Tag Archives: Christ Myth

Just How Dangerous Is Mythicism?



In hindsight, I think we were unnecessarily cruel to Mr. Griffin, our misfit freshman science teacher. Behind his back, we referred to him by his initials, R.A.G., and sang that old “Rag Mop” song. He was a bit of a goof, but to RAG’s credit, he chose an innovative science text intended to take the student on an “odyssey of discovery.”

That high school textbook focused on a mysterious crystalline substance called bluestone. Over the course of the semester, we would test hypotheses and run several experiments trying to identify this stuff. I think it was my friend, Doug Simpson, who very early on sneaked a peak at the instructor’s edition lying on RAG’s desk and who shouted out, “It’s copper sulfate!

RAG was furious.


You could, of course, consider bluestone as a sort of MacGuffin. To be sure, we were learning basic chemistry; however, the main purpose of the text was to teach us the scientific method. At the beginning the book invited the student to consider the demon hypothesis, the notion that tiny invisible beings were causing our bluestone to react to exposure to heat, dilution in water, combination with other chemicals, etc. After each experiment we’d evaluate the results and alter our hypothesis. Eventually, we would develop a new, more scientific hypothesis — one that better predicted future experiments and more rationally explained our observations.

Our so-called demon hypothesis had some features in common with other early natural theories such as the chemical theory of phlogiston, which postulated an imaginary, immaterial substance released during combustion. But it had even more in common with prescientific theories that required supernatural intervention in the natural world to explain mundane phenomena. We could also draw similarities with the concept of the devil’s advocate, inasmuch as our placeholder hypothesis was obviously wrong and decidedly nonscientific (or even antiscientific).


To hear Dr. James McGrath tell it, no variation of the Jesus Myth hypothesis has merit. In fact, he consistently compares it to creationism. Actually, he always takes care to call it Young Earth Creationism, in deference to Old Earth Creationism and Guided Evolution, pseudo-scientific theories he finds perfectly acceptable.

Incidentally, here on Vridar we did not adequately mark the passage of The Exploding Cakemix, which McGrath has renamed “Religion Prof.” Of course, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Hereinafter, I shall refer to his blog by a moniker that will “retain that dear perfection,” namely The Pigeon Trough. read more »

Shirley Jackson Case: Inadvertent Omissions

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.

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“It is absurd to suggest . . .” — Shirley Jackson Case on The Historicity of Jesus

Shirley Jackson Case

Shirley Jackson Case — Credit: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-01582, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Way back in the previous century, I attended Ohio University at Athens. A young, naive freshman, I headed off one gloomy autumn day to the campus library, searching for source material for an astronomy paper. The stacks were vast; I was looking at more books than I had ever seen in one place.

By New World standards, OU is an old school, founded in 1804, the year after Ohio entered the Union. They’ve been gathering books and periodicals for quite some time.

According to Wikipedia, the Vernon R. Alden Library has switched completely from the Dewey Decimal System to the Library of Congress System. However, back in 1977 they were still in transition. All the old books were in Dewey, but the staff were categorizing new acquisitions using LOC codes. I gravitated to the old stacks, perhaps because I was more comfortable with the older numbering system. Or maybe I just like the smell of old books.

Ready Steady Go!

At any rate, that day I came upon Fred Hoyle’s Astronomy from 1962. Hoyle, of course, believed in the Steady State theory of the universe. This was my first introduction to it, and I found it fascinating. So I wrote a short paper on the subject, based on Hoyle’s treatment. What my naive freshman self didn’t know was that just a couple of years after Hoyle published Astronomy, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson found the echo of the Big Bang — background radiation evenly spread throughout the sky, compelling evidence for the origins of our universe.

[I find it mildly ironic that while writing this post, news has arrived that calls into question the Big Bang. Try wrapping your head around this: “Brian Koberlein from the Rochester Institute of Technology pointed out that while it may appear that the study suggests that the Big Bang did not happen, the event still occurred.“]

While reading Shirley Jackson Case’s The Historicity of Jesus, I was reminded of that incident from my youth. As I recall, the teacher’s aide who graded my paper was more forgiving than I deserved. But I learned my lesson. It’s all right to have some familiarity with older research, but the careful student will always keep up with the most recent work in the field.

