Why Historicist/Mythicist Arguments Often Fail — & a Test Case for a Better Way

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by Neil Godfrey

Ananus [the high priest] . . . thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. (Antiquities, Book 20 [9,1])

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about a recent comment by a reader taking an opposing position to a statement of mine:

I don’t think Carrier is non-falsifiable (in the looser sense we have to consider non-falsifiability in the social sciences) — in fact, I happen to think it is pretty much falsified by the James passage in Josephus (not, of course, simply taking the passage’s authenticity for granted but considering all the evidence for and against it). I realize my viewing the James passage in Josephus as authentic is not a popular opinion around here, but it isn’t a stupid or ill-considered opinion; I’ve read Carrier and Doherty on the matter and don’t find them convincing at all. (my bolding)

I’ve addressed this sort of response before. One finds such grounds for rejecting opposing views all too frequently in the scholarly literature of biblical scholars. In response to a point made by Emeritus Professor Larry Hurtado I wrote

Of course we are all aware that the passages are found to be of interest in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition, but Hurtado dismisses those inconveniences on the grounds that they are “not necessarily persuasive” and amount to “only a couple” of instances. So we are allowed to dismiss evidence to the contrary of our theories if we only see it “a couple of times” and can dismiss it as “not necessarily persuasive”. True believers are apparently permitted to accord themselves little perks like this in debates.

Then when Professor Hoffmann offered a bizarre argument that Paul was fighting against a rumour that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary I refused to play the same game:

It is easy to dismiss his explanation as “not persuasive” or “speculative” but it is also important, I think, to be able to put one’s finger on precisely why a proposition is “not persuasive” or insubstantial. The effort of thinking it through may even lead one to appreciate that perhaps there is more to the argument than first appears on the surface. But even if one finds nothing of value in it, the exercise of examining it methodically can only be a good thing. Scoffing, saying something is bunk or absurd, relying on a vague feeling that something is “not persuasive”, are cheap substitutes for argument.

If a professor can’t explain to you how we know evolution is true or how we know ancient claims that Alexander the Great really conquered the Persian empire are true or the reasons we should be suspicious of paranormal claims you would be right to think there is a problem somewhere.

Another form of proof-texting

Back to the statement about “the brother of Jesus, called Christ, whose name was James” that is found in the writings of Josephus. So often we find defenders of the historicity of Jesus using these words in Josephus the same way different religious sects use proof texts to prove they are right and others are wrong. One professor frequently uses this approach in an attempt to refute young-earth creationists. The professor adheres to an old-earth form of creationism (via evolution — an oxymoron to anyone who correctly understands that the scientific theory of evolution has no room for a divinity at all) and posts regular “proof texts” from the Bible as an “argument” that “proves” his rival religionists are wrong. (The most recent instance of this: Psalm 148:4 Disproves Young-Earth Creationism. It does? Not to a young earth creationist.) He uses the same basic technique to argue against mythicists. Among other arguments he proof-texts from the Bible references such as Paul’s claim to have met the “brother of the Lord” or that we read somewhere else that Jesus was “born of a woman”.

Proof-texting doesn’t work because different people have different ways of interpreting such “proof-texts”.

(I am almost tempted to retort that if someone was once a creationist — as was the professor in question — that someone will always be a creationist and continue to argue the same ineffective way by firing off “proof texts” at the other side. But I won’t because I’d rather leave absurd claims like this to theologians like Larry Hurtado, Joe Hoffmann, ‘N.T. Wrong’ (sic), Jim West, and co.)

One can always claim that one’s own interpretation is the “natural” or “common sense” one, but if so, one needs to be able to establish that point by means of argument, not assertion, and to demonstrate why opposing interpretations are wrong. (Setting aside post-modernist rationales.)

A Better way of arguing

When we have a “not convincing” or “not persuasive” response to an argument we really have an invitation to make progress in the discussion. Simply closing the book with a “not convincing” hurrumph is to walk away from intellectual inquiry. The argument is evidently persuasive to someone. It is not really adequate to simply say “I don’t agree” without explanation.

