Search Results for: myth


2016-07-30

How Do You Spot a Messiah? — Myth of Jewish Messianic Expectations continued

by Neil Godfrey

I continue to examine the arguments mounted in favour of the view that Jewish messianic expectations at the time of the founding of what became Christianity as set out by Richard Carrier.

Even ‘John the Baptist’ (at least as depicted in the Gospels) was a mes­sianic figure (e.g. Jn 1.20; Lk. 3.15), or otherwise telling everyone the messiah would arrive in his lifetime (Mt. 3.1-12; Mk 1.1-8; Lk. 3.1-20; Jn 1.15- 28). And he was enormously popular (the Gospels and Acts claim so, and Josephus confirms it), thus further exemplifying the trend of the time. This messianic Baptist cult may even have influenced or spawned Christianity itself (see Element 33). The cult of Simon Magus might likewise have been promoting its own messiah. Acts certainly depicts Simon Magus as a mes­sianic pretender (Acts 8.9-11), again with enormous popularity, just like the others in Josephus. The historicity of this Simon has been questioned, but the historicity of his worship as a divine being has not.26 If the biblical account of him reflects the truth (of the historical man or the celestial demi­god he once was) he would be another example confirming the same trend. (Carrier 2014, p. 71)

Previous posts have alerted us by now to the flaws in appealing to the New Testament for supporting evidence that the NT was itself a product of one of many messianic movements in the early first century CE. Once again we see the proclivity to find messianic underlays in any figure who happens to be popular or speaks of the future, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Two of the scholars I have quoted in previous posts are Richard Horsley. and Sean Freyne. Their works are included in the volumes that Carrier himself cited as supports by specialists in this field for the common view about messianic expectations. So how does Carrier respond to their views?

Horsley still insists these are not messianic movements, but that assertion depends on an implausibly specific definition of ‘messiah’ (or an excessively irrational denial of obvious inferences): see my discussion of definitions (§3). Similarly in Sean Freyne, ‘The Herodian Period’, in Redemption and Resistance (ed. Bockmuehl and Paget), pp. 29-43: like Horsley, Freyne is only skeptical in respect to an over-restrictive definition of ‘messiah’: whereas given my definition, his evidence completely confirms my conclusion. The same can be said of Martin Goodman, ‘Messianism and Politics in the Land of Israel, 66-135 C.E.’ in Redemption and Resistance (ed. Bockmuehl and Paget), pp. 149-57.

That is, with a little unfortunate muddying of the waters and an appeal to overly-restrictive definitions and obvious inferences. As for inferences, what we have seen in this series so far is that all the evidence for messianic movements has been inferential from data that is anything but obvious. Recall Geza Vermes made the same claim, that “obviously” such and such would have been interpreted in a certain way, but then proceeded to set out four other possible interpretations!

Carrier supplies his own definition of what he means by messiah and to my mind it is no different at all from what Horsley and Freyne themselves accept. The problem is not in an “overly restrictive definition” but in an overly-liberal approach to seeing messiahs in the writings even when no mention of such a figure is present. As we saw, for example, with the rebel Athronges at the time of Herod’s death, we read twice of his interest in wearing a crown but nothing at all about an anointing. An attentive reading of Josephus’s description demonstrates that Athronges is emulating Herod as a king and there are no hints of any messianic pretensions. And so forth for all the other figures, as we have discussed in previous posts.

To be clear, here is Carrier’s definition of messiah:

I shall mean by messiah (the Hebrew word of which ‘Christ’ is a translation) any man in fact, myth, or prophecy who is (a) anointed by the Hebrew God to (b) play a part in God’s plan to liberate his Chosen People from their oppressors and (c) restore or institute God’s true religion. This means ‘anointed’ in any sense then understood (literally, figuratively, cosmically or symbolically), ‘liberate’ in any sense then claimed (physically or spiritually), ‘oppressors’ in any sense then identified (whoever or whatever they may be) and ‘religion’ in the fullest sense (cult, mores, sacred knowledge, and the resulting social order)— and I specify only ‘play a part’, not necessarily bring to fruition. All Jewish kings and high priests were, of course, ‘messiahs’ in the basic sense of being anointed to represent God. But here I shall mean a messiah conforming to (a) through (c). Yet I do not assume there must be only one messiah of that kind. Neither did the Jews . . .

I’ve seen some scholars question or deny that the Jews had any prior notion of a messiah before the advent of Christianity. But such a denial is accomplished only by proposing an implausibly hyper-specific definition of ‘messiah’, then showing no such thing was previously imagined, and concluding ‘the Jews had no prior notion of a messiah’. This is a textbook fallacy of equivocation: start with a term defined one way, then end with the same term defined in a completely different way, often without noticing a switch has been made. To avoid this, I shall stick to my minimal definition, since I am certain anyone meeting criteria (a), (b) and (c) would have been regarded by at least some ancient Jews or Judaizers as a messiah. I attach no other baggage to the term— no particular eschatology or scheme of liberation. Jews of antiquity were clearly quite flexible in all such details, as everyone agrees . . .

