a very long time before any written records emerge. And it's eveb longer before John emerges, the real gunslinger of the gospels when it comes to miracles and religion. The gospels we have are not primary sources anyway - their authorship is very dubious.
That doesn't make it historically accurate, it just means lots of people read the stories.
As far as I remember this contains a non-interesting 2 or 3 line passage from John. It does support the claim though that some portion of John was written before 100 years had passed after Jesus' death.
Barely. Compared to many other historical figures Jesus gets a shockingly low hit rate from historians. The evidence points to him probably existing, but little more than that when it comes to his deeds. Who outside the gospels (gnostic and otherwise) talks about him? I think it's literally just a couple of passages from later historians. NO contemporary sources mention Jesus at ALL, unless you think Mark/Matthew/John were written by their namesakes.
Only Luke was written as a history and that's because he was commissioned to. He did not meet Jesus. He is a third-hand source at best.
I agree Paul was a real person who witnessed real events and wrote about them. Shame he appeared to be slightly insane, made dozens of unverifiable claims regarding Jesus and never actually met the man.
By Paul? Probably jealous. By the gospel writers? They had an axe to grind.
This is new to me, source?
This no more verifies the truth of the gospel than it verifies the truth of the Qu'ran, the Talmud, or the mythical lost writings of the cult of pythagoras.
They did get this right, yes. It was definitely written in the first few centuries BC.
> In summary, Christianity is an historical claim about an historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. Anyone is free to investigate these claims for themselves, according to the historical method.
The bible can be used as a historical source for historical facts. It can't be used as historical evidence for the truth of Christianity, it just doesn't hold up when you look at the claims in detail, look at the authorship, the motivations of the authors or the other contemporary sources. But christianity doesn't need to be verified by historical documents anyway - isn't that the point? Faith and whatnot.
I think your conclusion sums it up:
"But christianity doesn't need to be verified by historical documents anyway - isn't that the point? Faith and whatnot."
Since you understand Paul to be "slightly insane", let him answer your question:
"And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead." - 1 Corinthians 15:14-15
Paul is considered slightly insane because of his visions and unreproducible-by-christians claims of healing and snake-immunity etc.
If you don't want to have a debate then fine, but respond to any of my points properly and I can reply with sources, arguments, counter examples or other contemporary evidence.
You cannot be taken seriously by refutting his arguments just saying those are innacurates without giving a single explanation other than pointing that he is biased because he does not believe in Jesus (even though you are obviously biased too).
Here are some examples then:
"It was definitely written in the first few centuries BC."
Firstly, the New Testament documents were not written "BC" but AD. Secondly, most scholars will agree without question they were written within the first century, and no later.
"22-25 years is still a very long time before any written records emerge"
22 years is actually reasonable for most history, and these documents are ancient history. Further, there is evidence to suggest that Matthew and Luke for example had access to even earlier sources. In any event, this kind of historical distance is still short enough for any inaccuracies in the accounts to be corrected, provided the eye witnesses are still alive, which in this case they were. Remarkably, 1 Corinthians 15 recognises this and is careful to mention that "most of [the eye witnesses] are still alive, though some have died".
"That doesn't make it historically accurate, it just means lots of people read the stories."
Actually, having lots of manuscript copies (in different languages and from different locations and places) is the key to textual criticism, which was the context. Having thousands of manuscript copies, as in the case of the New Testament documents, is mind-blowing when you compare it to the typically handful of copies for ancient history of the same period. As an unbiased person looking into history, you really couldn't ask for better.
As for why these types of conversations frequently end up with people talking past each other, there are too many vested interests in too many different sides of the debate for people to know in advance which points and interpretations they should be emphasizing. Are we discussing history? Religion as a concept? Religion as an identity? Epistemology?
As for myself, I used to be devoutly religious, I read the KJV OT cover to cover once and NT multiple times, plus the other books of my former faith multiple times, plus a number of apologetic essays. I was also learning about science and empiricism, and eventually found that my faith was full of contradictions and grasping at ever more tenuous archeological straws, while science provided modern evidence for its claims that could be verified and even rediscovered by anyone with the time and equipment.
So in these kinds of discussions, if you happen to be talking to a person with a background like mine, if you want to go beyond just factual discussions of historical discoveries and into the loaded territory of religious historicity, you must first convince such a person that fragments of ancient manuscripts should bear any modern relevance whatsoever in the face of what they would see as the significantly more reliable epistemological foundations of modern empiricism.
