Category Archives: Christ Myth Hypothesis


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


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 »


Biblical Scholars Reacting . . . Part 2

by Neil Godfrey

Continues from part 1 . . . .

Philip Jenkins in his reaction, The Myth of the Mythical Jesus, has an even more blunt response to anyone who ventures into the “far swamps of extreme crankery” by pursuing questions that have no place among biblical scholars:

Scholarship is what scholars do, and if they don’t do it, it’s not scholarship. That is by far the most important point against the mythicists, and really, nothing more needs to be said.

Jenkins remains silent about Carrier’s book, the book that largely prompted Brian Bethune to ask serious questions about the evidence for the existence of Jesus. One can only conclude Jenkins has not read it and that his confidence that he knows all he needs to know about mythicist arguments is perversely misplaced. After all, it’s not a view “done” by scholars so it would be a waste of time bothering with it. One cannot imagine a more classic illustration of contempt for (ideologically incorrect) public interests.

Such ignorance gives him the confidence that merely repeating a few mantras to a few informal mythicist bylines he may have heard second hand or from some “over zealous riff-raff on the web” is all that he needs to do to persuade right-thinking people to stay clear of the danger zones around those far swamps.

The affirmative evidence for that existence is easily offered, consisting as it does of a sizable body of writings dating from within a half century of the events described.

Those documents are, without question, the most closely debated and analyzed in human history. A vast body of scholars works on those texts and their implications, and they come from a wide body of religious backgrounds – Christians of every possible shade, Jews, skeptics and atheists, and people of various other faiths. Within that scholarly universe, the number of qualified scholars who today deny the historical existence of Jesus is infinitesimal. The consensus on that matter is near-total. (My bolding and formatting in all quotations)

“A paper I had written on a disturbing, ridiculous, and idiosyncratic method used by historicists was rejected by a prominent society of Biblical literature, but was later accepted by a general historical research organisation – forgive me if I feel a smug sense of vindication.[32] This paper dealt with what I call Ehrman’s law, which shall be explained later and discussed throughout this book. My presentation of the paper was very successful, with almost everybody (a room full of proper historians) agreeing with me that this method used by Biblical ‘historians’ is ridiculous and not typical of historians proper.

“[32] Raphael Lataster, “The Gospel According to Bart: The Folly of Ehrman’s Hypothetical Sources” (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Historical Association, Sydney, 7th July 2015).”

Lataster, Raphael (2015-11-12). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists (Kindle Locations 400-405).  . Kindle Edition.

Mainstream biblical scholars often point to atheists among their ranks as evidence that they are not swayed by Christian bias. Craig Evans in the debate mentioned in my previous post did this when he spoke of the atheist James Crossley arguing that the Gospels were written considerably earlier than even many Christian scholars concede. What Evans was doing in reality was demonstrating that atheist scholars can only survive in the Christian dominated field of biblical studies as long as they conform to the minimal ideological foundations of Christianity. Arguing a Marxist model of Christian origins naturally conforms admirably with the values of many liberal Christians.

In fact neither Bethune nor anyone denies the “near total consensus” in the public face of the biblical studies guild. When prominent authors like Philip Jenkins not only demonstrate their ignorance of the arguments of those “infinitesimally” few scholars but even despite their ignorance insult them as belonging to the “far swamps of crankery”, one has to wonder if Raphael Lataster is quite correct when he writes that the historicity of Jesus is a debate that cannot be conducted among biblical scholars but can only move forward in other history and religion departments.

Hence reaction, neither engagement nor education, is the response.

Jenkins sees no need to bother with anything Carrier might have written nor even with the actual problems raised by Bethune. Leave all that to the “swamps of extreme crankery” — a nice intimidating phrase attached to the pointy headed doubters among those leprous masses.

And so Jenkins proceeds to address what he blindly presumes anonymous ignoramuses argue. The challenging questions of Bethune and Carrier are lost in the far swamps of Jenkins’s awareness and are replaced by some vague general points from the minds of an undefined “they”.

The first vague point unrelated to any of the questions troubling Bethune and that is posed as a substitute for Bethune’s questions:

  • *Contemporary writers do not refer to Jesus

Jenkins’s ignorance of serious mythicist arguments is palpable. Sweeping aside the issues of concern to Brian Bethune and many readers of the Macleans article, Jenkins embarrasses any slightly knowledgeable reader with this “explanation”:

All the canonical sources depict a very plausible Jesus in a very identifiable early first century historical setting. More significant, there are clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of those gospels.

