The God Who Wasn't There

Robert Price falls short of saying that Jesus never existed. But he comes very close when he says, “Jesus may not have existed.” He also comments,

 The hidden assumption is they [i.e., Christians] say that we might be dealing with a God who is an ornery theology professor and one day when you die and go up there, you’re called to the office of the professor, he says, ‘Well, I got your test back for you and I'm afraid you got an F. You’re going to hell because your opinions were incorrect.’ And that’s what they think God is. You don’t have the right answers? You’re damned. And so they don’t dare think for themselves, because they might make mistakes.... That seems to me an obviously silly and childish view of God.

I agree with Price that his perception of the Christian view of God is “silly and childish.” But I don’t think that he presents the Christian view of God. Price’s view is that if you don’t have the right answers, you’re going to hell. This seems to me to be a distortion of the Christian view. The Christian view is that man is in a state of estrangement from God, and that this will inevitably result in eternal separation from God. God does not want this and did what was necessary in order to make it possible to have a relationship with him. This relationship is made available to all. Thus, if one rejects this relationship, God gives him what he wishes. C.S. Lewis said that God honors the choices of individuals. A famous statement in his book The Great Divorce is,

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell chose it.[94]

Two issues arise in reply: What about those who have never heard and what about those who want evidence but just do not think it is there?

What about those who have never heard? This is a fair question that has a number of possibilities. For what I consider to be a sufficient answer, please see my article (forthcoming).

What about those who require evidence but do not think a sufficient amount is there for belief? I think this is also a fair question. Atheists should be prepared to answer how much proof is required for belief and whether their burden of proof is reasonable. Few have thought through these questions, much less justified their answers to them. Of course, this failure is not limited to hyperskeptics. Few professional historians have thought through the process of how they come to know something (i.e., hermeneutics) and the mechanics by which they get there (i.e., historiography).

David Wood has demonstrated quite convincingly that the burden of proof held by many hyperskeptics is unreasonable. See his comments on “Shermer’s Last Law.” Shermer renders belief impossible by the criteria he provides. What this line of thinking does is to rule out a priori the possibility of having evidence that would overthrow metaphysical naturalism. This is not reasonable scholarship. It is hyperskepticism.

The Secular Web is filled with examples that reflect the view that all that is needed to reject a supernatural explanation is a possible natural one, no matter how unlikely. In other words, a possible natural explanation, even if unreasonable is to be preferred over a supernatural one. This would be reasonable if we knew that God does not exist or that deism is true. However, this is not the case. As a result, we see all sorts of liberties taken in order to explain away data. For example, note what Doherty does to explain the multiple reports that Jesus had brothers:

  • Josephus’ mention of James the brother of Jesus (Antiquities 20:200) is a Christian interpolation.[95]
  • brothers of the Lord” referred to a “Jewish ‘brotherhood’ of apostles of the spiritual Christ, located in Jerusalem, the one referred to in 1 Corinthians 9 and 15. As a sect they may have been known as ‘brothers of the Lord’[96] 

Regarding the first, that this passage is a Christian interpolation is a fringe position. This is not the place for a detailed discussion of this passage. May it suffice to say at the moment that today’s leading Josephus scholar Louis Feldman writes, "The passage about James [Antiquities Book 20, Sections 197-200] has generally been accepted as authentic."[97] Elsewhere he mentions this text and "the authenticity of which has been almost universally acknowledged."[98] Another Jewish scholar, Zvi Baras, states that this passage "is considered authentic by most scholars."[99] Edwin Yamauchi comments, "Few scholars have questioned the genuineness of this passage."[100] Robert Van Voorst writes, "The overwhelming majority of scholars holds that the words 'the brother of Jesus called Christ' are authentic, as is the entire passage in which it is found."[101]

Regarding Doherty’s interpretation of “brothers of the Lord”, this seems to me an example of amphiboly, where one exploits a slight ambiguity. Take for example a man smoking a cigarette in front of a sign that says “No Smoking Allowed.” When asked why he is not respecting the order, he answers, “I am respecting it. If someone does not want to smoke, that is allowed here. But that does not forbid me from smoking. I’m justified in interpreting the sign as I have because if they were really concerned about forbidding people to smoke here, they would have made it clear.” The same is occurring with Doherty’s “brother(s) of the Lord” explanation. He takes an interpretation that seems obvious, finds a small loophole and exploits it in order to form a different hypothesis that is anything but obvious.

