Evidence for the UNhistorical “fact” of Jesus’ death

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by Neil Godfrey

Naked Chocolate Jesus
Image by Chuckumentary via Flickr

The evidence historians use to assert that Jesus’ crucifixion is a historical fact does not match the evidence for the death of Socrates. Normal guidelines for secular historians that are used in their approach to sources are very rarely followed by biblical (in particular historical Jesus and early Christianity) historians.

Paula Fredriksen, in her Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, speaks of “facts”.

We have facts. Facts about Jesus, and facts about the movement that formed after his crucifixion. Facts are always subject to interpretation — that’s part of the fun — but they also exist as fixed points in our investigation.  .  .  .

So let’s put our facts up front in order to begin our search here. What do we know about Jesus of Nazareth, and how do these facts enable us to start out on the road to a solid and plausible historical portrait of him? The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for Roman insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion. (pp.7-8)

I wish I could quote what she says about the evidence for these facts but this is left implicit. This is a shame, because the evidence itself is worth serious discussion and analysis in order to establish its nature and value to the historian. Surprisingly in the light of her very strong assertions of the existence of “facts” about Jesus, Fredriksen at no point explains how we can know or believe that these really are the “facts”. She does not explicitly explain to readers the evidence for what she insists so strongly is “the single most solid fact about Jesus’ life”.

Genuine historical method exposes the fallacies of biblical “historians”

I will show in this post that a justifiable historical approach to sources and evidence leaves the historian with NO evidence for Jesus’ death as a fact of history. Only by lazy assumptions about their sources can biblical “historians” declare Jesus’ crucifixion a “fact of history”.

Biblical “historians” actually begin with theological claims and tales of the supernatural and miraculous that have absolutely no historical value, and proceed to infer that these fancies arose from interpretations of a real historical event, and on this basis assert that the “fact” is truly historical. (Supposed testimony from Josephus and Tacitus can be shown to be an afterthought.)

In other words, Paula Fredriksen is but one of a host of biblical “historians” who “do history” according to the analogy of the silly detectives in my earlier post.

Facts, evidence, sources and Elton’s practical advice

Facts do not exist for the historian except through evidence:

historical facts are knowable only by the evidence they leave behind (p.81 of the Fontana Library edition of The Practice of History by G.R. Elton)

Since Fredriksen’s subsequent discussion about this “fact” of Jesus’ death is based almost entirely on the Gospel narratives, we are left to conclude that she considers the canonical Gospels as the evidence for her “facts” of history.

If the Gospels are her evidence, then it is worth turning to what historian G.R. Elton says about sources.

However, what matters are the sources, that is to say the physical survivals from the events to be studied. (p.88)

“Physical survivals from the events to be studied”? That’s what historians call “primary sources”. The Gospels we read do not survive in a form that can be physically traced back to the supposed time of their historical setting. They are not primary sources; they are secondary sources. (One of the definitions of primary sources is that they can be dated without difficulty (von Ranke). The apologetic dating of them around 70 to 90 ce is not so cut and dried as to pre-empt other historians proposing dates between 35 and 135 ce.)

The difference between the two is more than a semantic quibble. Primary sources are direct evidence for some fact. Secondary sources are not. If the secondary source is a narrative tale, it is a fallacy to simply assume that there is anything intrinsically historical about the narrative contents without some sound and strong justification. Plato’s narrative of the death of Socrates, for example, is not by itself evidence for the death of Socrates. But, as explained in an earlier post, we have additional independent evidence that gives us some degree of reasonable confidence to think that a historical basis to Plato’s narrative has some degree of probability. Nonetheless, even in this case the “historical fact” of Socrates’ death is open to the possibility of doubt and question.

Elton continues from the sentence quoted above with:

And here the first demand of sound historical scholarship must be stressed: it must rest on a broad-fronted attack upon all the relevant material. Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence which will answer a particular question; it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence.

and a little later,

The provenance of documents — the way in which they came to be produced . . . — is one of their most telling aspects (p. 91)

Nowhere that I have read does Paula Fredriksen seek to establish “the fact of Jesus’ death” from a critical examination of “all the relevant material”. Given that it is not primary evidence and is of questionable provenance, its value as evidence for some secure historical “fact” is compromised, and needs justification.

Given that the Gospels and other New Testament literature are favourite targets for “the personal selection of evidence” by professionals and amateurs from all backgrounds, it is all the more the responsibility of the professional historian to see that any “single most solid fact” supposedly “discovered” among this evidence is established according to the soundest methods that leave no room doubting it really is a “single most solid fact”. Mere consensus will not do.

Here is how a more broad-based historical enquiry into the available evidence would better proceed.

Gather all the relevant sources

This brings together the Gospels, the letters and other documents in the New Testament referring to the death of Jesus, and extracanonical Christian literature and secular sources such as Josephus and Tacitus.

Having made a list of them all we notice one very significant thing. We have no primary sources to refer to.

There are no primary sources for Jesus so we must rely entirely on secondary sources. This is serious.

