O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #8.5: Who did make it into the historical record?

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by Neil Godfrey


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


I have been neglecting to include David Fitzgerald’s (DF) own responses to some of Tim O’Neill’s (TO) diatribes against Nailed. Let’s make amends here. After all, TO did post a reply last year to DF’s response, so it’s only reasonable to see how the debate went. My own weariness with addressing TO’s rhetoric is also showing. I stated earlier that I intended to point out some of the small fry personalities that are recorded in our sources, making it doubly mysterious why Jesus should not have gained any attention, and it is time I kept my kept my promise. (Will do Josephus in the next post.)

TO skips around DF’s response above by saying all these other would-be messiahs are irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant to TO is that DF has been caught out on a semantic trap. The details were covered in Part 5 — clicking HERE will take you directly to the relevant section headed Manipulator or Debater. In that section we see how TO ignores the clear argument of DF and instead directs his readers to DFs initial ambiguous wording, and in 2013 he simply repeats his same tactic:

But the flaw in Fitzgerald’s argument does not lie in the lack of “would-be messiahs”. As he says, I listed plenty of those. What Fitzgerald skips around here is that the problem lies with the complete lack of these alleged (dare I say it mythical) “plenty” or even “scores” of writers who mention these other figures but fail to mention Jesus. He claims these writers exist and then backs that claim up with … nothing.

Never argue a substantive point if you can find an ambiguity in the original wording that you can twist for your own advantage. Of course DF “backs that claim up with …. nothing” because it is clear to anyone reading the book that he makes no such claim and TO’s entire rebuttal is based on an interpretation that goes against the grain of DF’s entire argument.

DF writes (2012) in response to the points TO made in his 2011 review:

. . . . O’Neill makes my point for me. He proceeds to name a few would-be messiahs from the first century:

  • Athronges (Athronges the Shepherd);
  • the unnamed Samaritan Taheb/messiah;
  • Theudas (also known as Theudas the Magician) . . . .:
  • and “the Egyptian” another failed Jewish messiah . . .

In actuality, as I alluded to in the section he quoted, there are many more loser messiahs and messiah-like figures that he could also have brought up:

  • Simon of Peraea,
  • Judas of Galilee,
  • John the Baptist,
  • Simon Magus/Simon of Gitta,
  • Yeshua ben Hananiah,
  • Jonathan the Weaver,
  • Apollonius of Tyana,
  • Carabbas,
  • Simon bar-Giora and still more.

(And if you’re interested, I do go into more detail on many of them in “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?”) None of these failed messiahs, prophets and rabble-rousers succeeded anywhere near as well as our Jesus of Nazareth. But every one of these loser messiahs did beat Jesus on one crucial matter: all of them managed to leave a trace in the contemporary historical record – so why couldn’t Jesus? If O’Neill is right, the real Jesus was just “small fry” and his exploits and supposedly radical new teachings were ignored by history for his entire life – actually, for over a century. But if that’s so, O’Neill (or rather, those historians whom he’s parroting) can’t explain what for me is the central paradox of the Historical Jesus:

Either: he did and said all these amazing, earthshaking things – and no one noticed.

Or: he was just one more failed messiah of the early first century – and yet after his death, a fringe cult springs up, scattered all across the Roman Empire from Spain to the Egyptian Desert to Asia Minor, made up of bickering house churches that can’t agree about the most fundamental basics of his life and teachings.

This oft-encountered “Stealth Messiah” approach to the problem simply doesn’t hold up. (DF:2012 My formatting and bolding)

None of this is addressed by TO. He repeats (2013) his “gotcha” argument over the ambiguity of DF’s wording when he spoke about “many writers” and tells readers that all of the supposed would-be messiahs in the historical record attracted attention because they were responsible for major military confrontation with Roman armies. So let’s look at a few of these and compare with the record for Jesus.

Comparison with Athronges the Shepherd-King

It’s quite amusing to watch the “spin” TO puts upon accounts of the supposedly would-be messiahs like Athronges, Theudas and the Egyptian. In order to prove to his readers that they got a mention in Josephus’s history book he must portray them as being far greater than Jesus when compared to what even the gospels claim about Jesus [e]ven if we take their accounts at face value . . . ” (2011) So Athronges the shepherd, whom Josephus portrays as yet one more run of the mill bandit who terrorized the local area. He was different from other bandits in that he declared himself a “king”. Nowhere does Josephus tell us the numbers of his followers who how many Roman troops were required to eventually eradicate this bandit menace. The most significant attack reported by Josephus was his ambush of a Roman food convoy with 40 (we are told by the notorious number exaggerator Josephus) Roman casualties. He was also as much a headache for the local population as he was for the Romans. TO says Athronges was so powerful he was able to “inflict military defeats” upon the Romans. In 2013 TO went further and wrote that he had “thousands of followers” and was only defeated after the Romans dispatched several units of Roman troops.” All this creates the impression of vast forces in the open battle field. The truth is he led a guerilla bandit forces that generally attacked unguarded targets, and where there were guards he relied upon surprise and ambush. That it took about two years before the Romans eradicated his threat had more to do with his tactics of dispersal than with opponents matching each other’s strength. Compare Jesus according to “the face-value” of the Gospel accounts as TO says we must to see his point:

But Jesus withdrew with His disciples to the sea. And a great multitude from Galilee followed Him, and from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and beyond the Jordan; and those from Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, when they heard how many things He was doing, came to Him. So He told His disciples that a small boat should be kept ready for Him because of the multitude, lest they should crush Him. (Mark 3:7-9) And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude — 5000 men (not including women and children) — and was moved with compassion for them . . . (Mark 6:34) They [the 5000+] were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king (John 6:15) In those days, the multitude (again) being great — 4000 — and having nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples . . . (Mark 8:1) And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:

“Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Hosanna in the highest!”

