O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #7: Generalities on the lack of corroborating evidence

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by Neil Godfrey


All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.


quote_begin What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis . . . . (O’Neill, 2013) quote_end


Tim O’Neill (TO) leads readers to think that David Fitzgerald (DF) argues that

— because there is no contemporary record for miraculous and other clearly spurious events . . .
— therefore Jesus did not exist

Thus Fitzgerald goes on to detail things in the gospels which he argues should have been noticed by writers of the time: the taxing of the whole Roman Empire, the massacre in Bethlehem by Herod the Great, Jesus’ ministry generally, his miracles . . . . . For anyone other than a fundamentalist, this argument has zero force. Critical scholars, including many Christian ones, would simply chuckle at the idea that things like the story of an Empire-wide census or the Massacre of the Innocents are historical, so arguing they did not happen counts for nothing much when it comes to arguing against the existence of a historical Jesus.

Fitzgerald even seems to think that the fact the “Star of Bethlehem” and the darkness on Jesus’ death are unattested and therefore most likely did not happen (which is true) is somehow a blow against the existence of a historical Jesus (which is not).

Does DF suggest that arguments against the impossible count against the historical Jesus?

With respect to the empire-wide census, on pages 22 and 23 of Nailed DF makes it very clear that we would expect some record of such an event if it really happened. At no point does he link this absence to the conclusion that not even a more modest Jesus of the scholars existed. In fact, as we have already seen in previous posts in this series, DF explicitly points out that even though we have no evidence for all the miraculous or unlikely events we may still wonder if there is a “lesser Jesus” who really existed.

TO’s review suppresses this clear fact about DF’s argument and implies that he argues the very opposite — that DF thinks by disputing the empire-wide census and miraculous events such as the star of Bethlehem that he is somehow striking “a blow against the existence of [even a modest, non-Gospel] historical Jesus”.

DF also makes it clear that when he is addressing the lack of evidence for astonishing miracles that he is addressing the Jesus who is believed in by many Christians, and not the “lesser Jesus” of scholars and sceptics — whom he does address elsewhere in the book (as pointed out in previous posts).

Of course, most Christians also accept that Jesus’ birth and death were accompanied by still more phenomenally news-worthy events; like a 3-hour supernatural darkness over “all the land” – an unprecedented solar phenomenon that the whole ancient world would have noticed. But like the miraculous Star of Bethlehem, no one recorded any such thing at this time. (p. 27)

DF explains that he is addressing a well-known objection of believing Christians to doubts about the miraculous Jesus. Apologists often accuse sceptics of anti-supernatural bias. DF explains that the lack of contemporary records for such astonishing phenomena is enough for us to discount the historicity of such miracles regardless of anyone’s bias.

But we don’t have to rule out miracles a priori, or even make demands such as “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” We can simply observe that extraordinary events tend to have extraordinary reactions – or indeed, any reaction. Was there any reaction to Jesus to be found? (p. 29)

TO gives no hint that this is DF’s argument. Rather, he rhetorically leads readers to assume DF is arguing something he is not arguing at all.

No surprise to anyone familiar with the nature of ancient source material?

TO leads his readers to think that we should not expect anything much at all by way of documentation of the time of Jesus.

Next Fitzgerald goes into some detail about the writers and historians of the First Century who he claims “should” have mentioned a historical Jesus but did not. He lists eleven who are contemporaries of Jesus. Like many Mythers [Christ Myth advocates], he seems to think that the lack of any contemporary reference to Jesus is somehow a particularly telling point, since the few extra-Biblical references to Jesus are in writings dating almost a century after his time. This would come as no surprise to anyone actually familiar with the nature of ancient source material, however. There are few more famous ancient figures than the Carthaginian general Hannibal; even today most people at least know his name. He was one of the greatest and justifiably famous generals of ancient times. Yet, despite his fame then and now, we have precisely zero contemporary references to Hannibal.