Plausibility is a condition of historicity but that is a long step from being an argument for any particular scenario. Historical fiction works because it is equally plausible, set as it is in real times and places. That this point is ever raised as a serious argument for the historicity of Jesus is truly an embarrassment to our intellectual elites. Craig Evans made much of it in his debate with Richard Carrier. Why? It’s so obviously a red-herring, a non sequitur, an offence to anyone who has read any historical fiction, including ancient historical fictional writings.

As for the second point that there are “clear and well understood chains of evidence and tradition from Jesus’s time to the writing of the gospels”? Well, yes, there certainly are “clear and well understood” imaginative constructs of what scholars who presume a core historicity behind the gospel narratives believe must have existed. Of course there is no evidence for those oral traditions. Indeed, works that have seriously challenged the prevailing presumption that “there must have been oral traditions” passed on from eyewitnesses to eventually reach the authors of the gospels have been largely ignored. (See discussions of some of these in the oral tradition archive, as well as other posts on scholarship presenting evidence for literary mimesis.) Yet Jenkins presents the presumed model of oral tradition as part of a “clear and well understood chain of evidence“!

Clearly unaware of his ignorance that the mythicist case for Jesus as an “otherworldly being” is grounded in the writings of

  • the New Testament epistles
  • and Revelation,
  • other Second Temple Jewish literature,
  • and documents such as the original form of the Ascension of Isaiah dated by mainstream scholars to the end of the first or very early second century,

Jenkins surely mystifies readers of Macleans and Carrier’s book when he writes: read more »

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,, 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.)

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 »


Questions for Professor McGrath re Those Proofs

by Neil Godfrey

I trust I have set out Professor McGrath’s proofs for the historical existence of Jesus fairly and accurately in my previous post. Since the Professor has declined to engage in discussion with me I wonder if any interested readers would like to raise the following questions with him and alert us here of his responses.

Paul says Jesus was of the seed of David according to the flesh — thus indicating he believed him to be historical. Here Paul is talking specifically about “the Davidic anointed one” and referring to a “kingly figure” and the “expectation that the kingship would be restored to the dynasty of David”. That expectation meant that the messiah would be made the king, not crucified. So crucifixion was almost automatic disqualification from being the Davidic messiah.

“So if you’re inventing a religion from scratch and trying to convince Jews that this figure is the Davidical anointed one, then you don’t invent that he was crucified.”

If Jesus was crucified then is it not equally unlikely that the early disciples would have come to interpret him as having been the Davidic Messiah? Yet they obviously did interpret Jesus this way despite his crucifixion. So how can we explain a historical crucified man being interpreted as having been the Davidic Messiah? Is not your argument invalidated by the very fact that the early Christians chose to interpret a crucified one as the Davidic Messiah? read more »


Another review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

onhistoricityIt’s more of a few notes or a “book write up” than a review per se. PhD candidate and Bible scholar James Pate has posted Book Write-Up: On the Historicity of Jesus, by Richard Carrier on his blog James’ Ramblings. He explains the purpose of his brief notes:

I would like to wrestle with some of Carrier’s arguments.  This post will not be comprehensive, but it will wrestle with key points that Carrier makes in his book.

Unfortunately what I missed from the “key points” that follow was an acknowledgement of the central methodology and case made by Richard Carrier. What troubles James Pate more appear to be some of the old chestnuts that I thought Carrier had addressed, but evidently not to the satisfaction of James. But credit where credit is due: James Pate does not engage in subtle or overt innuendo, put-down, and cavalier dismissal of Carrier as some other reviewers have done. Nor does he engage in outright distortion of the arguments. [There is one point made by James Pate that is incorrect, however, and I addressed this in a comment below.]

I suspect the limitations of Pate’s post are really the outcome of simply wanting to jot down notes of some key questions that a reading of Carrier’s book failed to dispel rather than write a formal review. We ought not be faulted for not doing what we did not set out to do. So I would like to think that Pate’s points should provide a good spring-board for further discussion and an opening into the wider arguments presented by Carrier.

Pate’s first point:

A.  Carrier does ask good questions. . . . 

Pate lists several of them. Of course Carrier does more than simply ask such questions: he raises such questions in the context of probabilities against the relevant background knowledge of Christianity and its wider cultural matrix. Potentially fruitful discussion topics here.

B.  On why first century extra-biblical sources fail to mention Jesus, many would respond that they would not mention a backwater Galilean peasant. . . . 