(Carrier 2014, pp. 60-61)

I doubt that Horsley, Freyne or Goodman would have any problem with that definition. Forget quibbles over semantics and precise meanings. The problem is that Carrier’s definition itself is thrown to the winds when looking for evidence of popular fervour for the appearance of a messiah as defined by Carrier with the result that the de facto definition becomes “anyone who commands a popular following”. Even if the context and details described point to a quite non-messianic figure (on the basis of Carrier’s definition) it does not matter.

In other words, even though Carrier insists that a messianic figure must be defined by “a through c”, if a figure conforms only to b and/or c then the most essential component, a, the anointing, is assumed to have been present. Of course it is the most essential detail that we should look for first.

Martin Goodman

Martin Goodman

Carrier does not name the scholars who “deny that the Jews had any prior notion of a messiah before the advent of Christianity”. Even Carrier concedes that messiahs were common enough in Jewish ontologies as kings and priests; and as I have demonstrated in my previous posts scholars such as Horsley and Freyne, far from denying the Jews any pre-Christian notion of a messiah, do indeed address the references to messiahs in the inter-testamental writings.

Since Carrier introduces another name I did not cover in earlier posts, Martin Goodman, I think this is a good time to quote some of his article that Carrier finds objectionable. The chapter is titled “Messianism and Politics in the Land of Israel, 66-135 C.E.” I did not use it earlier because as we can see it applies to the late first century and early second.

Goodman seeks to answer the question

how many Jews in Judaea shared … beliefs about the imminent arrival of the messiah, and what impact such beliefs had on the political actions which led Judaean Jews into two disastrous wars against Rome, in 66-70 C.E. and 132-5 C.E.

Goodman responds to William Horbury (Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ) as one of the more influential exponents of the idea that

  • Jews of Jesus’ day were waiting for a messiah;
  • this expectation was so strong that it was a significant factor in leading to the war with Rome;
  • and the reasons the evidence for these two beliefs is so scanty are
    • the sources have been lost with time
    • and Jewish authors (esp Josephus) suppressed the evidence of messianic hopes among their people.

read more »


Origin of the Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah

by Neil Godfrey
William Scott Green

William Scott Green

I put Richard Carrier’s arguments on hold in this post in order to point out what another scholar I have not yet cited has had to say about what J. H. Charlesworth calls “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.” I would even say William Scott Green‘s opening chapter, “Introduction: Messiah in Judaism: Rethinking the Question”, in Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, is obligatory reading and discussion for anyone interested in this question.

Green’s chapter helped me identify much of the fallacious reasoning and unfounded assumptions that underpin all efforts I have encountered attempting to prove that Second Temple Jews gave much attention to messianic hopes. What we tend to see in the arguments is, in Green’s words, a form of “proof-texting” carried out to justify one’s a priori assumptions about Second Temple religion and attitudes. Worse, most of the arguments attempting to demonstrate a messianic fever are based on texts where there is no mention of the messiah idea at all and in spite of other clear and explicit statements in the documents to the contrary.

The irony here is that Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, and others who identify the fallacious presumptions scholars bring to their reading of the New Testament epistles fail to see that they share with many of those same scholars the same type of fallacy at the heart of this particular question.

Green’s chapter needs to be read in its entirety, but I single out a few sentences.

The major studies [of the messiah at the turn of the Christian era] have sought to trace the development and transformations of putative messianic belief through an incredible and nearly comprehensive array of ancient literary sources – from its alleged genesis in the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament, rabbinic literature, and beyond – as if all these writings were segments of a linear continuum and were properly comparable. Such work evidently aims to shape a chronological string of supposed messianic references into a plot for a story whose ending is already known; it is a kind of sophisticated proof-texting. This diegetical approach to the question embeds the sources in the context of a hypothetical religion that is fully represented in none of them. It thus privileges what the texts do not say over what they do say.

(Green 1987, p.2)

The term “messiah” has scant and inconsistent use in early Jewish texts. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Pseudepigrapha, and the entire Apocrypha, contain no reference to “the messiah.” Moreover, a messiah is neither essential to the apocalyptic genre nor a prominent feature of ancient apocalyptic writings.

(Green 1987, p.2)

The Myth’s Origins

So what has led to today’s situation where it is taken for granted that

“In the time of Jesus the Jews were awaiting a Messiah.” (Mowinckel, He That Cometh, p. 3)

“from the first century B.C.E., the Messiah was the central figure in the Jewish myth of the future” (Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), p. xxvii.

“belief in the Messiah [is one of the four] good gifts which the people of Israel have left as an inheritance to the entire world.” (Klausner, Messianic Idea, p. 13)

Green’s explanation for this misguided state of affairs is that the academic study of “the messiah” derived not from an interest in Judaica but rather from “early Christian word-choice, theology, and apologetics.” First, he points to the problem faced: read more »


2016-07-29

Questioning Carrier and the “Myth that the Jews Expected a Messiah” (#3)

by Neil Godfrey
James_H._Charlesworth

James H. Charlesworth criticizes Helmut Koester for assuming “the myth that Jews expected a Messiah and knew what functions he would perform.”

This is part 3 of my series arguing against the popular notion that the time of Jesus as narrated in the gospels was ablaze with various cults and movements eagerly expecting a messiah to appear as per prophecies or even time-tables found in the Jewish scriptures. My depiction of this supposition as a myth in the title of this post is taken from James H. Charlesworth whom I quote below.

