Category Archives: Book Reviews & Notes


2015-06-28

The Casey-McGrath Profiles of Mythicists and Mythicism

by Neil Godfrey

James McGrath’s review of Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? has appeared in RBL. Casey’s work is a diatribe against persons who have been associated with the Christ Myth arguments (even though some of them do not argue a mythicist case themselves), and against a selection of what he asserts (often inaccurately) are their arguments. Casey also takes bitter swipes at others with whom he has had academic disagreements (in particular Paul L. Owen) or who hold other positions with which he disapproves (e.g. Emanuel Pfoh, Niels Peter Lemche).

According to McGrath’s review Casey has given a “highly commendable” presentation of the character of mythicists (who “maliciously malign mainstream scholars”) and the absurdity of their arguments (that “do not deserve to be taken seriously”). I set out below what those characteristics are according to Casey/McGrath.

I suppose the litany of sins is meant to turn anyone unfamiliar with mythicist arguments off the very thought of ever reading them and poisoning the very thoughts of the names of their exponents. Of course anyone who does read the works of Doherty, Price, Carrier, Wells, — or even articles here that often only indirectly may support mythicist views even though they are generally presentations of contemporary work by biblical scholars — will make up their own mind about the honesty of McGrath’s and Casey’s claims.

McGrath approves of Casey’s personal attacks.

The Casey-McGrath Profile of mythicists (the persons):

Mythicists and those addressed as such by Casey are “without relevant scholarly expertise”

Mythicists “typically” engage in “name-calling and other kinds of rudeness” when speaking of scholars; they have “insulted Casey” and “this reviewer (McGrath)”. Mythicists “maliciously malign mainstream scholars”. At the same time McGrath does concede that Casey’s own work is itself “acerbic” and “sarcastic” — though Casey’s tone is of course justified.

  • Casey actually cites no case where anyone has insulted him; he does cite the one time I mocked McGrath without mentioning my subsequent post expressing my regret at having done so or any of McGrath’s (and Casey’s) own ongoing abusive and insulting language directed towards me and others and his repeated rejections of my appeals for a return to the courteous way we began our exchanges.
  • I invite readers to review my many posts and comments on this blog (and anywhere else) and assess for themselves just how “typically” I or Doherty or Parvus or Widowfield have engaged in “name-calling and other types of rudeness”.

McGrath refers to all mythicists as “Internet cranks”  read more »


2015-06-10

Why Does Jesus Never Do Anything Wrong?

by Neil Godfrey

41zpIKZfb-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hector Avalos, biblical scholar and author of The End of Biblical Studies, has written a new book critical of New Testament ethics, The Bad Jesus. He describes this new work as

the first systematic New Atheist challenge to New Testament ethics by a biblical scholar. 

What is meant by a “New Atheist”? In Avalos’s words:

Insofar as I believe that theism is itself unethical and has the potential to destroy our planet, I identify myself with what is called ‘the New Atheism’. For my purposes, the New Atheism describes a post September 11, 2001 (9/11) phenomenon, which viewed that event as illustrative of the potential of religion to bring global war and even the destruction of our ecosphere. . . . The New Atheism features a more vocal and anti-theist stance (rather than just passively atheist stance) as embodied in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. (pp. 13-14)

Ouch. That makes me wonder if my own passive atheism is a mark of irresponsibility. But I have my own carefully considered reasons for not identifying with this trio. Blaming religion per se, I think, misses the real historical culprit: the self-serving and destructive institutional powers that religion serves to smokescreen from view. Consequently New Atheists can sometimes unwittingly become mouthpieces in support of those powers.

Leaving that crucial point to one side for now, let’s continue . . . .

Although not as well known as these writers, there also has emerged a group of biblical scholars who, while not necessarily describing themselves as ‘New Atheists’, do openly identify themselves as atheist, secular or agnostic (e.g. Kenneth Atkinson, Robert Cargill, Richard Carrier, Bart Ehrman, James Linville and Gerd Lüdemann.) . . . 

The New Atheism emphasizes the immorality of religious thinking itself. It challenges the ethics of Christianity and the Bible, in particular. (p. 14)

I have addressed aspects of Avalos’s thinking in this regard in other posts.

Why is Jesus bad?

First point to make here is that Avalos is not addressing any particular model of “the historical Jesus”. read more »


2015-05-09

More on that very strange birth of Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah

by Neil Godfrey
c. 1437-1446

c. 1437-1446 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing the series currently archived here . . . .

There are more interesting questions than the one I addressed in the previous post about that bizarre “birth” of Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI). What is the point of creating such an odd explanation for how the Son of God made his entrance to the world?

