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by Neil Godfrey

NazGate_coverUntil some major new finds turn up at new digs I am convinced that there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of Nazareth at the time of Jesus. I have been slowly reading the first six chapters of René Salm’s new book, NazarethGate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes, and the Invented Town of Jesus, stopping to consult wherever I can his footnotes, his citations of various archaeologists’ works, and at this point I have found his argument to be both

  • decisive with respect to the non-existence of Nazareth until well into the latter half of the first century CE
  • and absolutely devastating in his analysis of archaeologist Ken Dark’s published efforts to prove the presence of early first century domestic dwellings there.

Many people understandably find the minutiae of archaeological reports and debates to be tedious. They are not light reading, especially for anyone new to a particular study. Sensibly they are willing to defer to the specialists in the field. I am by no means a specialist but I can still read the literature — it is not as complex as advanced mathematics or quantum physics — and follow exchanges of views among archaeologists and readers of their reports. Reasonably intelligent lay readers are able to distinguish between those claims made with the support of clear evidence and others made on the basis of more speculative reconstructions. With some extra effort those same readers can also identify where a scholar has misunderstood or misused the works of others. Nor after a little immersion is it very difficult to detect tell-tale signs of ideological bias. (I elaborated on this point in Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?)

I would love to see serious engagement with the detailed arguments in Salm’s book. I would love to see how specific questions and data are addressed. Maybe Salm’s conclusions can be overturned after all, or at least modified. We won’t know until we see further reports, discussions and responses.

Unfortunately it appears so far that scholars (and others) who ardently oppose the very idea that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus, and who loathe the mere mention of Salm’s books, are not very different from that handful of scholars (Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, James McGrath) who have attempted to publicly refute the writings of Jesus mythicists. Their reviews of Salm’s first book (The Myth of Nazareth) leave the knowledgeable reader with the strong suspicion that they read no more than a few snippets of the book and those with ideological hostility. The main arguments are ignored.

Though I acknowledged that the field of archaeology is complex enough for most people to defer to the specialists, some lay critics of Salm tend to rely upon authorities indiscriminately for the purpose of hectoring and belittling a lay scholar who has genuinely mastered the published literature in this particular niche topic. I would love to see people like Tim O’Neill engage seriously with both Salm’s arguments and his critiques of Dark’s published work.

René Salm’s method

Salm does not attempt to hide his outsider status. His account of how he undertook his study of the archaeology of Nazareth reminded me of some of my own experiences in embarking on serious biblical studies. Both of us found the now defunct online discussion group where scholars and lay persons met, CrossTalk, an informative starting point. Salm writes:

From the start I left no stone unturned, did not hurry, skip any steps, nor overlook even minor reports. Lacking a relevant Ph.D. I knew that thoroughness would be my only credential — one that would have to be earned. 

I began with the most accessible secondary material: encyclopedia articles and entries in secondary reference works. Scouring the footnotes and references, I slowly accumulated the obvious primary sources. Among these, the largest was B. Bagatti’s long tome Excavations in Nazareth (vol 1, 1969). . .  This book was the first (and often only) resource used by scholars who ventured to write about Nazareth’s archeology. . . 

[Salm then describes his heavy use of the University of Oregon library and special help of a librarian who was able to procure for him “obscure books and hard-to-find articles”.] He validated my status as a resident scholar so that the University of Oregon’s critical interlibrary loan facilities would be made available to me as if I were a member of the faculty. 

Accumulating the necessary research material also required trips to major libraries in Seattle and San Francisco. . . 

Collecting the requisite material was of course only the first step. Each account, description, or excavation report had to be examined in a particularly careful way. It was not good enough simply to read the report, or even to collate all of its itemized artifacts in columns by type, date, and so on — things I learned to do quite early on. Incidentally, such collation could be quite revealing. For example, on one page Bagatti dates a certain pottery shard to the Roman period and on another page to the Iron Age. Such errors are quickly detected through careful and complete bookkeeping

All this was tedious, but the problem which required the most time, by far, was that each and every claim had to be tested. For example, in one place Bagatti claims that a fragment of pottery is “Hellenistic” — but the parallels he gives, when checked, date to the Iron Age. In another place, his alleged “Hellenistic” parallels actually date to Roman times. Richmond, too, in 1931 claimed that six oil lamps found in a Nazareth tomb were “Hellenistic.” Subsequent redating by specialists . . . shows, however, that all the lamps in question are Roman. 