I am focusing on Richard Carrier’s presentation of this view because he goes further than many others by attempting to set out the evidence for this idea. So far I have addressed these passages in Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus:

That Jewish expectations of some kind of messiah in the early Roman Empire were widespread [and] influential . . . has been well established by experts on ancient messianism.15 . . . .

Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. . . . .

The Dead Sea Scrolls attest to one or several such cults around that same time. Indeed, messianic apocalypticism was intense at Qumran, where the keepers of the scrolls were already expecting the imminent end of the world, and attempting different calculations from the timetable provided in the book of Daniel (see Element 7) to predict when the first messiah would come – and many of their calculations came up ‘soon’. The early first century CE was in their prediction window.18

(Carrier 2014, pp. 67-68)

We have seen in the previous posts (addressing footnote 18 and footnote 15) that scholars who specialize in the texts in question and who are footnoted by Carrier as his supports do not support the above claim.

I continue now to address four more points made by Carrier that he uses to argue that it is not a myth that the Jews of the early first century CE expected a messiah.

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1. Evidence from a thousand years later

And many of [the Qumran] texts were used by other cults of the time. A copy of the so-called Damascus Document, for instance, turns up a thousand years later in a stash of Jewish texts at Cairo Geniza.19

(Carrier 2014, p. 68)

Again we do not find support for the belief that the early first century witnessed a “rash of messianism” here. Citing but one example of a text composed in the mid first century BCE and appearing a millennium later cannot support the view that early first century CE cults were seizing copies of the Qumran community’s texts to fuel imaginations feverishly anticipating the imminent appearance of the messiah. (Moreover, even that text, the Damascus Document, the mention of the messiah is but incidental to other concerns.)

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2. Evidence of the Gospels

The Gospels likewise assume (or, depending on how much you trust them, report) that ‘messiah fever’ was so rampant in Judea then that countless people were expecting Elijah to be walking among them, some even believed that Jesus, or John the Baptist, was that very man, risen from the dead, which many Jews believed presaged the imminent coming of a messiah and the ensuing end of the present world order (which many believed had become corrupted beyond human repair), because this had been predicted in Mal. 4.5-6, the very last passage of the traditional OT.21 . . . .

21. See Mk 9.9-13; 8.27-28; 6.14-16; Mt. 17.10-13; 16.13-14; Lk. 9.18-19; 9.7-9.

(Carrier 2014, p. 68)

The synoptic gospels are arguably riddled with anachronisms (e.g. synagogues and regular contact with Pharisees in Galilee) betraying their date of composition in the post 70 CE world. We do have independent evidence in the writings of Josephus for messianic hopes among Judeans at the time of the 66-70 CE war with Rome. Messianic hopes are placed in Bar Kochba seventy years later with another rebellion against Rome. We know from the Mount of Olives prophecy (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) that the synoptic gospels were written to address the turmoil immediately preceding and following destruction of Judea’s political and religious centres. We know that the evangelists responsible for the gospels created scenarios to demonstrate theological points both about and through Jesus. We also know that crowds are concocted to appear and disappear whenever an evangelist needs them for a narrative function, quite without regard for narrative plausibility.

The gospel narratives require a popular response to a fantastic hero, who can perform all sorts of wonderful miracles, that falls short of recognizing him as a messiah. We have no more justification for assuming the scriptural citations used by Carrier reflect historical plausibility or reality than we do for gospel narratives of the Massacre of the Innocents or bumping into critical Pharisees while nibbling grain in a cornfield or that the Temple in Jerusalem was as small as a small pagan temple so that a single man could to stop all traffic as per Mark 11 or that in the early first century CE steep cliffs were found where they are no longer present (e.g. Nazareth has no steep cliff from which Jesus could have been thrown as per Luke 4 and Gardara is miles from the lake of Galilee and there are no cliffs on the lake’s shore from which pigs could have hurtled themselves as per the exorcism of Legion.)

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3. Evidence of the so-called “false messiahs” in Josephus

The only surviving historian of early-first-century Palestine confirms this picture. Josephus records the rise and popularity of several false messiahs in the same general period as Christianity was getting started. He does not explicitly call them messiahs – he probably wanted to avoid reminding his Gentile audience that this was the product of Jewish ideology, and instead claimed it was the product of fringe criminals and ruffians (he likewise catalogues various other rebel bandits and demagogues as well). But the descriptions he provides belie the truth of the matter. As David Rhoads put it, ‘Josephus tends to avoid messianism when he relates the history of the first century’; in fact he deliberately ‘suppressed the religious motivations of the revolutionaries by ascribing [to them] evil and dishonorable intentions’ instead. But their messianic basis remains unmistakable. Scholarly analysis confirms this.22 

(Carrier 2014, pp. 68-69)

A careful reading of the sources suggest the opposite picture to the conventional assumptions expressed here by Carrier. To begin, let’s examine the footnoted citations.

