Ragtime Jesus & Atheist Faith

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”.

Ragtime Jesus

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
terrorism was.

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
about politics.

New Testament Dates

Event Critical Dates Conservative Dates
Jesus born 7-2 bce
Jesus killed 30 – 33 ad
Paul’s Epistles 50 – 62
Temple destroyed 70
Mark written 70 – 73 55 – 70
Matthew written 70 – 100 50 – 69
Luke written 80 – 100 55 – 63
John written 90 – 100 80 – 99
Revelations written 95

Please leave comments to help expand/correct this table or to offer other sources.

Conservative Christian Date Sources:


Atheist Faith

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.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

18 responses to “Ragtime Jesus & Atheist Faith

  1. Interesting. It is easy to just assume that something you read or hear that you agree with is true. I try to resist that knee-jerk reaction and actually research the claims. I must confess that I am much quicker to research claims that I disagree with.

    The dates, both sets, still cast reasonable doubt upon the details regarding Jesus and his followers in the early years. I don’t lose sleep over whether or not Jesus existed as presented in the gospels, though I used to believe it completely not so many years ago. I’m more concerned with how those who do believe in Jesus choose to act on their belief.

    My atheism has nothing to do with the details of Biblical scholarship and everything to do with experiencing God, particularly the god of the Bible, or the lack thereof.

    Good post.

  2. Hey Mike, thanks for stopping in !

    I too did not leave Christianity due to biblical scholarship, critical or otherwise, but probably for reasons similar to you. I am actually amazed actually by those ex-Christians who have left for research reasons. Mind you, research makes me feel good about my intuitions, but my reasons were primarily experiential originally. Oh yeah, and one biased intellectual reason: I didn’t want to worship a god who would damn people for simple beliefs — sure, I could be wrong, of course. It was only after leaving Christianity and studying many other faiths that I became interested in the phenomena of religion and the theologies/philosophies therein. And, as you say in your blog, I probably still have a superstitious propensity to study these things — laughing !

  3. The irrationality of Christianity (God created a system where he had to incarnate and then die to redeem us for something we never did.) didn’t really dawn on me until after my deconversion.

    i always appreciate your comments, so I finally stopped by. 🙂

  4. “God created a system where he had to incarnate and then die to redeem us for something we never did”

    -penal substitution model. not a fan. nor is it the ONLY atonement model in Christianity, although it could be the dominant one. need to do more research on that. but there are in operation at least 7 atonement theories out there. “Saving Power” is a book one of my profs wrote talking about this… but that’s not the point.

    i was writing to commend the first writer of their history. this is a big deal between the liberal method of historical criticism and the more conservative dogmatic or doctrinal method. but here’s the kicker for me:

    People don’t realize the Bible was never written to be history.

    why are we so hung up on the facts? can there be truth in fiction? is truth dependent on fact or are they separate, yet related concepts?

    my take: studying buddhist scriptures i was lead to study hindu to understand the context and some of the language and theological nuancing between the two faiths. ask any hindu or buddhist if they think that the events in their holy scriptures ever factually happened and you’ll get a resounding “no.” the stories are still sacred and contain the truth but the facts just aren’t important to that culture.

    now we have christainity which, like buddhism, is a movement that spun off of another more rigid ‘caste’ system with purity laws and such. but in this system there seems to be more rigidity and less room for metaphor. wonder why that is? i have my hunches, but i wanna see what y’all say.

  5. VorJack

    now we have christainity which, like buddhism, is a movement that spun off of another more rigid ‘caste’ system with purity laws and such.

    Probably best not to make to many sweeping generalization about Judaism and purity laws. Unless you’ve read the Mishnah, you’re only getting one side of the argument in a long running sibling rivalry.

    but in this system there seems to be more rigidity and less room for metaphor.

    If by “this system” you mean Christianity, then I suppose it’s probably because the early church pretty much invented the concept of doctrine. “God gave his only son so that those who believe in him …”, but believe in him how? Given the invective that got thrown around, it seems like the early church spent the first thousands or so years trying to answer the question of exactly what we should believe in order to properly believe in Jesus. When you’ve got those kinds of squabbles going on, arguing for a relaxed metaphorical understanding is just asking for a fight.

  6. @ Luke
    (1) I have been reading on Atonement Theories and will post a summary in a few days. I think, as you know, that I agree with you that the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) is bizarre and destructive. Many Christians agree with you and many atheists do too. The book Saving Power by Schmiechen looks good! I put it on my Amazon list — any cheaper books out there than $24.44?? Thanx for the recommendation.

    (2) I agree with you that perhaps many of the bible writers did not have the same ideas of writing history as moderns do. Thus for a real understanding of the writers’ intents, we sometimes can not read with a modern mind. Yet we can’t have it both ways — at one time it is true and another time it is not history but just a theme. Or if you have it both ways, the risk is, you can say whatever you want. Don’t you think? Some would take your thinking so far as to say even the resurrection was not meant to be real reporting of history. I’m fine with that, and actually prefer it, but I don’t think most Christians would want to get anywhere near that statement. Do you agree?

