Monday, January 14, 2008

Aut Deus Aut Malus Homo

The actual structure of the argument generally known as the "trilemma" is indicated by the argument's Latin name, aut deus aut malus homo or either God or a bad man. This suggests that in order to understand the argument you have to consider it a dilemma first, and then subdivide "bad man" into however many possibilities you like: liar, lunatic, legend, benignly delusion, that you want. If an argument has a name in Latin, this suggests that the argument is quite old, and it raises some questions as to who its initial target was. I have talked to people who have worked on it more than I have and they just say it goes back to the Middle Ages. So who was the target. Not, I suppose, members of the Jesus Seminar. Not atheists, who were not prevalent back when Latin was spoken. Arians and post-Arians, maybe? Or Muslims, who consider Christ a great prophet but vehemently deny his claim to be God?

In any event this essay is interesting, in that it takes off from a passage which John Meier, who have Jesus Seminar-type views on Jesus, thinks comes from Jesus himself. This reminds me of the arguments of Stephen Davis, who takes statements the Jesus Seminar thinks Jesus actually said and argues, on that basis, that even going from those passages Jesus is still making implicit divine claims.


Hallq said...

FYI, I think I remember Peter Kreeft saying this goes back to ancient apologists. 2nd, 3rd century at the latest.

Jason Pratt said...

Well, strictly speaking it goes back to early-mid 1st century. {g} Or so say the canonical Gospel texts, all of which include reference to disputations (usually among Jewish religious specialists of the day) over how Jesus should be regarded.


Ilíon said...

"Well, strictly speaking it goes back to early-mid 1st century."

Or, just as CS Lewis points out, Jesus doesn't leave us the option of patronizing him as "a good man/teacher," nor intended to leave us that option.

atheos said...

So if it goes back to the time that Jesus supposedly existed, then that shows somehow that it's more legitimate?

Or maybe there were intelligent skeptical folks who thought the myth was a load of bull right from the start.

There were quite a lot, in fact, as I am sure you are very well aware.

Hans said...

Here is what NT Wright says about why Jesus was God.

'But from very early on, as witnessed by what may be pre-Pauline fragments of early credal belief such as Romans 1.3f., the Christians affirmed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, precisely because of his resurrection.'

So it was not Jesus claims about himself that led early Christians to believe he was the Messiah.

Ilíon said...

atheos "[essentially blather]"

You're not paying attention. The point of the "trilemma" is not whether it is true that Jesus is God. The point is that you cannot patronize him as "a good man" or "a good moral teacher."

He *claimed* to be God. This claim is true or it is not true. If it is not true, then the one thing we cannot say of him is that he was "a good moral teacher."

mattghg said...


False dilemma. It was Jesus' claims about himself plus the fact that he backed those claims up that led them to believe him to be the Messiah.

Jason Pratt said...

Running rather late (I think the thread has run off the bottom), but in case Victor redates it later for his classes... (today is Jan 21, 2008)

Atheos: {{So if it goes back to the time that Jesus supposedly existed, then that shows somehow that it's more legitimate?}}

Whether the trilemma is legitimately a trilemma or not, is irrelevant to how far back similar disputations can be traced. But that wasn't my point; I was only making a data observation.

{{Or maybe there were intelligent skeptical folks who thought the myth was a load of bull right from the start.}}

That would be one way of reading the data, true. {g} But acknowledging the historicity of even that much of the data does introduce logical corollaries. Those corollaries shouldn't be whiffled away later.

{{There were quite a lot, in fact, as I am sure you are very well aware.}}

Obviously their existence is entailed in my notice about the data. (Goodness you're hostile today...)


The quote from Wright is taken out of context; he accepts the general historicity of the canonical Gospel texts (at least as far as the Synoptics), which of course feature loads of anecdotes where people accept (or in some cases dispute) His identity as the Messiah in various ways. The Messianic identification begins there historically, even though the docs are (probably) later than the Pauline epistles (and certainly later than the pre-Pauline kerygmatic hymns included in some of those epistles).

However, once the crucifixion occurs, a major doubt is going to be leveled on whether Jesus could be the Messiah (or the Son of David king-messiah anyway--eventually rabbinic Judaism developed a strong thread of two-messiah belief, where first one messiah, the Son of Joseph/Ephraim, must suffer and die. This belief seems to have developed after Christianity was up and running, interestingly, and probably reflects continuing inter-rabbinic dispute over Jesus' legitimacy.)

To put it bluntly, having the Messiah die a death traditionally understood as cursed by God, condemned by the Sanhedrin and handed over to the oppressive pagan overlords, wouldn't add up for many people. (It still doesn't for Muslims today, some of whom dispute that God would have allowed Jesus to die like that.) If God resurrects Him, though, then that counts as validation for the claims Jesus had been making.

That's why the Res is focused so strongly on, even in Acts which (any way it's looked at) has to be following some kind of Gospel material.