Carrier cites Rhoads as quoted by Mendels in Charlesworth’s The Messiah Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity:

22. See D. Mendels, ‘Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, the ‘Fourth Philosophy’, and the Political Messianism of the First Century CE’, in The Messiah (ed. Charlesworth), pp. 261-75 (quote from Rhoads: p. 261 n . 4)

Consulting Mendels’ chapter one learns that in fact Rhoads argues the contrary to Carrier’s main point: the rebel groups in question did not have messianic expectations:

Two major trends can be discerned in the scholarship of the last fifty years concerning so-called messianic groups in Palestine in the first Century C.E. up to 70. One view . . . put forward by L. I. Levine, D. M. Rhoads, and others, is that all the groups terrorizing the Romans acted separately and that few, if any, had a messianic ideology

(Mendels 1992, p. 261)

read more »


2016-07-24

The Quest for the Historical Hiawatha — & the historical-mythical Jesus debate

by Neil Godfrey

Scholar of religion drops an interesting aside in his blog post, The Quest for the Historical Hiawatha:

From what I understand, virtually all archaeologists and historians who study the matter agree that the Iroquois confederacy–the bringing together into political and religious union the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca peoples–was carried out as a result of the work of the Great Peacemaker and his disciple, Hiawatha. There is, as best I can tell, little dispute about their existence, even though the earliest written accounts come from at least three centuries after their life. That should be instructive to mythicists regarding how actual historians approach their subject matter . . . . (my own bolding as in all quotations)

My first thought was that the reference to mythicists was an odd irrelevance that added nothing to the argument expressed. It was of even less relevance to mythicism itself given that its point bears no relationship to any arguments I have encountered in the serious mythicist literature (e.g. Doherty, Carrier, Price, Brodie, Wells).

My second thought was that it appears once again we have a scholar of New Testament studies advertising how out of touch his field is from other forms of historical methods pertaining to non-biblical topics. But no, that’s not quite correct, because clearly Jonathan Bernier is familiar with studies of oral history.

And my third thought was to wonder why serious scholars like Jonathan Bernier seem so bothered by mythicism that they appear to have any interest at all in making throwaway lines like the one in this Historical Hiawatha post. Why? What role does mythicism itself play in their minds that they should express any mindfulness of it at all in this way?

First thought: irrelevance to mythicists

JB speaks of mythicists as a homogenous entity who need basic instruction in how “actual historians approach their subject matter”. The implication is that insisting upon contemporary records as the primary grounds for accepting the historicity of any person or event is a misguided hyper-scepticism while the reality is that historians have no qualms in accepting the historicity of a figure on the basis of a three hundred year old oral tradition alone. And most importantly and with apologies to humanity’s porcine cousins, mythicists are pig ignorant of this fact.

The fact is that numerous studies amply demonstrate the unreliability of oral reports that are even contemporaneous with the persons or events they are supposedly reporting. Historians who have written about their craft regularly stress the importance of contemporary sources. At the same time no-one has ever insisted that without contemporary source corroboration we must maintain strong doubts about a historical report. We know well enough, for example, how historians of Alexander the Great must rely upon written sources that date centuries after the death of Alexander. However, historians have strong reasons for placing qualified trust in the basics written in those works. I won’t repeat that discussion originally posted at

and

One hostile critic of mythicism who often insisted that biblical scholars did history no differently from the way other historian worked once encouraged his readers to study how historians “really work” by perusing Gilbert Garraghan’s 1946 A Guide to Historical Method. Unfortunately the same critic had himself failed to read Garraghan’s own words on page 265 that said:

It is typical of popular tradition that it is first heard of long after the time when the events it reports are supposed to have occurred. Almost invariably there is a gap, more or less broad, between the events and their first appearance in recorded history. Such a gap occurring in the case of any report is enough to make it suspect from the start. Instances of such reports, found on examination to be unverified, are without number. Thus, unaccountably tardy first­ mention of them in written record of any kind is a major argument used by critics in discrediting such one­time general beliefs as the False Decretals, the Popess Joan, the authenticity of the reputed works of Denis the Areopagite. Again, no contemporary biographer of St. Thomas of Canterbury records that his mother was a Saracen princess whom his father had married in the Holy Land.­­­­­ John Morris, “Legends about St. Thomas,” The Life and Martyrdom of St. Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury( 2d ed., London, 1885), 523­25.

That Luther committed suicide is a story first heard of some twenty years after his death, when it began to be circulated by persons hostile to his memory.­­­­­ H. Grisar, Martin Luther, his Life and Work,57578.

The “Whitman­ saved­ Oregon”story first became public many years after Whitman’s death.­­­­­ See Edward G. Bourne Essays in Historical Criticism.

The Ann Rutledge ­Lincoln episode appears to be mainly legendary. No mention of it occurs until thirty ­one years after her death.­­ AHR,41 ( 1936): 283.

A crucial point to be noted about such beliefs as those indicated is that when mention of them in written record emerges for the first time, no reason is forthcoming to explain why mention of them bad not been made earlier.

Mythicist arguments that I have read do not cite the lateness of sources as a reason to believe Jesus was a mythical construction from the very beginning but they do acknowledge, as is good and standard practice among historians, that the relative lateness of the sources does lend support to other arguments that suggest we are entitled to at least question his historical existence. The only attempt I have seen to link any writings of mythicists with the argument that lateness of sources is itself a reason to disbelieve in the historicity of Jesus is Maurice Casey’s third chapter of Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? Casey’s case might have taken a quite different turn, however, had he accurately quoted the writings of mythicists instead of mischievously torching straw man fabrications.

