Wednesday, March 25, 2020

"Neutral bystanders"

An exchange I had on Facebook:

As to the case against Jesus Christ and the New Testament I have heard from critics that there is no reliable outside written references that would support the existence or life of Jesus Christ other than those written sources within the believing community. The claim is that trust and reliability in the New Testament and the words of Jesus Christ do not pass historical scrutiny. Putting this to the test then this claim is here stated in form of a question : Are there written references outside the scope of church writings , specifically outside writers of the believing Christian community , that validate that Jesus Christ was a historical figure ? Furthermore , can the claims of the New Testament and life of Jesus Christ solidified by asking dates of these writings fall between 60 AD to approximately 250 AD ?

In other words please provide support in the reliability of Jesus' Christ life and existence and that of the New Testament Scriptures by providing early outside ( secular ) sources between 60AD to 250AD.

There are outside sources. However, it's necessary to challenge the premise of the objection. Critics are making the contradictory demand for unbelievers who said Jesus was who he claimed to be. It's like demanding that you will only accept evidence for a murder by an eyewitness who says they saw the murder but doesn't believe it happened!

No . I would disagree with your objection. Critics are asking for testimony or references ( relatively close to the time of Jesus' historical existence ) from writers who are neutral and have no dog in the race. It's only fair , in my view , that , along with the witness and testimony of believers who have thrown all their chips in this cause , to also provide neutral testimony or outside testimony of folks " not in our club . 

"Neutral bystanders" in what sense? That they have no prior bias going in? But they can't stay neutral if they know what happened. Asking for testimony from observers who have no dog in the fight at that stage is is nonsensical. Either they know what happened or they don't. If they know what happened, then they have to take sides. At that point they have a dog in the fight.

Still disagree with the premise of your argument. So , in the case of the New Testament - the writings of the believing community is testimony of Jesus Christ after the writers have already cast in all their lot in favor of Jesus Christ and made a decision to be in the believing community. In other words all the writings that are testimony in favor of Jesus Christ and the reliability of the New Testament are post conversion. Neutral writers / neutral references to validity of Christ Jesus are pre conversion or no conversion at all which means we have sources to testify of Jesus Christ who are on the outside " looking in."

The question at issue isn't bias but the source of bias. What makes them believers? If the evidence makes them believers, then their bias is justified. Once again, you can't be neutral if you know the facts. You could be neutral prior to conversion if you don't know the facts, but in that case you're a useless witness because you're uninformed.


  1. 1. As Steve points, the premise of the question is flawed.

    2. There's nothing wrong with accepting the NT writers as the primary source for the historical Jesus. Like you say, a common reason people think it's problematic to use the NT as a source for the historical Jesus is because its authors are committed to the cause. However the problem with this is the mistaken assumption that those who are committed to a cause cannot be objective about the same cause.

    3. For example, take a sports fan. A person can be committed to their favorite football team. Suppose they are fans of the Los Angeles Rams. They love the Rams. They attend every game. They know all the stats of the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and other players. They buy Rams jerseys, beanies, license plates, and so on. They love the Rams. However this doesn't mean they can't be objective about the Rams. They can see when the Rams play badly. They can argue about the choice to start or bench a player. They can disagree with the coach or manager. So just because they're committed to the Rams doesn't imply they can't be objective about the Rams.

    4. Another example is parents and their children. Obviously parents are committed to their children. But that doesn't mean parents can't be objective about their children. They can see the strengths and weaknesses in their children. They love their son, but they can see he's not gifted with musical talent. They love their daughter, but they can see she has a temper. And so forth.

    5. Sure, you could bring up the example of the fan who will put a positive spin on everything about the Rams simply because it's the Rams. However that's not because they are committed to the Rams. Rather that's because they're biased about the Rams. I'm not talking about bias but commitment. A committed Rams fan will want to see his team do well. He will want to see his team win the Super Bowl. As such, he will be willing to be objective about his own team because he knows that will ultimately help his team improve their weaknesses and become a stronger team who can make it to the playoffs and hopefully the Super Bowl. Indeed, there's a sense in which a truly committed Rams fan will be more objective than practically anyone else. That's because as a committed fan he knows everything about the Rams so he can see their strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else.

    6. All that said, there are sources from outside the NT about the historical Jesus. For example, the fragment of Thallos (c. 55 AD), Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Tacitus, Celsus, Josephus, the Talmudic tradition.

  2. Paul believed that Jesus died for our sins. So on that particular issue Paul very much has a "dog in the race". But can we say that Paul has a dog in the race regarding the existence of Jesus? That would seem like an odd thing to say. A Trump supporter is not unbiased on Trump's record, but is the supporter biased on Trump's existence? Again, it would be an odd way of looking at things. Trump can't be a good President if he never existed, but that doesn't mean Trump supporters are misleading about Trump's existence.

    1. So if you ask a Trump supporter whether he is committed to believing in Trump's policies, he will say Yes. If you ask the supporter whether he is committed to believing in Trump's existence, he will be confused by the question. He won't realise that any commitment is required on the question of Trump's existence.

      The same applies to Paul. He will acknowledge his commitment to a belief in Jesus' atoning death but will be unaware of any need for commitment on the question of Jesus' existence. Admittedly, that is an assumption, but there is no reason to think otherwise. If people in Paul's time had denied the existence of Jesus, then Paul would have needed to commit himself to believing in Jesus' existence first. But there is no evidence of any such denial.

      So the tables have turned on the sceptics. It is they who must bear the burden of proof. If they want to cast early Christians as unreliable witnesses on the question of Jesus' existence, they must first demonstrate that there was real doubt on the subject at the time.