Orthodox Christian theology has Jesus save the world by means of the incarnation. The AoI, however, teaches that this is not how Jesus saved and has no room for Jesus literally becoming a man. God’s will was for Jesus to rescue humanity by having him hide his glory behind a mere human appearance and so by means of this deception to defeat t

he angelic powers. (Norelli 1993, p. 53)

Recall how the Son of the Beloved sloughs off a layer of his glory as he passes through each of the seven heavens on his descent so that he appears no different from the inhabitants of each realm.

Notice, too, how the description of Jesus’ birth turns into a vision for Joseph and Mary:

It came to pass that when they were alone that Mary straight-way looked with her eyes and saw a small babe, and she was astonished.

And after she had been astonished, her womb was found as formerly before she had conceived.

And when her husband Joseph said unto her: “What has astonished thee?” his eyes were opened and he saw the infant and praised God, because into his portion God had come.

And a voice came to them: “Tell this vision to no one.”

So it is through revelation that Joseph and Mary understand and know that Jesus is not a man like other humans. (Norelli 1993, p. 53)

In the previous post we saw the possible link between Isaiah 53:2 and the miraculous appearance of the child. Enrico Norelli explores further the AoI’s sources for this scene and the message it was meant to convey.

We saw in another earlier post Norelli’s reasons for rejecting the view that the AoI was adapting the nativity scene in the Gospel of Matthew. He argues that the AoI was most likely written about the same time as that canonical gospel (or before it).

Comparing with the Acts of Peter

The AoI continues (Charles’ translation): read more »


2015-05-07

A Very Strange “Birth” of Jesus (Ascension of Isaiah / Norelli)

by Neil Godfrey

This continues on from the earlier post, Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Norelli’s Argument, in which I covered Norelli’s take on the opening verses of the very odd nativity scene in the Ascension of Isaiah. . . .

In the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI) there is a very strange tale of how Jesus came into the world. Is it a bizarre “heretical” rewriting of the nativity scenes in the canonical gospels or is it a very early (pre-gospel) groping for an explanation of how a divinity could appear on earth as a man in supposed fulfillment of Jewish scriptures? 

AoI 11:6-11 (R.H. Charles’ translation)

And [Joseph] did not live with [Mary] for two months.

And after two months of days while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone.

It came to pass that when they were alone that Mary straight-way looked with her eyes and saw a small babe, and she was astonished.

And after she had been astonished, her womb was found as formerly before she had conceived.

And when her husband Joseph said unto her: “What has astonished thee?” his eyes were opened and he saw the infant and praised God, because into his portion God had come.

And a voice came to them: “Tell this vision to no one.”

Jesus suddenly appears before them not, apparently, after a normal birth but coincidentally with the rise and fall of Mary’s belly. The child is “real” enough but the parents are told to “tell this vision to no one”. read more »


2015-05-04

Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction by Minas Papageorgiou

by Neil Godfrey

jesus-mythicismMinas Papageorgiou, freelance journalist,  managing director of a Greek publishing group and a founding member of the Hellenic Society of Metaphysics (metafysiko.gr), has made his Greek language survey of a wide range of contemporary Jesus mythicist views available in English as an ebook on Amazon. And it’s not exorbitantly priced, either.

Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction was originally written for readers in the religiously conservative nation of Greece where the very existence of the mythicist debate has scarcely registered, both historically and today. The book is an attempt to introduce Greeks to a wide range of Jesus mythicist ideas currently being published and discussed in the English speaking world and now that it is available in English it is also an interesting introduction for English speakers.  

Before the main interviews Papageorgiou covers some of the more general or foundational arguments of mythicists such as those addressing the earliest references to Christianity in the non-Christian sources. He segues from this discussion into details of René Salm‘s arguments about the archaeological evidence for the inhabitation of Nazareth in the early first century, Raglan’s list of “hero archetypes” found among mythological figures, and material such as supposed ancient correspondence about Jesus that has been long understood to be forgeries. Some of this was new to me.

The first interview is with Gerd Lüdemann, the scholar who suffered professionally for publishing a work calling into question the authenticity of many of the sayings of Jesus. Lüdermann also expresses his views on the Christ Myth hypothesis, too. (Hint: I’ve updated the Who’s Who list of mythicists and mythicist agnostics/sympathizers.)

While I have been interested in a few Jesus myth arguments (in particular Brodie’s, Carrier’s, Doherty’s) and have known something of a tiny handful of others (e.g. Atwill’s, Murdock’s), there are others I knew about only vaguely or not at all.