On the bright side, because Case’s book is over a century old Google (before it lost interest in such altruistic efforts) has lovingly scanned it and put on line. You can even download a PDF copy or read it at archive.org. On the other hand, because he wrote it nearly 103 years ago, some of the arguments are a little stale.  read more »

Taking Up Ben Goren’s Jesus Challenge

Here is my response to the six point and 500 word Jesus Challenge issued by Ben Goren. I copy his specific challenge questions and respond in blue font beneath each one.

1. Start with a clear, concise, unambiguous definition of who Jesus was. Do the Gospels offer a good biography of him? Was he some random schmuck of a crazy street preacher whom nobody would even thought to have noticed? Was he a rebel commando, as I’ve even heard some argue?

The Jesus of the Canonical Gospels was literary tool functioning as a symbol of spiritual Israel and mouthpiece and demonstration for the different theological perspectives of the evangelists.

2. Offer positive evidence reliably dated to within a century or so of whenever you think Jesus lived that directly supports your position. Don’t merely cite evidence that doesn’t contradict it; if, for example, you were to claim that Jesus was a rebel commando, you’d have to find a source that explicitly says so.

The internal evidence of the Gospels (anachronisms, datable references and teachings that are best explained post 70, the literary relationships discernible among the Gospels, and the theological development evident across them) indicates they were composed after 70 CE. External evidence first evident in the second century is also consistent with this.

3. Ancient sources being what they are, there’s an overwhelming chance that the evidence you choose to support your theory will also contain significant elements that do not support it. Take a moment to reconcile this fact in a plausible manner. What criteria do you use to pick and choose? read more »

“It is absurd to suggest. . . . ” (A rare bird among the anti-mythicists)

3D Book cover_aGood old reliable Professor James McGrath and a few of his peers*, blissfully unaware of some of the highly respected names both within and outside New Testament scholarship who have happened to be bold enough to declare their maverick suspicions that there was no historical Jesus, make it clear that if you come out as seriously pondering such a view in their presence they will shut you up immediately scornfully mocking and insulting you. If you dare to ask why they insist the view is such a stupid one they will often enough declare that the arguments have been dealt with and laid to rest long ago.

In our previous post we introduced another early author who tackled mythicism, A. D. Howell Smith. We covered his overview of the various mythicist authors and ideas extant, along with their contemporary critics, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This post continues a little series responding to the assertion that the Christ myth notion has long ago been dealt with and demolished. Rather, we will conclude that it has been more generally ignored. The most recent attempts to have dealt with it (McGrath, Casey) are more about character-assassination of those who post anything sympathetic to the idea and about ridiculing caricatures of the arguments. (Ehrman, as has by now been well demonstrated, appears not to have even read, or at least read incredibly superficially, the arguments he set out to refute.) I myself have never posted an argument for the Christ myth theory, but along with a good many others I can see some gaping logical holes in the arguments used to defend the assumption that Jesus did exist. In addition to rationalisations of this assumption we often encounter even liberal scholars resorting to rhetorical questions that essentially appeal to the expected ignorance or lack of imagination of their lay audience.

Of the names carelessly assumed to have long ago accomplished the intellectual demolition of mythicism we have seen that our first two, Goguel and Wood, explicitly stated at the outset of their works that they were NOT going to seriously address the arguments of the mythicists.

In our previous post we introduced another early author who tackled mythicism, A. D. Howell Smith. We covered his overview of the various mythicist authors and ideas extant, along with their contemporary critics, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Howell Smith was not a professional scholar so perhaps that is why his book arguing against the mythicists of his day is not so well known. His book, Jesus Not a Myth, however, is well informed by the scholarship of his day. As we saw in the previous post Howell Smith in 1942 noted how very few scholars in the English speaking world had taken up the case against mythicism and those who had were flawed by their conservative religious bias. It was for that reason he wrote the book I am discussing in this post, Christ Not a Myth.