This means that, according to von Ranke’s injunction, we have to be particularly careful in how we use the secondary sources. We cannot justify reading them in the same way as if they were epigraphical or monumental primary evidence.

The content of all the relevant sources

The content of sources will be important to help us decide what are the relevant ones.

The evidence of the apostle Paul will be problematic, and lead us to draw on a range of other sources, for the following reasons:

  • One letter of Paul tells us that “rulers of this age” crucified Christ.
  • Tertullian leads us to understand that Marcion understood Paul this term to mean demon spirits.
  • Tertullian counters with his own idiosyncratic claim that Pilate was a “ruler of this age”.
  • This appears to contradict other passages in Paul that inform readers that earthly rulers are a blessing to Christians, and act on earth as God’s agents for good.
  • Origen, however, struggles to reinterpret Paul’s reference to mean that demons were working through human agents. (Origen makes a bit of a hash of his innovative interpretation by leaving readers to understand that the spirit rulers of Egypt and Babylon also influenced Pilate.)
  • His tract makes it clear that this interpretation was not the commonly understood one before his time.
  • Other sources inform us that “rulers of this age” refer to angelic powers over the nations.
  • Another letter attributed to Paul says the Jews killed Christ.
  • Another that Jesus came down from heaven to submit to death before returning to heaven
  • And significantly, perhaps, Paul regularly describes the death of Jesus as a theological or mystical event that is revealed by special spiritual insights. Is he talking about the death itself or is there any evidence he is only discussing an interpretation of a historical event?

(Fredriksen, like a host of her colleagues, tends to interpret Paul by reading Gospel suppositions back into his letters. Historians need to be careful to read and interpret texts in their own right. They need to justify any alternative that interprets one in the light of the other.)

Gospel and other early Christian evidence will also be problematic:

  • The canonical Gospels place the death at the hands of Pilate in the time of Tiberius, but they are only one subset of available Christian literature
  • The Gospel of Peter puts the death at the hands of Herod, and is clear that Pilate had no part in it
  • Irenaeus places the death at the time of the emperor Claudius
  • Justin Martyr infers that immediately after the crucifixion that the Roman armies invaded Judea, destroyed Jerusalem, removing the last king of the Jews. This would appear to place the crucifixion around the time of Nero.
  • A few other traditions that did not win out in the end to write their own history suggest that Jesus escaped crucifixion
  • Hebrews and Revelation describe alternative deaths in other locations – how is the historian to assess these?

The secular sources:

  • Josephus contains a reference or two to Jesus, but these need to be set beside other ancient sources that also knew Josephus and contradicted or were unaware of these references. They also need to be assessed in the context of the rest of Josephus’s writing. Judgments of probability over their authenticity will enter.
  • Tacitus repeats the gist of the canonical Gospel narrative. A history of the evidence for its inclusion in the works of Tacitus will also be examined.

The primary sources and the implications of the above:

There are no primary sources that enable us to presume any historical event behind the content of the above. Thus all the available evidence is secondary literary evidence. Historians have a prima facie case for viewing the death of Jesus as a theological or literary construction, but no prima facie case from the available evidence can be made to justify the assumption of an historical event. The variable and theological content of the above sources is consistent with the death of Jesus being a theological construct created by and for believers.

Assess the nature and value of all the relevant sources

Forgery and interpolations were common fare in the ancient world. Classical scholars seem to know this better than many biblical historians who tend to take a rather naive (apologetic) approach to their sources. Conservative secular historian G.R. Elton offers practical advice here:

The rules are simple: if it can be proved genuine by internal and external evidence, use it; if such evidence shows it clearly to be forged, use it with that knowledge in mind (that is, it now means something different); if there is doubt about it, discard it. (p.69 of WileyBlackwell 2nd ed.)

Yet biblical scholars (e.g. Scot McKnight, Richard Bauckham) speak of “hermeneutics of trust” being a Christian ethical responsibility, and are not always willing to seriously question such possibilities among their sources, especially in Paul’s letters and Josephus.

The narrative sources and nature of the Gospel evidence also need to be considered. But historians are required to deal with evidence, not assumptions. It is evident that Gospel authors used one another’s work, so that they are not independent testimonies. It is also evident that they constructed stories, messages and images by reshaping similar details found in other literature, such as Genesis and 1-2 Kings and Malachi and Isaiah. There is even some evidence for the influence of Euripides and Homer, which is not to be unexpected given the nature of the curriculum widely used in teaching Greek grammatical skills.

The Gospels also speak of the death as a divinely purposed and prophesied event that had a theological intent and function. Its purpose was to instruct audiences of faith to believe in the power of the resurrection and the specially favoured heavenly status of Jesus.

Criteria developed by historians and literary scholars can also assist here. If a narrative detail serves a plot function, and/or serves to demonstrate or fulfill an ideological or religious faith-claim, then it is reasonable to infer that the detail is fabricated for these purposes. We will need additional (external and independent) evidence to support any alternative view. And the death of Jesus is portrayed squarely in the gospels as the fulfillment of a religious faith-claim and divine prophecy.