Minas Papageorgiou from the start seeks to reassure readers that mythicism is not opposed to spirituality or faith but that it even has the potential to “enhance the essential messages of faith” by separating myth from historical truth. He points out that the first “Jesus mythicists” appeared with the emergence of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century but that this intellectual movement largely bypassed Greece. Only two groups, he writes, have anything to fear from mythicism: members of organized clergy and some of the academic guild who have made their reputations and livings through supporting the traditional Christian narrative.

This publication is not a critical evaluation of the various mythicist ideas but leaves the reader to judge and follow up what he or she personally prefers. The result is that some readers with a more serious scholarly interest may be dismayed to see the views of Carrier and Atwill given much the same billing. Carrier has criticized Atwill’s approach as decidedly unscholarly and fallacious and the two are scarcely comparable in terms of intellectual rigour. However, it is good to see Papageorgiou has given his interview with Richard Carrier priority.

In his introduction to Richard Carrier he writes: read more »


2015-05-02

More Thoughts on Minimal Historicity: When Bigger Isn’t Better

by Tim Widowfield
U-2 over California

U-2 over California

Many years ago, I had what I still consider the best job in the world. A second lieutenant in my twenties, I found myself in charge of operational maintenance on the swing shift for the entire “black side” of the flightline at Beale Air Force Base. Back then, the tankers were on the north side of the flightline, while the U-2s (including their TR-1 cousins) and SR-71s sat on the south side.

Of course, the real work depended on experienced NCOs. As the old joke goes, the job of an OIC (Officer in Charge) is to listen to the NCOIC, then nod and say, “Oh, I See.” But I did serve at least one crucial function. Only an officer could sign off on a “Red X” and clear a plane to fly.

One night we were driving around in the little blue pickup truck assigned to the maintenance officer on duty, when we stopped at one of the U-2 shelters. The senior NCO and I were checking on the status of some repair; I forget exactly what it was now. At any rate, we got to talking and one of the guys asked the crew chief about a car he’d been looking at. The young buck sergeant told us that he did almost buy one vehicle. It looked nice, he said, and the payments seemed reasonable. But then he noticed something fishy.

“When I added up all the payments,” he said, “it was more than the price of the car!”

I felt compelled to explain. “If . . . I mean . . . Suppose . . . Hmm.” And then I realized there wasn’t enough time to explain how interest works, and it wasn’t clear it would do much good anyway. I gave a wide-eyed look at the senior NCO, offered some excuse about needing to get over to the SR-71s, and we quickly departed.

I had a similar feeling of helplessness reading Dr. Matthew Baldwin’sA Short Note on Carrier’s ‘Minimal Historicism.'” One’s first inclination is to want to help someone who’s thrashing about wildly, but where to start? Baldwin writes in his post, “This game is more than somewhat suspect: it is rigged from the start.” And he followed up with the same sentiments in his comment on Neil’s recent post, where he wrote: read more »


2015-04-28

Problems accepting Carrier’s argument

by Neil Godfrey

Happily for at least a couple of scholars* Matthew Baldwin has posted on his blog eschata an argument that Richard Carrier’s case against the historicity of Jesus is flawed at its very foundations. His post is A Short Note on Carrier’s “Minimal Historicism”. I would be happily surprised, however, if I ever see a scholar critically engaging with the logic and facts of Matthew Baldwin’s argument. (I’m sure at least those who peer-reviewed Carrier’s work before it was published would take exception to claims that they approved what Baldwin describes as a “pseudo-logical, pseudo-mathematical . . . form of question-begging”, “tedious, overly self-referential” treatise condemning every prior Jesus historian as a “dupe, a stooge or tool (fool?)”.)

Matthew Baldwin does struggle with Carrier’s argument and his post demonstrates just how hard it is for anyone of us so entrenched in assumptions of the historicity of Jesus to grasp fundamental ideas and questions that potentially undermine the beliefs of millennia.

As I understand Baldwin’s criticism (and I am certainly open to correction) he finds two key difficulties with Carrier’s case:

1. Carrier reasons that at the very minimum a historical Jesus must be understood as a historical person with followers who continued a movement after his death; whose followers claimed had been executed by Jewish or Roman authorities and whose followers soon began to worship him in some sense as a divinity.

2. Carrier does not simply address the arguments for and against the historicity of this person but sets up in opposition an argument that Jesus’ origin was entirely mythical.

What Baldwin believes Carrier should have addressed is Jesus who is not quite so “minimalist”. Baldwin appears to fear that what Carrier has done is to reject the most fundamental historical elements of Jesus before he even starts and is therefore stacking the case against historicity in his favour.