Howell Smith’s work stands out for its occasional acknowledgement of strengths in some of the mythicist argument. I am not sure I have encountered any contemporary scholar who is prepared to concede any ground whatever to mythicist arguments, a trait that smells like polemics born of insecurity and fear rather than genuine engagement with the arguments. Here are some of my earlier posts covering Howell Smith’s refreshingly honest arguments.

James the Brother of The Lord

Yes, it really is possible to question that famous passage in Galatians where Paul speaks of the “James, the brother of the Lord” — a phrase that is most commonly misquoted as “brother of Jesus” by those using it to rhetorically hammer mythicists. Howell Smith, however, is confident enough to openly concede that scholarly arguments are not uniformly and utterly watertight:

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“It is absurd to suggest. . . “: The Overlooked Critic of Mythicism (+ A Catalog of Early Mythicists and Their Critics)

3D Book cover_aThis continues the little “It’s absurd to suggest that most historians have not considered the strongest case for mythicism” series inspired by the unbearable lightness of the wisdom of Professor James McGrath. The previous post saw how Professor Larry Hurtado’s source for the comprehensive rebuttal to all arguments mythicist, H.G. Wood’s Did Christ Really Live?, in reality explicitly points out to the reader that it is not a comprehensive rebuttal to all arguments mythicist. The next candidate for a publication having considered “the strongest case for mythicism” that I consider is A. D. Howell Smith’s Jesus Not a Myth (1942).

Curiously I have not seen this book mentioned by any modern scholars who emphatically declare that mythicist arguments have long since been addressed and decisively demolished. This is curious because Howell Smith really does address the major mythicist arguments of his day. Similarly surprisingly few anti-mythicists today cite Schweitzer as having delivered the death-knell to mythicism. We will see an interesting similarity between ways S and H-S each argue their case for Jesus’s historicity.

I will save some of the details of Howell Smith’s arguments for my next post. Here I want only to introduce A. D. Howell Smith to those of us who only dimly recall my post on his Preface three years ago. I have reformatted it and added subheadings and bolding. Jesus Not a Myth was published in 1942, not long after the appearance of H. G. Wood’s title with the same purpose.

I conclude with a summary of the various Christ-myth views widely known at the time.

Something was sometimes different back then

Notice the way our author actually has some positive things to say about the mythicists he is about to debate. It sounds surreal to read such things given our familiarity with the demonization and gratuitous insults we routinely expect from the McGraths, the Hurtados, the Caseys, the Hoffmanns etc. McGrath, Hurtado and Casey would have readers think mythicism is no more rational or informed than are flat-earthers or moon-landing hoaxers. Seventy years ago Howell Smith (along with Goguel and Wood and Schweitzer and other critics) actually acknowledged the rational spirit infusing mythicism and the names of several prominent and esteemed scholars and others who at the very least toyed with the plausibility of the Christ myth idea. Today’s critics — are there any exceptions? — are far more universally savage in their personal attacks and far more dogged in their refusal to allow any mythicist proposition to be accorded the faintest touch of rationality. Is this a sign of some desperation that the idea just won’t ever seem to go away? Or is it a symptom of the crudeness of an American-Christian dominated scholarship by contrast with the kind of religious ambience of Europe in an earlier generation?

Within perhaps the last twenty years the denial that Jesus ever existed has been changed from a paradox to almost a platitude for an increasing number of Rationalists, and occasionally a Christian of strong modernist leanings shows himself more or less sympathetic to it.  read more »

“It is absurd to suggest . . . . “: Professor Hurtado’s stock anti-mythicist

This post continues on from It is absurd to suggest. . . . It’s about a much lesser known anti-mythicist than Goguel but I will excuse myself for that anomaly on the grounds that Goguel’s book is freely available on the web and many would have read it already. Maurice Goguel is evidently R. Joseph Hoffmann’s favourite anti-mythicist; this time we look at the man in Larry Hurtado’s corner.

3D Book cover 2Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, turns to Herbert George Wood as the author of the once-and-for-all answer to mythicism.

