Jesus denial and the Holocaust
The first time I debated anyone about the existence of Jesus, I said to my opponent that this issue had the clearest answer of any that we had ever debated. He was surprised at such a statement, and asked me to produce one single reason why he was wrong about Jesus. I was a little stumped, and only later did I realize the problem with the tactic he had used. I found it described in Denying History, a great book about Holocaust denial and the nature of historical knowledge. It was co-authored by Michael Shermer, the founder and publisher of Skeptic Magazine.
I should stop right here to say that I see many differences between denying Jesus and denying the Holocaust. I don't regard Jesus denial, for one, to be anti-Semitic. I see its conclusion occasionally welcomed by anti-Semites such as the Aryan Stormfront, but I don't think that my debating partner, Ryan, is any kind of anti-Semite. I regard Holocaust denial to be more bigoted, because anti-Semitism, more than merely welcoming it, actually produces it. Holocaust denial is also less rational, because the Holocaust is a modern event of huge size, at the center of a civilization given to documentation and historiography, while Jesus' ministry was briefer, far smaller, long ago, recorded only by ancient technology, and distant from the documented cultural and political centers of the time.
It also must be said that there is nothing wrong with merely asking what is the evidence for Jesus or the Holocaust. Curiosity is an inexpressibly good thing, and asking questions one of the most necessary. Nor is anything wrong even with skepticism about these things, for instance by wanting to be skeptical about any story that includes miracles. Without skepticism there is no science. As a scientist you must try to overthrow your own theory, and one of the best things to come out my debate with Ryan was a long essay in which I tried to disprove the existence of Jesus; my theory that he lived, like any good theory, survived that test. Questions are not a problem, nor are doubts; they are necessary, and useful to both scientific knowledge and faith in the most basic sense. Assertion, however, must be met in turn with its own skepticism. Assertion in a non-scientific manner, moreover, raises serious questions, as does persistently holding to a theory without evidence or against evidence. Shermer does us a useful service, in this vein, by defining pseudo-history as "the rewriting of the past for present personal or political purposes." Persisting in Holocaust denial originates in feelings about Jews, while persisting in Jesus denial originates in feelings about Christianity.
And other similarities appear between the denials of Jesus and the Holocaust, most conspicuously the demand for a single proof. Shermer tells us about Robert Faurisson, a senior lecturer in literary criticism who denies that any gas chambers were used for mass murder of Jews. In a private half-hour conversation with Shermer, Faurisson demanded "one proof, just one proof" that a Nazi gas chamber was used in such a way. Asked repeatedly in turn what he would consider proof, Faurisson gave no answer (p. 60).
As Shermer writes, "The Holocaust is not a single event that a single fact can prove or disprove. The Holocaust was a myriad of events in a myriad of places and relies on myriad pieces of data that converge on one conclusion. Minor errors or inconsistencies here or there cannot disprove the Holocaust, for the simple reason that these lone bits of data never proved it in the first place" (p. 33). Leaving the Holocaust aside, "We know about the past through a convergence of evidence.... The historical theory of evolution gains confirmation by many independent lines of evidence converging on a single conclusion.... Creationists demand 'just one fossil transitional form' that shows evolution. But a single fossil cannot prove evolution" (p. 32).
Essentially, asking for a single proof is the same as saying that you will believe what it pleases you to believe unless someone can force your mind to give it up. Since minds are impossible, or at the very least extremely difficult, to force, the demand for a proof is meaningless.
I might have asked Ryan to give me in turn one single proof that women are equal to men. Physical proof is generally regarded as the strongest, yet when it comes to that, all my eyes can see is that women are smaller than men. You get into absurdities when you try to boil any large question down to a narrow standard such as one single proof. If proof is what you want, the best thing I can see doing is to define what you will consider proof, and then let your theory stand or fall on the answer. You will see instantly that, rightly so, you don't want to put your entire theory, and a great part of your knowledge, at the mercy of one single question. It is not fair to do so, nor does it follow the scientific method, which requires that any question be submitted to more than one test.
