James McGrath’s reply and my response

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by Neil Godfrey

James McGrath has replied to my previous post, Did Jesus exist on youtube?  His reply is here: More-Myticist-Creationist Parallels: Messiahs, Wisdom and Jesus.

Avoiding and denying what I wrote

James claims that my references to the scholarship of Neusner, Green, Fitzmyer and Mack are so well known (“common knowledge”) that I was completely misguided (in fact I was reminding him of creationists) when I supposedly tried to use these quotations to discredit the argument that Jews were unlikely to invent a crucified messiah. In fact it is James who is avoiding the issue here, not me.

James has sidestepped the point I was using those “common knowledge” citations to address. I used those quotations to remind him that there is no evidence for his claim that there was some widespread common expectation of a messiah. James had said that this Jewish belief was “well documented” for the time of Jesus. It is not well-documented. He knows this, and I know he knows the “common knowledge” citations I had to pull out to address his false claim in his video.

This was the point I was addressing. And James used this particular point — that there was a widespread expectation in the time of Jesus of a Davidic messiah — as the sole support of  his assertion that no Jew would invent a crucified messiah.

So when James says my citations are “beside the point” as far as his argument goes, he is ignoring what I wrote and what he argued himself in the video. I used the citations to address the very point he made to justify his assertion.

When arguing for the historical Jesus, it is quite common to see such superficial and false claims being bandied about without thought. I know very well that scholars would never use such standard of argumentation in a scholarly paper. But they seem to think any slapdash mantra will do for lay audiences — and it will certainly do for those who argue a position for which they cannot disguise their visceral contempt.

Presumably such slapdash “arguments” are meant to address the less well informed audiences, or even peers who share a similar disdain for the opposing argument. The practice suggests an impatience on the part of the historicists with the thought of bothering to prepare any serious case.

Still no evidence

I asked James for evidence of such a widespread Jewish belief in a Davidic type messiah around the time of Jesus. Here is the closest he got to that evidence in his reply:

We have evidence for such “messianic” beliefs in the Judaism of this period, and conversely, we have no evidence whatsoever from pre-Christian Judaism for the view that the restored Davidic king would die at the hands of his enemies.

The closest one can find is perhaps the reference in Daniel’s pseudo-prophecy to the anointed high priest Onias being killed (Daniel 9:26)

He simply repeats his bald claim that we have evidence for this belief in this period (of Jesus), and cites not a bit of it.

James also misrepresents, to the point of caricature, the mythicist argument. No mythicist case that I know argues that “a restored Davidic king” would die at the hands of his enemies. James avoids completely my point that the early Christians boasted a greater than the mere physical Davidic king — they boasted a messiah who had conquered the world of demonic powers and death itself.

Like a creationist, again

James then accuses me of being like a creationist because I was guilty of what I was accusing others when I said Paul claimed Jesus was a God. Firstly, James seems to be just making up accusations against me. I nowhere have said that, although James has himself repeatedly said I believe this. I do not recall ever saying this, and always thought I was careful to qualify my statements about Paul’s beliefs, by using such terminology as “son of God” or “divinity”.

It seems James is so eager to throw insulting labels at me that he resorts to accusing me of whatever he simply just assumes to know I think or claim. He did not quote me. (The discussion to which he was referring is here.)

So on this basis James accused me of being a pot calling the kettle black, and therefore I was like a “creationist”. James seems to have more skill with how he uses his words than he does with actually basing his arguments on evidence.

Still no evidence

My initial request to James for evidence was for him to support his claim that the earliest evidence we have of Christian belief was that Jesus was a man, and that the divinity side was only gradually attached later.

James’ response? 

He finds fault with me for adopting “a minority view”. Well, yes, I guess I do. Presumably he would rather there be no minority views to contend with. Damn gnats.

If minorities go with the evidence that suggests earliest Christians viewed Jesus as a divine being, a divinity (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divinity if you think that means the later Christian developed view of God, as James says I am guilty and “like a creationist” for claiming) and can find no evidence to the contrary, then so be it. If majorities represented by James are content to maintain a belief without evidence, then so be it.