The first step would be to take one argument at a time from those who argue that the James reference in Josephus does not establish the historicity of Jesus.

Both Doherty and Carrier argue for the possibility that the words “called Christ” originated as a marginal gloss. That is, a scribe wrote the words in the margin of a text of Josephus that he was reading and a later copyist mistook those words as possibly rightly belonging to the original text.

Now such a suggestion may not “be persuasive” to many. Instead of walking away why not seek to test that claim. Treat it as a hypothesis because that’s what it really is. How can that hypothesis be tested? Test the argument that challenges your prior belief and see if it can be broken.

If we can put it to a test and it fails then we can be confident our grounds for rejecting the argument are rational and not merely an emotional response. We want to do better than accept or reject arguments the same way we accept or reject flavours of ice-cream.

Yet as mentioned above, we so very often read works by theologians or biblical scholars resorting to a mere “I don’t find his argument persuasive” cop-out. And too many of us lay readers follow their anti-intellectual behaviour.

Of course the same principle applies in reverse, too. It is all too easy to jump on board with an argument or assertion by an authority because it appeals to our intuition or belief preference. If it is bad practice to reject an argument that “called Christ” originated as a marginal gloss without carefully and explicitly evaluating the pros and cons it is just as bad to embrace the idea because that’s what we want in order to support our preferred theory for mythicism. That makes the mythicist as much a mindless “proof-texter” as the historicist.

One more demonstration

I once attempted to show how one can do better than simply reject claims (i.e. “proof-texting”) and counter-claims about another reference to James being the “brother of the Lord” (the Lord is generally assumed to be Jesus) in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Let’s see how we can begin to do something similar with the hypothesis that “in Christ” in the Jesus who was called Christ passage in Josephus began their life as a marginal gloss.

We propose an alternative hypothesis: that “in Christ” were originally penned by Josephus. This surely seems to be the most natural assumption to make. But we are not in the business of choosing arguments on the basis of how much of our familiar world they support so let’s put this surely simple proposition to the test.

If the words were original to Josephus are they what we would have expected Josephus to say given all that we know about his works or does it appear as an anomaly? This means we have to draw upon some background knowledge of the works of Josephus.

Why did Josephus avoid references to other Christs?

One of the first things one learns about Josephus in undertaking any treatment of him by scholars interested in Christian origins is that he appears to have scrupulously avoided the merest hints of messianic ideology when writing about figures whom scholars believe were considered messiahs in their day. Even when he has the chance to use the term (“christ” being the Greek word for “messiah”) in a positive way — as, many believe, when he declared the Roman general Vespasian as the fulfilment of the Jewish prophecy that from Judea would rise a ruler of the entire world — he still fails to use it.

To argue that Josephus wrote that Jesus was called Christ is to take the position that Josephus made Jesus the sole exception in the way he wrote about messianic figures (others who were believed to be christ). That means we need to be clear on the reasons Josephus apparently avoided the term in every other case and be able to explain why he made an exception for Jesus.

The reason he avoided hints of messianism, scholars tell us, is that the idea stimulated popular support for the Jewish rebels fighting against Rome. Josephus was, by the favour of Vespasian, in the service of Rome at the time of his writing. If Josephus found the word “christ/messiah” such a sensitive issue then how do we explain his use of it for Jesus?

Some scholars have argued that Josephus had a secret soft-spot for Jesus. They say he even admired the man. If so, then he was not comparable to the rebel “messiahs” in the eyes of Josephus. If this is true, and if Josephus felt the word “christ” was such a problematic one for Roman sensitivities, then we still need an explanation why he would have used it of Christ.

Perhaps Josephus was trying to show the word had a good meaning. If so, then why did he not use it of Vespasian? Okay, we can say he just used the words he did and that’s that. And that’s fair enough.

We might also ask if he avoided the word because the Jewish notion of “messiah/christ” would have been meaningless to Romans. Some scholars have said just this: not that Josephus did not call Vespasian “christ” because the word would have had no meaning to him, but that the word would have meant nothing to Romans generally.