Sometimes we wonder how people can persist in Holocaust denial against physical evidence, and we ask, for instance, how they can deny the famous films of piles of emaciated bodies being studied by Allied troops who liberated the concentration camps. It makes no sense that such a thing could be denied, and so we sometimes think of Holocaust deniers as merely "crazy" people who cannot or will not see what is placed in front of their eyes. Indeed, someone who sees a car drive by and says that no car drove by is crazy in a sense, which is to say, they're a candidate for schizophrenia or another condition. Such a person deserves our compassion and care, not our contempt. The Holocaust denier knows all about the films, and has seen them. But he tends to say that this is what happened to the Jews -- if those bodies are conceded to belong to Jews -- in the last days of the war due to the privation and destruction caused by American and British bombing. Holocaust deniers, and neo-Nazis, are not crazy. Like Faurisson, they hold jobs requiring real skills, and make friends quite easily apart from their beliefs (as well as making friends who share their beliefs). Even speaking generally, Nazis are no more crazy than Communists, who killed far more people; and it's well conceded that Hitler, like Nazi Germany, had intelligence, skills, culture and determination. All it takes to deny something well-known is a little intelligence, enough knowledge of your subject matter to form alternative or obscure explanations, and a good amount of impudence. Against that, no single proof will ever suffice.
The rest of Holocaust denial is likewise accomplished in clever ways that would surprise us. Most of us think that Holocaust denial means saying that none of the 6 million died, and that Hitler did nothing with the Jews or against them. But again, deniers do not deny that the car drove by. They do deny the widely accepted definition of the Holocaust, described by Shermer as "the systematic bureaucratically administered destruction by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War of an estimated six million Jews based primarily on racial ideology" (101). They say that Jews died in the hundreds of thousands, due to Allied bombing, or while in the protection of Germans who marched them in the dead of winter, under bombs, away from the camps at the end of the war. Physical evidence means almost nothing when you can rationalize it. That is why Holocaust denial is not what most of us think it is. Some who deny the Holocaust say that in the above-described fashion, even as many as 1 million or 2 million Jews died. But that counts as denial of the Holocaust. The death toll remains high, but the event is no longer recognizable; numerically and otherwise, it is so shorn of its meaning that we can speak of it as being substantially, centrally, essentially denied.
There is, however, no fault incurred in denying that the Holocaust was the worst event in human history, or some similar claim. While such claims mean a lot to those who make them (and I agree that the Holocaust was a unique evil in more than incidental ways), we are now in the gray area normally referred to as "debatable." In truth, all questions are debatable, and no question should be shouted down. But we say "debatable" because we mean that there are certain gray questions that cannot be proved or disproved with the kind of certainty that may be said about the Holocaust's occurrence. Similarly, it is one thing to deny that Jesus was the Messiah or the Son of God, or to debate any number of meanings given to his life or ministry. It is another thing positively to say that he did not exist, or that he was not a teacher of substantially Jewish ideas who suffered capital punishment at the hands of enemies. That is the "core", I think, of what we can say about Jesus, though it must be kept in mind that to deny this core is not as irrational as denying a modern event like the Holocaust, and that Jesus denial is not the same as Holocaust denial.
And in any case, when I have spoken of Jesus denial, I've been referring to those who deny that any man, Jewish or otherwise, executed or otherwise, exists behind Christian testimonies. I know of no one who conceded his existence but denied that he was substantially Jewish or that he was executed. My concern therefore has centered around the claim that Jesus Christ is a thorough fabrication. The equivalent in Holocaust denial does not exist, for it would mean saying that no Jews lived, suffered or were maliciously killed during the Second World War. While Holocaust deniers do deny that such iconic figures as Anne Frank lived, and they play games with the demographic count of Jews living in wartime Europe, they cannot wholly deny the existence of 9 million European Jews, or wholly deny the deaths of at least thousands of Jews. Largely because of physical evidence like what appears in films, no one today can deny that Jews lived and died during that war. All that's left is to deny the process (such as Hitler's intention), the total numbers, and the meaning. With the life of Jesus, an ancient and marginal event, no one needs to say that there was an execution, or even a life. Ancient evidence is so much thinner that people can plead to be blinded by fog.