But this is not quite fair. James does cite Colossians where it speaks of Jesus as one in whom the godhead “BODILY” dwells. Um, yes, ….. and so Jesus has a flesh and blood and guts human body in heaven where he now dwells with the godhead indwelling him fully? Do I have to remind James of the mainstream scholar’s book, The Resurrection Reconsidered, by Gregory Riley, that demonstrates that “body” could as easily mean a spirit as flesh?

But I know he knows that. So I have to wonder at James’ motives or whatever for even attempting to suggest that this passage is approaching the evidence I requested.

Interesting discussion on Wisdom

James raises a series of interesting questions on the place of Wisdom in Second Temple Jewish thought. I am interested because it is something I have been reading about for quite some time and look forward to discussing in a future post.

One final hit at yet another poor straw man

Finally James claims (again, — despite my pointing out to him the baselessness of his claim — but perhaps he never saw my replies on his blog) James claims once again that some mythicists “seem” to argue (thankfully he is a little more nuanced now) that X does not exist because it is described in terms of non-X. This is, of course, a caricature of a very sound argument that historicists seem incapable of dealing with, and James does play with it as a caricature.

He fails to deal with actual argument: that after we strip away all the mythological associations from other known historical figures, we see plenty of historical figure left. Take away the mythical associations (including OT descriptions) of Jesus, and we are left with the invisible man after his bandages are removed.

Insults continue to replace evidence and argument

Okay, maybe insults are all too common within the guild. But surely public intellectuals do have a responsibility to set a higher standard for their publics.

James fails to supply the evidence I asked him for in order to support two claims of his:

  1. that the earliest Christian belief was that Jesus was human and that divine attributes were only attributed to him later;
  2. and that there is evidence for a general Jewish expectation of the coming of a Davidic Messiah in the time of Jesus.

He has not provided any evidence for either claim.

He has chosen instead to compare me with a creationist.

Presumably he finds the latter course the easier option.

I thought it was creationists who were the ones prepared to shut down debate by arguing in defiance of the evidence, and at the same time misrepresenting the claims of their opponents.

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Neil Godfrey

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28 thoughts on “James McGrath’s reply and my response”

  1. I have plenty of documentation of Messianic views in ancient Judaism. (I even have the first book you link to (Charlesworth ed.) beside me for ongoing reference.) Investigating this particular claim is one of the things I learned to do after leaving my religion — never assume, always find the evidence.

    I have sought in vain for the evidence that there was any such messianic belief among Jews at the time of Jesus.

    I have also searched Fitzmyer’s study on Messiahs. (He himself concedes the absence of evidence for the period in question, although he uses the “umbrella” argument to try to smudge over this. The last page of a review at http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/6079_6483.pdf has more to say about this ‘umbrella’ argument, and overlooks F’s own admissions: – – –

    “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”?”

    I also have Neusner’s (co-editor) Judaisms and their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era on which I am relying.

    And a number of scholarly journal articles from peer-reviewed relatively recent publications.

    I have not read the second book you refer to, but I do note what is said of one of its authors, John Collins, by biblical scholar Sasson, in relation to another discussion about a pre-Christian messiah (http://victorsasson.blogspot.com/2009/09/vision-of-gabriel-and-messiah-in.html) :

    As to what John Collins states, it is clear he himself has an agenda. Given his background as a committed Christian scholar, his business appears to be to employ his academic scholarship in twisting the crystal clear words of the Hebrew Scriptures (which he persists in calling ‘Old Testament’- a biased and offensive theological term), to mean what the Christian writings pretend to mean. Christian interpretations in the ‘new’ Testament regarding a Jewish mashiah do not exist in the Hebrew Scriptures.

    (Sasson does not seem to be familiar with the range of arguments about the interpretations of the notion of messiah, and is making assumptions about the Hebrew Scriptures and arguing from a purely semantic view within those assumptions. But I do not mean to take his word about Collins. It is something I would be aware of, however, if I did read his book and weigh the evidence for myself.)