But if that is the case we have a contradiction with our first scholarly point about avoiding any language that would upset the Romans.

Was Josephus impressed by Jesus enough to break his rule?

Maybe Josephus was trying to show that the word was really a positive one and not rightfully applied to rebels. Jesus was a positive figure in Roman eyes, or at least Josephus was presenting that case to the Romans.

Perhaps. But how likely is that given what scholars generally tell us about persecutions of Christians by Nero (almost 30 years before Josephus wrote Antiquities) and then under Trajan (who became emperor about half a dozen years after Josephus wrote). In the time of Josephus another historian, the Roman Tacitus, flourished and many scholars conclude from what they see in his writings that Christians in the days of Josephus were hated.

We may conclude that Josephus wrote the words “called Christ” of Jesus as an exception to his normal reticence on their use, but if so, we must admit that we cannot simply assume they were as likely as anything else he wrote. The reference does appear to be an anomaly.

Strengthening the case for Josephan authenticity

The Book 20 reference to “Jesus, who was called Christ” seems to be a reference to an earlier passage where this same Jesus (called Christ) was introduced. (Many persons with the name of Jesus feature in this work by Josephus so there needs to be some identifier to distinguish them.) So if we continue with our (slightly shaken) confidence that Josephus did say in Book 20 that he is speaking of the Jesus who was called Christ, our case would be strengthened if we found an earlier passage making this same identification.

Our hypothesis appears to be passing the test when we recall that we find a passage about Jesus in an earlier book of Antiquties, the famous Testimonium Flavianum (=testimony of Flavius Josephus), the TF.

In that earlier passage we read the Josephus wrote, quite bluntly, that Jesus was the Christ. I think probably all scholars today acknowledge that that statement, as it stands, was certainly not written by Josephus. If it were it would imply that Josephus was a Christian. Yet we know Josephus loathed departures in the Jewish laws and traditions attributed to Moses. But all is not lost.

We have some theories that the TF began as a somewhat shorter passage by Josephus, one that was either neutral or negative towards Jesus, and that it was over time “redacted” by Christians. Some of these reconstructions suggest Josephus may have written something like “Jesus was believed to be the Christ by his followers”. If so, then the later passage in Book 20 may well be interpreted as a reference back to that TF.

It would be stronger, of course, if all of this theory about the TF were not quite so hypothetical.

Just the beginning

What we have done here is apply some tests to the hypothesis that “called Christ” were the original words of Jesus and not incorporated into the text from a marginal gloss. There are many more arguments surrounding this passage. There are even additional arguments that argue for the marginal gloss theory that I have not covered here and that need to be seriously tested, too.

Earl Doherty has a seventeen page exploration into the many points to consider on this passage in Jesus Neither God Nor Man; in On the Historicity of Jesus Richard Carrier’s in depth discussion covers a little under 5 pages. There are many aspects to consider and it would be foolhardy to conclude the matter can be decided in just a few minutes.

Remember, we don’t want to be one of those who jumps on the bandwagon of whatever arguments sound plausible and good for our own preferred conclusion whether that’s mythicism or historicism. It doesn’t hurt (well, not very much or if it does hurt a lot the hurt does not last too long) to endeavour to be as brutally honest with ourselves and our thinking processes as we can be.

Ask what our particular view would lead us to expect in the remainder of the evidence. Do the same for the opposing arguments. The whole process takes time and effort. It’s not as simple as deciding what flavour of ice-cream suits our taste today — or which author’s words we find the “more persuasive”. Sitting on the fence for a while is not always a bad thing.



  • 2014-09-06 14:13:56 UTC - 14:13 | Permalink

    “Was Jesus impressed by Jesus enough to break his rule?”

    Did you mean, “Was Josephus impressed by Jesus enough to break his rule?”

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-09-06 21:23:32 UTC - 21:23 | Permalink

      Thx. Too busy on the small print I missed the obvious! I have made another correction, too.

