View Full Version : Will Durant on Jesus Christ's historicity

24 Nov 2009, 03:44 PM
Historian Will Durant was likely repeating some conventional wisdom in his history series, but some rebutters of Jesus-mythicism quote it as if it was Great Original Research on his part.

Here is what he said, in full:
The Christian evidence for Christ begins with the letters ascribed to Saint Paul. Some of these are of uncertain authorship; several, antedating A.D. 64, are almost universally accounted as substantially genuine. No one has questioned the existence of Paul, or his repeated meetings with Peter, James, and John; and Paul enviously admits that these men had known Christ in his flesh. The accepted epistles frequently refer to the Last Supper and the Crucifixion....

The contradictions are of minutiae, not substance; in essentials the synoptic gospels agree remarkably well, and form a consistent portrait of Christ. In the enthusiasm of its discoveries the Higher Criticism has applied to the New Testament tests of authenticity so severe that by them a hundred ancient worthies -- for example, Hammurabi, David, Socrates -- would fade into legend. Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed -- the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus' arrest, Peter's denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity, his early uncertainty as to his mission, his confessions of ignorance as to the future, his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospel. After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature of the history of Western man.

The Story of Civilization, Volume 3: Caesar and Christ (p. 555)
There is so much that is wrong in it that I almost don't know where to begin.

Paul? Someone must have written the Epistles, and "Paul" is as good a name as any for whomever had written the earlier ones. However, there are some discrepancies between what this Paul wrote about himself and about what Acts says about him, discrepancies that have led some to conclude that Acts is a pious fiction.

In any case, when Paul visits the Jerusalem Church, he displays no interest in the places where his Lord and Savior had visited and preached and been tried and got crucified and got buried and got resurrected. And this is despite his writing at length about Christ in his epistles, crucifixion and resurrection and all, while seldom mentioning anything else that suggests that he had had an earthly existence, and never attributing to him the teachings that the Gospels attribute to him.

The alleged "minutiae" that the Gospels contradict each other on are far from minutiae; the birth stories and the resurrection stories, for instance. Furthermore, the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have lots of word-for-word agreement, which suggests plagiarism; it is usually thought that Matthew and Luke had copied off of Mark.

And what are those "tests of authenticity"? Durant does not say, but let us examine his examples:

David. There was at least possibly a King David who ruled Jerusalem around 1000 BCE, but there is no convincing evidence that he ruled much more than that and the immediate area -- he did not rule the northern-kingdom area, only part of the southern kingdom.

Socrates. Telling fact from fiction about him is rather difficult, it must be said. We have three main sources, and there are problems with all three. Plato had used Socrates as a literary sockpuppet in much of his work, meaning that it can be hard to tell the real Socrates from Plato. Xenophon may not have understood his ideas very well, as Bertrand Russell suggests, and might have copied off of Plato. Aristophanes could have been using him as an example for satirizing philosophers in general in his play The Clouds.

Hammurabi. He is known from a lot of on-the-spot archeological evidence, so might Will Durant have misremembered someone?

If there was a historical Jesus Christ, he would be like David and Socrates, someone whose surviving biographies contain difficult-to-separate mixtures of fact and fiction. And what's worse, David and Socrates had not been big miracle-workers.

As to what inventors might have concealed, those incidents could easily be present for dramatic purposes.

The apostles being whimpering cowards could have been for dramatic contrast to Jesus Christ; Homer's Odyssey also makes Odysseus's men whimpering cowards, and in Bungie's Myth series of computer games, the civilians are also whimpering cowards compared to one's troops. "Please please please please please don't eat me! I've got a wife and kids! Millions of kids!" (Myth 2: Soulblighter)

And Jesus Christ feeling uncertain about himself and sounding despairing on that cross seems like an effort to make him seem more human. If he was some superpowerful cosmic superbeing, then he could easily have jumped off of that cross and said "Hah! Did you people think that you could hurt me?" He would not have been as dramatically interesting.

Interestingly, Mark makes JC more human in this way than Luke. In Mark, JC says nothing on the cross except "My God, My God, why did you abandon me?" By contrast, in Luke, JC is more in control of the situation, giving instructions and the like, and ending with a rather brave "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!"

It is something like modern Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ (1951), in which JC struggles with various temptations, like living a normal sort of life with Mary Magdalene instead of being a religious prophet. This controversial novel was made into a movie in 1988, which also became controversial. Some people were very admiring about how this Gospel of Nikos portrayed JC as very human, while others considered it to be rather extreme blasphemy.

Back to Durant. As to failing to work miracles in Galilee, he could have been presented as doing that to show that he does not work work miracles for people who are unworthy of him. And as to some people claiming that he was insane, that could have been a dramatic device for rebutting criticisms, something like the theory about JC's resurrection that someone had stolen his body.

As to JC's biographers being "a few simple men", nobody knows what they were really like, since there are no contemporary outside accounts.

As to his ethic being "lofty", I don't find anything especially lofty in it, especially when some of it is closely parallel to the teachings of the hippie-ish Cynic philosophers of the time. Earl Doherty in The Jesus Puzzle notes a close similarity between Cynic teachings and the "Q" document reconstructed from Matthew and Luke.

And as to human brotherhood, that is not very apparent; on some occasions, JC is described as disdaining Gentles, and he heals a certain Syro-Phoenician woman's child only when she gives him a witty comeback to his initial refusal to do so.

25 Nov 2009, 04:05 AM
I read the Story of Civilization. All 10 (11?) volumes. Took me a entire summer to do it. Great stuff!

Yet when he says, "that a few simple men..." you know he's slipping into apologetics. That is a sentiment that does not appear anywhere else in his great work; IIRC, in all other historical eras he remarks on the near-universal cleverness of man to adapt and invent, regardless of the time-period.

01 Dec 2009, 10:41 AM
I read the Story of Civilization. All 10 (11?) volumes. Took me a entire summer to do it. Great stuff!

Yet when he says, "that a few simple men..." you know he's slipping into apologetics. That is a sentiment that does not appear anywhere else in his great work; IIRC, in all other historical eras he remarks on the near-universal cleverness of man to adapt and invent, regardless of the time-period.
Or he was uncritically repeating others' apologetics.

As to making up a story being a bigger miracle than walking on water or conjuring up food and drink or rising from the dead -- that's pure hooey. It's like claiming that it's impossible for someone as "simple" as J.K. Rowling to have written the Harry Potter stories..

And yes, Harry Potter fits Lord Raglan's Mythic Hero profile very well.

05 Dec 2009, 12:38 PM
I am Harry potter.