No, they're not. They're hagiographies. They're not intended to be records of historical events, but narrative prose with a specific audience, intended to bring them to Christ. The only exception might be Luke, who purports to recount eyewitness reports, but even he is not intent on detailing history, but imparting meaning to an existing narrative. (This is, by the way, widely accepted mainstream theology)
If these are our best sources (and historians tend to agree that they are), anyone honest about history has to recognize that the historiography of Jesus' life is problematic, and the quantity of manuscript copies in circulation will not change that.
Whether they are hagiographies or not is for you to judge. Personally, the gospels more often than not present their subjects in a difficult light. For example, the Messiah (King) is to be crucified. This would have been anathema and foolishness to most Jews and Greeks of the day.
One does not consider a document to be historical merely because it claims to be, or exclude a document merely because it fails to do so (as you require of the gospels other than Luke). Any and all documents available should be considered and weighed appropriately. And in fact, incidental evidence should be given all the more weight.
I'm not doing the judging; academics are. The word I used may be imprecise or even anachronistic, but the thrust is the same, and validated by academic judgement of the texts. Genre criticism is an aspect of theology, and it crosses over with historiography. In the evaluation of practitioners in both disciplines, these are works that are not intended as historical accounts.
While, as you say, this does not invalidate them as historical sources, it doesn't mean that every event recounted and every argument made therein is one that can be considered a valid historical occurrence. Many of them aren't even approachable by the historical method.
On the Internet, I've met very few atheists or skeptics who really are able to play equally on the same playing field. Oh, if we debate physics and whatnot, sure, they often do great. But that's a completely different playing field. Debating historicity of scripture is very different from debating origin of the universe, just like how ice hockey is completely different from beach volleyball. And besides, if you know your Hebrew, you'll also know that a lot of atheists and skeptics likely misinterpret scripture when it comes to origin of the universe, so that debate is actually a moot point; but that's OK, so do many Christians who don't know Hebrew. It's like two people who are arguing about how to grill a steak when what they're actually doing is boiling eggs. But they're convinced they're grilling steak. It makes absolutely no sense. Anyway.
My point is that although having this debate may have an impact on people (hey, can't disagree with you on the possibility), I imagine that if we went all-out to have a debate on faith-related topics, it would not be appreciated by the HN community. The HN community is not here to debate faith. As much as I'd like that, being an avid Christian myself, I have to respect that the community is here to discuss cool technology, software, trends, business, and the odd quirky, geeky factoid/story. This falls under quirky and geeky. But if it turns into an all-out debate about faith, I imagine it will no longer be seen as quirky and geeky cool. It will be seen as an annoyance.
I can't speak for jorangreef, but I imagine his feeling is similar to what I felt when I saw some comments about death.
Here's a thread in which I discussed death, and we actually had a really good back-and-forth where we both tried to be really open-minded: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10136438
Here's another thread where I wanted to participate, but I didn't, because right away the tone of the poster told me that the discussion would not be productive. His tone was hyperbolic, overly emotional, and absolute: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10371259
When you get the feeling from a poster's tone that he's not going to be open-minded about stuff, why stir the pot? It's not productive. If anything, it starts to get trollish. And trolls aren't appreciated on HN.
It's too easy to ridicule a comment like the one below about things being 400 years after the fact. Rather, we can take it as an opportunity to educate!
That's what I had in mind, hence the post :)
For example, I suspect that a post describing the major viable positions on the historicity of Jesus, and their strengths and weaknesses, would be well-received. A post asserting one of those positions without giving mention to the others (like the pair that touched off this subthread) would be less well-received. Because the first type of post helps give people the tools they need to evaluate and draw their own conclusions, while the second type of post merely tells us what conclusions someone else has drawn and invites us into a fight.
Most people on HN like to learn, even about religions they don't practice, and this is a great place to find people to learn from. But most people on HN don't want the sort of lame talking-past-each-other and name-calling that you can get on any other website.
I think if you read my post again, you will see it's just a short list of facts intrinsic to the New Testament documents, capped with an invitation for open-minded investigation.
For example, the point about thousands of manuscript copies is not me asserting a position. I don't think it's debatable that there are an overwhelming number of copies available for textual criticism compared to documents of the same period?
Similarly, the point about the testimony of women being relied on at key points in the gospels, is something intrinsic to the gospels?
I don't think the date ranges given were particularly subjective either. I am not aware of any evidence supporting a post 1st century dating of the documents, nor of this being seriously in dispute?