That leads to the second thought . . .
read more »


2016-05-26

Golden Dawn party attempts to shut down Mythicism Conference

by Neil Godfrey

Golden Dawn party attempts to shut down Mythicism Conference

A translation of part of the letter by Golden Dawn to the Mayor of Athens:

The Greek Constitution stated that the Orthodox Christian Faith is the dominant religion of our homeland. How can the ministry protect protect the holies of 2000 years of our homeland, if it does not intervene and allows the conference to take place, which is potentially heretical and aims to destroy the faith of Greeks?


2016-04-27

Myth Conference 2016

by Neil Godfrey

May 22nd, 2016, at the City of Athens Cultural Centre

You may recall the book Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction by freelance journalist Minas Papageorgiou. The book was originally written for Greek readers and now there is a mythicist conference coming up soon in Greece. Some of the same names associated with the book also appear related to the Conference.

From the Conference website:

In November 2013 a group of Greek independent investigators decided to join their forces in the website mythikismos.gr, in an effort to present a fuller picture of the area of study called Mythicism. 

About two and a half years later, this area of investigation is becoming more and more popular in Greek society, attracting numerous scientists of various worldviews and beliefs. We have therefore decided to move one step further and organize, in collaboration with the Mythicist Milwaukee group, on May 22, 2016, in the city of Athens, the 1st Greek Mythicism Conference, with a free entrance to all.

The goal of this innovative conference is to feature the various manifestations of Mythicist concepts, as seen through the particular viewpoint of both Greek and foreign investigators, who do not necessarily embrace the same philosophical line of thought. The international character of the conference undoubtedly increases the value of this venture.

For the schedule: http://mythcon.gr/προγραμμαschedule/

And for the speakers: http://mythcon.gr/ομιλητεσ-2/

And for the translation: http://itools.com/tool/google-translate-web-page-translator

I like the way it goes beyond the historicity of Jesus question. It’s certainly eclectic. I hope some of the presentations will be available online afterwards. I’d personally like to see even more eclecticism in future years so methodological approaches comparable to those of Carrier (and non-secularists like Brodie) can gain a hearing.

 


2016-04-23

Biblical Scholars Reacting to Public Interest in Mythicism: Part 1

by Neil Godfrey

Biblical scholars are reacting uncomfortably to signs of public interest in the view that Jesus did not exist. Not all biblical scholars, though. A tiny few do publicly welcome and accommodate this mythicist view of Jesus with their Christian faith and others who have confessed to being open-minded on the question. (For details see Who’s Who: Mythicists and Mythicists Agnostics.) But it is no secret that biblical studies is dominated by the Christian faith, both its liberal and conservative wings, so when articles questioning the most fundamental precept of that faith appear in prominent media outlets like The Washington Post, Salon.com, and most recently Macleans, some of those scholars let their indignation and impatience show. Unfortunately for their cause, however, while they focus on defending their traditional assumptions they all too often completely ignore (or misrepresent) the actual reasons many intelligent and educated people continue to have doubts.

My own position on mythicism: Following is my (slightly modified) email reply to someone who recently asked me if I was an agnostic on the mythicist question. —

Yes. It is the best we can argue. The evidence and critical methods we have can only allow us to argue that our New Testament literature can well be explained without recourse to a historical Jesus but that fact does not itself prove their was no historical Jesus. Even some “historicists” admit that the historical Jesus is essentially irrelevant to what became Christianity.

Personally I see no reason to believe in the existence of a historical Jesus but I cannot prove that position, so I must remain agnostic. The best I can do is to demonstrate how the evidence we have for Christian origins can be explained far more cogently without reference to a historical figure.

[A danger some mythicists fall into is an ideological desire to prove Jesus was not historical but the expression of some other deity or cosmic phenomena,] — that is, looking only for evidence to support their theory. That approach is susceptible to confirmation bias. If we can’t find ways to test our hypotheses and identify how they could be disproved then we are not using valid historical or scientific reasoning. [I think a more interesting and profitable pursuit than trying to prove or disprove the historicity of Jesus is to explore and understand the evidence that sheds light on Christianity’s origins.]

In posts on Vridar I’ve said several times that by explaining the origin of a gospel narrative as an adaptation of another story (say, Jesus stilling the storm from the Jonah story) we do not disprove the historicity of the event. Ditto if we find mythical associations with Jesus: even known historical emperors described themselves and were described by others in ways comparing them with mythical persons. What matters is what the evidence we have points us towards. If we have evidence for a literary or mythological borrowing, and that is all there is, then — all other things being equal — it is reasonable to tentatively assume that that the literary or mythological source is the origin of our narrative. But our conclusion is tentative – pending the discovery of additional evidence that there is also a historical source.