We cannot assume that there was an historical event and that the faith-meanings were later attached to it. That is simply circular reasoning.

The circumstances of a highly irregular trial that violated most norms of Jewish jurisprudence, and the way Pilate is depicted as quite out-of-character with his weakness and fear of the Jewish crowds, must also be considered in any assessment of historical plausibility.

Naturally historians will be free to re-interpret some of this evidence as they study it, but they will not be able to change its basic contents. They will need extraordinarily strong arguments if they choose a methodology that picks and chooses narrative details to suit a particular model and to justify a story that is quite unlike the one told in the sources. They will have to demonstrate convincingly that their selections are not ad hoc, inconsistent, circular or tendentious. If all their reconstructions achieve is a narrative that destroys (as opposed to “explains”) the original story and its themes, purposes and intent, their work must at the very least be closely questioned.

The nature of secondary sources is such that they need extra special caution. This is always the case even when there is supporting primary sources. In the absence of primary sources, a public historian will need particular care to ensure that his or her enquiries and evaluations of sources genuinely follow a professional and publicly responsible methodology. Cultural warrant will not justify the Pilate option of washing one’s hands of professional responsibility and working within parameters that please the crowd.

Note: All the above is PRELIMINARY work by the historian even before undertaking the task of interpreting and investigating what we can learn from the sources!

A few examples

Anyone who has already read anything I have said about Josephus and the nature of the Gospel narratives as story rather than history will be bored and can skip to the end of this post.

I won’t attempt a full evaluation of the nature and value of all the sources here, of course. But to hit a few highlights to present the general idea .  .  .  .


Particular attention must focus on the non-Christian sources, those of Josephus and Tacitus. (Pliny’s correspondence makes no reference to the death of Christ.) Here the history of scholarly interpretations is helpful. Before the Second World War the general consensus among biblical scholars was that these were useless as independent evidence supporting the narratives of the Gospels. Given a general shift in attitudes among Western scholars towards many things Jewish since that war, one needs to consider the possibility of cultural factors also playing a part in the shift towards more scholars accepting the core of the Josephan evidence since then, too.

The cultural factors in this shift are, I believe, signaled by the shallowness and (il)logical circularity — buttressed by a good amount of dogmatism — of the new arguments in favour of the evidence in Josephus for Jesus’ death. Most of these arguments focus on a very narrow portion of Josephus’ text and very little more. Doherty’s discussion of the text is the fullest and most comprehensive I have read, and it covers — again according to sound historiographical principles — the wide range of all literature and context that can relate to the subject. It far surpasses anything I have learned from mainstream biblical scholars who have broached the topic. (Gary Goldberg’s refusal to link to it on his Josephus HomePage is inexcusable.) I have also examined the passage within the fuller context of Josephus’ ideological interests and literary structures (see in particular Why All proposed TFs are UnJosephan).

So even if a historian does in the end decide to accept the probability of Josephus having written something about the death of Jesus, that historian can by no means declare that his or her conclusion is a basic, established existential fact of the same order as the existence and assassination of Julius Caesar. Interpretations of historical facts will always change, and secondary or hidden facts that require additional learning to uncover will always be topics of debate. But basic solid public facts do not come and go with pre or post-war cultural shifts of opinion. So such a conclusion must be a temporal, culturally bound and debatable interpretation of the evidence, and it cannot be boasted to be anything more than that.

The Gospel Truth

The so-called “minimalists” have blown the cover of the way “Old Testament” historians once felt safe in assuming the basic historicity of the narratives of David and Solomon. (See my notes from Davies at In Search of Ancient Israel.)

Stories are just stories. We cannot simply assume that a story might have some historical truth at its core. Such a view has be justified. We cannot use circular reasoning to argue from the story itself that it might be historical.

It is also worthwhile keeping in mind in any evaluation how early Christians themselves thought of the historicity of the narratives. We have evidence that different gospel authors were quite prepared to change details in each other’s works, and the likes of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus at several points wrote details that contradicted the Gospel narratives at some significant points.

This methodological problem of assuming the historicity of a narrative is highlighted in another context (re the evidence of Papias) by a biblical scholar back in 1904:

The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had  no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand. Not once was he able to say anything about the external history of the works of Origen, in which he was genuinely interested, apart from what he found in or among them.

And if in the case of authors who as individuals and sometimes as well-known personalities stood in the glare of publicity there is so little information about their production, how much more is this not the situation in the case of the Gospels, whose authors intentionally or unintentionally adhered to the obscurity of the Church, since they neither would nor could be anything other than preachers of the one message, a message that was independent of their humanity?

There is not even a shadow of a hope that their ever existed any trustworthy information about the way in which the Gospels came into being: the Christians of antiquity had other cares than to search out and preserve the history of the inscripturation of the Gospels, and when Gnosticism forced this concern upon them they filled the vacuum with inventions of their own as Gnosticism did before them.

This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher. I have broken up the paragraph for easier reading. Italics are original.