    Buddhist don’t assume the story of the Buddha was born from the armpit of a woman impregnated by an elephant, but then they also don’t believe he was a sacrificed deity — only a very wise teacher.

    @ VorJack
    Hello VorJack ! Are you the same VorJack as the honorable Daniel Florien from “Unreasonable Faith“? Either way, thanks for stopping in !!

  7. VorJack,

    thanks for your concern and for pointing out the possible supersessionism. that wasn’t my take and in a post i had on facebook on a similar theme i added “(some would say, but that system fell anyway with the destruction of the temple and the rabbinic movement)” after that line. i couldn’t go back and edit it here.


    Moltmonn is a good start, maybe cheaper than Prof Pete’s book. although his is more comprehensive. might be able to pick it up cheap on the amazon used list. if not, i think it’s worth the $25, but then again, i kinda have a stake in reading it that you don’t 😉

    “Or if you have it both ways, the risk is, you can say whatever you want. Don’t you think?”

    that’s where socio-historic criticism comes in. i’m not so much interested in the HOW the texts came down to us, although sometimes it’s important. but what were the concerns of the writer at that time and how does that affect the Jesus narrative? It’s more complicated than that. I think these narratives are a mix of actual history, historically based myth and allegory/story/mythos and it’s not always easy to figure out which is which.

    to paraphrase was a good jewish friend said:
    “I know that Torah is as much about peoplehood and nation building as it is about religion. It tells Jews the essential truth about who they are, which is why we get so ticked off when other people steal it. I know that something happened to a whole nation/tribe of people at Mt Sinai that altered their view of themselves.”

    There are events that transcend actual history to become archtypal identity. like George Washington and the cherry tree or Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed. these stories were ‘mythified’ to portray an identity for early americans but they were based on actual events. we happen to be closer to the ‘facts’ of the american folklore vs. the Christian ones.

    “I don’t think most Christians would want to get anywhere near that statement. Do you agree?”

    no. not in my experience, but then i swim in a different crowd of christians than normal. i think certain types of christians would have a problem with it. i take things like the resurrection as a metaphorical-literal: something happened and Christianity survived. i’m currently up in the air about the bodily, but the total metaphoric i get but think it would still take something more.. cause the resurrection is attested to some 80% of the texts we have discovered (round about figure from Ehrman’s “New Testament” book) and the main exception would be the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas that has no resurrection (but it DOES have a kick ass talking cross! how crazy is that?!)

    for now I believe the resurrection is bodily. I mean that I believe it really happened in real time. If you find that you doubt it, I don’t blame you, and I suspect it’s the hardest thing of all to believe. It’s not the kind of fact that you can prove, and I don’t intend to try. I want only to propose what kind of fact it is, what kind of fact the writers of scripture regarded it to be.

    It is not a scientific fact. It cannot be verified according to the scientific method of controlled repetition. Of course not, by definition, because the resurrection was a singularity. It’s sort of like the Big Bang, which strictly speaking is not scientifically verifiable. It can only be inferred. but then again, our definition of ‘fact’ and the writers and scribes of the bible are different.

    now some would have a problem with the insertion of opinion of scribes into the texts. buddhists would have no problem because they would claim that the inspiriation and the “hand of Buddha” added to the originals. i don’t think that Christianity is exempt from this as it’s not meant to be history as we understand it. Buddhist do believe Buddha was a very wise teacher, but there was something else to him too that separated him from the others, like Confucious or Taoist teachings. he was enlightened and depending on the def. of nirvana, that definition varies (Nicherin vs. Zen vs. Therva. vs. Mayah. vs. Tibetan which is VERY supernaturally traditionally.. just look at the book of the dead!).

    good stuff!

  8. Ian

    Luke said “People don’t realize the Bible was never written to be history.”

    I’m not entirely sure that is correct, although I hear it alot.

    What I think was originally meant by this is something like: “First century writers didn’t have our twentieth century concept of an objective historical narrative.” which I think is true. But you can over-egg that I think.

    If you could ask Luke, say, did these things you’re saying actually, really happen; I can’t see him saying “no, they’re intended to be understood as theological metaphors” (which is what I think many liberal Christians think).

    The gospel writers did think they were writing an accurate account of what actually happens (read Luke 1 to see that stated explicitly). They were wrong, sure, they were biased, sure, they were clouded by their primitive knowledge of the world, yes. But as far as I can tell they were *trying* to write history.

  9. “But as far as I can tell they were *trying* to write history.”

    just as we “try” to write history. we might be a little closer to it… but assumptions are still at play. we can never get out of our own cultural mindset and interpretive framework. i don’t think anyone can be objective.