But another reason for feeling it less than necessary to spend a lot of time on the matter is that all the skeptical arguments have been made and effectively engaged many decades ago. Before posting this, I spent a bit of time perusing my copy of H. G. Wood, Did Christ Really Live?, which was published in 1938. In it, Wood cites various figures of the early 20th century who had claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was a fiction, and patiently and cordially engages the specifics of evidence and argument, showing that the attacks fail.

So in one sense I think I’m not alone in feeling that to show the ill-informed and illogical nature of the current wave of “mythicist” proponents is a bit like having to demonstrate that the earth isn’t flat, or that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, or that the moon-landings weren’t done on a movie lot. It’s a bit wearying to contemplate! (My emphasis)

Hurtado can no more imagine Jesus being non-historical than he can imagine believing the earth is flat. He would even find the very prospect of trying to demonstrate “the obvious” “a bit wearying”. Once again we see a theologian equate his discipline with complexities and certainties found in the hard sciences like astronomy. Anyone who disputes the claims of either is a kook. (We addressed this fallacy in the first post of this series.)

Evidently Hurtado has never felt any need to update himself with mythicist arguments of today, nor even does it appear he has ever acquainted himself with any of them at any time. He read a book published in 1938 and that clearly put the whole question at rest as far as he is concerned. That book, he informs us, “engages the specifics of evidence and argument”, so what else can possibly be said?

Herbert George Wood, 1938

The dedication of Wood’s book reads:

in the hope that both
may open their eyes

In his Preface Wood worries about young people being led astray by the Christ Myth theory of his day:

More young people than we often realize are troubled or misled by the suggestion that Jesus never lived. We cannot rightly ignore the subject. And revivals of interest in the Christ-myth are not unlikely.

In Chicago Wood visited a Russian Workers’ Club and observed the equation of the Christ-Myth idea with “any Marxist anti-God campaign” . . . .

and this book may serve as a kind of spiritual air raid precaution — a preservative against poison gas.

I have thought it best not to traverse the stock arguments of Christ-myth theorists

Recall that Goguel made it clear in his preface that he had no intention of actually engaging with the Christ myth arguments themselves. Wood begins the same way: read more »

“It is absurd to suggest that most historians have not considered the strongest case for mythicism”

This post continues from my previous one . . . .

GoguelMaurice Goguel, 1926

Maurice Goguel prefaced his book against mythicism, Jesus the Nazarene, Myth or History?,  with these opening words:

The question of the historical character of Jesus is one of present-day interest. It has once again been ably raised by Monsieur P. L. Couchoud in a small volume of considerable literary value and high spiritual inspiration. (Preface)

I have covered the contributions of Paul-Louis Couchoud to mythicist argument in a series of posts now archived at Couchoud: Creation of Christ. Of all mythicists prior to Earl Doherty Couchoud’s thesis comes very close to that of Doherty’s in many respects. Both argue for Christian origins with a Christ who was evidently a spiritual and heavenly figure at all times in the writings of Paul and the other pre-gospel writings. Doherty had come across Couchoud’s work in his own early explorations but the arguments in The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man nonetheless bear the marks of independently arriving at several of the same conclusions.

Of Couchoud himself Goguel wrote a few lines later:

The intellectual loyalty of M. Couchoud, the sincerity and vigour of his thought, the loyal effort which he has made to penetrate into the spirit of primitive Christianity, are worthy of full respect, but this homage which it is a pleasure to pay him does not prevent our seeing in his book the dream of a poet rather than the work of an historian. (Preface)

Some modern anti-mythicists could learn how to engage in debate with a little civility from Goguel.

So what is Goguel’s purpose in his book? Is it to engage and rebut the arguments of Couchoud and other mythicists? Or is he going to bypass mythicist arguments and argue separately why he believes Jesus was historical?

The problem of the historical character of Jesus is one of fact. It is entirely in the region of fact and by this historical method that we shall attempt its solution to decide whether modern criticism since the eighteenth century has entered a blind alley . . . . (Preface)

That sounds as though Goguel’s primary interest is to show what he believes are the facts supporting the historical existence of Jesus. He gives no hint that he is going to actually address Couchoud’s or others’ arguments.