Historian Schweitzer’s assessment

Albert Schweitzer had far more understanding of genuine historical methodology and how basic, public and indisputable facts are established when he wrote:

Moreover, in the case of Jesus,. . .  there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty [of there being a historical basis to the narratives] cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

A modern scholar has agreed with a follow-up statement:

Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. It shared Schweitzer’s personal dilemma: a choice between a Jesus who fits modern visions of Christianity and Mark’s failed prophet. But they always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe.

p. 7, The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson

Secular historians on the evaluation of narrative sources

Richard W. Slatta quotes Eric Hobsbawm’s statement (in Bandits) stressing the need for external controls before deciding if a given narrative has any historical basis:

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ‘social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. (p.142)

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

Slatta himself adds:

Researchers inclined to take folk tales at face value would do well to consider John Chasteen’s conclusion about the creation of caudillo mythology on the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. “Borderlanders collected, refashioned, or even invented outright memorable words of their political protagonists. . . . borderland Federalists constructed an image of the hero they wanted.”

Many scholars have found popular and literary sources, folklore, and first-hand reports by “just plain folks,” to be fraught with difficulties. (p.25)

Analogous sources

The literature of King Arthur and the Book of Mormon present us with clear evidence that a richly detailed, complex narrative can arise almost overnight from the mind of a single author, and assume the status of “historical truth” among wide followings very quickly. The experiences cited by Slatta (above) and similar ones we know about (e.g. myths about Elvis soon after his death) remind historians to avoid being quick to make any judgment about historicity without independent verification.

The evidence for the death of Jesus vanishes – and the silly detectives carry on

If the Gospel narratives lack any means by which we can assess their historicity, then the evidence for the historical death of Jesus is nonexistent. At the most, all historians can legitimately say is that there came a point in history when significant numbers of people came to believe in the death of Jesus as a historical fact.

There is NO evidence that is verifiable by any normal standards of historiography for the death of Jesus.

When “historians” treat the death of Jesus as per the Gospels as “historical fact” they are, in fact, approaching an investigation in the same meaningless way as the detectives in my earlier analogy. They assume there has been a crime because of their faith (and their community’s faith) in a set of anonymous publications telling the story of a crime. They then busy themselves with attempting to solve the identity of the victim, the motive for his murder and the identity of his murderers, entirely by means of analysing those publications.

There would be at least some degree of justification for some of their action if what they were reading was published evidence for the assassination of President Kennedy, or even if the documents themselves declared their sources and referenced their details to external authority. In that case, they would have some reason to believe that the publications were about a real person and a real crime.

But each detective reconstructs a crime victim in his own image (as per Schweitzer and others since have noted of historical Jesus scholars); each detective picks out this or that narrative detail that suits his own theory and interests, and reconstructs a murder motive accordingly.

The only reason such a pointless exercise can be justified is that it is done within the matrix of a community faith that what they are doing is legitimate.

If any annoying little boy calls out in the street that the emperor has no clothes, the “appropriate” responses are to either (1) say “hush-hush” and pretend to not hear them — to ignore them and keep on carrying on with the charade; or (2) insult and ridicule — let the “important people doing important business” look down at such impertinence from riff-raff who “do not understand”.


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Neil Godfrey

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39 thoughts on “Evidence for the UNhistorical “fact” of Jesus’ death”

  1. Thanks so much for this post!

    When I worked on my senior thesis, I covered some local American religious history. I noticed that it is VERY difficult to listen to much of the recent dialogue about religion’s place in America’s past. The concept of Jesus’ “historical” crucifixion is perfectly parallel – it’s fascinating how dogma becomes fact through little or no documentation.

    -Josh, https://transmorgified.wordpress.com/

      1. Just getting back to this now.

        I teach World Geography in Texas (not for long, as I’m soon moving to Taiwan to teach English)… the State Board of Education recently revised curriculum with the help of an “expert” by the name of David Barton.

        Too bad this expert doesn’t actually have any historical credentials – his degree is in… get this: Christian Education.

        The guy has a website at http://wallbuilders.com/

        The parallels I see are a refusal on his part to use historical reasoning. He has been known to fabricate quotes and use misleading documents to claim that America is a Christian nation somehow blessed by the divine.

        And oh… he’s an adviser to the State Board of Education. Ugh.


  2. There are NO “facts” re the life of Jesus–it is ALL conjecture. Nobody ever witnessed or observed any of it. Or met a living-breathing Jesus after the cruci-FICTION.

    The entire Christian tradition was invented by people who never ever met Jesus in the living-breathing flesh. It is thus a tradition entirely ABOUT Jesus. And not about the spirit-breathing Spiritual Way taught and demonstrated by Saint Jesus of Galilee while he was alive.

    We cant even fully account for our own existence here, or for what happened at 2 o’clock yesterday afternoon–and yet people presume to “know” all about what “happened” 2000 years ago in Palestine.

    Where was Palestine?

    When is 2000 years ago?

    How big and where is God or The Divine Conscious Light?