There was also the problem of mislabeling. I learned that one scholar (J. Strange) termed the kokh type of tomb “Herodian” . . . . However, the important work of H.-P. Kuhnen shows that kokh tombs were not hewn in the Galilee before c. 50 CE. (They continued in use to c. 500 CE.) Thus, the term “Herodian” for these tombs is clearly erroneous and very misleading. . . . 

In the above and other ways it soon became clear to me that serious flaws characterize the primary reports, not to mention the secondary reference articles based on them. . . . 

Though I could read, tabulate, compare, and analyze the reports which came under my gaze, I could not venture any opinion myself, for I am certainly not a professional archeologist nor have I excavated in Nazareth. As a result, any opinion which I produced that disagreed with Bagatti, Strange, Richmond, etc., was necessarily the verifiable opinion of a leading specialist in the relevant field or subfield. This gave my writing ‘teeth,’ but it also required an enormous amount of time. In the process I could not help but become somewhat educated in Galilean archeology. That education extended to language classes at the university which afforded me the ability to also read excavation reports in Hebrew. . . . (NazarethGate, pp. 15-17, emphasis added)

Kokh Tomb

Kokh Tomb

Different from the earlier book

Salm’s second book, NazarethGate, is quite different from his first. The new work includes chapters that are (sometimes) edited versions of articles written and published since the first book. Some of these chapters are largely polemical (anti-Christian or anti-religion) in tone and written for militant atheist publications. The significance of the absence of Nazareth for the Jesus mythicist debate reverberates through a number of these chapters. If Nazareth did not exist, then clearly “Jesus of Nazareth” could not have existed either. I must point out that there is more nuance in the discussion than that: Salm is well aware of the arguments that some other “Jesus” figure lies behind the gospels and he is also very cognizant of the debates over the original derivation of “Nazareth” as an epithet or its cognates as the name of a sect, including the possibility of pre-Christian origins.

Frank Zindler writes the Foreword. He lists nineteen reasons to think that Nazareth did not exist in the early half of the first century, many of them having been extant prior to archaeological digs. This section nicely segues into Salm’s opening chapter (the Introduction) in which he adds further such reasons and addresses some of the complexities involved in understanding the meaning of “of Nazareth” and “the Nazarenes” etc in the Gospels.

What I was most keen to read in the new book were Salm’s responses to Ken Dark’s views. read more »


Why Believers Ought Not To Get Involved in the Christ Myth Question

by Neil Godfrey

Raphael Lataster article that recently appeared in The Washington Post as well as The Conversation opened with these words:

Did a man called Jesus of Nazareth walk the earth? Discussions over whether the figure known as the “Historical Jesus” actually existed primarily reflect disagreements among atheists. Believers, who uphold the implausible and more easily-dismissed “Christ of Faith” (the divine Jesus who walked on water), ought not to get involved.

Christian evangelist scholar John Dickson saw red and responded:

No student – let alone an aspiring scholar – could get away with suggesting that Christians “ought not to get involved” in the study of the historical Jesus. This is intellectual bigotry and has no place in academia, or journalism.

I read Raphael’s words as a bit of common-sense advice. How can anyone whose faith commits them to believing in the divine Jesus who walked on water possibly approach the question with a truly open mind? One would expect from such people little more than hostility and insults. And that’s exactly how two believers have responded in print to Raphael’s article.

John Dickson has very little to say (at least honestly or accurately) in response to Raphael Lataster’s alerts to various problems with both the evidence for the historical Jesus and the methods Bible scholars have generally used to study him but he does have a lot of good old Christian and scholarly invective to vent:

“Mythicists” are the historical equivalent of the anti-vaccination crowd in medical science. They are controversial enough to get media attention. They have just enough doctors, or doctors in training, among them to establish a kind of “plausible deniability.” But anyone who dips into the thousands of secular monographs and journal articles on the historical Jesus will quickly discover that mythicists are regarded by 99.9% of the scholarly community as complete “outliers,” the fringe of the fringe. And when mainstream scholars attempt to call their bluff, the mythicists, just like the anti-vaccinationists, cry “Conspiracy!” This is precisely what Raphael does . . . . It is as if he thinks he wins the game by declaring all its rules stupid and inventing his own path.

And later we read this:

[Lataster’s article] underlines the impropriety of a student in religious philosophy, whatever his faith perspective, assuming the mantle of academic historian.