  10. Ian

    True, but one must be careful not to fall into the postmodern fallacy of saying that, because something is impossible, all attempts are equally bad.

    It is impossible for me to communicate my thoughts to you. But I can do a good or bad job of it.

    It is impossible to determine an authors original intent, but different reads can be shown to be further or closer to it.

    Likewise it is impossible to compose an objective history, but we can still see that some histories are more objective than others.

  11. postmodern fallacy?

    never heard of that one.

    and just because something is impossible is all the more reason for to attempt it (within reason). like going to the moon, ending slavery, fighting for civil rights… you know. those impossible things 😉

  12. @ Luke
    Just checking in. You do understand Ian’s points, don’t you? I think they are drastically important.

    I hear this “Postmodern Fallacy” all the time, but I wonder if it has a real name out there is logic land. I hear this fallacy when people arguing about health controversies (my field) or even in politics. It is important to know that degrees matter. Using this fallacy, drug reps push their drugs on unsuspecting pushers. Logic is important and useful. I am not great at classifying the fallacy, but this particular “postmodern fallacy” seems to share things with the “Tu Quoque” fallacy.

  13. There are many who may date Mk and Mt earlier than the fall of the temple because it is suggested that if the temple had fallen this could be pointed toward as proof that Jesus’ anti-temple statements were proven prophetic and Jesus was vindicated.

  14. Hey Brian,

    Thanx for visiting. Btw , did you like the photoshopped photo? Could you imagine Jesus hanging at Ragtime bars — the place of sinners in those times !

    Concerning your comment. Sure, “many” scholars may date Mk and Mt earlier because it allows him to fulfill prophesy, but:
    (1) Are these scholars believing scholars or non-believers
    (2) Do they do it on other evidence or do they just do it because it fulfills their theological desires

    You comment made it sound like it was believers who cloud their ‘research’ with their theology. If so, we can ignore these, even though they may move their respective congregations. No?

  15. I think the “post-modern fallacy” is a phrase made up by a bunch of modernists pissed that their mechanical view of the universe is dying. it’s a really piss-poor stereotype of post-modern thought.

  16. Ian


    You’re right about the ‘postmodern fallacy’, of course. It is a caricature of post-modern thought.

    I wanted to suggest that this is a fallacy that I hear a lot of (self-professed) postmodernists falling for. Not that it is a fallacy that is somehow a weak foundation on which postmodernism is based. Or that it is even endemic.

    But it is true that I come across a lot of people who think that the *reason* that postmodernism is interested in the readings of a text (as opposed to its writing) is that a reading based on authorial intent is impossible. This is the fallacy. And it seemed to be one you were straying towards in your comment.

    Anything along the lines of ‘its impossible, I can’t be bothered to try’ when it comes to historical criticism is lazy and self-defeating, imho. And I can’t deny that most people who I hear trying to convince me otherwise will call themselves a post-modernist at some point in the conversation as some kind of justification (though, of course, you didn’t).

    As for modernist’s ‘mechanical view of the universe dying’. That’s a wierd thing to associate with postmodernism, which doesn’t attempt to describe the behavior of the universe at all.

  17. Ian


    You’re begging the question.

    The reason the temple predictions are dated to the fall of the temple is because they rely on the principle of the first error.

    If you want to date a prophecy, you read through what it says step by step tracking its correct predictions. Then at some point it will go wrong. Usually it will be something like “and then God will return and redeem his people” or something with a similar theme.

    That’s the point that the prophecy was written, because whoever wrote it *knew* all the previous stuff, but didn’t know what came next. In order for prophecy to work, you need to have readers think you prophesied the other stuff correctly too (the stuff they can check on), so most prophetic books are written back, assigned to previous characters or previous eras.

    You see both these features in Daniel, in Isaiah, and in Mark.

    Now it may well be the case that the prophets did actually say all those things at the time when the writer said they did, and they got most of it right, then suddenly made a mistake. But that approach takes quite a bit of faith, especially as the other supporting evidence (e.g. for an intertestamental Daniel) is so strong. Among biblical scholars that viewpoint is a very small minority, and is almost exclusively found in scholars at institutions with direct denominational links (most commonly evangelical seminaries).

  18. Ian,

    i’m right with you now. thanks for the definition. i hear that a lot by those here at the seminary who are too lazy to do the research and yet unwilling to be changed by any data or idea that shakes them. the claim of post-modern is being abused… yet i also like how “postmodernism… doesn’t attempt to describe the behavior of the universe at all.” yet there is some deconstruction going on with some assumptions we’re bringing to the table. we used to think the universe was rationally laid out.. still might be, but we’re picking up on some irrationalities within the system. i posted about it here: http://toothface.blogspot.com/2009/11/walking-contradictions.html

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