The point I want to make:
An historical document is not a recounting of history simply because it gets some historical details correct. Thus, apologists cannot claim that the canonical gospels are strong evidence for the existence of Jesus on the basis that the canonical gospels get some details correct.
One of the cases I make against assumption of the historicity of Jesus by excitable Christians is by comparing the gospels with the story of Gone With The Wind. The reason for this is because I believe there are a number of similarities between the two that highlight how we should look at the gospels, things that should impact our assessment of the historicity question.
Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, details the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a teenage girl who grows up in the shadow of the Civil War.
One of the most striking similarities between the two is, just like the four gospels, Gone With The Wind makes references to actual people, locations, events and situations. The tale of GWTW initially takes place on a fictional plantation named Tara situated near Jonesboro, Georgia in the US. Abraham Lincoln is mentioned numerous times. Part of the story references Gen. Sherman's March To The Sea. Chattel slavery is also part of the story.
So we have no doubt that the author went to great lengths to create a believable story. Long story short - anyone who reads GWTW will have enough reference points to gain an understanding of how life was like in America of the late 1800's.
Now, let us look at the gospels:
The gospels recount the later stages of the life of an itinerant Jewish miracle-working preacher with a small following who was proclaimed by some of the population to be the Messiah, a figure in Jewish belief who will rescue the Jewish people from their oppression and herald a new epoch of freedom and liberty.
The bulk of the story takes place in Israel (then known as Judea) and references a number of historical figures such Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Herod The Great, Augustus Caesar, etc., as we as referencing a number of known locations such as Jerusalem, Galilee, Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Temple and its marketplace, and more.
Furthermore, the gospels also recount the hatred of the people towards both paying tax and the tax collectors themselves, the general divides between men and women, between Jews and those of other ethnicities, and the fine line that the Jewish leadership of the time walked between wanting independence, but avoiding all-out war with Rome (again).
So anyone who reads the gospels will have enough reference points to gain an understanding of life in Judea two millennia ago.
So we can say with some surety that both the canonical gospels and Gone With The Wind are a reflection of their times. But now I want to bring a hypothetical scenario to you to help highlight some points I want to make:
In the year 2520, five hundred years from now, a group of archaeologists dig through what used to be a library and find a copy of Mitchell's book.
This archaeological team then read through the pages, maybe after it has been translated from English in to whatever language has taken precedence in the possible scenario that English is no longer the lingua franca, and they see that this book references Jonesboro, Georgia. Well, hold on, we know where that was! The book references plantations - plantations existed, and so did the chattel slavery that took place at those plantations, but even if they can't find the particular one that Gone With The Wind takes place in, we know not every building lasts the test of time.
This research team also then looks up a list of Presidents of the United States of America, and right there is President Abraham Lincoln - the very same one GWTW mentions. They then talk to another research team that specialises in military history, and hey presto, there was indeed a large-scale war that took place between 1861 to 1865 that split the country in two, that there indeed a General William T. Sherman, and that he indeed led a destructive march through the state of Georgia.
We also see that Scarlett O'Hara had siblings, had domestic help in the form of an African-American slave, she gets married, becomes widowed, has children and runs a business. None of these are at all beyond the realm of historical probability.
So the question arises: are the people of the year 2520 justified in thinking Scarlett O'Hara was actually a real person? The answer depends on your standard of evidence.
And when we consider the level of detail in the gospels, does it give us reason to believe that Jesus Christ was an historical person? The answer, again, depends on your standard of evidence.
let me add two more factoids to this hypothetical scenario to make the analysis
1) Five hundred years after our archaeologists undertake their discovery and tasks in the year 2520, a group of people in the year 3020 form a society whose core belief (rightly or wrongly) is that in light of the fact that GWTW was an historically accurate narrative, Scarlett O'Hara was a real person.
2) In the five hundred year time gap between the time the archaeologists make their findings in 2520 and our hypothetical society forms in 3020, this society has gained documentary control and has come to actively resist any notion of GWTW being simply fictional, up to and including source redaction, persecution of heretics, well-produced refutations, weekly seminars (complete with elaborate buildings dedicated to the purpose), travelling groups of O'Hara apologists, and more.
So now, let us compare:
If your standard of evidence is that the document in question simply gets a lot of historical details correct, then belief in the historical Scarlett O'Hara is actually logically justified right now - no need to wait for our hypothetical society to enforce an orthodoxy.
If your standard of evidence is that the document is ancient and a lot of people have read that document, then in a thousand years time belief in the historical Scarlett O'Hara will be just as logically justified as what belief in the historical Jesus is right now.
If your standard of evidence is that not only is the document ancient, not only have a lot of people read that document, but also an influential group of people believe and advocate in the historicity of the main character, then, again, in a thousand years time, belief in the historical Scarlett O'Hara will be just as logically justified as what belief in the historical Jesus is right now.
If your standard of evidence is that lots of people who lived in the era when the document was produced said lots of things about the main character of the document, then unfortunately, both Christians and O'Hara-ites have a problem - while the M.O. of our hypothetical society accounts for the fact that they went to great lengths to control the documentary narrative about Scarlett O'Hara, the unescapable fact is that nobody in Jesus' time immediately contemporary to him ever mentioned him or produced anything to this day that we can study to verify his historicity. There were no statues or coins produced, no birth or death records, no tax documents and no trial transcripts of Jesus, despite the fact that he is recorded as having being tried before the highest Jewish authorities as well as two separate Roman authorities. The earliest verified and undisputed mentions of Jesus we get from the historical record from independent sources that explicitly mentions Jesus by name and are not simply mentioning Christians or the Christian faith in general, and is not considered to be either an outright forgery, an interpolation, an addition of a margin note, a redaction by later scribes, or any other known modification that happens to documents of antiquity, is nothing at all.
Yes, this is controversial. But if take a sober look at the data, we see that while a number of mentions of Christians are made in the first and second century historical literature, anything that relates to Christ himself either does not come until much later, is not independent, or has been shown to be at best an interpolation, possibly a misinterpretation, or at worst an outright forgery.
But if your standard of evidence is that it is simply ridiculous to think that either Jesus or Scarlett O'Hara never existed because firstly, no documents exist that question their historicity, and secondly, lots of people believe that either of Jesus or Scarlett O'Hara existed and belief in their respective historicity even gives those people comfort, then you have fallen in to the very trap that those who controlled the documentary corpus wanted you to fall in to.
It is well understood in the scholarship of antiquity that rival canons and sects were formed in the first two centuries after Christianity's beginning - including sects who believed in a non-historical and/or non-physical Jesus - but that the sectarian war was won by those who endorsed the Jesus-as-historical-man theology - the very same concept that our fictional society of O'Hara-ites have pushed.
Something to think about...
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