      I originally wrote “N.T. Wright” — who as far as I am aware has not written anything about mythicism — instead of “N.T. Wrong”, a pseudonym for a scholar who made quite a splash a little while ago with his witty criticisms of biblical scholarship. This person also once commented on Vridar — before discovering I was open to mythicism. The “once a fundamentalist always a fundamentalist” quip originally came from “N.T. Wrong” as far as I can tell and has been picked up by the likes of Crossley and others.

  • 2014-09-06 14:28:22 UTC - 14:28 | Permalink

    “Even when he (Josephus) has the chance to use the term (“christ” being the Greek word for “messiah”) in a positive way — as, many believe, when he declared the Roman general Vespasian as the fulfilment of the Jewish prophecy that from Judea would rise a ruler of the entire world — he still fails to use it.”

    Isn’t it funny how the theologians, who are quick to concede that the “Christ” in the TF was a Christian interpolation, never think that the absence of “Christ” everywhere else in Josephus is a Christian redaction? We have every reason to expect him to call Vespasian Christos.Yet the theologians never notice this.

  • maryhelena
    2014-09-06 15:21:01 UTC - 15:21 | Permalink

    OK, lets say, for the sake of argument, that Eusebius did it – interpolated both the TF and the James passage. While that would weaken the case for a historical Jesus it would not result in the death of that assumption. Remove the name of ‘Jesus’, remove ‘christ’ or ‘messiah’ – and one is still left with the wonder-doer, wise man, story. A story that gLuke has used and given the Josephan ‘wise man’ the name of Jesus. The Josephan, Antiquities story, is itself a reflection of the wonder-doer story that is now in Slavonic Josephus. (connecting the Josephan ‘James’ to the gospel story is a secondary, non-Josephus issue)

    The historicist/mythicist debate over the TF (and by extension the James passage) serves only to side-track the more important issue of the wise man, wonder-doer, crucified under Pilate, Josephan story – and it’s connection with gLuke. (the Emmaus Narrative)

    Methinks the mythicists need a better argument than interpolations in Josephus as a means to counter the JC historicists….;-)

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-09-06 16:52:52 UTC - 16:52 | Permalink

      Mary, you have missed the entire point of the post. I invite you to test your own hypothesis against the same sorts of tests I speak about here. And rather than disagree and argue emotively with mythicism or any other view different from yours I invite you to attempt to test their arguments.

      • maryhelena
        2014-09-06 17:07:45 UTC - 17:07 | Permalink

        I did not miss your point at all. I’ve granted your arguments and said, in effect, OK, what now for the historicist/mythicist debate? Josephus has been interpolated – why now? Where to from here? What has the interpolated arguments done for the historicist/mythicist debate? If you think these questions are off topic – OK……

        • Neil Godfrey
          2014-09-06 21:49:03 UTC - 21:49 | Permalink

          They are off topic, Mary. You come across as obsessed with mythicism and your own spin on Christian origins. If you read my post with any care you would have seen I do not come down decisively on the marginal gloss argument. I can see weaknesses in the view that the text as it stands was original to Josephus but I also said there were many more arguments to consider and fence sitting was not a bad idea till those were worked through.

          I have tried many times to point out that I am not primarily interested in trying to prove Jesus was a myth but most interested in understanding the nature and origins of the evidence we have for early Christianity and its parent Judaism. Naturally that will sometimes have implications for the mythicist/historicist debate but that really is a spinoff from what I write here.

          I am also appalled at the standard of much biblical scholarship and will also attempt to draw attention at times to some of the most unprofessional failures of these public intellectuals who look very much like the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing who drag their lay audiences down with them into shockingly fallacious reasoning and outright prejudices.

          Your own approach to the argument is not far from theirs in fallacious reasoning and obsessive attacking of opponents and advocacy or your own view.

  • Scot Griffin
    2014-09-06 20:38:14 UTC - 20:38 | Permalink


    Is it fair to say that “proof texting” is a species of confirmation bias?