Of course Raphael nowhere even hints the word “conspiracy” nor does he “assume the mantle of an academic historian”. In fact what he does is bring to the public attention what every critical scholar knows about the state of evidence and problems with traditional methodologies in relation to the historical Jesus.

John Dickson is a Christian evangelist who attempts to argue in his various publications that sound historical methods leave the objective inquirer in no doubt about the fundamentals of the Gospel narratives about Jesus. I suppose he therefore has good reason to fear a publicizing of the the simple facts about the problems with the evidence and methods that critical scholars know only too well. As a believer he can hardly be expected to seek to argue against Latater’s article solely on a rational level.

Raphael has in fact sought to publicly debate John Dickson without success:

John Dickson surprisingly (we have always been very friendly) defriended me after he wrote a (grossly inaccurate) reply article to my own on Jesus’ possible ahistoricity, and continues to refuse to debate with me on Jesus’ resurrection (i.e. the Jesus he actually believes in). I would think that believers would relish the chance to show their courage and defend their faith. I’m not that scary… If anyone would like to see this debate happen, do let John and I know. John’s contact:

Michael Bird, too

Meanwhile a colleague of John’s, Michael Bird, (editor and co-author of How God Became Jesus, a response to Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God), joined the fray on Euangelion with Taking on the Jesus Mythicists. I didn’t think anyone could surpass JD for ad hominem, distortions and blatant inaccuracies in a response but Michael Bird certainly did.  read more »


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

by Neil Godfrey


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparison with Athronges the Shepherd-King

read more »


O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #7: Generalities on the lack of corroborating evidence

by Neil Godfrey


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


quote_begin What a careful, honest or even just competent treatment of the subject would do would be to deal with all relevant positions throughout the analysis . . . . (O’Neill, 2013) quote_end


Tim O’Neill (TO) leads readers to think that David Fitzgerald (DF) argues that

— because there is no contemporary record for miraculous and other clearly spurious events . . .
— therefore Jesus did not exist

Thus Fitzgerald goes on to detail things in the gospels which he argues should have been noticed by writers of the time: the taxing of the whole Roman Empire, the massacre in Bethlehem by Herod the Great, Jesus’ ministry generally, his miracles . . . . . For anyone other than a fundamentalist, this argument has zero force. Critical scholars, including many Christian ones, would simply chuckle at the idea that things like the story of an Empire-wide census or the Massacre of the Innocents are historical, so arguing they did not happen counts for nothing much when it comes to arguing against the existence of a historical Jesus.

Fitzgerald even seems to think that the fact the “Star of Bethlehem” and the darkness on Jesus’ death are unattested and therefore most likely did not happen (which is true) is somehow a blow against the existence of a historical Jesus (which is not).

Does DF suggest that arguments against the impossible count against the historical Jesus?

With respect to the empire-wide census, on pages 22 and 23 of Nailed DF makes it very clear that we would expect some record of such an event if it really happened. At no point does he link this absence to the conclusion that not even a more modest Jesus of the scholars existed. In fact, as we have already seen in previous posts in this series, DF explicitly points out that even though we have no evidence for all the miraculous or unlikely events we may still wonder if there is a “lesser Jesus” who really existed.

TO’s review suppresses this clear fact about DF’s argument and implies that he argues the very opposite — that DF thinks by disputing the empire-wide census and miraculous events such as the star of Bethlehem that he is somehow striking “a blow against the existence of [even a modest, non-Gospel] historical Jesus”. read more »


What R. Joseph Hoffmann Does Not Want (Anyone) To Believe About Me

by Neil Godfrey

R. Joseph Hoffmann on his blog The New Oxonian has been complaining about “the language and style” of “mythticists” — those he, Hoffmann, calls “disease carrying mosquitoes” and “buggers” — saying that they, the “mythticists”, lower the tone of the debate. In support of this assertion he has Tim O’Neill along calling mythicists’ arguments “conspiracist gibberish and pure bile”. I would love to ask Hoffmann to give examples of his own (and O’Neill’s) style of insulting language in any of Earl Doherty’s or Robert M. Price’s or Thomas Brodie’s books, but I don’t think he likes me very much and he is very selective about what comments of mine he allows to appear there.

For example, he begins his blog post by saying that this blog, Vridar, is some sort of rallying point for “a clutch of historical Jesus deniers” (deniers??) and that the reason for my role has something to do with my “conservative Christian background”. He was referring to my years in the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) though much of the 1970s and 80s. He and his fellow “Jesus Prospect” participants — he once posted a long list of these but to my knowledge only two others have ever posted anything on his blog: Maurice Casey and Stephanie Fisher. I don’t know any of them personally but all three have psychoanalysed me and concluded I have been left as some sort of twisted mental and emotional cripple from my years in the WCG.