C.  . . . . Carrier notes that so many extrabiblical sources fail to mention Christianity. . . .  Why did so many first century sources fail to mention Christianity?  Was it because Christianity was obscure, or not well-established yet, or kept to itself?

read more »


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.




“Five Reasons Why Mythicism is Disappointing”

by Neil Godfrey

6444921433_cf424a9405_bDontcha love the patronizing tone of the header? “Five Reasons Why Mythicism is Disappointing”. Our author was SO hoping for such good things to emerge from mythicism, now, wasn’t he. How mythicism has disappointed him!

The post is a response to Valerie Tarico’s Here are 5 reasons to suspect Jesus never existed

Our disappointed scholar explains why Valerie only has 5 “really bad reasons” for even raising the question of the historical existence of Jesus.

1) She says that there are no secular sources about Jesus, neglecting to mention that the notion of secularism did not exist in that time . . . 

In fact Valerie Tarico explains exactly what she means by “secular sources” by quoting 171 words from the historicist scholar Bart Ehrman.

“What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” 

Really bad reason #2:

2) She points out that things like the virgin birth only appear late, as though that is evidence against the historical value of our earliest sources.

That’s odd. Valerie’s original point was “details of Jesus’ life”, “the most basic biographical facts and teachings of Jesus”, the twelve apostles of disciples of Jesus, the ministry and miracles of Jesus — and oh yes, the virgin birth, too.  read more »


Tom Dykstra on Mythicism: Erhman, Brodie and Scholarly Conduct

by Neil Godfrey


Tom Dykstra writes “a cautionary tale” concerning the unpleasant rift between mythicists (those who dispute the historicity of Jesus) and historicists (those who defend the historicity of Jesus). His primary exemplars are “historicist” Bart Ehrman and “mythicist” Thomas Brodie, Ehrman and Brodie on Whether Jesus Existed: A Cautionary Tale about the State of Biblical Scholarship.

His first warning is against the overconfidence of the historicists: mythicists do raise some serious questions that historicists ought to take more seriously;

Dykstra offers an alternative approach to the question in an attempt to break out from the “he-did-exist” versus the “no-he-didn’t” polarity that he suggests is buttressed by a an over abundance of confidence that too often surfaces on both sides.

Finally Dykstra excoriates the hostile tone and outright insults fired from both trenches. Yes and no; here I find myself unable to fully agree with Dykstra’s moral of the story.


Dykstra reminds readers of the struggles of past scholars for their critical works questioning the historicity of other biblical characters and events (e.g. Thomas Thompson was to be rejected by the academy for his thesis disputing the authenticity of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob though today his thesis is mainstream).

The message that comes through is that scholars need to be more willing to seriously consider the arguments that challenge the status quo. This is especially so given that scholars who take the historical existence of Jesus for granted at the same time acknowledge that many claims made in the same evidence for Jesus simply cannot be trusted. The most obvious examples are the infancy narratives and portrayal of Pilate as a righteous but weak-willed man.

Dykstra further points to scholars as diverse as Ben Witherington and John Dominic Crossan observing that both the authors of the gospels and scholars of the gospels have been reconstructing the Jesus who personifies their own theological views — hence modern readers are really looking at theology, not history.

Dykstra outlines the key points of Ehrman’s arguments for the historicity of Jesus and points out in each case how Brodie’s challenge to each one leaves the question far from settled.

But at least as important as the arguments themselves, Dykstra points out at some length, are the problematic attitudes of the scholars that set up a barrier against an open discussion.

A prominent feature of Ehrman’s text is repeated expressions of disdain for “mythicists” . . . along with assertions that no reputable New Testament scholar is a mythicist. In a blog post about the book he expresses clearly the confident and dismissive attitude that also pervades the book.

The mythicist Brodie presents a stark comparison:

Like Ehrman, Brodie expresses absolute confidence in the correctness of his conclusion. But he maintains a good-natured sense of humor and a courteous and considerate attitude toward those on the opposing side.

As for the different perspectives, the article takes us through Ehrman’s “pro-historicity” points and pits against them Brodie’s undermining responses one by one.

Thus where Ehrman sees a host of independent witnesses to Jesus Brodie sees a host of variations of a single source. Where Ehrman sees a narrative that no Jew would fabricate (a messiah who is crucified) Brodie finds a narrative that “makes perfect sense as a fresh synthesis of Old Testament texts that ‘deal with the tension between suffering and God’s hope.'”