I think Baldwin fears that Carrier is removing most of the defences supporting the historicity of Jesus before he starts, thus making his task too easy for himself. Baldwin wants to see the historical Jesus that needs to be overturned as having not only three attributes but be much more recognizably the same Jesus most scholars accept.  read more »


2015-04-27

Recovering from a postmodernist & Jungian Jesus headache

by Neil Godfrey

6ba73150824e779593148505241434f414f4141Hi there. If I don’t post again soon I’ll feel like I’ll have to introduce myself again. I’ve been taking time off mainly just to read, and especially to read a work that for me at least has been quite challenging. It’s full of coined concepts alongside esoteric ones: ontic as distinct from ontological; existentiell versus existentialia; historic versus historical; Dasein, Lichtung; “world” used not only as a noun but even as a verb; Jungian philosophy and psychology, Heidegger; “projection” but with a meaning fundamentally opposite from Freud’s meaning . . . I was labouring with a headache much of the time. But through it all I’ve come to at least work out (sort of) what Hal Childs is writing about in The Myth of the Historical Jesus and the Evolution of Consciousness.

Childs is comparing John Dominic Crossan’s approach to understanding the historical Jesus with that of Carl Jung. Crossan, recall, is well known for scholarly tomes such as The Historical Jesus and many others, some of which I’ve discussed on this blog. Childs argues that scholarly efforts to understand the historical Jesus are essentially efforts to create new myths about the Christ figure that is so much a part of Western cultural heritage.

Hal Childs is certainly not arguing for a Christ Myth theory (or, as Raphael Lataster rightly points out, the term should be Jesus Myth theory since obviously the “Christ” is mythical to begin with). He is attempting to raise the readers’ awareness of the extent to which all historical “reconstructions” and narratives are themselves mythical. From one perspective I can understand his point well enough, but I do have fundamental disagreements with some of his views of history (and the postmodernist view generally) that I cannot address here.

But for now I would like to mention one point in particular that is central to his thesis. Childs sympathizes with Crossan’s expressions of “embarrassment” over the way scholarship has produced such a wild array of historical Jesus figures. Crossan blamed the lack of a sound historical methodology for this “embarrassing” state of affairs; Childs, however, blames something else. Or rather, he doesn’t so much as lay “blame” as he does offer thanks:

[M]ultiple historical-Jesus-images are an unavoidable necessity in the light of the narrative and mythic essence of history — as such, it is not to be struggled against but embraced. (p. 259)

As far as I can understand from reading Childs’ work he falls into the same confusion about the nature of historical evidence that most biblical scholars also do. He writes with the assumption that historical Jesus studies are no different, at their base line, than any other study of an ancient historical question. But there is a significant difference and I have addressed it many times here. The difference revolves around something that is so fundamental that I think many historians rarely stop to think about it consciously. In brief, the core difference is as follows:  read more »


2015-04-01

Memories of Jesus? (Or False-Memory Syndrome?)

by Neil Godfrey

The Jesus historian’s proper task is to explain the existence of the Jesus memories in the Gospels. (Chris Keith, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, p. 66)

literacyThe question Chris Keith appears to overlook is how we know the Gospels do in fact contain “Jesus memories”. In fact, Keith’s book demonstrates, at least to my mind, just how far removed “Jesus historians” are from the mainstream of nonbiblical historical studies. (I am aware many biblical scholars would either deny or excuse this but that’s a topic I won’t address again in this post.)

Keith rightly leaves aside the tool of authenticity criteria as a means of determining “what happened” (I have addressed core aspects of Keith’s argument on such criteria before) but has left a gaping hole at centre of his attempt to reconstruct the origins of Christianity.

While some would argue that Jesus did not “start” Christianity that seems not to be Keith’s view. As I read him he associates Christianity’s beginnings with the impact Jesus had in his (pre-resurrection) lifetime on his disciples. Indeed, he even blurs the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith:

The overall implications of the Jesus-memory approach are significant. They challenge nothing less than the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. . . . [T]he Jesus-memory approach denies scholars’ abilities to separate cleanly the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith and properly returns historical investigation to why early Christians remembered Jesus in the manners they did. (pp. 69-70)

Keith’s colleague, Anthony Le Donne, at least acknowledged the necessity to somehow establish with some degree of independent verification (not just assumption) the existence of Jesus and reality of certain types of things he did. Le Donne admitted he had nothing but authenticity criteria to accomplish this, however, and Keith expresses some dismay over this return to a flawed method:

I disagree with Le Donne’s surprising appeals to criteria of authenticity. (p. 67 — Keith does acknowledge, however, that Le Donne modifies the claims he makes for these criteria by conceding they “cannot verify what actually happened” – p. 65 — only what “may have” happened, in effect)

Here is where I find biblical scholarship to be so removed from historical studies more generally. Ever since my undergraduate days I took it as a truism that all “facts” are at some level interpretations. Yet Keith attempts to explain at length why he believes that an “interpreted” event is somehow not, per se, necessarily “authentic”. He stresses what I and I am sure many historians have taken to be an obvious point — that every event we know about is transmitted through interpretations. Of course they are, but that does not deny the possibility of some sort of “objectivity” to the reality of those events. All we know about the Holocaust has come to us through interpretations of experiences and observations. But that does not mean we can say nothing stronger than that the Holocaust “plausibly happened”.

Keith speaks of our inability to have any “objective apprehension of past reality” and how the historian is always reduced to assessing “what is more or less plausible” (p. 66). I think Holocaust survivors have wanted something more than a claim like this in their defence.

Of course all human experience is interpreted, but that does not deny its objective reality at the same time. read more »


2015-03-26

Did Muhammad Exist? A revisionist look at Islam’s Origins

by Neil Godfrey

A criticism of the view that Muhammad did not exist

Excerpts from an interview published in

Spiegel Online International  

Dispute among Islam Scholars: Did Muhammad Ever Really Live?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is a group of prominent German Islamic scholars, who are becoming increasingly aggressive about questioning whether the existence of the Prophet is even historically accurate. The theory got its most recent backing from the University of Münster’s Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch, who is in charge of training teachers for Islamic education at the secondary-school level. The Ministry of Education of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is now planning to calm the waters by appointing an additional professor of Islamic pedagogy. Are we witnessing a split into two camps?

Marx: I don’t see it that way. But we should note that what we have from Kalisch at the moment are only the things he has allegedly said. From them, it sounds like he has decided to back the thesis of Professor Karl-Heinz Ohlig, which Ohlig publicized three years ago in his book “Dark Beginnings” (“Die dunklen Anfänge”). There, Ohlig posits that the Koran is a Christian text and that Muhammad probably never lived. But this group, which also includes the numismatist Volker Popp and some others, is very small. I’d say that their position isn’t really within the realm of accepted scholarship.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?

Marx: There are far too many pieces of evidence that make Ohlig’s thesis that the Prophet never lived untenable. In the 14 centuries of polemics between Christians and Muslims, this issue has never made an appearance. Even in Syrian-Aramaic sources, however, there is some documentation about the prophet from an earlier time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your scholarship focuses on the early period of Islam and the Koran. What is the evidentiary situation? How could we prove that the Prophet lived?

Marx: You have to be a bit delicate about it. In general, when it comes to history, you can’t point to any scientific proof. How would we, for example, prove the existence of Charlemagne? We can’t conduct any experiments; we have to work with evidence. And, for this issue, the evidentiary thread is the Koran. In this case, the evidentiary situation is better than it is for any other religion. We know of manuscripts of the Koran and Islamic inscriptions already 40-50 years after the Prophet died. It would be hard to explain the Koran, if you took the prophet out of the equation. Ohlig claims that Islam was actually a Christian sect up until the Umayyad Caliphate, that is, the eighth century. In this case, I run into this massive issue: It doesn’t match up with the text of the Koran. Why isn’t Christ a more central figure in the Koran, then? You hear about Abraham, Moses and Noah much more frequently.

. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In other words, if the Prophet did not live, in order to explain the literature, there must have been an enormous conspiracy.

Marx: Precisely. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you saying that Ohlig and his fellow combatants are either demagogues or pseudo-scholars?

Marx: It’s not for me to make that type of judgment. But that’s what it seems like to me. . . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Muhammad Sven Kalisch operates in a sort of border region, that is, between science and theology. And, then, he’s supposed to be training religion teachers, too. The Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany (KRM) isn’t going to support him anymore because they believe that Kalisch is questioning fundamental elements of the Islamic faith. Is it conceivable that a person can be a Muslim and at the same time say that the Prophet might not have even ever lived?

Marx: That’s hard to imagine. . . .

. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could we ever see the thesis — that the Prophet Muhammad might not have ever lived — brought up as a matter of discussion in an Islamic university?

Marx: I wouldn’t know where.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a researcher, how do you steer clear of this tense issue? You use what is a completely critical-historical approach. As long as your findings don’t contradict mainstream Muslim theology, it’s no problem. But what happens when it does?