For the existence of Jesus, we have converging lines of evidence from writings by Christians (the New Testament and other texts), Jews (Josephus), and Romans (Tacitus, Seutonius). To what degree the Jewish and Roman writings represent independent witness is debated widely, but the Christian writings in themselves are not one single block; there are independent traditions within the New Testament that we don't usually call independent because, ironically, the Church fathers gathered them later, in the desire to bring together what they concluded were eyewitness accounts from people who knew each other (a conclusion now widely doubted in biblical scholarship), and called them parts of the New Testament. To judge all Christian literature as a single independent witness is no more legitimate than saying that two Jews who witnessed the same ethnic cleansing in Poland are not independent just because they're both Jews and they both believe what they witnessed. It is, rather, relevant to ask whether the witnesses knew each other. In the New Testament, some witnesses seem to know each other but some clearly do not, while some have copied independently from a document now lost; and all those who are independent provide uniquely remembered but similar material on more than one aspect of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Those witnesses that seem genuinely not to know each other are either agreeing on the facts of Jesus' existence and his interactions with famous local figures (some still living when they wrote), or are independently arriving at the same basic outline of Jesus' life and his interactions -- besides, of course, lying outright, if Jesus did not live. By this last point we mean more than that the authors were stating falsehoods; we also mean that they wrote stories which were false but nevertheless sound real to our ears, two thousand years later -- for instance by admitting that the early leaders of the Church behaved like slow-witted dullards and cowards; that Jesus made prophecies proven untrue shortly after his death, or that he admitted not knowing the future; that the Messiah met a horribly shameful death and did not return to save his people; or by making specific, falsifiable statements about who Jesus met in his lifetime; etc.
Moreover, we have no surviving record indicating doubt in Palestine or the wider world about the existence of Jesus or his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, though there is often doubt (even in the New Testament!) concerning the Resurrection. The theory that no man existed behind Christ requires the assertion that the Church, powerless as it was in the first three centuries, suppressed all such evidence, either then or when it came to power. As stated by many historians, the theory of fabrication requires miracles comparable to those recorded in the New Testament. But the New Testament's miracles, if one chooses to disbelieve them, do not disprove the life.
The primary sets of evidence for the Holocaust, per Shermer, are these five things: written documents, eyewitness testimony, photographs, the remains of the camps, and inferential evidence (like population figures). For Jesus, we're missing three of the five: no photographs, no comprehensive demographic figures that can tell us more than indirect things about the likely fate of an individual, no remains of the place where his life expired. We have many written documents purporting to transmit earlier eyewitness testimony, though none seem to contain written records composed in his lifetime -- a completely natural thing in the mostly illiterate ancient world, whose records are now in any case lost to us because of time and the perishability of ancient manuscripts. The record is actually extraordinarily good, because Paul's first surviving letters appear just 20 years after the crucifixion. Only famous statesmen and military leaders, and only a few of them, have left behind records composed in their own lifetimes. At any rate, we have a good sense of the difference between denying Jesus' existence and denying the Holocaust.
I would list these parallels:
1) Both deny that centrally important individuals lived. Jesus and Anne Frank, because they are iconic figures whose personal characteristics are often smothered in universalist meaning or interpretation, are said not to have lived. Others are often denied, such as Paul, or early Church Fathers like Tertullian; and the number of Christians in the second-century Roman Empire is said necessarily to be smaller by many millions than what historians say, just as Holocaust deniers argue that the usually accepted numbers of Jews in Europe before and after the war are wrong.
2) Both are conspiracy theories. Both argue that evidence for their theory does not exist because it's been suppressed, while evidence against their theory exists only because it's been fabricated.
3) Both require arguments from silence. This is more true for Jesus deniers, who try to say that everyone from Jewish to Christian to Roman writers were silent about Jesus, when in fact most would not have heard of Jesus or would have found him irrelevant to the topics they wrote about; while those who would have taken interest actually did mention him, in exactly the proportions of interest that we would expect from their places in geography and time. Holocaust deniers depend less on this tactic, but they place a great deal of weight on the fact that no single directive from Hitler to kill the Jews has been found -- despite the fact that immoral things are often suppressed. I am not aware of Holocaust deniers using the wartime silence of the Allies about the Holocaust to bolster their case, but they probably could do so easily.
4) Both demand "one single proof" of the thing they're trying to deny.
5) Both set great store on the "normal confabulation and confusion that occurs in all eyewitness testimony" (Shermer 41).