However, when making historical decisions, the historian looks for the best explanation for the facts. This is determined by a number of criteria, such as:

  • Which explanation accounts for all of the facts?
  • Which explanation accounts for all of the facts without having to strain them?
  • Given a particular explanation, would we expect to see all the knowable facts?
  • Which explanation is the simplest? 

All four Gospels and Acts report that Jesus had brothers and sisters and Josephus reports that Jesus had a brother. Consider the following passages:

Matthew 12:46-50 (cf. Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21): Notice that Jesus here contrasts father, mother, brother, and sister by birth with those by spiritual association. Matthew is very clear here that Jesus had brothers.

Matthew 13:55-57: That his mother, brothers, and sisters were part of his own household is interesting.

John 2:12: Here his brothers are distinguished from his disciples. So, the explanation that Paul’s reference to James as a “brother of the Lord” and the phrase “brothers of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 9:5 refer to a group of disciples will not do.

John 7:3-22: Here again the brothers of Jesus are distinguished from his disciples. Moreover, it is difficult to call the “brothers of the Lord” disciples when it says that they didn’t believe in him! They would have to be a group of pious Jews waiting for Messiah. But then it is curious that they are not mentioned anywhere else, such as by Josephus.

Acts 1:13-14: Those present include the closest disciples of Jesus, the women disciples, his mother Mary, and his brothers.

Also see 1 Corinthians 9:5 where the “brothers of the Lord” are distinguished from the apostles and Peter. Thus, the explanation that “brothers” is here used as the equivalent “Christians” is mistaken.

It is also a strain to define the Greek word adelphos as “cousin,” since the Greek word is not employed in this manner. In fact, “cousin” is not listed as a possible meaning in either of the two major Greek lexicons (BDAG, LS). Moreover, elsewhere Paul uses anepsios (cousin), not adelphos. Chances are pretty good that he would use anepsios when speaking of James in Galatians 1:19 and 1 Corinthians 9:5 instead of the typical adelphos (brother), if James was Jesus’ cousin. Furthermore, there is no evidence anywhere of a group referred to as "brothers of the Lord." The theory that Jesus had brothers better explains all of the references to Jesus having a brother in all four Gospels, Galatians 1:19, 1 Corinthians 9:5, and in Josephus (Antiquities 20:200). The "cousin" theory has to strain and come up with a number of subtheories in order to explain it. So, it’s not the simplest. Therefore, the "brother theory" passes all four criteria easily while the "cousin theory" fails criterion 2, 3, and 4. Granted, the "brother" position is not airtight. Few historical positions are. But the historian should embrace the best historical position rather than one that is merely possible. It is clear that the best historical position is that James was the brother of Jesus.

I want to issue a call to realism. Christians have been so spoiled by the good evidence for the truth of Christianity that it is easy to be drawn into accepting the burden of proof demanded by hyperskeptics: “Unless Christians can prove it beyond all doubt and without any other explanation having even the slightest possibility, I won’t believe.” If Flemming, Doherty, Carrier and others in their camp want to embrace this sort of burden of proof, they are free to do so. But this does not obligate those of us who are more prudent in our thinking to embrace their burden of proof. As responsible historians we are looking for the best explanation.

This unreasonable burden of proof on the part of hyperskeptics seems to me an act of the heart that says “I don’t want to believe” rather than a critical mind willing to consider the extant data with integrity. God values free will and is not required to go beyond reasonable evidence. If a hyperskeptic wants to find a reason for rejecting the data, he will, even if it means distorting data and forming logically flawed arguments in order to do it. The DVD we are here considering is a prime example of this attitude and the method that accompanies it.


[94] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: MacMillan, 1946), 72.

[95] See Doherty’s comments: [No longer available as of Sep 08]

[96] See Doherty’s comments: [No longer available as of Sep 08]

[97] Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata, eds., Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 434.

[98] Ibid., 56.

[99] Ibid., 341.

[100] Edwin Yamacuhi, "Jesus and the Scriptures", 53.

[101] Robert Van Voorst. Jesus Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 83.

© 2005 Mike Licona
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