I at first thought this to be a perverse and tendentious reading of everything I have ever published on my experiences with the WCG and how I left that cult and how I managed my life and readjustment after it. So when Hoffmann re-posted the same article I tried to briefly point out to him and his readers that he was being very one-sided in his view of me.

Hoffmann and Casey have attacked my character and person viciously in recent years. That’s a pity, because Hoffmann once complimented a post of mine in which I discussed an article about the “history of Jesus” over the past two millennia. And there was much I liked in his thesis on Marcion. So there was once hope we could hit it off. But I spoiled it by pointing out his inexcusably false accusation of Earl Doherty in one of his print publications on Goguel. I do hate it and am always enraged when I see public intellectuals abusing their status by telling outright porkies. (Some scholars have interpreted this as meaning I am somehow “against all scholars”. Do some really think they are all liars by profession?)

Hoffmann has from time to time continued to go out of his way to direct some insult this way, but I decided this time to try to correct the record when he recycled his year old post. I wrote:

LOL. Oh Hoffy, you are hard up for material, aren’t you. Firstly, I was brought up in a very liberal Methodist church and was most happily in an even more liberal Anglican one before I decided to abandon faith altogether. So what is my theological agenda now that I have posted and support the views of Thomas Brodie who is one of several Catholic scholars who have acknowledged that Christianity can indeed survive without an historical Jesus? Sorry to disappoint you if I am not an angry atheist hell bent on attacking Christianity as you seem to need me to be doing.

Stephanie Fisher (she’s a doctoral student of Casey’s so we must presume she really does have fundamental reading comprehension ability when she tries) jumped in with this:

From minimal research into various Christian cults I would describe the WCG (Worldwide Church of God) as a particularly terrifying fundamentalist Christian cult and one which would take great strength and support to get out of, even leaving one quite bereft and possibly emotionally injured. I would not include ‘happy’ and ‘liberal’ if describing a devotee.

Er, yes, the WCG was certainly not liberal but what did Steph’s comment have to do with what I said?

My pre-atheist and pre-Vridar background

So I wrote the following to try to explain a few facts. Hoffmann deleted the comment. He did not allow facts to get in the way of a good kick-Neil session. I asked him again to post it but he declined: read more »


Some Crazy Stuff I Believe In ‘Cause I’m an Ex-Fundie

by Tim Widowfield

That sensational title was supposed to grab your attention. However, my remark was “not intended to be a factual statement.” Frankly, most of the things I believe in (or, rather, theories I subscribe to) are fairly ordinary. I thought it was P.J. O’Rourke who once said that thinking outside the box was overrated — “There’s plenty of good stuff still inside the box” — but I can’t seem to find a reference.  Maybe I imagined it.

Defending the status quo

You may recall a few months back when I defended the venerable Documentary Hypothesis against a scholar who did not understand it at all. I own books by OT minimalists, and I have great respect for Thompson, Lemche, et al. However, I still find myself more persuaded that the creation, transmission, and redaction of the Hebrew Bible followed a process similar in most respects to the one described by Wellhausen and Friedman.

Similarly, while I may entertain doubts about Q, I’m still a proponent of the Two-Source Hypothesis. I own a copy of The Case Against Q, and I’ve read a couple of the chapters more than once. Goodacre asks a lot of probing questions that do not yet have fully satisfying answers, and his contribution to Synoptic Problem scholarship is undeniable. However, I am still firmly in the 2DH camp.

Why am I an old fuddy-duddy when it comes to Wellhausen and Streeter? Because these standard models in particular have a great deal of explanatory power and compelling coherent logic. So while it’s true that many people “stay inside the box” because of inertia and lack of imagination, oftentimes it’s just as likely that the there’s nothing outside the box that explains things better than the boring old standard model.

But that’s not to say that we should ignore new ideas. The dominant hypotheses in source criticism (the DH in the OT and the 2SH in the NT) aren’t set in stone. I’ll be the first to admit that Markan Priority without Q (aka “The Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre Hypothesis”) might be correct; however, like Agrippa I am almost but not quite persuaded.

Keeping an open mind

We should keep our minds open even to far-out ideas like Scripture Ninjas and the Galatian Bastard Theory. But the proponents of such theories should not be surprised by the ribbing they get here. You know what they say about extraordinary claims.

