Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login

People not used to working with history sometimes think that an entire copy of the original manuscript of the New Testament is required to have confidence that we read the original documents as they were written. If that can't be produced then it must be myth. Take this comment here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10504940

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).




>1. Primary sources dated as close as 22-25 years and as late as 70 years after the event of Jesus' death and //resurrection.//

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.


The historical method simply discusses events within the natural universe, regardless of their meaning.


Jesus's historical existence does not mean all the miracles attributed to him are real or that all details of his story are true. The story on him was written long after he died and you make it sound like it's enough to justify everything claimed about the character. Furthermore in terms of proof most of the text written about him are written as if they were witnesses of the events when they're just recounting what others told them. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_source for more details.


1. Primary sources dated as close as 22-25 years and as late as 70 years after the event of Jesus' death and resurrection.

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.

2. Thousands of transcribed copies in several ancient languages, from different locations and periods.

That doesn't make it historically accurate, it just means lots of people read the stories.

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.

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.

4. Multiple independent accounts of eye witness testimony including hostile sources.

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.

5. Biographical accounts written as history.

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.

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.

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.

7. The disciples are frequently portrayed in a negative light in the gospels.

By Paul? Probably jealous. By the gospel writers? They had an axe to grind.

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.

This is new to me, source?

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.

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.

10. Many accurate geographical and political references, often of a very technical nature (e.g. various political offices and ranks, shipping navigation, climates, architecture).

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 won't go into any detail to reply to you further, other than that your points are simply inaccurate.

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


Well, my conclusion was there to indicate no bad faith despite my short rebuttals.

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.


"I won't go into any detail to reply to you further, other than that your points are simply inaccurate."

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).


I thought the inaccuracies were obvious enough not to warrant much further apart from dealing with the conclusion.

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.


Couldn't an alternate explanation for the numerous copies and translations just mean that it was really popular at the time? Two thousand years from now we might expect to find more translations and copies of Harry Potter than any significant history journals.

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.


>these documents are ancient history.

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.


What I meant was they are ancient documents and thus fall within the domain of ancient history. That is, they are not part of modern history, if that makes sense?

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.


Yes, that does make sense. Sorry I misunderstood.

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.


From his willingness to post on an internet forum about his faith and about the historical record of the Bible, I imagine this isn't his first time having such an argument, and anyone who has presented and defended their faith in _any_ forum, but especially on the internet, knows that the argument generally is a waste of time. We can re-hash out the centuries of debate about Jesus here on this thread, but do you think it would change anyone's mind ?


In my experience, it can and has, but a few anecdotes aren't really that meaningful, I guess.


The issue is that this is HN. I'm an avid Christian myself, and can surmise that jorangreef probably really knows his stuff. But HN probably isn't the place for this kind of thing.

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.


And there's this: https://xkcd.com/1053/

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!


"Rather, we can take it as an opportunity to educate!"

That's what I had in mind, hence the post :)


My experience is that discussions of this nature can be good on HN, given participants with a mindset of learning and exploring rather than preaching and fighting.

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.


"A post asserting one of those positions"

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 just a short list of facts intrinsic to the New Testament documents"

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.


All fair points and ones that I've taken to heart in my years of having discussions on and offline. That said, I personally don't think the comment jorangeef dismissed was particularly abrasive. The remark that caused umbrage, about the historicity of the gospels not being a necessary component for forming belief, is a line that has been touted by many Christians. It could be said that it's unfair to regard Paul as 'slightly insane', but similar claims have been made about Mirabai, Alexander, and Muhammad. From their followup, it seems that penguin82 didn't intend to cause offense.


This is certainly not my understanding of the same topic. I have looked into this in detail and while I am not quite in the Jesus is mythical camp, I am certainly not convinced by the strength of the case for the historicity of Jesus Christ.




Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: