Christopher Forbes vs. Raphael Lataster - Does the Bible Present the Real Jesus? (2012)

An interesting debate (9th August 2012) with historian Dr Chris Forbes (Macquarie University) and Religious Studies scholar Merrilyn Mansfield (Sydney University) arguing for the affirmative, with Religious Studies scholar Raphael Lataster (Sydney University) and passionate anti-theist Alaric Goldkuhl (Sydney Atheists) arguing for the negative.

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To clarify (and as confirmed by the host), the job of the affirmative side was to prove the existence of the Biblical Jesus aka the Christ of Faith. The miracle-working Jesus, who allegedly was raised from the dead, by the Christian god.

My honest thoughts: Alaric and I presented numerous reasons to doubt the sources used to establish Jesus, which not only raise doubt as to the Biblical Jesus being true, but also could raise doubt as to the existence of the so-called 'Historical Jesus' (a human Jesus who didn't perform miracles - the topic of my Master's thesis). I then demonstrated that history can't confirm miracles, so in order to prove the Biblical Jesus, and make supernatural events like Jesus' resurrection possible and even probable, the believer would need to prove God's existence.

Dr Forbes and Ms Mansfield presented an underwhelming case. They only tried to establish that there may have been a historical Jesus, making absolutely no attempt to prove the supernatural elements of the Jesus story, and thus seem to have totally ignored the topic of the debate, with even Christians congratulating me afterwards on what appeared to be a clear victory. The debate also was brought into irrelevant territory, which I pointed out numerous times (namely issues related to the historicity of Jesus, rather than of the Biblical Jesus). Alaric and I were bemused that the opposition did half of our job for us, demonstrating and admitting the spurious nature of the sources.

Dr Forbes also side-stepped my challenge to prove the existence of his god (the only way to make the resurrection account probable), and acknowledged that he can't prove God's existence. He also surprisingly admitted that miracles can't be proven either, making me wonder why he bothered to turn up, knowing that Christians in the audience wanted those niggling questions in the back of their heads addressed. Forbes was more honest than William Lane Craig in that regard, so I respect that acknowledgment, but then it really was pointless in his participating in the debate. Dr Forbes made numerous errors, such as assuming that we had access to Paul's "500 eyewitnesses", and contradicting Paul's own claims as to his supernatural sources. I also noted his constant referring to earlier sources (such as the Epistles) as if they relied on the later sources (such as the Gospels).

Merrilyn had very little to say apart from the standard case for a historical Jesus, with her only real allusion to the supernatural being her bizarre conclusion that the Biblical books being imperfect points to God compiling them. Quite an unorthodox Christian view, and somewhat an example of pseudoscience - it is not falsifiable. In such an example, the God explanation always wins. If the Bible is perfect, it's because God wrote it. If the Bible is riddled with contradictions, historical errors, internal inconsistencies and myths, you know it, God wrote it. But of course he didn't write the error-filled holy texts of other religions... And by appealing to a god that neither she or Dr. Forbes could prove exists, she was begging the question (a premise is included which is as questionable as the conclusion), rendering her case logically invalid.

Contrasting the affirmative side's underwhelming case, I had plenty more to say. I sometimes sounded brief and rushed, due to my frustration at the (previously unannounced) time limit and lack of rebuttal opportunities. I had a lot more to say and rebut, but I am writing a few books on the historical and a priori claims of Christian apologists anyway, so watch this space. My speech revolved around the numerous problems with the sources, and the implausibility of miraculous claims. Alaric also made a great point about the symbolism of the Bible (which Forbes mentioned) possibly indicating fabrication.

Moderated discussion time: Rather than having rebuttals, we had a moderated discussion, involving the host, which became a little heated and side-tracked at times. I criticised the opposition's heavy reliance on sources that don't exist and highlighted that they didn't make any attempt to prove the existence of the Biblical Jesus. I heavily criticised the criteria of authenticity, which so many Biblical scholars and other academics are now doing too. We all pointed to the uncertainty of the sources, which I note aids the skeptic, not the believer. Forbes brought up the "James is the Lord's brother issue"; Alaric and I provide numerous reasons why James is not necessarily Jesus' literal brother. Dr Forbes admits scholars can't prove Jesus' miracles, which amounts to conceding defeat. Without the miracles, we are only discussing the 'Historical Jesus', who was not the subject of this debate.

Audience questions: I was asked a series of bizarre questions about logical methodology; and informed later that the questioner attends my university and failed his introductory logic class. Irrelevant, but funny as all hell :) I constantly had to remind everyone that it is the Biblical Jesus that we should be discussing, as Forbes took on Alaric and audience members over Jesus' historicity - an irrelevant issue.

Feedback from the audience revolved around my very strong and no-nonsense case against the Biblical Jesus and supernatural claims in general, the affirmative side's underwhelming (and irrelevant) case, Dr. Forbes' seemingly only having something useful to say when addressing Alaric's strongly mythicist views (irrelevant to this debate), and the fact that the affirmative side did not actually argue for the Biblical Jesus. I also personally appreciated Alaric's involvement, him being expected by many to contribute little to the debate as the only amateur (an attitude I find disgraceful); especially his humour, and his being "the atheist, and the only one to bring a Bible!"

Despite the challenges for the hosts in getting participants for the negative side, it was an overwhelming victory for the skeptics.

Raphael Lataster 2021