In short, I’m pretty much a bore. So what does our dear friend Steph mean by this?

read more »


From the sublime to the slime

by Neil Godfrey

After deciding not to post on Tim O’Neill’s vendetta against mythicist Fitzgerald’s Nailed yesterday — after posting on Howell Smith recently I had no interest in turning my attention to Tim, and the title of this post tells you why — but since a commenter (Evan) has addressed Tim’s polemic in another post, I have added this post here as a more appropriate anchor and will move his comment to here instead.


Responding to standard arguments for Jesus’ historicity (1)

by Neil Godfrey
edited and added TLT quote Jan 26, 2010 @ 20:05 

I think of myself as neither a “Jesus mythicist” nor a “Jesus historicist”, but as someone interested in exploring the origins of Christianity. Whether the evidence establishes an historical Jesus at its core, or an entity less tangible, then so be it. Nonetheless, I cannot deny the importance and implications of the question.

Two things that bug me about much of the historicist position are:

  1. many of its interpretations of the evidence are grounded in circular reasoning
  2. many of its arguments are rhetorical and/or built on the fallacy of incredulity (aka “the divine fallacy“)

There are things that bug me about some mythicist arguments, too. But here I want to share the first of a series of responses I am making against the historicist position as summed up by a contributor on a Richard Dawkins website discussion forum.

In summary:

(i) [Jesus] existed

The idea that the stories about him are based on a historical figure is the most parsimonious explanation of how they arose, since the alternatives require repeated suppositions to explain away key elements in the evidence (eg all those “maybes” required to make references to his brother etc disappear).

This would be true IF the earliest evidence is for a more human Jesus, with the later evidence demonstrating an emerging divinization of this person until he eventually reaches co-creator and sustainer of the universe god status.

But the evidence we do have is actually the reverse of the above. The earliest evidence — such as an early hymn quoted by Paul (Phil. 2) — describes Jesus as equal with God, who had a brief temporary transformation to look like a human in order to be killed to effect a theological saving destiny for humankind, and was restored to the highest God-status and given the new name of Jesus, and worshiped by all as a reward.

. . . . Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Paul’s Jesus as referenced in the rest of his letters hews to the same identity. Jesus for Paul is the Spirit and Wisdom of God, a God-head figure of worship, whose exalted heavenly status is the honour bestowed on him for his descent into at least some form of flesh for the purpose of crucifixion.

It is the later evidence (among the gospels) that seeks to humanize Jesus. In Mark, he is said to become possessed by the Son of God spirit, lose his temper and need a couple of shots at healing a blind man. In Luke and Acts, his death is described as that of a merely righteous human martyr. A later copyist even added a scene with him sweating blood.

The most parsimonious way to describe the this trajectory of the actual evidence is to see Jesus as beginning his history as a heavenly figure whose temporary appearance in the form of a man became the subject of later elaborations.

He is mentioned by Josephus twice and by Tacitus once and the arguments required to make these clear references in two independent sources disappear require, once again, a small hill of suppositions and contrived arguments.

{{BArch-description|1=Albert Schweitzer Zentra...
Image via Wikipedia

On the contrary, the contrived arguments are those that have emerged since the Second World War when many things changed. Prior to that time the scholarly consensus — a consensus that included names like Albert Schweitzer and Walter Bauer — was that these texts are worthless as testimony for the historicity of Jesus. So to accuse anyone who dismisses the value of the Josephus evidence of resorting to “contrived arguments” is to insult some of the greatest names in the history of biblical scholarship.

Sometimes intellectual changes reflect broader cultural developments, and this seems to be one case in point. It appears to coincide with the shift in scholarly consensus to exonerate or excuse Judas, and other scholarly research designed to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus. Western guilt over past anti-semitism has been proposed as one explanation for some of these scholarly shifts. I suspect something similar at work in finding ways to bring the Jewish historian Josephus and Jesus together.

The stories about him contain elements which are clearly awkward for the gospel writers (his origin in Nazareth, his baptism, his execution) and which they try, largely unsuccessfully, to explain away or which they downplay or remove. These elements are awkward because they don’t fit the expectations of who and what the Messiah was, yet they remain in the story.

Apart from the subjectivity of deciding if a narrative detail is “clearly awkward”, this argument rests on a false premise.

The fact is that there is no evidence for some general expectation among Jews for any particular type of Messiah at all in the period discussed.