    If there is any evidence in the Charlesworth book that you cited that I have missed, then someone I am sure can point it out to me. If there is anything in the other book that will throw new revelations up so far not noted in Fitzmyer or Neusner, I would hope to hear about them. Maybe I will get the book just to be on the safe side and not rely on second hand information.

  2. @Neil
    James fails to supply the evidence I asked him for in order to support two claims of his:

    1. that the earliest Christian belief was that Jesus was human and that divine attributes were only attributed to him later;

    Isn’t that the implication in Paul? Jesus was a man, who became “Son of God” only after being resurrected? Here is the passage:

    [Christ Jesus. . .] who came from the seed of David according to the flesh, who was appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:3-4)”

    Paul calls “Jesus” a “man” a few times, “in the flesh” often. Even if you think that Jesus was a mythical man, Paul does seem to think of Jesus as a man, at least until the resurrection. Whether Paul thought “Son of God” means what we think it does today is questionable, but that’s probably a separate discussion.


  3. The question being discussed is “earliest Christian belief” — and that takes us back before Paul. James and I were discussing in particular the Philippian hymn (Phil. 2:5-11).

    And yes, I have noticed the evidence that suggests that there were early Christians who also believed that Jesus became a man or flesh.

    But I have also seen some evidence that they believed he came down from heaven to take this form, such as in the Philippian hymn. Is the object of worship in that hymn somoeone who originated as a man and who gradually over time was believed to be a god?

    Do we see evidence of Paul’s thought evolving from thinking that Jesus was a man to thinking he must have been more than a man? Did Paul take earlier Christian thought that Jesus was a man and develop the idea that no, he must have been more than a man?

    Or did Paul find the Philippian hymn that worships Jesus as a pre-existent “equal with God” who took on “the form of a man” to be consistent enough with his own own belief?

    1. Neil, have you seen the interpretation of Phil 2 hymn in terms of “First Adam Second Adam”? Instead of high Christology (which is the 4th C interpretation that you are using), it is actually low Christology. The idea has been around for a while. It goes something like this:

      Phl 2:5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
      Phl 2:6 Who, being in the form of God, [i.e. in the image of God like the first Adam]
      thought it not robbery to be equal with God: [in contrast to the first Adam who “grasped” to be God]
      Phl 2:7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: [in contrast to the first Adam who didn’t want to be a servant and tried to make himself into God]
      Phl 2:8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, [in contrast to the first Adam who failed to be humble]
      even the death of the cross. [this part is usually thought to be put in by Paul]

      There’s more to it than just that; some interesting word associations to Gen. As I said, this is not new, and it is the view of many scholars.

      1. Yes I have, and James also raised this in our earlier discussions.

        And can you explain to me how my use of a term like “divinity” is a 4th C concept or interpretation? This is what James accused me of using (and therefore I was “like a creationist”), and I could only reply I had thought I had always been at pains to avoid such confusion. Like James, you are reading what you want into my posts and claiming they are saying things I have never hinted at. This is how creationists argue against the publications of evolutionists.

        You also must know that Second Temple concepts of names like Adam, Jacob and others (and I think James himself even discusses these in one of his books?) are that these were angelic and heavenly personages first and foremost, and who had their earthly counterpart roles or places of activity.

        But as for the alternative interpretations of the lines that refer to being made in the likeness of a man and so on are a bit stretched in places — and a historicist cries “Foul” when a mythicist interprets “brother” to mean something other than a physical sibling. Some biblical scholars would never be trying to reinterpret something for a tendentious purpose, would they? (But I am happy to look into the scholarly arguments for the interpretation further if you can recommend a more detailed study somewhere.)

      2. Actually, my “4th C” comment comes from my RDN sig: “The New Atheists! Fighting 4th C beliefs using 19th C science! Building tomorrow’s myths, today!” I’ve had that as a sig for a long while.

