An Atheist’s Guide to Historical Reconstruction

Jesus was a nationalist wandering preacher. He  did not claim to be divine in any way. Christianity was created actually by the apostle Paul, who devised an universal religion to address his own identity issues, as both a Jew and a Roman citizen. In the process, an obscure Jesus become Christ the Son of God, and voilà, Christianity was born.

Oh, well. There they go again. I have a tendency to enjoy literature critical of my Christian faith. It’s usually fun. Fun in a fantastical way, like conspiracy theories and scavenger hunts and Alien motherships hovering over the White House. In this case, the claims above come from what The Economist calls an atheist’s guide to the origins of Christianity: a new book by journalist Selina O’Grady, called And Man Created God: Kings, Cults, and Conquests at the Time of Jesus.

I usually enjoy revisionist conspiracy theories like O’Grady’s. It may be sarcastic and sinful on my part, but it is fun to see someone enjoying  15 minutes of fame with fantastic claims, only to be discredited by the 16th minute. She took pains to write a big book, let she say her mind. Free speech,  folks.

But sometimes I get worked up. In The Economist’s review of And Man Created God, it was these two sentences: “To the scholarly secular enquirer, certainty about the historical Jesus is elusive. The written evidence is thin to non-existent…”[i] What do you mean, thin to non-existent? What about the most distributed book in the world, which includes four biographies of Jesus, a history of his first followers, and several letters written to the early Christian communities? And then what about the historical record of Pliny or Tacitus or Josephus? Here in Rome, people would join their fingers and exclaim, “Che stai a di’?!” – the Italian street language equivalent of someone furring his eyebrows, tilting the head to the side and asking, “What you sayin’ man?”

The assumption, of course, is that the Bible doesn’t count as written evidence. It is biased, it is fantastical,  it is written by those who created the conspiracy itself. But let me politely ask: and how do you arrive at that conclusion? Do you have any written evidence to support this claim? On which basis do you reconstruct the origins of Christianity? The reasoning, I suppose, would go like this: since the gospels were written by Jesus’ followers, and claim that he was the incarnate Son of God,  they can’t possibly be true. To get real history, you need neutral, unbiased accounts.

But that’s not how we go about studying history, is it? Let me give an example: the Holocaust.[ii] Doesn’t the eyewitness account of the concentration camps count? Of course it does. Survivors provide actually better history than supposedly neutral explanations of the workings of the Nazi concentration camps. They not only include the factual details, but include the interpretation of those facts: that what the Nazi did in those camps is wrong, evil, and abominable. That is truer history than “neutral” journalism (which, of course, will never be truly neutral). A true history of the Holocaust should not stop at the mechanics of the camps; it should include a repulsive reaction to them. If you are neutral to what took place in those camps, you did not quite understand what happened there. If you are not biased, emotional, and interpretative in your account of the Holocaust, if you do not abominate those mass murders, your reporting is incomplete, faulty, and in this case, inhuman.

Now the gospels: why dismiss eyewitnesses who spent years  with Jesus, who saw him in every possible setting, and who in the process became convinced that he was indeed God incarnate? Just because you want it? Just because your personal a priori beliefs preclude this possibility? If Jesus was indeed God (if you don’t believe it, concede it for a moment for argument’s sake), a true history of his life would not include genealogy, some random accounts and leave it at that. It would include the natural reaction to such a person: worship. It would want to broadcast this finding to the four corners of the earth.  It would live and die for this fact, like most of the apostles did.

Objective, historic analysis of the life of Jesus cannot dismiss his eyewitnesses; they have to be listened to,  questioned, and be believed or be discredited only later. We can’t discredit followers of a leader just because they are followers; we have at least to listen to what they have to say. If they are discredited later, it will be because of scholarly study, academic reasoning, historical fact, not because of someone’s personal disposition and the result of a power play.

This is actually a great question: are Jesus’ eyewitnesses trustworthy? Did Christianity start like the Bible say it does? Does the world’s largest and most influential religion stand on solid historical ground, or is it a hoax? Let’s continue the discussion this Thursday with the second of this three-post series.

René Breuel

[i] “An Atheist’s Guide: A new book argues that St Paul’s success was the key to Christianity’s success,” The Economist, Sep 15th, 2012. Review available at:

[iI] To see this historical parallel explained in better detail, see Richard Bauckham’s masterful Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.


One response to “An Atheist’s Guide to Historical Reconstruction

  1. Pingback: Gospels: Myths or Biographies? « Wondering Fair·

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