"Saved" in Translation?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Considering a book called God Wants You Dead, Eric Raymond recalls some interesting facts about early Christianity, including a couple I'd never heard. These two are rather amusing when one considers that the entire New Testament was written in Koine (i.e., common, post-classical) Greek due to the original, Aramaic-speaking founders of the sect having been all but wiped out:

3. In other Aramaic sources roughly contemporary with the New Testament, the phrase "Son of God" occurs as an idiom for "guru" or "holy man". Thus, if Jesus refers to himself as "the son of God", the Aramaic sense is arguably "the boss holy man".

4. The Koine Greek of the period, on the other hand, did not have this idiom.

Now, imagine a Koine speaker reading the lost Aramaic source documents of which the Gospels are redactions, with only an indifferent command of the latter language He does not know that "Son of God" is an idiom...

Yes, that's right. I'm suggesting that Jesus got deified by a translation error!
Mild chuckles aside, I suspect that some non-religious people (I am not suggesting that Raymond is one of them.) will see this historical curiosity as buttressing their position, much as they did awhile back when news reports circulated to the effect that the remains of the historical Jesus had been unearthed, amid crowing that Christianity had, finally, been sunk. Nevertheless, as I said then:
[A]ny arbitrary claim, by its nature, has no evidence for or against it. Whether we have found the skull of Jesus or not [or his supposed divinity is due to a mistranslation] makes precisely zero difference in our evaluation of him as divine, on the question of whether he turned water into wine, or whether he rose from the dead. Whenever something earthly is taken as "evidence" for or against such claims, one will find that the person is guilty of perpetuating, or has fallen for, a package deal, an indiscriminate lumping-together of things that differ essentially in some way. [hyperlink and bold dropped]
This means two things. First, there is no need, based on epistemological grounds, to entertain arbitrary claims. And second, the real joke is on anyone who accepts as truth arbitrary, unprovable claims -- and then goes on to base his entire worldview and life around them.

-- CAV


John Drake said...

I'm by no means an expert in this area, but from what I read in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the reason why the Armenians were wiped out was because of their different belief in the stature of Jesus. According to Gibbon, The Armenian bishops and the Greek bishops were well aware of the meaning of the phrases, but they disagreed. One sect believed that Jesus was the son of god, the other did not believe Jesus had godly abilities. It took the emperor (I can't remember which one) to pick a winner. The other sect was destroyed.

I'd be interested to hear if Raymond has evidence to the contrary that suggests it was a translation error.

That being said, I couldn't agree more with your last couple sentences. Well said.

Gus Van Horn said...

At least one reader of Raymond's picks a bone or two regarding a couple of his earlier points, as well.

Thanks for speaking up.

Neil Parille said...

I don't think this is very likely. You might want to check out Larry Hurtado's book Lord Jesus Christ and Ben Witherington's The Christology of Jesus.

Gus Van Horn said...


madmax said...


The historicity of Jesus is a very hotly debated issue. I have read a number of books on this subject and, while I can't say this with certainty, I think there is a very high probability that the future of rational New Testament Scholarship will show that there was *no historical Jesus* and that Christianity started as a decentralized faith movement and not as a centralized religion orienting around some historical preacher.

There is an Objectivist blogger who specializes in polemics against theism and arguments for the rejection of the historical Jesus and for the Mythical Jesus theory (to which I subscribe). His name is Dawson Bethrick and his blog address is:


I include this link for those of your readers who are interested in this subject. I suspect there are more than a few. Through Dawson, I have been introduced to what I consider the best New Testament Scholars. They are Robert Price, G.A. Wells and Earl Doherty.

They all argue for the Mythical Christ position and IMO their arguments are devastating. For anyone interested, the best single book to read for the presentation of the Mythical Christ theory is Earl Doherty's "The Jesus Puzzle." This book explains both the religious *and* philosophical context of the ancient world. To make a long story short, Plato's influence on religion, let alone philosophy, was enormous. Dr. Peikoff has written that Plato was the spiritual father of Christianity. Doherty shows that Peikoff was more right than perhaps he is even aware of.

Here is a link to Earl Doherty's website which is packed full of great articles:


Here is another link to Dawson's site, but a search of Dawson's writings on Christian legends.


People interested in the origin of Christianity will find mountains full of great information at these two sites.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the discussion and the links, madmax.

I am a far cry from being an expert on the history of Christianity, but figured that there would be many controversies in the field. Still, I am surprised to hear of such strong support for the theory that there was no historical Jesus at all!

madmax said...

"Still, I am surprised to hear of such strong support for the theory that there was no historical Jesus at all!"

This shocked me too. Prior to reading about this, I thought that there probably was some itinerant preacher who was crucified by the Roman authorities. But after having read about a dozen books on the subject and countless articles from scholars that exhibit excellent epistemologies (at least on this subject) *and* from having read extensively the Christian apologists and what their main arguments are and seeing their epistemologies, I would say that an objective conclusion to reach regarding the historicity of Jesus is that there is a *high* probability that there was no Jesus and Christianity was *entirely* the product of religious syncretism. For me, this has been one of the most shocking discoveries since I discovered Ayn Rand.

Now I hasten to add that mine is but just one opinion. But I also will add that at Dawson's site I have seen a growing number of Objectivists that are subscribing to the Mythicist or Legendary Christ view. Some have speculated that within a century or two, pretty much all secularists will reject the existence of a historical Christ and that rational, scientific Biblical scholarship would have shown that Christianity was *entirely* man made. What this will do to Christianity and the Christians themselves is anybody's guess.