  3. The argument for a wholly mythic Jesus is no better than the arguments for the historical Jesus since it relies upon a complete lack of historically acceptable evidence as its main point. Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. There are valid reasons why biographical details of Jesus’ life might have been omitted from the Gospels and there are valid reasons why Paul may have omitted those details as well. It’s important to remember that Paul and the Gospel writers lived under Roman occupation. It’s hard to imagine that they would have been eager to commit to paper accurate biographical details concerning someone of Jesus’influence and importance and who had surviving family in the area.

    1. If, as you seem to be conceding, we have no “historically acceptable evidence” for Jesus then on what grounds should we ever entertain the notion that he was historical? Just speculating on reasons we don’t have the evidence does nothing to cover the fact that we still lack the evidence.

      I also wonder what mythicist arguments you have read in order to imply that they rely on lack of evidence. That is only one facet of the arguments I have encountered.

  4. Hey Neil,

    First off, I didn’t concede that there was no historically accurate evidence for the historical Jesus theory. I was indicating that the mythic Jesus theory relies solely upon the idea that there is no historically accurate evidence as its foundation. As far as I am aware, there are no ancient documents that indicate that Jesus was wholly mythic (the Gnostic documents seem to be trying to give explanation to the real events of a corporeal man that they could not otherwise explain, although I may be biased in this view).

    Also, there are no similar ancient documents (like the Gospels) regarding other god/man characters. We have no Gospel of Dionysus, etc., for example, so that the idea of the New Testament Gospels being written for a wholly mythic person would be unique in ancient culture. That doesn’t mean that the Gospels,etc. couldn’t be unique only that they are singular in the ancient record so it is important to be cautious in assigning them too much credibility in regards to their portrayal of a wholly mythic creature.

    Also, if all previous god/men stories were created and passed along orally why did Paul and the writers of the Gospels decide to suddenly commit to paper their mythic god/man? Why did they decide that oral transmission of the myth was no longer sufficient in their case? One must always first ask about any historical writing ‘Why was it written down?’ Was it history or biography or propaganda? Was it real, myth or fiction? Was it meant to entertain or inform? What was the initial reason for writing the story down? In the case of the mythic Jesus, why did anyone bother to write it down when oral transmission of such stories had served so well for so long?

    My own research into the historical Jesus indicates very clearly that parts of the Gospels preceded Paul’s writings and that there are clear indicators within those Gospel stories that show that there was a very real man behind their creation. He was certainly not the Christ of faith, as Christian tradition would have us believe but a real historical man who had a political agenda and who used the Gospels to disseminate his message. The fact that modern biblical studies have been unable to understand the true message of the Gospels (and thereby nail down the historical Jesus) is an indictment of religious studies being blinded by their indoctrination by Christian tradition. The majority of biblical scholars writing today come from a biblical or theological educational background. In short they are either intentionally or incidentally biased in their views from the outset. I have witnessed nationally known scholars either miss or misinterpret historical data that would profoundly alter the outcome of their particular theses and no one calls attention to their mistakes and so it goes into the written record to be read and understood later as accurate historical research.

    The bottom line is that from my perspective, I see more that recommends Jesus as a real, historical figure than as a wholly mythic creation. He was not the Christ of faith but he was no myth either.

    1. There are a number of Jesus myth arguments just as there are a number of different historical Jesus arguments, so I don’t agree that one can say “the Jesus myth theory”, as if there were only one presentation of it, relies on an absence of evidence. The myth arguments rely very heavily on the evidence (not lack of evidence) found within the Gospels themselves (e.g. Robert M. Price) and the letters of the New Testament (e.g. Earl Doherty).

      I agree we don’t have similar ancient documents to the gospels, but as for the idea that all previous god/men stories were orally transmitted, maybe I misunderstand you. We have written stories in Hesiod, the Homeric and Orphic hymns, Ovid, etc.

      I agree completely with the central importance of understanding the reason for the composition of a document. This is why I object to those arguments that begin with the uncritical presumption that they were written to preserve some historical memory or explain the meaning of a historical event to the author/readers. How do we know? We can’t begin with that assumption.

      I also agree completely that we need first to establish the nature of the documents we are studying. That must be done, I believe, by both a literary analysis of the documents themselves and comparison with other literature or other external evidence. That is one of the things I am attempting to do in some of my posts on this blog.

      As for the theory that the Gospel narrative was orally transmitted before it was written down, I know of no evidence for this idea. My understanding is that it is assumption. This does not mean that the Gospels did not draw on disparate ideas that were already “out there”. But I have tried to show in a number of posts that there is evidence that the Gospel narrative was crafted from literary antecedents, which would presumably leave no room for their debt to oral transmission.

      What are the “clear indicators within those Gospel stories that show that there was a very real man behind their creation”?

  5. Thanks Neil for your quick and well reasoned response. I’ll try to respond to all your comments and hopefully with equal reasoning.