In a review of the most detailed discussions of the idea of the Messiah among Jews of the Second Temple period, The One Who Is to Come by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Jeffrey L. Staley writes:

There is no serious attempt to place messianism within the broader matrix of social history. There is no interaction with, say, Richard Horsley or John Dominic Crossan’s work on social banditry and peasant movements (Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus; The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant). One might then ask of Fitzmyer what communities he thinks are reflected in his textual study. If, as many have suggested, only 5 percent of the ancient Mediterranean population could read and write, then what segment of the population is reflected in Fitzmyer’s analysis? Is his “history of an idea” representative of Jewish belief at large, or does it represent only a small segment of the population? Does Fitzmyer’s study of the “history of an idea” reflect only the elites’ mental peregrinations, which are largely unrelated to the general masses? And what difference, if any, would his answer to this question make to this “history of an idea”?

Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth, has discussed in detail the literary nature of this messianic ideal (a literary construct that extends beyond a Jewish literate class, and stretches across cultural and ethnic groupings from Egypt to Mesopotamia), and finds no correlation of it among popular Jewish culture before the second century c.e.:

Nevertheless, to make an argument that a specific theme belongs to the earliest sources of the gospels is not sufficient to associate it with history. The interrelated themes that have brought Weiss and Schweitzer — and the scholarship following them — to speak of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet do not reflect religious movements of the first century BCE. The thematic elements of a divinely destined era of salvation, a messianic fullness of time and a day of judgment bringing about a transformation of the world from a time of suffering to the joys of the kingdom are all primary elements of a coherent, identifiable literary tradition, centuries earlier than the gospels, well-known to us from the Bible and texts throughout the entire Near East. (p. 28)

There may also be some relevance here in Jon D. Levenson’s case that at least some not insignificant number of Jews in the Second Temple period coming to embrace a theology involving salvation through an atoning sacrifice of Isaac, as I have discussed in posts archived here.

This makes perfect sense if the gospel writers are trying to make a historical figure fit the Messianic expectations and some elements in his story simply don’t fit well. But it makes no sense at all if they are making him up or his story simply arose out of the expectations. If that were the case his story would fit the expectations very neatly and these awkward elements wouldn’t exist.

This is a repeat of the standard argument among the biblical studies faculties to establish the historicity of everything from the baptism of Jesus to his resurrection. The logical structure of the argument is elsewhere described as “the divine fallacy”. More formally it is listed among other fallacies as the fallacy of (personal) incredulity.”

N.T. Wright and other mainstream academics join with apologists in using this logic to prove the historicity of the resurrection on the basis that the “embarrassing” and “uncomfortable” and “awkward” fact is that mere untrustworthy women were the first witnesses.

To paraphrase the way it goes:

This makes perfect sense if the gospel writers are trying to speak honestly about the historical resurrection of Jesus and some elements in their story simply don’t fit well.

It makes no sense at all if the gospel writers are trying to make up a story about the resurrection.

If that were the case, they would never have said women were the first witnesses.

Everyone knew that women’s testimony was worthless in those days.

So it makes perfect sense if the gospel writers were writing about an historical event.

Others use the same logical fallacy to prove God, or creation science, or psychic powers:

How else can you explain this of that fact?

God/creationism/the tooth fairy are the only explanations that make sense of the evidence!

No other explanation makes any sense!

That such fallacious reasoning underpins so much of historical Jesus studies seems to escape notice surely can only be explained in the context of its cultural familiarity. (Trying to avoid slipping into the same fallacy here.  :-/  )


"F" is for "False Dilemma"

Image by BinJabreel (Is on Hiatus) via Flickr

(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)


“F” is for “False Dilemma”
Image by BinJabreel (Is on Hiatus) via Flickr

(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)

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Ehrman-Price Debate #2: Price’s Opening Address

by Neil Godfrey

The following is a write up from notes I took at the time of my first listening to the debate supplemented by a second listening earlier today. So there will be more detail than in with my summary of Ehrman’s opener. If anyone thinks I have been unfair to Ehrman then let me know and I may even decide to listen to him again too and add more detail to that post. Or be more certain and fill out details yourself!

Unlike Bart Ehrman Robert Price (RMP) did choose to address the opposing arguments as had been set out by BE in his book Did Jesus Exist? as well as making his case for mythicism. His presentation was written out and read aloud. Being a tightly prepared written speech it seemed to be packed with considerably more detail than BE’s delivery and certainly required more intense concentration to absorb the detail and each point of argument. Ehrman’s spontaneity and speaking without notes was far more dynamic and emotionally moving. So another reason for the greater length of the Price presentation here is, I am sure, the consequence of Price conveying far more detail than Ehrman.