    I’d argue that proof-texting is only one example of how readers can improperly dismiss (or embrace) a new theory. Thompson (or maybe Lemche) has referred to the concepts of “thin history” and “thick history.” Thin history is harder to attack or dismiss because it does not stray to far from the facts and does not attempt to prove more than a single proposition or a small, well-identified set of them. Thick history is easier to attack because it tends to extrapolate more and seeks to provide a broader narrative, much of which is provided by the speculation (or imagination) of the historian. Mythicists tend to engage in thick history, and people are prone to dismiss the entirety of a new theory if they believe that even one small piece of it is incorrect (conversely, people are prone to believe their existing theory is true if only one small part of it appears to be proven).

    With respect to the James Passage, another approach is simply to accept it as authentic then question what it actually “proves.” Josephus was not a contemporary of Jesus, and in the James Passage he does not claim to be an eyewitness to the events discussed therein. Therefore, Josephus either relied on a source (oral or written) or made the whole story up. Let’s assume that he had a source for the story. Given that we don’t know who or what that source was, we cannot authenticate the source nor test its veracity. That’s what happens when you have hearsay within hearsay, and that’s why courts of law don’t accept hearsay within hearsay as evidence to prove the matter asserted. Given these assumptions, the only thing the James Passage proves directly is that Josephus circa 90 CE had an unidentified source of unknown provenance that identified James as the brother of Jesus called Christ. If we further assume that Christianity existed in the time of Josephus and that the the unknown source was of Christian origin , the James Passage indirectly proves that the Christians of 90 CE believed Jesus was an historical figure and not Carrier’s imagined celestial being. However, the James Passage cannot prove that Jesus was an historical figure, nor can it disprove Carrier’s thesis that Jesus began as a celestial being because the unknown source does not necessarily reflect what the earliest Christians believed, i.e., the date of the unknown source could be as late as 90 CE, decades after historicists and mythicists believe Christianity began.

    By the way, in On the Historicity of Jesus Carrier asserts that the James Passage is a later “accidental” interpolation and, therefore, “there is no evidence Josephus ever mentioned Jesus Christ.” See pages 337-342. Thus, Carrier goes beyond dismissing the James Passage as unpersuasive, choosing instead to reject it as evidence at all: “There is therefore no evidence here to consider.”

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-09-06 23:47:34 UTC - 23:47 | Permalink

      Just to address your last paragraph for now (I know I have yet to get to your other comments, too) I don’t see the same problem as you do. As for specifics of poor wording you would have to address those with Carrier, of course, as when Carrier concludes “there is therefore no evidence here to consider”. In fact, however, Carrier has just considered that evidence across around a 3000 word discussion. That is not “going beyond ‘not persuasive’ — that is in effect doing what I have attempted to suggest should be done. It would have been more appropriate for Carrier to have said, I think, that the evidence presented does not convict.

      But Carrier certainly does not dismiss the evidence on the grounds that it is “not persuasive”. He does argue the case. He does not reject it until after he seriously tackles it. You find that approach problematic?

      • Scot Griffin
        2014-09-07 02:49:23 UTC - 02:49 | Permalink

        I actually have no problem with his ultimate conclusion (that there is no evidence to consider) from the point of view that, even if assumed authentic, the evidence presented by the James Passage cannot be dated as being contemporaneous with the life of James (and it is clearly not evidence contemporaneous with the life of Jesus). At best, the James Passage is evidence that by c. 90 CE people believed in the historicity of Jesus (this assumes, of course, that there were Christians by then). If I have a problem, it is with the argument in the first quoted sentence (which immediately precedes the last quoted sentence in the actual text), and I agree with you that he probably meant to say (or should have said) that he did not find the James Passage to be authentic and, therefore he was unconvinced that Josephus had anything to say about Jesus.