And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved (Matt. 21:8-10)

Comparisons with the Theudas the Magician and the Egyptian

But maybe it’s not really possible to compare the impact of any armed rebel with Jesus. What about Theudas the Magician? TO carelessly lumps him with Athronges and tells us that Theudas, likewise, had “thousands of followers”, armed, since it took “several units of Roman soldiers” to squash his “revolt”. TO is making all this up. All the indications from Josephus are that Theudas led an unarmed multitude out to the Jordan River on the promise that they would see the waters part as in the days of Joshua and Moses. (So it appears they were trying to “escape” from Judea, not enter it as a conquering army.) The Roman commander sent “a troop of horsemen” to slaughter them for their efforts. Indeed, Richard Horsley in his landmark book, Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs, classifies Theudas as a “Prophet”, not a militant messianic figure. He does the same for “the Egyptian” discussed below. Crowds of people, even unarmed ones, worried Romans. Imperial legislation widely forbade any unauthorized gatherings at all. (Josephus tells us that the town of Emmaus and the city of Sepphoris in Galilee were bloodily punished because their inhabitants had been sympathetic to bandit or rebel forces.) Where is Jesus along with his followers, especially when in the towns like Capernaum who gave him the honours due to a prophet, in the extant record? Then there was that “Egyptian” who is also mentioned in Acts. Again, the account of Josephus Antiquities is different from his earlier description in the War. He no longer has 30,000 followers (ancient figures were wildly exaggerated, often for numerological reasons), some of whom appear to be ready for an armed attack on Jerusalem; in the latter account the followers (no numbers given) appear to be unarmed, or certainly incapable of attacking Jerusalem, since now they are told to wait till the walls of the city fall down as they did in Jericho. They could then walk in and take over. A large contingent of Roman cavalry along with foot soldiers were sent out to disperse them. They killed “400” and took “200” (further exaggerations?) prisoner, thus ending the movement. But when Jesus entered Jerusalem the authorities were alarmed by the public recognition he was given as their Davidic King. They wanted him dead. But they feared to send out the troops for fear that they would have an uncontrollable uprising on their hands (Mark 11:18-19). Yet not a word of this appears in the non-gospel sources. Conclusion? TO would say Jesus did not attract such a large following at all. His miracles were so banal, presumably, that most people yawned. His preaching was also apparently soporific. He was a nobody to all but a few dozen followers. From such types great world religions are founded.

Comparison with Philo’s disreputable characters

Recall Philo’s contacts with the Jerusalem elites. Philo also wrote about a slave (Helicon) and a disreputable actor (Apelles) who came into contact with ruling elites in a negative way. He also describes in some detail how a “village idiot”, Carabbas, was mockingly declared king by disreputable citizens making fun of certain rulers, and how the local authority was seriously remiss in ignoring this behaviour. As what was recorded comes clearer into focus, we can see that the absence of Jesus from all records — including, it appears as pointed out in the previous post, from those now lost — does entitle us to ask why.

More Josephan comparisons

Josephus tells us about a madman, also named Jesus, who was considered nothing but a joke or a pest by citizenry and leaders in Jerusalem while it was besieged. He also tells us of Honi the Circle-Drawer, someone he calls a righteous man whose prayer for rain was answered and who was subsequently stoned by self-serving mob. He also apparently speaks of John the Baptist. Given these relatively authentic accounts, one must wonder why his reference to Jesus has for most critical scholars, at least till recent (post WW2) times, been viewed as a complete forgery. So let’s move on to Josephus in the next post in this series. Meanwhile, as DF wrote, “if you’re interested, I do go into more detail on many of them in “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?


  • 2014-01-10 22:04:37 UTC - 22:04 | Permalink

    I think we already know I’m leaning towards Judas of Galilee, mainly because for the “historical” Jesus, his bio seems to be the one swiped from the most, if in a distorted fashion.

    Apollonius of Tyana has been a head-scratch for me all year, but it’s now looking like Apollonius suffers from the same problem as late-second century church changes…let an emperor’s wife or concubine get anywhere near things philosophical and she gets someone to do a rewrite. Septimus Severus’ wife is associated with the new biography of Apollonius that appeared in the early third century in a way replicating the impact of Marcia on Commodus.