In these ways Brodie either neutralizes or at least casts doubt on all of Ehrman’s evidence and arguments.

So far so good. It is at the next stage of Dykstra’s article that I find myself taking an ever so slightly different tack — or maybe not. read more »


Jesus Did Not Exist — A New Contribution

by Neil Godfrey

latasterI am finding Raphael Latater’s book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists, a most invigorating and fresh approach to the topic. Caveat: I am taking it slowly and so far have not even completed the first chapter. I have read Richard Carrier’s introductory remarks and Raphael Lataster’s own background introduction and am only about half way through the first chapter. Along the way I’m stopping to study and follow up most of the footnotes, too. But if what lies ahead is as insightful and thorough as what I have read so far then I can see this book being the last word on the flawed attempts of Casey, Ehrman, McGrath and others who have attempted to shriek their conviction that “Yes, Virginia, there really was a Historical Jesus and anyone who doubts that is a very bad person who should be shunned.”

Interestingly, Lataster points out that the only serious attempts by scholars to publish arguments for the historical existence of Jesus — those by Erhman, Casey and McGrath — have done outside the scholarly peer-review process. On the other hand, the two serious attempts by scholars to publish reasons to doubt the historicity of Jesus — Richard Carrier and Raphael Lataster — have gone through the scholarly peer-review process.

The irony of that little datum is not lost on anyone who is aware of the complaints of “historicist scholars” (those arguing for the historicity of Jesus and against the mythicist hypothesis) that mythicism does not subject itself to scholarly peer-review.

Who is Raphael Lataster?

He may be among the first to have a thesis sympathetic to Jesus Mythicism approved by a world-class university.  —  Raphael Lataster’s New Book on Jesus Mythicism 

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Carrier on McGrath’s responses to Carrier

by Neil Godfrey

A handy collation of Richard Carrier’s responses to James’ McGrath’s less-than-professional attacks on Carrier’s work is found in the Introduction to Raphael Lataster’s book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists:

What academic disease does this signify?

[5] See Richard Carrier, “McGrath on the Amazing Infallible Ehrman” (25 March 2012); “McGrath on OHJ: A Failure of Logic and Accuracy” (5 March 2015); “McGrath on the Rank-Raglan Mythotype” (6 March 2015). Possibly that series will continue.

[6] His false claims about the content of my book are documented in Richard Carrier, “In Which James McGrath Reveals That He Is a Fundamentalist Who Has Never Read Any Contemporary Scholarship in His Field” (11 September 2015). He did the same thing in his faulty review of Proving History. See: Richard Carrier, “McGrath on Proving History” (10 September 2012). McGrath has done this so routinely now that I have had to conclude he is deliberately lying. For he cannot possibly be that incompetent.

[7] For all of these, see Richard Carrier, “Okay, So What about the Historicity of Spartacus?” (5 July 2015).

McGrath has only published responses to historicity on his personal blog (Exploring Our Matrix), and in an online trade publication (Bible & Interpretation) that is also not peer reviewed. In these open venues he has made such embarrassingly false claims about the ancient world in defense of the historicity of Jesus as to deeply call into question the competence of his opinion in the matter.[5] And he all too often makes wildly false claims about the arguments in my book, rather than addressing what it actually says.[6]

McGrath evinced this behavior even before reading my book. For example, he argued confidently that no Christians would erect inscriptions promoting their gospel because only government officials erected inscriptions. That this is wildly not true is bad enough, and that he wouldn’t know it’s untrue is worse, but that he was so arrogant in his ignorance that he never even thought to check and make sure before resting his argument on it, is worst of all. And indicative of the problem. Historians who would defend the historicity of Jesus aren’t doing their jobs as historians. And all too often, they literally don’t know what they are talking about. This is commonly observed in the frequency with which historicists claim the evidence for Jesus is as good as we have for Socrates, Alexander the Great, Spartacus, and Julius and Tiberius Caesar. That they would be so ignorant as to think that was true is shocking.[7] But more shocking is that they didn’t even check before asserting it. What academic disease does this signify?