        I’ve come across the idea of Phil 2 reflecting the Second Adam a few time, though I can’t recommend any particular scholar for it. But it seems to make sense. Paul contrasts Adam negatively with Jesus a few times: In Adam all die, in Jesus all made alive; Adam made man, Jesus made a quickening spirit; Adam the first man; Jesus the first-fruits.


  4. Ireneaus’ Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter XI, Section 7:

    “For the Ebionites, who use Matthew’s Gospel only, are confuted out of this very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord. But Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those [passages] which he still retains. Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, [the Marcosians whose founder was named Markus] preferring the Gospel by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified. Those, moreover, who follow Valentinus, making copious use of that according to John, to illustrate their conjunctions, shall be proved to be totally in error by means of this very Gospel, as I have shown in the first book.”

    1. I thought that Ireneaus said earlier that the Marcosians separated Jesus and Christ. But in going back to look for this statement I’m having a hard time finding it. He says this of Cerinthus and perhaps others. I’ll keep looking.

  5. A crazy thought just popped into my head. Could it be that Christianity was a post-70 Jewish cult.

    1) The anti-sacrificial nature of Christianity makes so much sense to me as a result of the destruction of the temple. Just look at how this event changed Judaism!

    2) In the 1st century epistles the death of Jesus Christ is an atonement sacrifice for the people. The deaths of the maccabean martyrs were also seen as atonement sacrifices. Could the Christian atonement theology reflect the Jewish suffering during the revolt of 66-73?

    3) I don’t see a whole lot of evidence for a pre-70 Christianity. We only have 7 NT letters that are typically dated to pre-70 (perhaps a few more might be included), while after 70 there seems to be an explosion of Christian writings (look at how much is written between 70 and Irenaeus). There are of course some who believe that all Pauline letters are inauthentic (Detering, the dutch radicals, Bauer), which doesn’t seem such a wild idea given the Christian literary methods of post-70. We have Tacitus referring to Christian persucution by Nero, but Tacitus is writing some 50 years after the event and what other evidence do we have for this?

    Given an unhistorical Jesus, what other evidence do we have for a pre-70 Christianity? I am willing to stand corrected on this wild (and foolish) idea, so I’d love to hear the problems with it.

    1. I like wild ideas……the ride can be bumpy but it might be worth the pain….
      Basically, and just very quickly – there is one small detail that needs to be adequately addressed before everything Christianity related is dated to after 70 ce. Easy, of course, for the mythicists to run with the 70 ce scenarios – but, I’m a mythicist, and I don’t take that easy ride….

      The one big issue is – that is if we are going to try and fathom out what the gospel storyline is all about – is that the gospel of Luke uses one important date, a date that even the heretic Marcion decided he could not do without – the 15th year of Tiberius in 29/30 CE. That’s it – that’s the the bedrock date of the gospels. We can, of course, just say that its just a place-marker for the gospel storyline – but why that date and not another date? Why any specific date at all? So whether we are historicists or mythicists that date has to be accounted for. No historical Jesus does not mean that that date was not relevant in some way for early christian understanding of their history.

      And then we have James Crossley with his early date for the gospel of Mark – between late 30s and middle 40s CE.

      So, the real wild bumpy ride is not running ahead – its trying to walk backwards…

      1. Neil, thanks for the link to the Goldberg article – however, not much there but the usual idea that Luke did not know what he was doing….

        “Luke worked from a written source he did not quite understand
        could have misinterpreted”
        Or failing that – the “text has become slightly corrupted”.

        Easy way out of a ‘problem’ text…

        Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not trying to date the gospel of Luke to the 15th year of Tiberius. I’m simply making a point that this year was evidently important as regards later Christian understanding of their history.

      2. Well, the thing is that there’s absolutely nothing placed in a specific time in the earliest epistles (everything prior to the 2nd century pastoral epistles – that’s quite a few letters!). It appears the historicizing comes a bit later. Of course, this depends on how you date the Gospels as well, but I think 100-130 makes a lot of sense for the Gospels. Why the 15th year of Tiberius? I doubt we can ever know.