In this series of posts I will address the public responses of two mainstream scholars, Philip Jenkins and Stanley Porter (who responds jointly with Hughson Ong, a relatively new name in the field), to Brian Bethune’s discussion of Bart Ehrman’s new popular book, Jesus Before the Gospels, in the context of questions raised by Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. The two articles:

Both responses are clearly written with considerable impatience:

In debates about Christian origins, one tiresome canard is going to come up sporadically, and usually, it’s not worth wasting time on. (Jenkins)

Here we go again, chasing after another ill-conceived theory about the Bible, this being one that periodically rises from the mordant ooze. (Porter-Ong)

And both responses completely sidestep Brian Bethune’s core questions. By way of reminder here are those unaddressed questions that arise from Ehrman’s book:

Q1. Almost entirely from the Christian tradition

Ehrman’s memory book, in effect, is more an appeal to the faithful to accept historians’ approach than a new way of evaluating evidence. His list of what historians, including himself, think they can attest to hardly differs from a list he would have made a decade ago:

  • Jesus was a Jew,
  • an apocalyptic preacher like the man who baptized him, John the Baptist;
  • his teaching, rooted in Torah, was delivered in parables and aphorisms;
  • Jesus had followers who claimed his message was validated by the miracles he wrought;
  • in the last week of his life, Jesus went to Jerusalem, where he caused a disturbance in the Temple that, some hours later, led to his arrest;
  • Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor found him guilty of sedition and had him crucified.

However appealing and reasonable such a list is to modern skeptics, it is still drawn almost entirely from within the faith tradition, with buttressing by the slimmest of outside supports—brief references from Roman observers. (My own bolded emphasis and formatting in all quotations)

Q2. Buttressed by the slimmest of outside supports

Bethune then shows us just how slim the most “rock-solid” of those outside supports are:

Consider one item on Ehrman’s list, perhaps the most accepted and certainly the one with the largest claim to historical accuracy embedded within it: Pontius Pilate executed Jesus. Scholars are almost universally on-side, as are most Christian churches. Pilate is the sole figure from Jesus’s trial for whom we have undoubted archaeological evidence, and he’s also, perhaps coincidentally, the only one to become part of the Nicene Creed, the most widely embraced capsule statement of Christian faith: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

But that wasn’t what all early Christians thought.

  • The apocryphal Gospel of Peter says King Herod signed the death warrant.
  • Others who thought Jesus was nearly 50 when he died believed that happened in the 40s of the first century, long after Pilate had been recalled to Rome.
  • The Nazorians, an intriguing sect of Torah-observant early Christians discussed by a fourth-century scholar, believed Jesus died a century before the canonical Gospels, around 70 BCE. (And, since they were descended directly from the first followers of Christ, called Nazarenes before they became known as Christians, the Nazorians cannot be easily dismissed. The Babylonian Talmud, composed by the fifth century, notes the same.)

Yet Pilate is in Mark as the agent of Jesus’s crucifixion, from which he spread to the other Gospels, and also in the annals of the Roman historian Tacitus and writings by his Jewish counterpart, Josephus. Those objective, non-Christian references make Pilate as sure a thing as ancient historical evidence has to offer, unless—as has been persuasively argued by numerous scholars, including historian Richard Carrier in his recent On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason For Doubtboth brief passages are interpolations, later forgeries made by zealous Christians. . . .

The Gospels are forthright in their agendas to serve theological and not historical needs. Mark may have pinned Jesus’s death on Pilate because he knew or believed it to be true, says Carrier, or he may have been practising “apocalyptic math.” [“Apocalyptic math” is a reference to the interest in that day of finding a timetable for the appearance of the messiah in the mysterious numbers in the Book of Daniel.]

Craig Evans interlude

Uh oh, is Carrier befuddling the public with the question begging “interpolation” card? Is he blithely sweeping aside contrary evidence as possible forgeries? That’s how Craig Evans, another mainstream scholar, chose to react to Carrier’s case in a recent debate. But in a live debate situation Carrier was able to respond on the spot and remind the audience that far from any question begging, detailed and abundant evidence for the claim of forgery was used to back up the assertion. (Bart Ehrman himself not very long ago even wrote another popular book demonstrating just how widespread forgery was in the early Christian world.)

http://ksutv.kennesaw.edu/play.php?v=00030027

When Craig Evans brushed aside Carrier’s assertions he was brushing aside all the evidence and argument upon which those assertions were grounded. That’s not addressing the arguments; it’s reacting to them in a way that leaves the critical public unpersuaded. read more »


2016-04-05

Blinded by the Trivialities of the Mythicist-Creationist Comparisons

by Neil Godfrey

I believe Professor James McGrath is quite sincere in his inability to grasp why it is that Jerry Coyne (as one example of a mainstream public intellectual failing to be convinced by the claims of biblical scholars that Jesus existed) cannot see that mythicism is any different from creationism. McGrath has demonstrated repeatedly an apparent cognitive inability to actually comprehend and directly address mythicist arguments, invariably focusing instead on trivial objections, on red herrings, on straw men, on blatant misrepresentation. McGrath makes no secret of his visceral loathing of mythicism and of those who argue for it, and especially of those who attempt to hold him to account for his own arguments both against mythicism and for the historicity of Jesus. He is not alone. Colleagues of his have publicly appreciated his efforts to rid the world of a challenge to their fundamental assumptions about the evidence we have for Jesus.

So McGrath elects to write the following as a riposte to Jerry Coyne’s musings on the failure of biblical scholars to convince him that we have sound evidence for the existence of Jesus:

I’m always surprised at how much rancor is directed toward “creationists”—those who deny that evolution, whether on the macro or micro level, is the best explanation for the diversity of life on our planet. I’m also surprised at how certain many biologists are that evolution occurred (Jerry Coyne, to give a prominent example).