Marx: Well, then it would probably be a problem. But we’re still a good way off from that situation. Don’t forget that what we’re doing here is basic research. The Koran deserves to be studied in a serious, scientific manner. I think it’s essential that we take these steps with Muslims. . . .

Interview conducted by Yassin Musharbash

In 2013 I read Tom Holland’s history of the rise of Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword, in which he argues in a most readable narrative that the astonishing spread of Arab conquests in the seventh century had more to do a series of tragic forces, in particular the Bubonic Plague, weakening the neighbouring Byzantine and Persian empires, than it did with the might of Arab arms. Moreover, those Arab conquests were not motivated by the Islamic faith; rather, the Islamic faith did not emerge until some decades after those conquests. I posted about Holland’s views at:

Since then I have been wanting to read more about the historical questions surrounding early Islam. Holland cited the works of several scholars I had hoped to engage with before I read Robert Spencer’s book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins, (But I distracted myself by reading another of Holland’s historical works instead.) Meanwhile Spencer’s book fell my way so I grabbed it.

Happily it turned out to be much more interesting as a historical exploration than I had expected. The most troubling flaw was Spencer’s rather poorly informed and stereotypical views of the nature of religions generally and Islam in particular as experienced in today’s world: he contrasts Christianity as an essentially peaceful religion ever since its origins with Islam as an essentially war-making and killing machine because of its historical origins. Some readers will love that summary and others will be dismayed by it (I am among the latter). Nonetheless, despite this botched conclusion much of the book is quite interesting and informative. How much of its information I will come to revise as I learn more I don’t know, so here I am writing up some general points that appear to be the views of a minority of Islamic scholars.

Anyone familiar with the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus will recognize some of the terrain here. Evidence cited over the years for the historicity of Muhammad has included:

  • the rich and vivid detail in the Islamic records of his life
  • the documenting of negative (embarrassing) features of his biography
  • the implausibility of anyone making up a character making such grandiose claims
  • only the personal inspiration of such a person could explain why so many others were motivated to found a vast empire in his name
  • how else can we explain the founding of a religion that went on to boast more than a billion adherents

Similar arguments have been made for the historicity of Jesus yet as we know not one of them truly withstands scrutiny.

But before I write more about the doubts raised about the traditional story of Islam’s origins I ought to make clear what scholars who dispute this minority view say about it.

Patricia Crone is professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. She writes:

True, on Arabic coins and inscriptions, and in papyri and other documentary evidence in the language, Mohammed only appears in the 680s, some fifty years after his death (whatever its exact date). This is the ground on which some, notably Yehuda D Nevo and Judith Koren, have questioned his existence. But few would accept the implied premise that history has to be reconstructed on the sole basis of documentary evidence (i.e. information which has not been handed down from one generation to the next, but rather been inscribed on stone or metal or dug up from the ground and thus preserved in its original form). The evidence that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, on the eve of the Arab conquest of the middle east, must be said to be exceptionally good.

Everything else about Mohammed is more uncertain, but we can still say a fair amount with reasonable assurance. Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur’an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt. Those who deny the existence of an Arabian prophet dispute it, of course, but it causes too many problems with later evidence, and indeed with the Qur’an itself, for the attempt to be persuasive.

For my own views on Crone’s argument about historicity see my post on historical method.

For further criticism see also, of course, the interview excerpts I have placed in the side-box.

I mentioned previously several other historians who have questioned the conventional story of Islam’s origins in my posts on Tom Holland’s book; here are a few of many more names listed by Spencer:

Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921): Lateness of earliest biographical sources on Muhammad along with tendency to invent stories to support later political and religious positions made it impossible to treat the biographies as historically reliable. Spencer lists many names of scholars who have raised questions about Muhammad’s historicity but I list only a few here;

Henri Lammens (1862-1937): Questioned the traditional dates associated with Muhammad; noted the “artificial character and absence of critical sense” in the earliest biographies of Muhammad.

Joseph Schacht (1902-1969): Impossible to extract authentic core of historical material from the earliest texts. Many documents claiming to be early were in fact composed much later.

John Wansbrough (1928-2002): Doubted the historical value of early Islamic texts. Qur’an was developed for political purposes to establish Islam’s origins in Arabia and to give the Arabian empire a distinctive religion.

Patricia Crone and Michael Cook: Noted lateness and unreliability of most early Islamic sources; reviewed archaeological, philological sources, coins from seventh and eighth centuries. Posited that Islam arose within and then split from Judaism. Argued the Arabic setting (including Mecca) was at a late date and for political purposes read back into the history of Islam’s origins. Later, however, Crone wrote that the evidence for Muhammad’s existence is “exceptionally good” (see the quotation above).