Another stark difference between the two presentations worth noting is that Ehrman spoke dogmatically while Price conceded ambiguities in the evidence and spoke of what paradigm makes most sense to him given the various alternatives given the inability to definitely prove what we would like to be able to prove.

Regularly RMP quoted BE’s words as points requiring responses.

A Modern Novelty?

The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. (Ehrman 2012, p. 96)

RMP is not so sure and cites three ancient indicators: read more »


Shirley Jackson Case: Inadvertent Omissions

by Tim Widowfield

When I consulted my reading notes for the recent post on Case’s The Historicity of Jesus, I noticed a couple of things I had meant to comment on, but left out. In this post I seek to atone for my sins of omission.

read more »


Jesus the Seed of David: One More Case for Interpolation

by Neil Godfrey

Romans 1:1-7 (YLT)

1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, a called apostle,

having been separated to the good news of God —

2 which He announced before through His prophets in holy writings —

3 concerning His Son,

(who is come of the seed of David according to the flesh,

4 who is marked out Son of God in power, according to the Spirit of sanctification [=Holy Spirit], by the rising again from the dead,)

Jesus Christ our Lord;

5 through whom we did receive grace and apostleship, for obedience of faith among all the nations,

in behalf of his name;

6 among whom are also ye, the called of Jesus Christ;

7 to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called saints; Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father, and [from] the Lord Jesus Christ!

Interpolation is a four letter word for some scholars: it can only be justified under extreme provocation such as when all the earliest witnesses leave not a shadow of doubt.

Such a standard flies in the face of what we know about the transmission of ancient manuscripts, especially the canonical ones. See Forgery in the ancient world and List of scholars believing Paul’s letters were interpolated. Nonetheless I can understand why some authors play it safe by being very reluctant to treat any passage in Paul’s letters as an interpolation unless supported by widely acknowledged arguments. I’m not so conservative. If only one scholar produces very sound arguments that his or her peers fail to address then I’m willing to take the possibility of interpolation seriously.

So much for the preamble.

Sparks have flown between Christ Myth advocates and their opponents over the opening passage in Paul’s epistle to the Romans that declares Jesus Christ to be “of the seed of David according to the flesh” but these verses may have another significance for our understanding of how early Christian ideas evolved. So forget the mythicist debate for a moment.

Many of us are aware of Hermann Detering’s arguments for Romans 1:2-6 being an interpolation laden with anti-Marcionite innuendo. I won’t repeat those here. Consider this a related post.

I have also posted the 1942 argument of A. D. Howell-Smith for Romans 1:3 (who is come of the seed of David) being an interpolation. Again, consider this post related.

Alfred Loisy (1935) makes a passing reference to Romans 1:3-4 (see the bolded passage in the side box) being a likely interpolation in Remarques sur la littérature épistolaire du Nouveau Testament, p. 9. These lines are anomalous padding within a standard introduction.

J. C. O’Neill in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (1975) published a detailed argument for why we should consider all of verses 1b to 5a as an interpolation. (See the indented lines in the side-box. He also found the words I have italicized intrusive.) It is O’Neill’s discussion pages 25 to 28 that I set out below.

Normal Letter Introductions

Normal introductions were as simple as possible. Example:

Demophon to Ptolemaeus, greeting.

Affectionate and official letters could be elaborated a little:

Apion to Epimarchus his father and Lord, heartiest greetings. 

Polycrates to his father, greeting.

Claudius Lysias to his Excellency the governor Felix, greeting. (Acts 23:26)

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion, greeting. (James 1:1)

Paul’s Introductions

read more »


Evidence for a Pre-Christian “Christianity”?

by Neil Godfrey


Professor Stevan Davies has re-published his book Jesus the Healer under a new and probably more appropriate title, Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity, a new introduction on the pentecostal origins of the Christian movement (including an account for comparative purposes of the origins of modern pentecostalism since 1906) and added a couple of chapters on the possible evidence that Christianity emerged out of a form of Judaism we find expressed in the Odes of Solomon. Although some scholars have seen these poems as having been influenced by Christianity Davies argues for the traditional view that they are pre-Christian. And if pre-Christian, they are evidence of beliefs held by certain Jews that eventually had a profound influence on Christianity.

