Ian, a secular Bible scholar and a treasured commentator on this site, gave me permission to reproduce a comment he posted on another site. I have given his comment a fun title and made a pic to accompany it. His story illustrates well the difficulty in putting together a historical Jesus. Below the story, for reference, I list the approximate dates the Gospels were written. Finally, I offer a comment on “Atheist Faith”.
Imagine Jesus is born before the first world war. He is killed during the great depression. Imagine the first records anyone has about him are some letters from the 50s from someone who claims to have met Jesus directly, raised from the dead. He doesn’t say much about Jesus (no biographical
information at all), he focuses exclusively on his death and resurrection (Paul never claims to know anything about Jesus other than his revelation and the communion story, in fact he brags about his ignorance at the start of Gal).
Now, on with our parallel time-line. Towards the end of the trauma of the
Vietnam war, we get the first book about Jesus’s life, and in it Jesus is
predicting war and destruction. In it Jesus dies, but the author doesn’t
describe his resurrection.
In the late 70s and early 80s two more books come out. They embellish the
story, add (different) accounts of the birth, add (different) resurrection
stories and describe how Jesus was constantly railing against the commie
Finally a couple of years ago a fourth book came out that was even more
grandiose and had Jesus claiming he was God and talking about how evil
There is as much political difference between Jesus’s Jerusalem and Matthew’s
dispersed community, or Mark in the diaspora, or John in open conflict with
local Jewish leaders.
So based on a set of gospels with those kind of anachronisms, it is tough to
say much at all about what the great-depression-era guy actually thought
New Testament Dates
|Event||Critical Dates||Conservative Dates|
|Jesus born||7-2 bce|
|Jesus killed||30 – 33 ad|
|Paul’s Epistles||50 – 62|
|Mark written||70 – 73||55 – 70|
|Matthew written||70 – 100||50 – 69|
|Luke written||80 – 100||55 – 63|
|John written||90 – 100||80 – 99|
Please leave comments to help expand/correct this table or to offer other sources.
Conservative Christian Date Sources:
- Christian Apologetics and Research Ministries
- Tekton: Education and Apologetics Ministry
Most Atheists will like this Ragtime Jesus illustration because it confirms her/his beliefs. They have probably read about these dates and not questioned them much further. Sure, they knew there were a few conservative Christians who disagree, but since the dating of the Gospels confirmed what they already believed, they did not spend time seeking out counter-evidence. After all, it would take a lot of effort to really understand the issue and the dates seemed reasonable. So the Atheist put their trust, their faith, in the writers who confirm their beliefs. Ironically, this confirmation biased faith-approach is what many Atheists chastise Christians for.
In my post defining “Faith”, such faith qualifies as “Trust” (in that they trust their favorite bible scholars or atheist writers) and “Belief Lacking Evidence” (in that the dating of the gospels is still significantly contended) , “A system of beliefs” (in that it decisions leading to the selection bias are based on a whole set of beliefs). Thus, we are all “guilty” of faith — or should we say, we all rely on faith.
I feel that atheists should avoid focusing on the word “Faith” when debating with a theist. Instead, the contention point should focus on the degree of certainty and the willingness to doubt. Thus, though I too suspect the critical dates are much more accurate than conservative estimations and illustrate well the contrived nature of the Gospels, I realize that I use a measure of faith to hold these beliefs. But I am always excited to be shown I am wrong about my faith.
BTW: see my post on “No Crosses” to see another view of Jesus born in the 40’s and 50’s.