Günter Lüling: Qur’an originated as a Christian document; reflects theology of non-Trinitarian Christianity that influenced Islam.

Christoph Luxemberg (pseudonym): Qur’an shows signs of a Christian substratum; Syriac, not Arabic, resolves many difficulties in the text.

So what are the main points that prompt questions about the historicity of Muhammad and suggest that Islam emerged as a major religion some decades after the Arab conquests? Robert Spencer lists the following: read more »


2015-03-21

The Dark Resurgence of Biblical History

by Neil Godfrey

emergence_Biblical history and biblical archaeology have fought back to a new ascendancy after surviving the double-edged scrutiny of opponents they disparaged as “minimalists”.

For a moment it looked like genuine historical inquiry into ancient Palestine had the potential to displace the paraphrasing the Bible and the tendency to interpret nearly every archaeological artefact through the Bible. “Biblical History” and “Biblical Archaeology” blanket the archaeological remains of Palestine with the tapestry of the Bible’s story of Israel. Naturally this means that the tapestry’s tale appears distorted in places but the primary structure remains clear:

  • Israel emerged in Canaan as a distinctly religious and ethnic identity in the early part of the first millennium
  • After a period of some kind of unity culminating in David’s rule, Israel split into two political entities, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and continued to dominate the region up until the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities
  • The Jews returned after the Persians “liberated” them from their Babylonian exile and continued as a distinctly “Jewish” civilization up until the time the Romans dispersed them; the religions of Judaism and Christianity emerged from the religious thought and writings of this Second Temple era.

Other groups who make an appearance in this biblical history for most part do so as external conquerors to be overcome or as indigenous corrupters to be left behind.

This kind of history begins with the Bible and archaeological discoveries are significant insofar as they can add some colour or modification to that biblical narrative.

Is this comparable to beginning with the tales of King Arthur’s Camelot and using those to recreate the history of early Britain?

Doubling the excitement

Valid historical investigation should always ensure the horse is positioned in front of the cart.

Start with the “hard” evidence like the carved stones, baked clay and forged metal found in the ground. What can be reconstructed from these? After having done that we can compare the results with literature that first appeared in considerably later strata.

If we find that the literature describes just what we have found and calls it Camelot then that’s exciting. On the other hand, if the literature’s narrative of Camelot is significantly at odds with what we have found then we have double excitement: before us lie two quests — the quest to learn more about the real world history found through the hard evidence in the ground; another quest to understand the origin of the Camelot narrative.

A Fight for history

Twenty to thirty years ago a few scholars opened up the first challenges to the dominance of “Biblical history” in Biblical studies. Here is how one of those scholars, Keith Whitelam, looking back described what happened in the wake of the publication in 1987 of The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective by Robert Coote and himself: read more »


2015-02-25

Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Norelli’s Argument

by Neil Godfrey

ascension-norelliLast month I began posting on Enrico Norelli’s arguments concerning the Ascension of Isaiah:

I am quite sure Norelli’s new perspective won’t be the final word. Before I can come to any view myself, however, I obviously need first to understand at least the core of his analysis. So as I plough through the slim French language popular summary of his argument I will copy chunks of my bad translation and semi paraphrase here. This section covers pages 48 to 52 of Ascension du prophète Isaïe and continues on from the post AoI: Contents, Manuscripts and the Question of its Composition. I have added translated text from the AoI at earlychristianwritings.

In this section Norelli is explaining why be believes the AoI is independently adapting a source also known to the author of the Gospel of Matthew. That the composer of the AoI could do this is a sure sign that he was writing before a time when the Gospel of Matthew took on any authoritative status.

The heavenly ascent through a distinctive genre (7-11) read more »


2015-02-22

Expulsion of the Palestinians – Pre-War Internal Discussions

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series from Nur Masalha’s Expulsion of the Palestinians. . . .masalha

The reason for this series is to make readily accessible the evidence that helps us understand the current situation in Palestine. This evidence informs us of the intentions and goals that the Zionist leadership had for the way their Jewish state would look and operate into the future. (Once complete I will compile the posts into a single block.) Some readers have asked me to focus on the events of the 1948 war between Israel and the Arab states because that is where the real roots of the current problems are found and I do hope to write about the 1948 war and detail the origins of the refugee. One of the several Jewish historians of this period that I will refer to will be Benny Morris who fully justifies the events that led to the dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs. It should go without saying that nothing in these posts can validly be construed as anti-semitism or justification for the murderous crimes of any form of terrorism.