    First, there is only one Jesus Christ myth theory. That is, different theories rely on the singular supposition that there was no historical person known as Jesus Christ and that he was a myth. The differing theories may approach the subject in various ways and with various arguments but they are all essentially claiming that there was no historical Jesus and that the ancient writings that refer to him actually refer to a mythical construct. It is an interesting and reasonable theory but all the arguments for it fall apart if a single, historically accurate biographical detail of Jesus’ life is ever uncovered. All the Christ myth theories are dependent for their foundations on the absence of historical evidence supporting a real Jesus.

    As far as the ‘orally transmitted’ argument I posed is concerned, you are correct in stating that there were written works of Greek myth hundreds of years before the Gospels, some as early as the 6th or 7th centuries BCE. What I was trying to convey was that those earlier mythic stories were intended to be transmitted orally and not read by the general public. That was the cultural tradition; oral transmission on stage before an audience. In the case of the Gospels, etc., the intention appears to have been a more written transmission from the get go. If the intention of the writers of the New Testament was to create a new god/man, in keeping with Greek myths, why did they move away from the Greek model of performance transmission to a predominately written transmission? If Jesus was a completely mythic construct what was there to fear from either the Roman or Jewish authorities that would have prevented a more Hellenistic interpretation and transmission of the stories? Jesus as a self sacrificing, dying and rising god/man on the order of other mythic constructs is not of itself a threat to the social order of Judea anymore than Dionysus might have been. It begs the question (at least to me) why was the Jesus myth written down, so quickly and in several different versions (Pauline, Gnostic, etc.)? We have not one mythic construct but several. Why? I am not well versed enough to know if Greek mythic constructs began with several different versions of their god/men or if that was a typical genesis of such a mythic development. Did the myths of other god/men start out in several versions, perhaps one corporeal and others as solely spiritual? I don’t know. This Christ myth genesis seems to have taken place within a matter of decades which seems pretty rapid for legendary development.

    Next, if I indicated that I believed that oral transmission of the Gospels came first before the written versions, I apologize. I don’t necessarily accept that, although I don’t discount it either. There is internal evidence that suggests that the Gospels were intended as propaganda and as such might have been transmitted quite early (as early as 24 CE) either orally or in some written form (as individual pericopes) to disseminate a political agenda quickly and to as many people as possible(the Gospels indicate that Jesus traveled extensively, as opposed to John who seemed to be more localized in his approach, suggesting that the dissemination of Jesus’ message through the population was of greater importance to him). Under such circumstances, a simultaneous release (both oral and written) of his message would make sense.

    Your argument that the Gospel narratives were crafted from literary antecedents is sound but so what? So those narratives were based upon earlier works to make them more understandable and palatable to contemporary readers, to present them in a familiar context. I don’t know that that alters their possible historical base in anyway. That is just a literary device perhaps necessary for the genre in that time. It does not automatically preclude their historicity. In other words, the writers wrote in a style and context that was apparently expected by their audience for such a type of work. To me, it is on par with the idea Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. He had the O.T. in front of him, how tough was it to mimic the prophecies? The N.T. writers had Greek myths and Jewish prophets from the O.T. in front of them, how tough was it to incorporate those messages and styles into their writings to give their audiences a sense of grandeur, history and continuity? And why wouldn’t they cobble those ancient writings onto their own writings about this man called Jesus in order to lend them some gravitas? It would have been more unlikely, more noticeable had they developed an entirely new writing style to record their message. It would have been out of context and strange to their readers, thus casting doubt upon their hero.

    One of the great problems inherent in all avenues of historical Jesus studies(Christ myth included) seems to be the proclivity of researchers to make certain traditional assumptions or to be influenced (even subconsciously) by Christian tradition. One is that the New Testament is a collection of religious/theological documents. This assumption colors all research and obscures the real intention of the documents and Jesus movement and the Pauline letters. These were political documents and their intentions were to either promote a nationalistic movement or to subvert that movement. They were not religious/theological works, although the very nature of a theocracy demands that political aims must be couched in theological terms.

    Another inherent problem in N.T. research is the assumption that Paul was interested in continuing the Jesus movement’s agenda. He was not. Paul was a Roman citizen and Herodian sympathizer who would have been in opposition to the Jesus movement (as he admitted before his ‘conversion’) and so would have done everything he could to derail the movement. If outright physical attacks against members was not efficient then he would convert and redirect the movement away from a Jewish nationalistic policy to a more inclusive theological, faith based movement. As a result, he would have buried any biographical details of the real Jesus and dissociated his new movement from any overt ties to the historical Jesus as a matter of policy ( just as many Communist leaders wiped out any historical mention of their predecessors from society. For an analog of early Christianity look at Stalin taking early socialism to totalitarianism).

    Lastly, researchers fail to incorporate the influence of the Romans on the works of the New Testament. The N. T. writers belonged to an oppressed people and the significance of the impact of that fear of exposure to the authorities cannot be understated in their writings. They wrote to obscure things not to clarify, in case the Romans got hold of the writings. Imagine Nazi occupied France and how the French underground operated and you will have some idea of Palestine in the First Century and what influenced N.T. writers. Consequently, the Gospels were never intended to present a clear and honest biography of their main character. Much that might have been included was purposefully omitted or obscured for security.