      3. The 15th year of Tiberius is right there in Luke’s gospel. So, regardless of when that gospel is dated as to its final composition, that date stamp remains as a marker of some sort. Leaving aside the Lysanias reference (and no, I don’t think Luke was a bad historian – its a matter of recognizing his use of symbolic numbers – in this case the number 70 – the units of 7 and 70 being meaningful in Jewish thought. The 15th year of Tiberius in 29/30 ce being 70 years from the reign of Lysanias in 40 bc.).

        The 15th year of his reign was very relevant for Tiberius. In that year his mother, Livia Drussila, called Julia Augusta, died. (Tiberius, history relates, having some problems with his mother….)It was also a relevant year for Philip the tetrarch. In that year he raised the village of Bethsaida to the status of a city and renamed it Bethsaida Julias – thought to be in honor of the mother of Tiberius.

        “The Foundation of Bethsaida-Julias by Philip the Tetrarch
        Journal of Jewish studies ISSN 0022-2097
        KOKKINOS Nikos 2008
        Résumé / Abstract
        Josephus (Ant. 18.27) explicitly names Julia ‘the daughter’ of Augustus, distinguished from Livia/Julia ‘the wife’, as the person to whom the town of Bethsaida was dedicated. This must have taken place by 2 BCE when Julia was banished, denounced for multiple adulteries. The numismatist A. Kindler suggested that Josephus may be wrong and that Livia/Julia the wife would lie behind this dedication dated to 30/31 CE. Following Kindler, the archaeologists and theologians currently operating at etTell-identified by them as the site of Bethsaida-Julias-have produced many papers accusing Josephus of error. Reviewing the evidence, it is clear that the original suggestion should have never been made. By taking this opportunity, a problem of wider significance is underlined: the difference between the titles ‘Augusta’ and ‘Sebaste’ in west and east. Many documents attributed a priori to Livia, based only on the presence of her adopted name, could belong to Julia.”

        That’s the historical background to Luke 3.1. The gospel story has Jesus visiting Bethsaida – now named Bethsaida Julias. (although the gospel storyline is quite re this renaming…). Three of his disciples come from Bethsaida; Philip, Andrew and Peter. If it is a historical element that one is trying to discern from the gospel story – then putting aside the prophetic gloss over Nazareth and Bethlehem – it could well be that it is Bethsaida that has a relevant, actual, historical interest for the gospel writers. Marcoin cuts out these nativity narratives and starts off with Capernaum. Yet if Capernaum is where the gospel Jesus moves to as his second residence – or as Marcoin put it, he, Jesus, came down to Capernaum, just where was his first home – just where did he come down to Capernaum from?

        So, perhaps, Luke 3.1 might well be an indication that, historically, one had better take a look at Bethsaida?

  6. There’s also Suetonius of course!

    “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”


    “Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”

  7. Christianity being a post-70 emergence makes a lot of sense to me. Imagine that after 70 the two (rival) attempts to deal with the end of the Mosaic system/crisis of the fall and blow to Jewish identity were Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. This explains the anachronisms in the gospels (e.g. debates in Galilee with Pharisees) – no ‘traditions’ to carry through the original settings etc, the setting of Galilee and the many symbolic geographic and personal names, it explains the temple destruction imagery overlaying the details of the tomb description and Roman triumphal ironies at the passion, and Jesus-body-temple metaphors, the appeal of the gospel message (death to life/new and better temple), and don’t forget “Joshua/Jesus” replacing Moses with a new identity for the loyal ones in a new and better Israel or spiritual community.

    This is not to say there was not some “pre-Christian” ideology or association pre-70 that was some sort of basis for what emerged as Christianity after 70. Second Temple Judaism was widely varied. Second “gods” or hypostases, Enochian concepts of angels, demons, judgment, etc.