Thanks for letting me comment on this subject.

Neil Parille said...

I haven't read Doherty's book, but I wouldn't say there is "strong support" for the theory that Jesus didn't exist or that it is "hotly debated."

G.A. Wells denied his existence, but I'm almost positive Price doesn't. I don't know of any liberal protestant NT scholars who take the non-existence theory seriously, much less advocate it.

Ben Witherington has a critique here:


Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for your interesting and thoughtful comments. They certainly improved the post!

Gus Van Horn said...


You comment slipped past GMail and ended up getting posted late.

I'm leaving it up to madmax or others more interested in such questions to engage you on that one.

I've no dogs in this hunt.


madmax said...

I'll post just one comment to Neil who seems to be a Theistic apologist judging by the fact that he is a supporter of both Greg Nyquist and Bill Valicella, two anti-Rand critics who are themselves theistic apologists.

It is true that Robert Price has softened his stance on the Mythicist position slightly. He has left open the possibility that if Jesus existed, he was a itinerant Cynic philosopher / preacher spreading his message in the Levantine area.

This is really nothing radical as even Doherty and Wells argue that one layer of the Q writings are Cynic morality sayings. (Q is a collection of the sayings of Jesus. They reveal that these sayings are the product of different religious communities, different religious traditions and different times; ie they reveal that the sayings of Jesus *evolved*.) In fact, there is nearly word for word similarity between many of the saying of Jesus and Cynic moral teachings. Price just speculates that there may be a real man behind the Cynic sayings. Both Wells and Doherty think Price is wrong for this. Its not a major disagreement but more of a squabble over details.

Regarding Neil's argument that the Historicity argument is not mainstream. This is true. And of course Protestant NT scholars have not accepted it. If they did, they would not be Christians. The Mythicist argument is being championed by those critical scholars that are largely outside the mainstream. But is this surprising? However, men like Wells and Price are highly credentialed scholars so this is no fringe movement. Doherty on the other hand can be thought of as a Henry Hazlett whereas Wells and Price are more like Von Mises; ie Doherty is a brilliant popularizer as opposed to the originating theorist (and he admits to this).

But more importantly on this, what is going on is that this type of critical scholarship is forcing many mainstream scholars to be *far* more critical in NT research and scholarship. For example, The Jesus Seminar, which is group of 150 Biblical scholars some secular and some religious, have recently rejected many of the sayings attributed to Jesus. They are being forced to admit that prior centuries worth of NT scholarship has been flawed! The Jesus story is slowly being chipped away, one parable at a time. So, the fact that the Mythicist theory is not mainstream is no argument against it - anymore than the fact that Ayn Rand is not mainstream is an argument against her.

As for criticism of Doherty and the Mythicist theory - he is very open to them and he is forthcoming in answering them all. He wrote a book called "Challenging The Verdict" where he provided a devastating critique of Christian apologist Lee Strobel's criticism of Doherty and the Mythicist theory.

As I said, you have to look at the epistemologies of these religious apologists and when you do that you see how intellectually sloppy they are. Ben Witherington is just another example. A while back Dawson Bethrick, who has reviewed many pro-historical Jesus apologists and found them all wanting, linked to a great critique of Witherington's argument against Doherty from a secular commentator. Here is the link:


In it, the secular blogger exposes how apologists take for granted the very points that are in fact racked with controversy. They assume the Christian literalist position as the default. This is why I say that Christian apologists demonstrate such terrible epistemologies that everything they say must be held with suspicion.

At this point my response has gone on long enough. My main point to all of Gus's readers is that there is a growing movement among critical NT scholars that there was in fact no Jesus. This is significant because if it is true it is just that much more evidence that Christianity is false. We know this philosophically, but it will be earth shaking if scientific minded scholarship should prove that there wasn't even a real man behind all the theology! As always people are encouraged to read up on this subject and judge for themselves. Hopefully I have given those who are interested a few good places to start.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks again, madmax.

Anonymous said...

Hey madmax,

For me also, the idea that there was no such person as Jesus Christ is a bit of an, um, revelation :), as the only hint about this possibility that I'd had before now, was a side comment by Harry Binswanger expressing doubt that there ever was such a person.

The thing I thought, when I read that, is that perhaps that might be so, but what difference would it make?

After all, we are talking about believers in the first place; they'll just go right on doing what they do now -- invoking faith in the face of unpalatable facts. And I'm inclined to think that the existence of JC will not ever be completely refuted in any case, so they will always have that gap.

So I question the idea that such a discovery would be "earthshaking", any more than the supposed revelations about Christ in "The DaVinci Code" were earthshaking. 200 years ago, sure, but why wuld it be so now? As they always have, the faithful would simply ignore the inconvenient fact (that wuld be the "orthodox" side) or make adjustments and carry on (the "reform" side).

You might see a small exodus to other faiths (was Mohammed for real?) but beyond that, what else would happen?

Gus Van Horn said...

"[W]hat difference would it make?"

That was my first thought, too, and I am still inclined to think that such a discovery would NOT cause a massive exodus from the religion, at least not immediately, and perhaps never, for epistemological grounds.

But I could see it chipping away at it. There are lots of semi-rational or mostly rational Christians. I was one once. For some of them, the discovery could be straw that breaks the camel's back, and causes them to begin the crucial process of questioning their faith further.