    One of the ‘clear indicators’ (again, to me) within the Gospels that indicate an historical Jesus is their inclusion of his miracle stories. These seem pretty clearly to be metaphorical stories designed to present his power and to project his political agenda. There isn’t time to analyze all of them but it should be enough to note that as far as miracles go, they are pretty lame, especially for a mythic hero who might be expected to perform awe inspiring acts to secure his status. Jesus never performs a miracle that can’t somehow be explained by human agency and he never replaces a long missing limb or eye but only cures and exorcises in terms of metaphor; people who can’t see, hear or walk as metaphors for their inability to fully grasp or act upon his teachings. Also, and most importantly, he changed water into wine which as a miracle ranks below pulling a rabbit from a hat or asking someone to ‘pick a card, any card’. The technical ability to miraculously turn water into wine was developed sometime around the First Century by Heron of Alexandria in the form of a vessel with separated compartments that allowed one or another fluids to be drained independently from it by the selective occlusion of certain holes or air gaps thus creating a vacuum. This is a very human trick, not a miracle and begs the question, ‘Would the creators of a mythic god/man use a simple parlor trick to reinforce his miraculous abilities?’ It’s a bit like damning with faint praise. Yet, for a real, historical Jesus, the connection to such a trick seems clearly to be historically accurate as something a shaman or high priest might do to inspire awe and confidence in his followers.

    If, as Robert Price indicates, historians deal only in probabilities and as F.C. Baur said, ‘Anything is possible but what is probable’, which is more probable, that Paul and the other N.T. writers created a mythical Jesus (and if so, what was their agenda) or that the Gospels and N.T. were written as political propaganda based upon the efforts of an historical Jesus and intended to sway the Jews either for or against Jewish nationalism? The history of First Century Palestine is awash in political upheaval based primarily upon a Jewish nationalism intent on rebelling against the Romans, culminating in the First Jewish Revolt. Was there an equivalent drive in the First Century to create mythic god/men? What is more probable?

    All historical research is subjective and dependent upon supposition and interpretation. It is highly unlikely that we will ever have (contrary to what Baigent proposed in his ‘Jesus Papers’) signed documents from the historical Jesus indicating that he really existed. In the meantime, it’s important to understand that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, that consensus is not necessarily truth, and that tradition is not history.

    1. It goes without saying that if there were evidence of the sort that persuades us of the existence of other figures in ancient history there would be no Christ myth debate. What is needed is not so much the uncovering of an “historically accurate biographical detail” but a historically reliable and valid detail. Histories can contain many inaccuracies without giving us cause to doubt the historical fact/existence of certain persons or events.

      As for the idea that the Gospels being intended for written transmission as opposed to oral transmission “from the get go”, there are many scholarly books and articles that disagree with this. Mark in particular is commonly said to have been intended for oral performance. e.g. Shiner, “Proclaiming the Gospel“; Horsley, “Performing the Gospel“.

      You speak of the Jesus myth being written down “quickly and in several different versions”. I don’t know what evidence prompts you to think that it was written down “quickly”. Quickly from when?

      As for “several different versions”, this is exactly what Doherty’s model of the emergence of the Jesus idea Jesus predicts. And yes, ancient myths know of widely divergent versions. But when you speak of “beginnings” of such myths, I don’t think anyone argues that the Christ myth idea had a definable beginning point or even “decades”. We see evidence of myths emerging, growing, solidifying over time. Often a myth might be the result of a coalescing of divergent stories and sources, and the Christ myth appears to have been true to this pattern, too.

      You speak of internal evidence suggesting the Gospels were intended as political propaganda relating to Jewish nationalism. I don’t know what evidence you are thinking of. I know of none.

      You say “so what” to the proposition that the gospels are constructed from literary antecendents. The “so what” is that if the gospels can be explained this way then there is no need to postulate some other explanation on top of this. We have explained their source. (Not denying there is much more to understand and learn as well, of course.)

      The extent of the literary sources for the gospel material is such that we are not looking at accessories to a historical tale. We have examples of that with Alexander, for example. What we see with the gospels is not evidence (independently attested) for an historical person with a mythical or literary overlay. What we is all mythical/literary overlay — unstrip it all and we are left with the invisible man. This is by no means the same sort of “overlay” that we find with genuinely historical (independently attested) persons. With these latter we read of historical accounts and lives that are decorated with, not constructed out of, myths and metaphors etc.

      If you have a text that is all overlay then what room is there for postulating a historical person underneath? On what basis do you do that? Assumption?

      Now there might have been a real Jesus there behind it all, but it is pointless to say that there was or there was not. We have no way of knowing. All we know is that the text we are working with is all overlay, myth, etc.

      As for Paul being a Roman citizen, we only have the word of Acts that that is so. On what basis do we take that datum as historical fact?

