Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Judge Orders Priest to Prove Jesus Existed

(From The Times (UK) Online)
An Italian judge has ordered a priest to appear in court this month to prove that Jesus Christ existed.

The case against Father Enrico Righi has been brought in the town of Viterbo, north of Rome, by Luigi Cascioli, a retired agronomist who once studied for the priesthood but later became a militant atheist.

Signor Cascioli, author of a book called The Fable of Christ, began legal proceedings against Father Righi three years ago after the priest denounced Signor Cascioli in the parish newsletter for questioning Christ's historical existence.

Yesterday Gaetano Mautone, a judge in Viterbo, set a preliminary hearing for the end of this month and ordered Father Righi to appear. The judge had earlier refused to take up the case, but was overruled last month by the Court of Appeal, which agreed that Signor Cascioli had a reasonable case for his accusation that Father Righi was "abusing popular credulity".

Signor Cascioli's contention - echoed in numerous atheist books and internet sites - is that there was no reliable evidence that Jesus lived and died in 1st-century Palestine apart from the Gospel accounts, which Christians took on faith. There is therefore no basis for Christianity, he claims.

Signor Cascioli's one-man campaign came to a head at a court hearing last April when he lodged his accusations of "abuse of popular credulity" and "impersonation", both offences under the Italian penal code. He argued that all claims for the existence of Jesus from sources other than the Bible stem from authors who lived "after the time of the hypothetical Jesus" and were therefore not reliable witnesses.

Signor Cascioli maintains that early Christian writers confused Jesus with John of Gamala, an anti-Roman Jewish insurgent in 1st-century Palestine. Church authorities were therefore guilty of "substitution of persons".

[...] "If Cascioli does not see the sun in the sky at midday, he cannot sue me because I see it and he does not," Father Righi said.

My goodness, this has been gone over so many times it's barely worth commenting on, except for the fascinating requirement of Mr. Cascioli that only a contemporaneous extrabiblical source would suffice as a "reliable witness." If that is the requirement for the acceptance of a person's historicity, then any number of famous ancients will have to be demoted to the status of "mythical beings."

In the case of Jesus, Cascioli's demands beg the question, since all the writings about Jesus that are generally accepted to be from his contemporaries were included in the New Testament - indeed, a connection to the apostles was one basis for establishing the canonicity of a text. The only way to meet the Cascioli Standard would be to stumble on the court records of Pontius Pilate - a most unlikely scenario after all these years.

It is an old ploy to win your point by establishing an unrealistic and impossible standard for your opponent. It suffers from some serious logical flaws, but it will probably sell a lot of Signor Cascioli's books. (Of course, any Christian considers himself a contemporaneous witness to the existence of Jesus. "Certainly, Jesus exists; why, I talked to Him just this morning!" I bet Signor Cascioli wouldn't accept that, however.)

(For a brief introduction to the evidence for Jesus's existence, check out A Christian Thinktank, which contains a wealth of information on Christian apologetics.)

P.S. A search for information on John of Gamala, the supposed model for Jesus, got me nowhere besides a children's historical novel, For the Temple, A Tale of the Fall of Jerusalem, by G. A. Henty (1832 - 1902). Interestingly, Henty seems to be a favorite of - ahem - Christian home-schoolers. If someone knows anything about a historical John of Gamala, I'd be interested in hearing about it. Cascioli's protagonist doesn't seem to pass Cascioli's own standards (or any other standards, for that matter.)