        As I dig into Carrier’s work a bit more, I think what bothers me most is his acceptance of the belief that “Christianity” began in the early first century CE. It is this scholarly assumption, which seems to have begun as a concession to the dominant narrative of Christianity that demands continuity of Christian belief from the time Jesus was supposed to have lived through the time of Constantine, that is most suspect. While I can accept that other messianic cults existed in the first century CE, that’s not evidence that “Christianity” did, and I’m not aware of any evidence of Christianity prior to the Synoptic Gospels, which I don’t think can be fairly dated as having existed prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem c. 70 CE (which Jesus allegedly foretold). Once you accept that Jesus was not an historical figure, there is no need (or reason) to date the beginnings of Christianity to the early first century CE, and if you date the beginnings of Christianity to some time after the destruction of the Temple, other possibilities present themselves for consideration. These Carrier ignores.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2014-09-07 04:29:54 UTC - 04:29 | Permalink

          My response would be that dating the epistles, especially Paul’s, to the second century raises more problems than it might be thought to resolve.

          • Scot Griffin
            2014-09-07 06:39:57 UTC - 06:39 | Permalink

            Did I push the epistles into the second century CE? I thought all I said was that the Synoptic Gospels seem to have been written some time after 70 CE. If one assumes the epistles were published around the same time, you are still in the first century CE.

            If the epistles were written between 70 and 100 CE, how does that present a problem? And given the doubt about the authenticity of may of “Paul’s” epistles, why should one fear these problems?

            My focus is really on the OT, so I am not being flippant with these questions. I have not focused on the NT for at least a decade.

            • Neil Godfrey
              2014-09-07 07:43:43 UTC - 07:43 | Permalink

              I assumed (wrongly) that you were in accord with those who put the Pauline epistles into the second century. I don’t know of any who put them post 70 – 100 or thereabouts. I don’t think there is anything to “fear” but the problems are serious, in my understanding.

              I don’t know of any evidence that puts Paul’s epistles (except for evidently interpolated chapters and for the deutero-Paulines) 70 – 100. I suspect the relationship with the gospels would be very problematic trying to do that. Questions of theological development and literary indebtedness come to mind. Paul’s epistles are very much in the mould of Second Temple Judaism.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2014-09-07 20:41:28 UTC - 20:41 | Permalink

    Catching up with some of these earlier comments at last:

    Is it fair to say that “proof texting” is a species of confirmation bias?

    That sounds right to me. Actually “proof texting” means something a little different to many people to whom it specifically means taking passages out of their contexts to make a point. Of course with proof texting in the sense I mean it that’s the point to be established.

    I’d argue that proof-texting is only one example of how readers can improperly dismiss (or embrace) a new theory. Thompson (or maybe Lemche) has referred to the concepts of “thin history” and “thick history.” Thin history is harder to attack or dismiss because it does not stray to far from the facts and does not attempt to prove more than a single proposition or a small, well-identified set of them. Thick history is easier to attack because it tends to extrapolate more and seeks to provide a broader narrative, much of which is provided by the speculation (or imagination) of the historian. Mythicists tend to engage in thick history, and people are prone to dismiss the entirety of a new theory if they believe that even one small piece of it is incorrect (conversely, people are prone to believe their existing theory is true if only one small part of it appears to be proven).

    I don’t think most mythicists are doing history at all. Maybe my idea of history is too narrow, but to me historical inquiry is more about explanations of events and research to uncover the past. The historical question, to my mind, is how to account for Christianity. But I suppose there is always room for data checking which is how I would think of the inquiry into the historicity of Jesus. Of course this is still an important bit of ground work for historians to build upon.

    What you describe is human nature and applies in every walk of life. I’m sure anyone who is a mythicist or historicist or in between is no different from the rest of humanity. At the same time no doubt there are many who are self-aware and professional enough to make an effort to control such impulses.

