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Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)

[See Introduction]


Richard Carrier


14. Was the Apparent Ignorance of Jesus a Problem?

James Holding argues that "if you want a decent deity, you have to make him fully respectable," yet "ignorance of future or present events" is embarrassing and would be a big hurdle to overcome in selling Jesus as God. This is by far Holding's weakest argument. He never proves this was a problem in the first hundred years of Christian preaching. Indeed, he doesn't even establish that the statements in question were at all widely known even among Christians in the first century, much less an element of any conversion speech, even less an objection anyone raised until elite scholars took notice in the 2nd century. Those same elite scholars attacked all popular religions for exactly the same reasons: the precious myths the common people believed about their gods depicted those gods as exhibiting human weaknesses, including ignorance of things they should have known. Obviously, though this annoyed elite scholars, it was never any barrier to the success of widespread belief in these gods. So why should it have been a problem for Christians?

That is sufficient to nullify Holding's point. But there is a further problem worth discussing: Holding does not take into account the probability of evolution in Christian ideology. When the sayings of Jesus first began to circulate, the early Christians probably had a very different conception of who he was than Christians a century later did. As already discussed in Chapter 9, the earliest Christians may not have believed Jesus was literally God. Mark appears to deny it in 10:18, 13:32, and elsewhere. And only once does any Pauline letter directly call him God (Romans 9:5), rather than a son, king, or intermediary between man and God, and that one direct attribution may well be a scribal interpolation. The fact that it is unique in the Pauline corpus suggests this, as does the fact that magnifying the Christological titles of Jesus, especially adding the appellation "God" (theos), is one of the most commonly documented interpolations, with numerous examples in extant manuscripts.[1] Even 1 Clement, written at the end of the first century, never claims Jesus was literally identical with God, but always portrays Jesus as a chosen intermediary. So it cannot be confidently proven that in the early days of the Christian mission Jesus was thought to share in the omniscience of God, any more than any other prophet did. Thus, a few sayings suggesting his ignorance would present no barrier to believing that Jesus was the Chosen One of God, Lord and King of Kings, Anointed Son of God, and so on. For Jesus was not expected to share all the divine attributes during his days on earth, until much later in Christian history.[2]

Likewise, Holding's only evidence is the fact that the Gospels suggest Jesus might not have known some things, and depict him showing "weakness." But this is not relevant to what the Christians were actually saying about Jesus from the beginning. The entire purpose of God's incarnating and taking on flesh was to suffer.[3] This is clear throughout the Epistles. His death could not logically atone if he could not physically suffer, and therefore signs of weakness (including weakness of mind) are necessary to God's plan, not indications against the divinity of Jesus. It would be meaningless (in fact, heretical) to believe Jesus took on a human body that was indestructible, all-powerful, and impervious to pain. Nor did most pagans believe such things of their own incarnated gods (as discussed in Chapter 9). To the contrary, to be incarnated meant to them, as it did to the Christians, that a god voluntarily (or, often, by fate of birth) took on many of the weaknesses of flesh, until shedding that flesh and adopting once again the true divine body (as Christ did at his resurrection).

Ultimately, Holding fails to prove any obstacle was created for the Christian mission in its first hundred years by these details of the Gospels. Nor does he show that these details were widely known even within the Christian community, or that they played any role when persuading anyone to convert. He also doesn't show that Christians in the first hundred years even taught that Jesus was literally identical to God, sharing all the divine attributes during his sojourn on Earth--which means Holding can't even demonstrate that prospective converts would have been bothered by a Divine Man who shared in human weaknesses. To the contrary, the Christians were preaching that he had to share in these weaknesses for his salvation to work its magic. Only as Christianity grew more distant from its Jewish roots, and aspired more toward winning over more studious elites, did the role of Jesus as "suffering servant" recede into the background, and the need to build him up as a superman came to the forefront. But by then it was too late. There would be no way to check. But even then, most people would have no difficulty, just as most had no difficulty worshipping pagan gods with similar foibles.


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[1] See scholarship and cross-reference in Note 5 in Chapter 9 (the whole of that chapter is relevant here as well).

[2] Indeed, logic suffices here: obviously Jesus did not possess God's attribute of omnipresence. Therefore, there is no logical reason why Jesus could not have lacked other omnible attributes. In other words, to argue that Jesus could not be God because he wasn't omniscient is no more logical than arguing that Jesus could not be God because he wasn't omnipresent. Anyone unimpressed by the latter argument would be equally unimpressed by the former argument. And Christianity only won over those who were suitably unimpressed by such highbrow nitpicking.

[3] e.g. Romans 8:17; 2 Corinthians 1:5; 1 Peter 1:11, 2:21, 3:18, 4:1, 4:13, 5:1; Hebrews 2:9 & 13:12; and see Chapter 1.

Copyright ©2006 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Carrier. All rights reserved.