  • 2014-01-10 22:24:58 UTC - 22:24 | Permalink

    It would seem now that the association with Tarsus in both Apollonius and Paul is not as coincidental or accidental as I once thought. This particular period of time was one where the Imperial court was having a lot of say in certain philosophical ideas or where a specific group of Christians was influencing emperors to the exclusion of other groups.

    I need to fine-tune when exactly Irenaeus was doing the earliest part of his writing, whether under Marcia or under Julia Domna, but it is clear Julia Domna’s influence on the biography of Apollonius is indisputable.

    Whatever was happening back in that key era, emperor’s wives or concubines seem to have been crucial to new information on two different religious/philosophical tracks.

    And to think Christians and pagans were arguing over Jesus and Apollonius a few decades later…

    And yet it was basically either or both the two main emperor’s women of that period responsible in some way for promoting both a particular view of Jesus and of Apollonius at nearly the same time.

  • 2014-01-12 15:56:43 UTC - 15:56 | Permalink

    Thank you for doing this, Neil. 🙂

    So, we have, IIRC, more than ten fellows named “Jesus” who rabble-roused; a slave; an actor; a village idiot; a madman; Honi the Circle Drawer; John the Baptist.

    Anybody else? I would think there might be descriptions of vendors, artisans, servants, lower-rank soldiers, musicians, tavern keepers, local officials, etc?

    This is actually important information, as it has Bayesian significance.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-01-12 21:10:27 UTC - 21:10 | Permalink

      Anyone else? We have evidence for Cicero’s slave and a stammering philosopher disliked by Seneca. But I have not seriously searched; relying upon patchy memories.

      I think what counts more and what few have stopped to think through is how we decide what is historical information as opposed to fiction of some kind: http://vridar.org/2013/01/29/the-historical-jesus-and-the-demise-of-history-2-the-overlooked-reasons-we-know-certain-ancient-persons-existed/

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-01-12 22:24:07 UTC - 22:24 | Permalink

      I should add that what, I believe, is important is less the “who’s who” in the record than the “why” names are selected for mention at all. The historical writings we are addressing were written very much with a didactic purpose in mind: it was important that the right lessons were being passed on. That wasn’t the only motive but it was a leading one. Incidents and persons are written about with a view to instructing readers on how to behave, act, think, etc in various situations. This brings us to the lower classes.

      Lower classes were generally overlooked because of this bias, not forgetting that they lacked education and breeding that were the basis of role models. When they are mentioned it is very often as a collective mob, an ignorant or easily-led mass. Individuals are singled out because they are either appropriate foils to the noble lessons being conveyed, and had some impact or interaction with ruling elites at some point, even if only to arouse a general concern of public disobedience, or because they are rare exceptions to their mob-kind and worthy of mention as good exemplars.

      So where does this leave the likelihood that any of the Jesus models would have been mentioned by any historian?

  • j. wagenseil
    2014-01-13 02:38:36 UTC - 02:38 | Permalink

    Assume for a moment there was a historical Jesus who was such a successful messianic pretender, was considered such a threat to the Empire’s grip on Judea, that he scared the bejesus (sorry, I could not resist) out of the Romans, to the extent that they they subjected him to damnatio memoriae, and their puppet Judean establishment wrote him out of the book of life. After a generation he would have become a mythical figure, an elaborate folk memory.
    Geta was a Roman emperor, yet his brother almost succeeded in turning him into an historical un-person. How much easier it would have been to disappear someone with no statues, coins, or inscriptions to seek out and deface?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-01-13 03:24:19 UTC - 03:24 | Permalink

      Most improbable, I would suggest. Such a Jesus would have left marks in the contemp record and given the Church filter through which documents were preserved/lost we’d expect clear evidence of such. Such a Jesus would also demand that Rome go after his followers, too — yet all our records indicate they did not. Jesus alone was the target. Followers were free to preach about him. If all followers were indeed killed off and the figure became a mere folk memory, he would not be the catalyst for a new religion such as Christianity became. The earliest Christian records about Jesus are not of the “folk-memory” type. They are creations from the OT and other writings.

      • 2014-01-13 06:58:53 UTC - 06:58 | Permalink

        If Jesus had been somebody Rome had targeted, and his very brother then took over the movement, Pilate would have had to act, or else he would totally have lost authority.

        A historicist model of Christian origins always has to leave a big hole in their theories, as they cannot do better than a circular that Jesus was crucified, and his followers were not because the authorities wanted to crucify Jesus but not his followers.

        • John
          2014-01-13 18:01:18 UTC - 18:01 | Permalink

          Steven wrote:

          “If Jesus had been somebody Rome had targeted, and his very brother then took over the movement, Pilate would have had to act, or else he would totally have lost authority.”

          With my Dead Sea Scrolls-colored glasses on, I think your concern is explained by the Damascus Document, which states that there was a twenty year period of “groping for the Way like blind men” (after God had “visited them and caused a root of planting to spring forth from Israel”) before the rise of the Righteous Teacher (i.e., James). This would have been after Pilate’s (or any other governor’s) time in office.

          This would explain why Jewish Christian leaders are presented in Hegesippus (who I think is a great source for second century Jewish Christian thought) as being stoned, crucified or targeted by authorities in later times.

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