  • Bertie
    2014-09-08 13:09:59 UTC - 13:09 | Permalink

    So, in partial defense of a hyper-focus on certain bits of text — recall that the context for the comment quoted in the OP was falsifiability. I think there are some pieces of textual evidence that are potentially so strong that they function as something close to falsifiability in hard sciences Popperian sense — a single experiment, if good enough, can overthrow the whole hypothesis. Put in terms of probability, certain passages, like the James/Josephus passage, the Jews in 1 Thessalonians, or the Brother of the Lord are such that the probability of mythicism totally craters to near zero if any one of these pieces of evidence is allowed to stand at face value. So we have to focus in on these passages. This is no different than when the hard sciences are confronted with an experiment that falsifies a popular hypothesis— in that case, the experiment in question is going to be questioned and repeated and checked at length to make sure that it really does falsify the hypothesis.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-09-08 20:20:04 UTC - 20:20 | Permalink

      The passage on the Jews in 1 Thessalonians comes in for special attention among scholars as a forgery — 15 scholars cited in my latest post and they don’t even count the modern ones whom I have addressed in detail here: http://vridar.org/category/new-testament/paul-and-his-letters/1-thessalonians/

      If you cannot concede even the possibility of anomaly or ambiguity of interpretation for “brother of the Lord” despite even Jesus historicists conceding just that and even its possible origin as a gloss then the conversation is closed for you and I agree it would be better for you to focus on other things. There is no point focusing on things if either of us has our minds refusing to accept anything but one possibility (thus making this in effect potentially the sole basis upon which one “proves” the question either way in defiance of all other contingencies) — that’s only going to lead to ill-feeling and be a waste of time and loss of civility. One in effect seems to be accusing the other side of wilful stupidity or else of being motivated by a hostile irrational agenda.


      • Bertie
        2014-09-08 21:31:23 UTC - 21:31 | Permalink

        There seems to be some misunderstanding here.

        The comment quoted in the OP contained in the non-highlighted part this: “not, of course, simply taking the passage’s authenticity for granted but considering all the evidence for and against it”. And the replied to comment does not say that those three passages are to be accepted at face value but that if they stand up than another conclusion more-or-less follows (the probability of mythicism collapses). So I accept both that these passages are disputed and that there is much more to their analysis than the bare words ripped out of context.

        If we still disagree on the broader methodological question (rather than on James/Josephus or this or that piece of evidence) then it is on the matter of falsification, which was under discussion in the other thread. One point I was (perhaps badly) trying to make is that mythicism does sometimes go off into non-falsifiability — if the number of claimed interpolations gets a little too high or a little too convenient…if the explanations for data get a little too convoluted…if your theory seems a little too narrowly tailored to get around problems in the data — all this is when you have to be thinking about falsification. That is why you cannot completely ignore when a theory does violence to the plain meaning of a text or requires a lot of non-obvious analysis — too much of that sort of thing is evidence that someone is not really following being honest but rather has decided upon an answer and is constructing a non-falsifiable barrier around it.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2014-09-09 07:39:43 UTC - 07:39 | Permalink

          “Plain meaning” and “too convoluted” are value judgments and interpretations that must be applied; they are not arguments requiring demonstration. Value judgments are often inherited culturally and therefore tend to favour the conventional wisdom.

          For example: “Brother of the Lord” is the plain meaning of a Lord’s possession — Jesus is an interpretation; and the application of either meaning to the context rests on number of assumptions about the integrity of the text, the authorship and provenance of the work, the relationship with other specified works, etc. To fail to recognize any of this is to think in two-dimensional black and white constructs and in effect invites one to move on to other interests and leave any debate to others. Why bother if you see no room for ambiguity at all?

          “Too many interpolations”? How many is too many? Three? Two? One? Does it make any difference of both interpolations that are considered important are also those that are agreed to be interpolations by a significant number of scholars who make their arguments without any reference to the historicist-mythicist debate? Is that significant? But more importantly, are the two interpolations anomalous when set aside the rest of the evidence?

          In my experience those who argue against mythicism because it relies upon “too many” interpolations or against “plain meanings” are misrepresenting the arguments of mythicism as well as what is questioned within the wider scholarship.

          I’d prefer to see you address the points raised in my brother of the Lord posts that I linked to above instead of waving them away with a subjective value judgment.

          Why not take up the challenge or what I propose as a better and more persuasive way of making a case with what you consider to be the significance of the “Brother of the Lord” or the text relating to the judgment upon the Jews in 1 Thessalonians 2:14ff. If not, why do you bother to be involved in such debates unless it’s to denigrate the character or intellectual capacities of others?