Deep breath. Here we go again.

The Population Transfer Committee

The previous post, The Necessity for Mass Arab Transfer, outlined the responses of the various Jewish factions towards the British government’s Royal Peel Commission Report in 1937. This post covers the Jewish Agency’s response to the question of Arab transfer after their rejection of the Peel Commission’s plan for partition of Palestine.

The Twentieth Zionist Congress empowered the Jewish Agency to negotiate on the precise terms of the future Jewish state. To prepare for this the Agency established several advisory bodies including one (November 1937) named the Population Transfer Committee. Some of the members are listed below. Notice how many of the names became prominent leaders of the new state of Israel once it was established.

The Weitz plan

Josef Weitz

Josef Weitz

At the 21st November 1938 meeting Weitz introduced his plan for Arab transfer explaining it was based on two main assumptions:

the transfer of Arab population from the area of the Jewish state does not serve only one aim — to diminish the Arab population. It also serves a second, no less important, aim which is to evacuate land presently held and cultivated by the Arabs and thus to release it for the Jewish inhabitants.

For the above reasons most agreed that any evacuation had to start with the most difficult challenge: the transfer of the peasants and rural population. Only then would the new government turn its efforts to removing the townspeople.

The second assumption arose out of Britain’s backing away from any idea of compulsory transfer in its submissions to the League of Nations. This left the Jewish committees without any visible force necessary to carry out Arab transfers.

Weitz calculated that this first transfer phase would remove 87,300 Arabs and the purchase of 1,150,000 dunums mostly in Transjordan for their resettlement. A further 10 to 15 thousand Bedouins living on livestock could also be removed in this phase.

That would give to the Jews an extra 680,000 dunums that included 180,000 dunums of irrigated land.

Such a plan would see the Arab population reduced by one third within two to three years.

The chairman of the committee, Thon, agreed with Weitz that the plan was practical as a first step.

Bonné opposed plan. He wanted to see a plan for the removal of all the Arabs within ten years. He also recommended that the committee not give up so easily on the idea of compulsion. Compulsion had been first suggested by the English, he said, and besides, they were not talking about “full” compulsion since they wanted as much cooperation as possible helped along by the application of some pressure.

The solution, Bonné suggested, was to link Arab transfer to new agrarian legislation when the Jewish state was established. They would need to decide on a target date for removal of the Arabs so they would know how quickly to move against them.

Moshe Shertok

Moshe Shertok

Bernard Joseph agreed that partial transfer was not the answer.

According to Weitz’s account of the meeting both Bonné  and Joseph wanted to use force to remove the entire Arab population.

Eshbal argued that it would be necessary to first move not only the cultivators of the land but along with them all those directly or indirectly dependent upon them.

After the above discussion the plan was forwarded to Shertok.

Shertok identified two flaws in the plan in his letter of 31 December 1937 to Bernard Joseph: read more »


2015-02-20

Inside the Minds of Flat-Earthers

by Neil Godfrey

flatearthUntil I read Christine Garwood’s book Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea my idea of people out there who really believed the earth is flat was that they could only be as mysterious and unfathomable as leprechauns. But they really have existed these past 200 years and courageously taken on the whole world in what they have believed is their fight for sanity and reason.

The most enlightening insight I took from Garwood’s history is that flat-earthers for most part have been motivated by the same noble ideals as the best of us. It’s just that, well, they see things a little differently. Or rather, they see the same things we see but they want the rest of us either to use more common sense and/or have more faith in the Bible. They hate the idea that most of us are gullibly swallowing what the professional elites are trying to sell us. They want science democratized and the demos to be more true to God.

How can we fault anyone for living by such ideals?

Christine Garwood further informs us that much of the ridicule we direct at flat-earthers is fueled in part by our own ignorance. When we assume that flat earthers are no more advanced than the people of the dark ages or even earlier primitive times then we are actually demonstrating a key point of the flat-earthers. Flat earthers argue most of us blindly accept, uncritically and without any request for supporting evidence, whatever the professionals tell us. We trust too readily. Even many of the professionals are deluded. The fact is, and Garwood explains the evidence for this extensively, that since the fourth century BCE most people who are on record as having given the question any thought have believed the earth is round. How we came to think otherwise and how myths about Columbus became common knowledge is explained in the prologue and first chapter of Flat Earth. Hint: Washington Irving of Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle fame is largely to blame for the mischief.

That should be a mildly discomforting thought. If so, it segues into the questions of the relevance of the history of the flat earth movements. (We can’t have a history book that’s written just for entertainment alone, after all.) read more »