The example of inscriptions illustrates the other problem as well. McGrath falsely implied that I endorse the lack of early inscriptions as an argument for the non-existence of Jesus. In fact I have publicly rejected that argument and explained why it doesn’t work (there are many reasons Christians would fail to erect such inscriptions even if Jesus did exist; just not the reason McGrath gave). McGrath routinely makes false claims like this about what I or my book argue. Many far more galling than this. Such as claiming my book relies on conspiracy theories, when in fact my book repeatedly denounces them. Or claiming I don’t adduce any allegorical meanings to explain Gospel pericopes but just assert they must have them, and using that as an argument against the merits of my book, when in fact I devote almost an entire chapter of the book to doing that, in fact not just adducing such meanings, but in many cases arguing for them, and citing peer reviewed scholarship that does the same – none of which facts McGrath informs his readers of. Or claiming I didn’t make an argument for a conclusion but just asserted it in the book (such as that a given miracle story is not likely to be true, or that a given word can too easily have come from a targum to be certain it came from a source about Jesus), when in fact, in every case, the book contains an extensive argument for that conclusion. An argument he fails to tell his readers about (and thus certainly offers no rebuttal to).

It should be a fundamental requirement of competent and honest scholarship to correctly represent the arguments of anyone you disagree with, and rebut their actual arguments, not arguments they never made, or conveniently distorted variants of arguments they did make, or to falsely claim they didn’t make any arguments to rebut. It is a disgrace for a scholar to use falsehood like this. Worse even to do so as arguments against a book they are reviewing. Yet these aren’t the only instances. McGrath does this a lot. Why? If historicity is so evidenced as to be certain, why do arguments against it have to be misrepresented to rebut them? Is it because the actual arguments can’t be rebutted? So fake arguments have to be contrived to knock down instead? That does not make it sound like historicity is so certain to me.

Lataster, Raphael (2015-11-12). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists (Kindle Locations 114-147). Kindle Edition.



“Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists” by Raphael Lataster w/ Richard Carrier

by Neil Godfrey

doubtBy Richard Carrier in his Introduction to a new book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists:

In early 2014 I published On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. It passed professional peer review. It was published by a major, well-respected academic press that specialized in Biblical Studies, Sheffield-Phoenix, the publishing arm of the University of Sheffield. And it is the first book of such tested merit to argue that Jesus probably did not exist. It argues instead that Jesus began life as a revelatory archangel, and was transferred to human history decades later through the writing of myths for educational, missionary, and propagandistic purposes. This would have proceeded, in both cause and procedure, much like the invention of the life and teachings and miracles of Moses, whom the mainstream Academy now concedes probably did not exist.

Now late in 2015, the book you hold in your hand, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists by Raphael Lataster, contains the first thorough and expert treatment of my argument in print. In fact his chapter summarizing my book is the best brief summary I have read anywhere. . . . 
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“New Atheists Are Bad Historians”

by Neil Godfrey

Did you know that the “New Atheists and their online acolytes” have “a long list” of historical ideas that are “wildly wrong”? If this situation has been causing you sleepless nights then you will be relieved to learn that Tim O’Neill has started a new blog to bring these dimwits to their senses. It’s called . . . .


For those of us who had not realized the full extent of this problem, Tim explains that these New Atheists — and he names them: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens (and also P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne and Richard Carrier) — happen to get wrong just about any and everything they ever say about history whenever they try to declare how bad religion has been for humanity.

Given that they are such historical ignoramuses it is not surprising that the one “cluster of fervid and contrived pseudo history” that comes in for special attention is the “elaborate fringe theory . . .  that is the Jesus Myth hypothesis”.

Tim proudly promises his readers plenty of sarcasm and scorn [meaning, if he continues with his past form, personal insults and abuse along with plenty of factual and logical fallacies], but his opening post, Why History for Atheists? An apologia for (yet) another blog, also promises some confusion of argument besides.

Before we address the promised confusion let’s understand more of Tim’s view of his new blog. Tim is pretty pleased the number of online hits to his earlier articles, laced as they are with “occasionally Irish-Australian atheist bastardry”, and has interpreted these clicks as “an appetite and a clear need for some level­ headed, carefully researched and objective fact checking and debunking of New Atheist Bad History”. Of course Tim is the one equipped and willing enough to meet that appetite and need.

He sincerely assures his readers that though his motives are dual they are not duplicitous. His two motives are

  • Firstly, I love history, including the history of religions, especially Christianity. . . .
  • Secondly, as a rationalist, I like to take rationalism seriously. So I go where the evidence takes me on history as with everything else. However much an idea may appeal to me emotionally, if the historical evidence doesn’t support it, I can’t accept it. Many New Atheists don’t seem capable of putting their emotions aside and looking at the evidence.

Little sign of the self-awareness and humility of a Daniel Boyarin here.

Thank God and Rationalism for Tim.