    It also explains the so-called “missing evidence” from the first century. And why the central character was discovered so late, and could have been said to have been unrecognized when he first appeared, and why there could have been so many various views about what he actually was (man, god, appearance of either, adopted son, etc) from the get-go, . . . . .

    Lots of historical and theological and literature questions start to dissolve when we shift the start date to 70 ce — and the above only skims the surface of them.

    It also explains an originally predominantly Jewish matrix and its transformation into a predominantly gentile movement.

    1. Events recounted in the letters of Paul point clearly to a pre-70 date for all the missionary activity going on. It seems hard to deny that, whatever they were up to exactly, Saul and Barnabas and Cephas and James were active in the 50s.

      After much agony, I have personally settled on 67-69 (during the Roman-Jewish war) as the time of composition of Mark. And I think the author of that work essentially invented Jesus as we know him as a character in the Synoptic narrative. So if we take “Christianity” to mean a movement centered on that figure, absolutely it’s a post 70 phenomenon. It does seem problematic to exclude Paul from the definition though. If Paul wasn’t a Christian, what was he?

      1. I am always in two minds about Paul’s letters. Against the 50’s setting we need also to keep in mind the genre of epistolary fiction: http://vridar.wordpress.com/category/book-reviews/rosenmeyer-ancient-epistolary-fictions/

        Also the evidence of multiple layers and insertions in Paul’s letters.

        And the time when they first appear in the external witness is second century, and this at a time when there was some flurry of interest in Paul and claiming him for one’s own (Acts of Paul, Pastorals, Acts of Apostles). And the matters discussed in his letters are topical to wider 2nd century interests. And the remarkably little impact they seemed to have had till the second century.

        So always room to be less than certain about Paul’s letters, I think.

      2. Hm. Interesting, but dammit, there was still one thing I was not “of two minds” about as regards the NT, and now you’ve gone and ruined it! 😉

        But the one question that comes to mind immediately is sort of a reverse of the argument from Paul’s silence. If the “genuine” epistles are late, say, 2nd century, Christian fabrications, wouldn’t we expect to see more of the synoptic narrative reflected in them?

  8. C.J. O’Brien Says:
    2010/02/19 at 8:22 am

    But the one question that comes to mind immediately is sort of a reverse of the argument from Paul’s silence. If the “genuine” epistles are late, say, 2nd century, Christian fabrications, wouldn’t we expect to see more of the synoptic narrative reflected in them?

    If the synoptic narrative was well formed and widely accepted by the time of the letters, then yes, I guess so, although Paul’s letters emerge among the Marcionites. Marcion rejected any allegorical interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, while the gospel narratives are built upon such allegorical interpretations.

    Justin Martyr’s writings suggests to me that even early second century the Jesus narratives were still being worked out through this allegorizing.

    There is no evidential reason to date Mark to 70. This date has been decided by a priori arguments about gospel trajectories embedded in assumptions of historical traditions underlying them.

  9. Paul’s silence or lack of interest re gospel narratives could be explained by the idea that the only gosple he had access to, either in some early form or even tradition, is the gospel of John. Here we have a gospel full of Wisdom elements, the Logos, the word became flesh…..all spiritual/philosophical themes. Interesting to say the least – the earliest gospel the gospel full of mythological ideas…..a high Christology right from day one – and not as the historicists would like to think, a slow progression…

    Current Approaches to the Priority of John

    Mark A. Matson
    Milligan College

    www2.milligan.edu/administrat…son/papers.htm [Outdated link. See comment #10 at http://bcharchive.org/2/thearchives/showthread0bf2.html?t=283267 — Note by Neil, 6th August 2015]]

    Current Papers and Projects

    “There is, then, a rethinking about literary relationships in the New Testament that is raising serious questions about the secondary nature of the Fourth Gospel. Both in terms of careful literary analysis, the stuff of old source-critical discussions (Shellard and Matson), and in terms of theological developments (Berger and Hofrichter, though from very different perspectives), John is being considered as an early, or the earliest, of the gospels.”

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