    • 2014-09-09 12:51:04 UTC - 12:51 | Permalink

      “Put in terms of probability, certain passages, like the James/Josephus passage, the Jews in 1 Thessalonians, or the Brother of the Lord are such that the probability of mythicism totally craters to near zero if any one of these pieces of evidence is allowed to stand at face value.”

      No, only Doherty and Carrier’s theory craters if 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is accepted as original to the letter. Theirs is hardly the only theory out there. My opinion is that the construction “the Messiah was crucified by the Jews” is mythical to the core and basic to the Christian myth. That the author of 1 Thessalonians wrote about it as it were real doesn’t actually make it real, anymore than the same author’s story about his trip to the Third Heaven was real.

  • Bertie
    2014-09-08 13:36:42 UTC - 13:36 | Permalink

    >>>> By the way, in On the Historicity of Jesus Carrier asserts that the James Passage is a later “accidental” interpolation and, therefore, “there is no evidence Josephus ever mentioned Jesus Christ.” See pages 337-342. Thus, Carrier goes beyond dismissing the James Passage as unpersuasive, choosing instead to reject it as evidence at all: “There is therefore no evidence here to consider.”

    I don’t have my copy in front of me as a type this, but this was one of my main problems with Carrier’s book — in a book making a probabilistic argument, he sometimes sidesteps evidence entirely that really ought to be given a probability, even if a very low (or very high) one. Carrier is essentially saying that the probability of the James/Josephus passage being genuine is 0%. That can’t be right.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-09-08 20:18:11 UTC - 20:18 | Permalink

      I have my own differences with Carrier but it does no justice to oversimplify and dismiss his arguments without facing up to the details he does give.

      We have every right to disagree with his arguments but to generalize or hand-wave them away is not helping anyone. Why not fight fire with fire? Present the alternative argument with serious rigour, and piece by piece address and rebut Carrier’s point. That would serve us all and the entire enterprise.

  • 2014-09-16 16:11:54 UTC - 16:11 | Permalink

    Regarding the James passage, I think a possibility exists that Josephus was referring to a Jesus who at the time was still alive and kicking, due to the present tense middle-passive singular masculine participle legomenos included in the text in the genitive case. But methinks the probability is only 25%, and the probability that it refers to the historicists’ version or the apologists’ version of Jesus is also 25%, given the assumption that the probability that the passage was forged or tampered with is 50%.

  • 2014-12-17 22:35:30 UTC - 22:35 | Permalink

    Excellent article. And I think that even if no minds are changed of the particular people arguing, that THIS sort of research and thoughtful looking at an argument can really help both sides come to a greater understanding. I am a creationist…I should say that up front. I read a book a LONG time ago (in high school, I believe) called Darwin’s Black Box which was arguing against evolution based on what he called “irreducible complexity” of certain biological features at the celular level, such as the mechanism for blood clotting. (It’s an idea that there are some things in nature that could not have evolved because they would require several evolutions, each of which would be deadly or very detrimental to the creature if each part evolved separately, making their evolution unlikely without some outside direction).

    Now, I’ve heard so often how creationists aren’t scientists and shouldn’t be trying to posit scientific arguments ect. (the author of that particular book WAS a scientist, but that’s beside the point here).

    But, taking myself out of my own shoes for awhile and stepping into someone who does not believe in Creationsim, I can see that even from that viewpoint the ideas in the book I mentioned earlier helped move science forward, regardless of whether than ideas turned out to be true. I know this because about a decade after reading that book I picked up a newly published science book in a bookstore, and happened to turn to the page on evolution. On that page they directly dealt with instances of “irreducable complexity,” addressing directly one of the instances of biological complexity that the author of Darwin’s Black Box had posited was irriducibly complex. Since the time he had brought up that argument, someone had taken it seriously enough to do research (new research) to see if there were a way to show how it was not “irreducably complex” but could have evolved. So, science moved forward and new knowledge came to light because someone challenged something and someone took that challenge seriously enough to really look at it, and not just dismiss it as “creationist nonsense”.

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