Scholars today (Charlesworth, Lattke) have dated the Odes to around 125 CE, at “the overlap of early Judaism, early Gnosticism and early Christianity.” Davies argues with others (e.g. Jack Sanders) that they influenced Christianity rather than the reverse and that they date from the period 50 – 25 BCE.

Western Syria (which includes the region of Galilee) is the most likely place of their origin.

It should be, but often is not, obvious that there were cultural influences on Galilee, and Samaria, and even Judea that come from the north, from Syria, Tyre, Sidon, Damascus, Antioch, influences on Judaism that were not Judean in origin. (p. 260)

Distinctive features 

While the Odes speak of a Christ figure they convey no hint of any awareness of a Jesus. If we define them as “Christian” they are of a quite different type of Christianity we read about in the New Testament.

Their Christ figure is a human who becomes Christ and who has no particular historical identity.

The Odes share vocabulary and phrases that appear in early Christian documents but the ideas conveyed by these shared expressions are quite unlike anything we associate with Christianity.

They do not mention

  • forgiveness
  • atonement
  • sin
  • resurrection
  • ascension
  • baptism
  • eucharist
  • the name of Jesus
  • any sayings of Jesus
  • any event in the life of Jesus
  • cross or crucifixion

The word “cross” supposedly appears twice in the Odes of Solomon (Odes 27 and 42), but only when translators such as Charlesworth take the Syriac (qaysa) or Greek (xylon), the word for tree or wood and translate it as “cross.” Less tendentious translators do not do this. . . .

Davies suggests that those passages should probably be translated to convey the image of a suppliant stretching his arms upward in prayer like tree branches. They do not depict arms stretched out as if on a cross.

The Odes do remind us of the Gospels with their references to:

  • a virgin and a virgin birth
  • a dove fluttering above the Messiah

But notice how unlike the ideas found in the Gospels these expressions are: read more »


Paul the Persecutor: The Case for Interpolation

by Neil Godfrey
the Conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus...

the Conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus as painted by Michelangelo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I posted Paul the persecutor? in which I suggested that Paul’s confession in his epistle to the Galatians to having persecuted the Church did not necessarily imply that he literally jailed, beat and killed Christians before his journey to Damascus.

J. C. O’Neill would have thought I was far too soft. Those passages in which Paul is confessing to have persecuted the church are late interpolations, he argued back in 1972 in The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

Here is his confession in the first chapter of Galatians:

13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; 14 and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. . . . 

22 And I was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; 23 they only heard it said, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.

O’Neill believes a strong case that those verses were interpolated by a second century editor wanting to glorify Paul (my bolding, formatting and added translations, pp 24-27):

read more »


The “Born of a Woman” / Galatians 4:4 INDEX

by Neil Godfrey

Proper indexing of my posts has fallen behind. One small step towards correcting this has been to collate all Vridar posts that have dealt with Galatians 4:4 and the famous “born of a woman” phrase.

First I list persons whose various views have been presented here. Then . . .  well, you can see how the list is structured.

If you want to know what my own view on the passage is then I can only say I am not dogmatic on any position. Even the absence of the text from Tertullian’s rebuttal of Marcion’s copy of Galatians is not necessarily decisive given that the word translated “born” could even more validly be rendered “made”. That is, Tertullian may have ignored the passage because it potentially favoured a docetic interpretation. See the Ehrman entry below for details.

Nonetheless, I do strongly favour the view that the expression is, as Hoffmann himself once wrote, “the language of myth”. No-one but a poet or a theologian explains that so-and-so “was born of a woman”! If anything in this context it is a credal statement. And if it’s a credal statement then it is not the quotidian data New Testament scholars like McGrath and Hurtado (and now Hoffmann) insist is evidence for a fact of history.


Paul-Louis Couchoud


Epistle to the Galatians — Couchoud’s view  

This post makes special reference to Couchoud’s article (in which he says that Gal 4:4 is an echo from the Gospel of Luke’s first chapters to counter Marcion’s view of Christ) posted in full on Herman Detering’s site:

“And again in a passage about the descent of Christ he includes a profession of faith in the birth of Christ in the flesh as a Jew among Jews. Gal. 4 : 4:

“God sent his Son,
to redeem those under law.”

Between those two lines he interpolates: “born of a woman, born under the law,”, a line which comes from the same current as the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke.

Christ’s birth in the flesh stands in contradiction to the passages that proclaim his celestial, not terrestrial birth, e.g. to 1 Cor. 15 : 45; 47 . . . .”

read more »