Yet although I am the first to admit that I have no formal training in science, I think I’ve read enough to know that there is no credible evidence for the reality of evolution, and that arguments can be made that evolution is a purely mythological notion, derived from earlier ideologies, which gradually attained “facthood.” As a historian, I’ll say that I don’t regard the evidence that evolution occurred as particularly strong—certainly not strong enough to draw nearly all scientists to that view. It’s almost as if rejecting evolution brands you as an overly strident religious person, one lacking “respect” for science. There’s an onus against creationism that can’t be explained by the strength of evidence against that view.

What McGrath demonstrates with these words is a failure of his to grasp the fundamental arguments of the mythicists. Unlike creationists, mythicists do not appeal to divine revelation or dogma to explain the evidence before them.

Creationists pose no threat to evolution; mythicism, on the other hand….  read more »


2016-04-04

Trivial Fallacies of a Hostile Anti-Mythicist

by Neil Godfrey
Madsen Pirie, author of How to Win Every Argument

Madsen Pirie, author of How to Win Every Argument

The problem with trivial objections is that they leave the central thesis largely untouched. It is fallacious to oppose a contention on the basis of minor and incidental aspects, rather than giving an answer to the main claim which it makes. . . .The fallacy is akin to that of the straw man. Instead of facing the main opponent, in this case it is only a few aspects of it which are confronted. The trivial objections are possibly valid, the point is that they are also trivial, and not adequate to the work of demolishing the case which is presented. The fallacy is committed because they are not up to the task to which they are assigned, not because they are erroneous. . . . .

But there is hope. Despite the above shortcomings of trivial objections they nonetheless can be used to good effect:

If you dwell on your objections, listing them and showing how each one is valid, your audience will be impressed more by their weight of numbers than by their lack of substance. (Pirie 2006 pp. 163-164 — bolded emphasis is my own)

And so it is that probably the best-known anti-mythicist on the web has mastered the tactic of trivial objections to deflect attention from the substance of mythicist arguments.

Responding to an article that was published in the Cambridge online journal published for the Royal Institute of Philosophy, Think, Professor McGrath demonstrates with aplomb the masterful application of the art of the trivial objection.

To fully appreciate McGrath’s finesse we need to identify the core argument of the article being addressed. The author, Raphael Lataster, makes the central point clear in his conclusion:

The approach taken by the mainstream historicists is riddled with unjustified and no longer tenable presuppositions, employs the use of illogical methods such as the overuse of non-existing sources, and surprisingly involves attacks on critics’ personal beliefs and qualifications. By contrast, the work of ahistoricists like Carrier and myself is published in the peer-reviewed literature, and is measured and impersonal. Given the state of the available sources, it is entirely reasonable to be undecided over the issue of Jesus’ historical existence.

Lataster sums up his discussion of Bart Ehrman’s arguments for the “certainty” that Jesus existed (set out with my own formatting):

He claims that he has demonstrated, at the very least, that the Historical Jesus certainly existed. But his case relied on

  • assumptions that the Gospels are basically reliable and don’t elaborate on or adapt the earlier Christian sources,
  • ill-considered musings about what Jews of the time would and would not have believed,
  • and sources that don’t exist and can’t be analysed.

read more »


Jerry Coyne Again Batting for Jesus Mythicism

by Neil Godfrey

From Jerry Coyne of Why Evolution Is True:

It’s time to ponder whether a Jesus really existed

I’m always surprised at how much rancor is directed toward “mythicists”—those who deny that there was a real Jesus who, whether or not he was divine, was the nucleus around which Christianity accreted. I’m also surprised at how certain many biblical scholars are that Jesus existed (Bart Ehrman, to give a prominent example).

Yet although I am the first to admit that I have no formal training in Jesusology, I think I’ve read enough to know that there is no credible extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus’s existence . . . . As a scientist, I’ll say that I don’t regard the evidence that Jesus was a real person as particularly strong—certainly not strong enough to draw nearly all biblical scholars to that view. It’s almost as if adopting mythicism brands you as an overly strident atheist, one lacking “respect” for religion. There’s an onus (animus?) against mythicism that can’t be explained by the strength of evidence against that view.

Coyne discusses the recent Brian Bethune’s Maclean review of Bart Ehrman’s and Richard Carrier’s new books:

[I] agree with Carrier that mythicism appears to be rejected by Biblical scholars for mere psychological reasons. . . . And I’m still puzzled why Bart Ehrman, who goes even farther in demolishing the mythology of Jesus in his new book, remains obdurate about the fact that such a man existed.

One can already hear the predictable responses from the anti-mythicist guild ….. area of expertise… not qualified… consensus…


2016-03-19

Richard Carrier and Raphael Lataster on the Jesus Myth

by Neil Godfrey

The Jesus Myth Theory w/ Richard Carrier and Raphael Lataster

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 11.48.43 pm

My today began in Australia then spent most of its daylight hours in Singapore and is now in Thailand — and since it’s now over 26 hours since I’ve slept do kindly excuse the absence of comment. Just listen to a great discussion.


2016-02-21

Bart Ehrman-Michael Bird Debate & Comments on Mythicism

by Neil Godfrey


2016-01-31

Still troubled by mythicism

by Neil Godfrey

It’s been a long time since I’ve addressed any of James McGrath’s regular little swipes at mythicism but it’s a dreary rainy Sunday morning and I’m in a mood for nostalgia.