It's a list of facts intrinsic to the New Testament documents, followed by an assertion. There's no reference made to any of the potential issues that come up when investigating the historicity of Jesus.
Now, to be clear, I believe in a historical Jesus, Savior, Messiah, second person of the Trinity -- I'm doctrinally quite orthodox. But I think when you're arguing for a historical Jesus, it's important to be clear on what the evidence both does and doesn't say. It's important to point out that, for example, the large number of manuscripts helps us determine that the story wasn't modified over time, but the accuracy of the original stories must be judged using other criteria (including some of the criteria you pointed out.) It's important to note that "unchanged" and "accurate" are independent questions.
As for the date ranges themselves, one of the most interesting arguments I've heard has to do with the distribution of names in the canonical Gospels. Modern archaeology has given us a fairly good idea as to the most common Jewish names in the region in that era, as well as in later and earlier eras and in other regions. And the canonical Gospels show the same pattern as early 1st century Palestine -- there are several characters named Simon, the most common male name in the archaeological record, and the name is treated like a common name that needs to be clarified (so you see things like "Simon Peter", "Simon the tanner", etc.) In short, the people who wrote the Gospels were clearly familiar with Jewish names in first-century Palestine -- people who lived there during the time of Jesus and then scattered before the fall of Jerusalem. Compare this to the various gnostic gospels, which hardly ever use names outside of Jesus and whoever their purported author was (Thomas, Mary, etc.) The lack of ordinary details like names and locations in those writings point toward their being mythology.
The most significant difference between this text and the King James is probably the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comma_Johanneum , which is likely a forged addition to later Greek editions of the New Testament providing explicit textural support for the doctrine of the Trinity.
The King James translation is rather dated, though. Some modern translations are much, much better in the sense that they come from a reconstructed text using the earliest manuscripts and they use our modern knowledge of Koine Greek.
Not that this issue is really closed for debate or anything...far from it
The original texts are in Greek, and the King James version is an English translation. Differences between the original and a modern English version would have less to do with uncertainty about the original text than with the difficulties of doing translations. The various English versions in use take different approaches to translation: some attempt to stay true to the original wording, while others are less rigid and attempt to use phrasing that is more intelligible to a modern reader.
On the broadest scale, there are about 1.25 million pages of ancient Greek New Testament text, made up of everything from tiny fragments to complete copies, spanning the course of several centuries and initially spread over three continents. Among these 1.25 million pages there are about 250,000 errors (places where one manuscript differs from another), the vast majority of which are simple spelling mistakes or grammatical mistakes (often repeated in every manuscript from a particular region.) So there's about one mistake for every 5 pages of ancient text.
Moving a bit more narrow: the New Testament of the King James Bible was translated using an incomplete set of Greek Manuscripts which were supplemented with translations from Latin back to Greek, which is collectively called the "Textus Receptus". Most modern translations are made using what's called the "Majority text", which is an attempt to uncover the origin of various textual differences by looking at timelines and common patterns in variants (like dropping words that start with the same letter as the previous word, or much more sophisticated methods like taneliv mentioned in another comment). There are around 2,000 variants between the Textus Receptus and the Majority text (there's a comprehensive list in the back of Jay P. Green Sr.'s "The Interlinear Bible".) The Codex Sinaiticus is more similar to the Majority than to the Textus Receptus, and 2,000 total variants is a pretty good estimate for how different it would be from what was used to translate the KJV.
As before, the vast majority of the differences are spelling errors and such that wouldn't even survive the translation process (for example, in Matthew 1:6 there's a spelling variant of "Solomon" in some texts.) There are less than 10 differences large enough to be worthy of discussion, which are listed at the end of the wikipedia link wl posted in a sibling comment -- the longer ending of Mark and the story in John 8 about the woman caught in adultery, for example.
All of the doctrines I'm aware of that are expressed in the disputed passages also find fairly broad support in other passages, as well as in other ancient church writings that aren't part of the Bible, though not necessarily as explicitly. So the overall answer to "how different" is "enough to show the text wasn't perfectly stable, but not enough to overturn any widespread doctrines or beliefs".
(If you're interested in seeing the practical application of the process of textual criticism, try the NET Bible at net.bible.org -- any of the footnotes marked "tc" are about textual criticism, and they generally explain why the translator chose a particular variant, and in some cases they'll point to a book or journal article for deeper discussion. It's not perfect, but it'll give you an idea of the overall state of knowledge.)