He makes this intention clearer a little later in his opening chapter. read more »

Some Thoughts on the Nature of the Evidence and the Historicity of Jesus

You have the right to remain silent

Over on The Bible and Interpretation web site, James McGrath once again takes up his jousting lance to do battle against the big, bad mythicists. He raises an interesting point:

If we were to combine a number of recent and not-so-recent proposals related to Jesus, we could depict him as a gay hermaphrodite mamzer, conceived when his mother was raped by a Roman soldier, who grew up to pursue multiple vocations as a failed messiah, a failed prophet, a magician, and/or a mediocre teacher of Stoic ethics. From the perspective of traditional Christian dogma, one imagines that for Jesus never to have existed would be slightly easier to stomach (or at least, no more difficult) than some of the claims made by those who are convinced that he was a historical figure, and propose interpretations of the historical evidence which disagree with and even undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety. (emphasis mine)

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here’s the question: Is a mythical Jesus more palatable than a historical reconstruction that imagines Jesus as something other than the Son of God and savior of the world? To answer that question, we might consider the difference between descriptions of an object versus the question of its existence. Emanuel Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument comes immediately to mind. Kant claimed existence is not a predicate, but is categorically different from other properties.

You may not agree with Kant, but more practical considerations come to mind. The historicity of Jesus, whether argued for or merely presumed, must precede the discussion of who or what Jesus was. It necessarily forms the foundation of the ensuing arguments. If we cannot demonstrate that Jesus probably existed, all subsequent arguments are moot. Hence, Christians may intensely dislike reconstructions of Jesus that would tend to “undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety,” but I think they would dislike even more the idea that the evidence calls into question his very existence as a historical figure.

A story problem

And so, here we are again. All roads lead back to the question of the nature of the evidence. If you will indulge me for a minute or two, I’d like to present a parable.

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Casey: Taking Context out of Context

English: Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud glowers disapprovingly. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Observant readers will recall that we tackled this subject once before in When Is Paul’s Silence Golden?]

Ad hoc soup

The standard historicist response to the question of Paul’s silence on the historical Jesus relies heavily on Freudian Kettle Logic — to wit, “(1) Paul did mention Jesus quite a bit; (2) We shouldn’t be surprised that Paul didn’t mention Jesus very much at all, for the following ad hoc reasons; (3) You’re an idiot for bringing it up.”

The different ad hoc reasons given for Paul’s silence vary over time. And it’s hard to justify spending too much time refuting them, because they’re functionally equivalent to yelling “Squirrel!” in the middle of a sentence. Perhaps it’s because of the honor/shame society Paul and Jesus lived in. Maybe Paul was an egomaniac. Maybe . . . Squirrel!

Say what you will, but at least there’s plenty of variety. If you don’t feel like hopping on the current ad hoc bus, stay put; another one is coming in 15 minutes. Quote miners in the Apologia Mountains are working ’round the clock to serve you. Pardon the mixed metaphors.

A cave-in down in the quote mine

While reading Maurice Casey’s new book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?, I was dismayed (but not surprised) to find that he’s still using that tired old Context Canard to explain Paul’s silence on the historical Jesus. His preferred ad hoc rescue for Paul’s silence has to do with cultural context, as described in Edward Hall’s Beyond Culture. Apologists argue that the people of the Ancient Near East (including, apparently, Asia Minor and the entire Mediterranean basin) lived in a high context culture.

What does that mean? On the high end of the Hall scale people use implicit language to express themselves. Body language, gestures, facial expressions, shared cultural memory and subtexts, along with other nonverbal modes of communication provide the full range of expression that outsiders will often miss. On the low end, people use explicit language to express themselves. They will often repeat themselves, just to be clear. They do not rely as much, if at all, on nonverbal cues or cultural subtext.

Casey argues:

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Jesus Forgotten: Faulty Memory or No Memory?