The following has just popped up on my rss feed: The Real Difference Between Creationism and Mythicism. The point McGrath drives home is set out twice, once in a colourful box illustrated with a silly creationist trope of a man with his pet dinosaur:

Creationists can find 3,000 academics who will sign a statement against evolution. That’s not 3,000 academics in relevant fields, just 3,000 academics, including retired ones. I’ve yet to see mythicism show any sign of even coming close to that. And yet supposedly we are to believe that creationism’s 3,000 are irrelevant, but the 10 or so mythicist sympathizers show that the historicity of Jesus is “a theory in crisis”?

The point is to denigrate the very idea of mythicism in order to exclude its actual arguments a priori from any serious consideration. The idea is to associate mythicism with anti-intellectualism and an ideologically driven agenda. The comments to the post sing the chorus: a few ignorant atheists are misguidedly pushing an anti-Christian agenda.

There is no quotation from a mythicist (not even a decontextualised one) so what mythicists think and argue is entirely found in both the context and words set out by McGrath himself.

And here is the rebuttal:

Unless, of course, the evidence for that conclusion is considered so strong, and the alternative interpretations of the evidence so implausible, that there aren’t that many academics who would be willing to put their name on something that is, in the end, every bit as ridiculous as rejecting evolution, however different the fields in question may be.

Are we really to believe that as “many academics” who admit to being sympathetic to creationism have actually bothered to seek out and analyse the evidence for the existence of Jesus? Why would they? Is Jesus really so important to the non-religious? I hear that belief in Christianity is much more important in the U.S. than it is in other countries so I can understand the importance of fundamentalist types putting up their hands to declare support for certain beliefs there. I hear that in the U.S. it is even problematic in many regions to declare oneself an atheist!

And as long as Christian scholars like McGrath continue to accuse mythicists of being intellectually deficient then one can sense a climate that makes public discussion of Jesus’ historicity somewhat problematic for some academics who might otherwise be curious.

There are too many faulty assumptions and fault-lines in the reasoning leading to McGrath’s conclusion to address here. Besides, I don’t believe anything said to the contrary will make any difference to the anti-mythicist camp. There really is some truth to the proverb that says the accuser is in fact the guilty one.

The point is that the post is not an argument; it is a put-down, a dismissal. And that is what it is meant to be. There is no room for serious argument. There never has been. I think Raphael Lataster is right.

 

 


2015-12-17

The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians

by Neil Godfrey

Abstract of a recently published article by Princeton University Professor of Classics, Brent D. Shaw:

A conventional certainty is that the first state-driven persecution of Christians happened in the reign of Nero and that it involved the deaths of Peter and Paul, and the mass execution of Christians in the aftermath of the great fire of July 64 C.E. The argument here contests all of these facts, especially the general execution personally ordered by Nero. The only source for this event is a brief passage in the historian Tacitus. Although the passage is probably genuine Tacitus, it reflects ideas and connections prevalent at the time the historian was writing and not the realities of the 60s. 

Brent D. Shaw (2015). The Myth of the Neronian Persecution. Journal of Roman Studies, 105, pp 73-100 doi:10.1017/S0075435815000982

I will attempt to outline some of the points I found of particular interest in his article.

760px-Siemiradski_Fackeln

The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki. According to Tacitus, Nero targeted Christians as those responsible for the fire.

Shaw argues that the famous story of Nero burning and in other ways torturing Christians as punishment for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. never happened. (As usual, bolded font and formatting are my own.)

Nero’s spectacular executions of large numbers of Christians in the aftermath of the fire that raged through the city of Rome in July of 64 is commonly regarded as a foundational event in the history of Christian martyrdom. They were the first executions of Christians performed at the behest of the Roman state. In almost every history of the early Christian Church, the event is marked as a dramatic turning point in the relations between Christians and the imperial government.

Given the surprisingly widespread acceptance of the great significance of this axial event in Christian history, the thinness of the evidence on all aspects of it is quite striking. The paucity and weakness of the data, however, have not prevented acceptance of the historicity of this ‘first persecution’ as an undisputed fact. Indeed, the degree of certainty in the Neronian persecution stands in almost inverse proportion to the quality and quantity of the data. Those who have expressed even modest scepticism about the historicity of the one explicit passage in the historian Tacitus that attests to the executions have been voces clamantium in deserto.

The simple argument of this essay, deliberately framed as a provocative hypothesis, is that this event never happened and that there are compelling reasons to doubt that it should have any place either in the history of Christian martyrdom or in the history of the early Church.

To begin with, there is no evidence that Christians were crucified as a penalty for their faith. The key reference here is Barnes, T. D. 2010: Early Christian Hagiography and Roman History, Tübingen. So much for the late legend of Peter being crucified, let alone crucified upside down. The late tales of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul appear to have been expressions of what second century Christians wanted to believe. In the Gospel of John there was a prophecy that Peter would meet an undesirable fate and it seemed appropriate that he should die by crucifixion as had Jesus. For all we know from the available evidence Peter died in the 50s, in Jerusalem, peacefully in his sleep. Paul, according to Acts, was in trouble not for being a Christian but for being a disturber of the peace.
read more »