TO’s gaffe concerning the evidence for Hannibal was addressed previously. Here what is significant is that TO is implying that we should think ourselves lucky if we have anything at all from any ancient period. TO surely knows better when it comes to the surviving documentation of the first century of the Roman era. He surely knows exactly what DF points out:

The first century is actually considered one of the best-documented periods in ancient history, and Judea, far from being a forgotten backwater, was a turbulent province of vital strategic importance to the Romans. (p. 22)

Would any contemporary have had interest in a Jewish preacher and miracle worker?

TO insists that no contemporary historian or other writer would have had any reason to have mentioned Jesus. No-one mentioned several “messianic pretenders” listed by Josephus, and no-one mentioned any other Jewish miracle-worker or preacher, so why should they have mentioned Jesus?

Given that [Greek and Roman] historians make no mention of any other Jewish peasant preachers or miracle workers, it is hard to see why Fitzgerald thinks they should have done so with this one.

DF does discuss several ancient authors and specific reasons why we might have expected them to have made some reference to Jesus. TO suppresses each of DF’s arguments and simply dismisses all these ancient writers with:

None of his writers mention any such figures for the same reason they do not mention Jesus: because these writers had no interest in any such Jewish preachers and prophets. . . . the idea that we should expect any for an obscure peasant preacher in the backblocks of Galilee is patently absurd.

We’ll have a look at some of the arguments DF does present and that TO dismissed without so much as a mention. But first, notice that all TO is doing here is repeating the very argument that DF is attempting to refute. TO ignores the evidence DF marshals against his argument, ignores the fact that DF explicitly states that he is presenting evidence to refute that argument, and merely asserts the very argument DF is refuting as if it is unassailable and as if DF is unaware of it.

DF begins his discussion of the “missing sources” for Jesus with the very argument TO “seems to think” he is quite unconscious of:

Increasingly, Christian commentators . . . like to claim that this [shortage of historical corroboration of the Gospels] is not surprising at all. After all, they say, these were ancient times. Most people were illiterate. Judea was out in the boonies of the Roman Empire. Besides, historians back then wrote little about religious figures anyway, and Jesus’ ministry only lasted three years (or maybe just one year). And finally, they insist almost no first century texts of any kind survive at all.

All in all, there simply was little reason for most historians of the time to take notice of this humble carpenter from Nazareth – isn’t that right? (p. 21)

TO’s rhetoric may persuade anyone looking for an excuse not to bother reading DF’s book, but to anyone who has read it, TO’s words might be considered disingenuous.

In the next post in this series we’ll look at some of the persons and events in first-century Palestine that the non-Gospel evidence does express an interest in and also have a glance at a few of DF’s arguments about various Greek and Roman writers of the day that TO failed to “deal with” in a “careful, honest or even just competent” manner.




  • 2014-01-06 12:44:30 UTC - 12:44 | Permalink

    Of course, the birth stories in the Gospels are regarded with mild amusement by mainstream New Testament scholars, who tell us that they are agenda-driven, theologically created accounts.

    And then they use them to estimate when Jesus was born – just after telling us that they ‘ simply chuckle at the idea that things like the story of an Empire-wide census or the Massacre of the Innocents are historical’.

    When they are through chuckling , they then knuckle down to the serious task of extracting details of the life of Jesus from these stories.

  • Greg
    2014-01-07 00:21:32 UTC - 00:21 | Permalink

    Well obviously you are confused because, as we’ve already been assured, only traditionalist/fundamentalist versions of Jesus can ever be based on a face value of the text. /sarcasm

  • 2014-01-07 13:38:06 UTC - 13:38 | Permalink

    “and merely asserts the very argument DF is refuting as if it is unassailable and as if DF has no idea of”

    Was there an ending to that sentence cut off?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-01-07 21:21:15 UTC - 21:21 | Permalink

      Bother. Got a bit convoluted in my sleepiness. Simply meant to say TF is arguing a point as if it is news to DF — when in fact he apparently fails to notice it is the very argument DF is marshaling evidence against. TF curiously ignores all of that.

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