We have deep depth.*

In a recent interview focused on Jesus mythicism, Dale Allison said:

Re memory: My wife and I disagree about our memories all the time. About things that happened years ago, months ago, weeks ago, days ago, or hours ago. It happens so often that it’s a standing joke, and we’ve reconciled ourselves to the fact that, when there is no third witness, we can’t figure out who is right and who is wrong. Heck, sometimes we both must be wrong. But we’re not mythographers, because what we are almost always misremembering is related to something that happened. It’s faulty memory, not no memory. (emphasis mine)

Dale Allison

Dale Allison

He likens the issue of reliable memory in Jesus studies to the problem of how Socrates was remembered differently by his contemporaries. But Socrates, he asserts, still existed. He then likens the problem of the historical reliability of the New Testament to a court case. (I refer to Neil’s recent post on the Criterion of Embarrassment as to why a court case is a terrible example.)

It’s also worth thinking about conflicting testimony in court. When people disagree on their recollections of an accident or crime scene, we don’t conclude there was no accident or no crime. We just say that memories are frail and then try to find the true story behind the disagreements. I’ve argued in Constructing Jesus that we can try a similar approach with the sources for him.

That concept — finding “the true story behind the disagreements” — leads us to the notion that the gospels (and Paul) provide the gist of the stories about Jesus. They can tell us, Allison imagines, what Jesus was really like, even if the details have been changed over time because of our “frail” memory.

English: New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra i...

English: New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra in a 1956 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s like déjà vu all over again.*

As our pal McGrath wrote:

Even fabricated material may provide a true sense of the gist of what Jesus was about, however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned.

Or as Yogi Berra put it:

I really didn’t say everything I said.

I’d like to believe that Yogi really said most of the things he said, but I also know that we humans love our myths. And one of my favorite myths is that Yogi is some sort of unwitting Zen master who spontaneously utters cryptic, timeless Yogi-isms: nuggets of wisdom wrapped in apparent nonsense.
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O’Neill-Fitzgerald “Christ Myth” Debate, #7: Generalities on the lack of corroborating evidence


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 »

O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate, #6: Comparing Sources for Jesus and Hannibal



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


If Tim O’Neill (TO) is true to form he won’t let the fact that he insisted there is only one historian from antiquity who mentions anyone who might be considered a messianic claimant in the Jewish war of 66-73 CE dismay him. He will in all likelihood dismiss his oversight as insignificant, and claim that the opposite of the fact he was trying to make to support his case will be interpreted as equally strong evidence for his point! That’s how he responded when someone pointed out another claim of his — that we have no contemporary records of Hannibal — was also wrong. (O’Neill 2011)

TO’s sophistic analogy

Despite his fame then and now, we have precisely zero contemporary references to Hannibal. If we have no contemporary mentions of the man who almost destroyed the Roman Republic at the height of its power, the idea that we should expect any for an obscure peasant preacher in the backblocks of Galilee is patently absurd. (O’Neill 2011)

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman...

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman knights killed at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC). Marble, 1704. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But TO’s comparison of the evidence we have or don’t have for Hannibal is misleading. He is drawing a quite false and confused analogy when he says that we should not expect any contemporary evidence for “an obscure [and “unimportant”] peasant preacher in the backblocks of Galilee” because we don’t even have any surviving contemporary records of Hannibal and other famous ancient persons.

This is simply very bad reasoning. Sophism at its “best”. The first premise of the argument is that contemporary records of the great and famous like Hannibal and Boudicca and Arminius did not survive. The second premise is quite unrelated: there were no records that were ever made of Jesus. The reason we have no contemporary records of some famous people of ancient times is that they were lost. Yet the argument for the absence of records about Jesus is not that they were lost but that no-one bothered to make any in the first place.

For the analogy to work we would have to believe that there were records of Jesus made but that they also were lost in time.

But the fact is Christians themselves came to assume responsibility for what ancient writings were preserved, so there was a powerful motive and means for those interested to preserve records of Jesus if they did exist, or at least preserve mention and epitomes of such records.