So what is all of this history that the New Atheists get wrong? Tim set it all out in “the long list”:

  1. Christians burned down the Great Library of Alexandria and Hypatia of Alexandria was murdered because of a Christian hatred of science
  2. Constantine was a crypto­pagan who adopted Christianity as a cynical political ploy (and personally created the Bible)
  3. Scientists were oppressed during the Middle Ages and science stagnated completely until “the Renaissance”
  4. “The Inquisition” was a kind of Europe­ wide medieval Gestapo and the medieval Church was an all­ powerful totalitarian theocracy
  5. Giordano Bruno was a wise and brave astronomer and cosmologist who was burned at the stake because the Church hated science
  6. The Galileo Affair was a straightforward case of religion ignoring evidence and trying to suppress scientific advancement
  7. Pope Pius XII was a friend and ally of the Nazis who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and helped Nazis escape justice

I hadn’t realized Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens, have been filling our sponge-brains with such dated prejudices. read more »


Framing the Historicist-Mythicist Debate: A Case Study

by Neil Godfrey

The citations refer to the previous two interview posts.

Miami is the first one with David Fitzgerald; Logicast is Daniel’s follow up podcast.

The time references match the preceding time marker in each of the two posts.

So [Logicast, 49:00] means that the source for my statement can be found by beginning to read from the 49:00 minute header in Daniel’s followup podcast post.

Daniel Gullotta is a young student (26 years old, just starting a Masters course at Yale) who is looking forward to breaking into the field of biblical studies as a professional scholar [Logicast 49:00, Miami 72:40 and blog bio]. The field is winding back in many universities but Daniel is doing all the right things — especially with his self-promotion via his blog and other social media [Logicast, 29:00, 1:29:30] — to improve his chances of eventual employment. All credit to him and we wish him well as we do anyone embarking on a new career.

What I would like to do in this post is to raise some of the dynamics — psychological and social — that I noticed at work in the recent exchanges I recently posted here.

thumbnailWhat interested me as I wrote up my notes on these two exchanges was not so much the arguments themselves — they were at a very basic level and sometimes misinformed — but the way the issues were framed and what the flow of conversation revealed about the different perspectives at play.

In other words, what is really going on when challenges to mythicism are raised and when there are discussions between mythicists and historicists? What is it that lies behind the arguments themselves and that perhaps indicates why arguments on neither side “work”?

It’s a question I could explore more widely by examining a wide range of exchanges and denunciations but I also have to invest in a full time job so that’s not going to happen today. I am, however, revising the many comments on the old Crosstalk discussion forum where Earl Doherty made his first public appearance in the world of scholarly exchanges and would like to share a similar set of observations from those exchanges one day. Till then, we start with a very small case-study based on one “budding scholar” in two online interviews.
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Daniel Gullotta’s Followup Podcast on the David Fitzgerald Discussion

by Neil Godfrey

Daniel Gullotta followed up his Miami Valley Skeptics podcast discussion with another podcast interview, this time on Logicast. The Logicast page and Daniel himself speak of the discussion as a “debate” with David Fitzgerald.

This week I was invited to join the Logicast podcast to share my thoughts on New Testament scholarship, Biblical history, and talk about my recent debate with amateur historian David Fitzgerald over the topic of Mythicism.

That sounds like a wide-ranging discussion but as readers will see the theme throughout was the mythicist controversy. I found these two podcasts, especially this one on Logicast, most interesting for the understanding they shed on the attitudes of the various parties — scholars, atheists opposed to mythicism, and mythicists themselves. I’ll share what I have learned in a future post.

Again, this is not strictly a transcript. Much is my own paraphrase/precis. Sections in inverted commas are generally the verbatim bits. Corrections welcome.

Same colour code as in previous post. Interviewers remarks are in italics.

The discussion starts at 7:10

“You did a phenomenal job for your first real mythicist debate.”

DG: It was interesting in that we did not talk much about historicity of Jesus but that it was more a discussion around the origins of Christianity. 

DG: I think the issue [that we did not get down into a real debate on historicity per se] is that I’m not the Christian apologist and the mythicist topic is framed in those ways.

“Oh right, so his [DF’s] regular stuff didn’t really work on you.”

DG: David realizes I am not the enemy and I know he’s not the enemy. And the fact that this topic is framed in those ways is problematic. 

DF’s arguments would be framed for Christian apologists.

On the Objectivity of the Scholars

DF said secular historians are really the only ones doing any work. My mouth almost dropped – and DG almost had a heart attack, too. read more »