6) Both attempt to place the focus of the debate on peripheral issues which even experts and eyewitnesses may not have good answers for. This tactic is used more by Holocaust deniers, for instance when they make hay out of the wartime rumour, still widely believed among survivors and their friends, that Nazis were making soap out of Jewish victims. Any movement, like that to remember the Holocaust, makes mistakes, and contains little things that mean a lot to its members. Attacking these things is no more legitimate than saying, as I once heard from Ryan, that the U.S. would never have gone to war with Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait if not for the story, now largely discredited, that Iraqi soldiers stole incubators from Kuwaiti hospitals with babies still in them; one false story does not make huge phenomena just go away. In Jesus denial, it used to be typical for someone to base their argument that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist on the archaeological and largely technical issues surrounding the remains of the town of Nazareth. This is a peripheral issue, certainly, but it is no longer widely used because evidence continues to be found, much of it disproving the idea that Nazareth did not exist in the first century (in contrast to the discredited stories about soap and incubators), or else admitting of more possibilities around this issue than Jesus deniers had ever been willing to admit.
7) Both reject the mythology, theology, and politics surrounding the things they want to deny, and try surreptitiously to throw out the things themselves. Holocaust deniers reject Judaism, Zionism, and the goodness of Jews, from which their conclusions flow naturally. Jesus deniers reject theism, theology, Christianity, and/or mythology, and pretend that these things can be thrown out along with all the things they speak about. As such, both are excellent examples of what Shermer calls pseudohistory, "the rewriting of the past for present personal or political purposes" -- as distinct from necessary historical revisionism based on new evidence or knowledge.
8) Both depend heavily on moral equivalence. Ancient Jews and Christians, who suffered immensely at the hands of Roman power, are said to be no better than the Romans, who are often portrayed as representatives of a refined, tolerant, scientific society. Just as surely, the Jews were not the victims of World War II, Germans were not the perpetrators of genocide, and the Allies were just as brutal as Germany, if not more so.
9) Both seem especially determined to deny the suffering around the events in question. The Holocaust is whitewashed, and the thousands of crucifixions of Jews under Rome are minimized or barely heard of, while early persecution of Christians is minimized or denied. It is often also heard that figures such as Moses did not exist, and that Jews were not slaves in Egypt. Shermer asks, "How, indeed, can a people answer the charge that it has imagined or invented its greatest tragedy?" (Foreword, xiii). He is speaking of the Jewish experience in the Holocaust, but a similar statement might be made about the Jews when speaking of their long enslavement in Egypt (a shameful experience to admit, thousands of years before humanity began to condemn slavery and to extend regard to its victims), or to some extent about Christians when speaking of the crucifixion and other suffering during their first three centuries.
10) Both are against traditional religion. Holocaust deniers and Jesus deniers alike reject Judaism and Christianity. Both, however, decline to throw anything like the same criticism at the practice of worshipping leaders like Hitler or the Roman emperors (as in ancient paganism), though of course Holocaust deniers do not say that Hitler was divine; they just idolize him as if he was.
11) Both say prejudiced things. Christianity appears in the statements of Jesus deniers without any good or mitigating qualities, as do the Jews in the statements of Holocaust deniers. The latter tell lies about Jews that are well-known, such as the statement that Jews are in control of the world's media or economies.
Michael Shermer's own opinion about Jesus I do not know, but at Skeptic Magazine's website he has offered wholehearted endorsement of The Secret Origins of the Bible, by Tim Callahan, who serves as his site's Religion editor. Callahan tends to receive more compliments from Christian apologists than most skeptics, and his works sound even-toned and balanced; but he does not know any Biblical languages and is not a specialist in a Biblical field, except perhaps one; he is often described as a longtime student of Biblical prophecies about the end-times. Callahan does not deny the existence of Jesus or his crucifixion, though he argues that Jews were not involved in the death of Jesus. He also argues that most of the Christian story about Jesus can be attributed to the Old Testament and to pagan myths.
Let's leave aside for the now the fact that the early Christians tried in their scriptures to depict Jesus in Old Testament terms, and tried later to depict their most distinctive beliefs as similar to older pagan rites that the Romans respected (a comparison that became easier as those rites began borrowing from Christianity as freely as they had borrowed from one another).
Here I want to finish with one last question related to the Holocaust. Is it not possible to wipe away most of Hitler's wartime career by noting how similar his conquests are to Napoleon's, and to wipe away the rest of his life by finding parallels with some of the billions of people who lived before the Second World War? Because some Jews talk about Hitler by drawing parallels to the Pharoah from the Book of Exodus, just as the New Testament drew parallels between Jesus and Old Testament figures, could I not conclude from this that Hitler's life is mostly invented?