I often refer to Jesus as a quasi-historical figure, a statement which drives the Christians I know into fits of apoplexy. Jerry the Evangelical Neighbor likes to fall back on the most tired of all the basic refutations.
“There is less proof for the existence of Socrates or Plato than of Jesus.” He once responded to a Facebook post of mine.
I don’t know that to necessarily be a fact. I rather doubt he does either. At least I was a philosophy major in college; he did not go to college. Not that my liberal arts background makes me any more of an expert than him. I just like to toss that dart to get his goat.
Needless to say Jerry’s refutation is not unique to him nor does it prove that Jesus existed. It’s simply intellectual foolishness on the order of my mother and your mother were hanging up clothes; my mother socked your mother right in the nose…I can’t prove my truth so you prove yours, nyah, nyah, nyah. I don’t have to prove my “truth” because I am not making extraordinary claims about either Socrates or Plato.
I would imagine that the proof of existence of any of these men is beset by the same challenges, contradictions and missing direct evidence. As Thomas Carlyle quips, “History, a distillation of rumor (I know – I use this quote constantly).”
I will leave the proving of each man’s existence in the purview of historians and other antiquarians whose training and intellectual gifts make them better suited to such pursuits. For me, whether or not Socrates or even Plato existed in flesh and blood changes nothing. It doesn’t diminish or devalue the Socratic Method as a device of philosophical inquiry nor does it demean the Dialogues of Plato. The same cannot be said of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament.
If there is no historical Jesus than the whole of Christianity is for naught. As the Apostle Paul allegedly wrote:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 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. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ is lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. [1 Cur 15:12-19 NIV]
Those of you who know me personally or have occasionally read my blogs know that I do believe it quite likely that a historical Jesus existed. It’s the mythology of Paul’s risen Christ and the traditions of Christianity that I doubt. However, I am not bothered by Christian mythology. Perhaps, it is my long association with it, but I rather see it as just another expression of deep human longing for a meaning in life. The story itself was unique from a Jewish perspective, but not unique to Paul in the ancient world of first century Palestine. Jungians and other depth psychologists might interpret the myth of the risen Christ in archetypal fashion. Again I will leave that to the experts.
Now let’s make some important distinctions between Socrates and Jesus.
Socrates allegedly said (paraphrase), “The only thing I know is I know nothing.”
Jesus allegedly said (paraphrase), “I am the way, the truth and the life...”
Both men could be argued to have hearts filled with hubris. Socrates comes across as having a sense of cheeky humor where he is poking fun at those discoursing with him. As for Jesus you would need to be filled with arrogance to make such claims as being the “bread of life,” and such. You might even say delusional. There are progressive and liberal Christian’s who claim that Jesus never actually said that he was the Messiah, but the statements that he makes about himself and Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah all come from the gospels. It’s a difficult argument to maintain. If nothing else the existence of such possible contradictions speaks volumes about the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts.
The most important distinction between these two men comes from Christians themselves. They claim that Jesus, born of a virgin, was the only begotten son of God and that he was the promised messiah. This despite the fact that he in no way lives up to the Jewish concept of the Messiah, it required Paul’s radical reinterpretation which branded him an apostate as far as his fellow Jews were concerned, to get him there.
And, lest we forget the most important part of the Christian creed(s), Jesus died on the cross as a final atoning blood sacrifice for humanities sins (shudder) so that humanity could be freed from the death sentence imposed upon us by original sin (a concept that didn’t exist until much later) giving us an access pass to the next life. This was accomplished through Jesus’ death and then resulting resurrection. No such claims have ever been made about Socrates to my knowledge.
Indeed, these distinctions are very important. No one claims that Socrates is the Christ or the son of God. No one suggests that Socrates is “the way, the truth and the life” and that we must believe in him and that we must accept him into our hearts as part of God’s plan of salvation. So whether or not Socrates existed and Plato’s dialogues are a faithful recounting of actual dialogues or Plato is simply elevating his beloved teacher on a pedestal using him to his own ends doesn’t change anything. It also makes no difference if Socrates is just a fictional creation, as Jerry the Evangelical Neighbor is for me, used as a foil to present the writer’s own philosophy.
Jerry the Evangelical Neighbor’s refutation is moot. Proving the existence of Socrates or Plato changes nothing in the philosophy attributed to these men as would be the case if we learned that Shakespeare didn’t exist or that Ayn Rand really didn’t write Atlas Shrugged. The literary value and philosophical inquiries of these works are separate from the creators.
This cannot be said for Jesus. Paul understood, as do Christians today, that all of what they believe had to have happened in history. Otherwise, their religious beliefs are entirely false and a waste of both time and life. It simply has to be true and, in my opinion entirely, they claim “faith” or some self-validating a priori way of “knowing” to get them around the necessity of dealing with the lack of evidence. Thus even the most intelligent and well educated of people can fall prey to Christianity’s charms.