Further, though we do not have contemporary records of a number of famous persons we do have records that are derived from contemporary sources about them. If we only had anything similar among secular sources for Jesus it is almost certain that no-one would ever have questioned the historical existence of Jesus.

Imagine if a Roman or Greek historian wrote something like the following about Jesus. The historian Polybius is discussing the cause of the second Carthaginian War:

Why, then, it may be asked, have I made any mention of [the historian] Fabius and his theory? Certainly not through any fear that some readers might find it plausible enough to accept: its inherent improbability is self-evident . . . My real concern is to caution those who may read the book not to be misled by the authority of the author’s name, but to pay attention to the facts. For there are some people who are apt to dwell upon the personality of the writer rather than upon what he writes. They look to the fact that Fabius was a contemporary of Hannibal and a member of the Roman Senate, and immediately believe everything he says must be trusted. My personal opinion is that we should not treat his authority lightly, but equally should not regard it as final, and that in most cases readers should test his assertions by reference to the facts themselves. (Polybius, Book 3, from Ian Scott-Kilvert’s translation, Penguin, pp. 186-187)

So we do, in effect, have more contemporary sources for Hannibal than TO want to concede, but they are explicitly conveyed to us through later historians such as Polybius. Yes, agreed we do not have direct access to them. But we do have evidence that they existed, that there were contemporary recorders of Hannibal. We have no evidence for the same with Jesus.

Why not treat the Gospel sources equally with the Historical writings? read more »

O’Neill-Fitzgerald: #5, Should We Expect Any Roman Records About Failed Messiahs?

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

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailTim O’Neill (TO) writes some very true words that enable us to identify a “careful” and “honest” treatment of a work:

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)

So let’s see if TO himself has followed his own advice and given his readers a “careful, honest or even just competent treatment” of David Fitzgerald’s (DF) book.

Read TO’s second part of that above sentence:

but Fitzgerald does not even acknowledge this middle ground position – that of a historical Jesus who was not miraculous and does not conform closely to the Jesus of the gospels – even exists.

It is very difficult to approach a topic calmly and with dispassionate reasoning if one is predisposed to have a deep loathing for what one believes is in the printed page. It is almost impossible in that mood to grasp the original meaning of what one is reading. One will project into the page what one believes is there. One needs to let go of all defensiveness in order to read stuff like that fairly and respond meaningfully. That’s no excuse, of course. Any competent writer will recognize that sort of bias, confess it, and work against it.

As we saw in our previous post DF does indeed not only “acknowledge this middle ground position” but he frames his book with it: the opening pages and closing chapter are dedicated specifically to it. The same position further appears throughout the body of the book. So TO does not simply fail or neglect to deal with the full argument of David Fitzgerald’s (DF) book, he ‘carelessly, dishonestly or even just incompetently’ tells readers the opposite of the truth about its contents. I am reminded of several James McGrath’s “reviews” of Earl Doherty’s Neither God Nor Man. If “mythicism” is such an incompetent and silly proposition why do people need to write brazen falsehoods in order to refute it?

But maybe we are being harsh and he was tired and distracted while reading the arguments in DF’s Nailed that he tells his readers are not there.

So let’s give him another chance.

Another of TO’s damning indictments begins:

Fitzgerald insists that there are elements in the story of Jesus which should have been noticed by historians of the time and insists that there is no shortage of writers then who should have recorded some mention of them . . .  (O’Neill 2011)

He quite correctly quotes DF to support this:

There were plenty writers, both Roman and Jewish, who had great interest in and much to say about (Jesus’) region and its happenings …. We still have many of their writings today: volumes and volumes from scores of writers detailing humdrum events and lesser exploits of much more mundane figures in Roman Palestine, including several failed Messiahs. (Fitzgerald, p. 22)

DF did say that these other writers, both Roman and Jewish, did have enough interest in Palestine of the day to make mention of it in their writings — and he does say that their writings “included” mention of “several failed Messiahs”.

Manipulator or Debater?

TO then moves in to close the semantic trap. He accuses DF of saying that “scores of writers” wrote of failed Messiahs in Palestine: read more »