      In your point about the importance of the influence of the Romans on the works of the New Testament, you refer to first century Palestine as if that were the povenance of the NT. How do we know that was their provenance?

    2. “It is an interesting and reasonable theory but all the arguments for it fall apart if a single, historically accurate biographical detail of Jesus’ life is ever uncovered.

      Dave M, I have what I hope will be an easy question for you. If a single historically accurate biographical detail were discovered for Sherlock Holmes, would that make the theory that he is a literary construct fall apart?

  6. Hey Neil,

    One of the challenges of these blog debates is the lack of immediacy regarding responses that might shorten the debate if they were possible, as in normal conversation. This omission tends to draw these debates out, perhaps past their usefulness. So far, this has been fun and interesting and you are clearly knowledgeable on the subject. The mythic Christ theory certainly has some merit at first glance but I really don’t feel it holds up under close scrutiny. While I feel certain that you have probably already read it, ‘The Historical Jesus: Five Views’ edited by James Beillgy and Paul Rhodes Eddy has some merit in this debate. I’ll do my best to respond, point by point to your valuable arguments.

    The first paragraph struck me at first as argument by semantics; ‘accurate’ vs ‘reliable and valid’, you say tomayto I say tomahto. That kind of thing. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that there is an important distinction between the two and it is this, ‘Who determines what is reliable and valid’ anymore so than who or what determines what is ‘accurate’ That is a very subjective point of view and open to various interpretations. What is needed is an accurate biographical detail that is grounded in time and place context, that is also supported by analogy (in the case of Jesus, other messianic figures and or other crucifixions) and is verified by multiple attestations (damn, I’m starting to sound like most biblical scholars!!!). I think that that is the best that can be hoped for in this historical reconstruction, two thousand years after the fact (or supposed facts). In addition, as Price, Baur and other supporters of the mythic Christ state, there is the question of probability. What was most likely the case or what probably happened? Unfortunately, the mythic Christ theory scores very low when these criteria are used because it doesn’t stand on anything. It is dependent for its existence on a lack of information. It is not (apparently) grounded in a particular place and time (in fact one of the arguments FOR the mythic Jesus is that he existed in multiple places at differing times), there is NO attestation for it other than a modern theory drawn from an interpretation of documentary silence regarding biographical details of Jesus’ life (primarily) and there doesn’t seem to be any near contemporary accounts (analogies) for the creation of god/men. Also, the probability factor is really a coin flip and dependent upon personal choice. Please tell me, by what historical methodology can the claim of a mythic Christ be made? Without any contemporary attestation, analogy or even a hint that Jews of that era were in the habit of creating mythic god/men, what is the methodological foundation of this theory and why is it more profound or more acceptable than an historical Jesus? Is there an ancient document that specifically indicates that a mythic Christ was created? Because there are ancient documents that indicate that an historical Jesus lived. Whether or not you choose to believe the historical reliability of those documents is a personal choice, but the documents do exist. So right off the bat, the historical Jesus would seem to outscore the mythic Christ 3-0; attestation, analogy, probability. In the largely hypothetical pursuit of historical truth, that would seem to be a good score.

    Next, paragraph two. Suggesting that a single gospel was perhaps written to be staged or intended for ‘oral performance’ misses the point. First, one out of 27 N.T. works isn’t a very strong argument to begin with but more than that it ignores the fact that the first writings (according to most scholars) were Paul’s letters and the recording of events in Acts, neither of which was written as epic poetry, songs or hymns as were the Greek myths. That is the distinction I was trying to make. If the Christ myth was intended as a Jewish answer to Greek myth why was the format changed? Why did Paul write letters and not epic poetry?

    Next, as far as the Jesus myth being written down quickly, you are right. What I said was misleading. What I should have indicated was that there didn’t seem to be any ancient record predating Jews of the 1st century BCE to CE that a mythic Jesus existed. The myth seems to be contemporary to the 1st centuries BCE and CE whereas the Greek myths (unless I am mistaken, which is always possible) were couched in antiquity. They were epic stories of forebears, not contemporary figures. The hypothetical rise of the Jesus myth would seem to be nearly contemporary to the documentation. In other words, the N.T. does not seem to indicate that Jesus had existed hundreds of years in the past.

    Thanks for the clarification on the ‘several different versions’ I alluded to. What I was primarily referring to was the idea that the earliest examples of ancient myths did not seem to exhibit different versions at their outset. Yes, myths did develop and change over time into different versions but not in their embryonic states generally. At least initially, there didn’t seem to be multiple versions of individual myths. That divergence came later to suit various needs.

    Paragraph 5; since I am in the process of seeking a publisher for the book I have written on the subject, I am uncomfortable putting out too much of what I have uncovered about the historical Jesus until the book is published. There is evidence internal to the Gospels as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls and Josephus that has been misunderstood for two thousand years, primarily because Christian traditions have so influenced scholars that they cannot see what the Gospels and N.T. really are. Sorry to be so vague.

    As for para. 6, this is just personal preference. The Christ myth theorists choose to believe that the Gospel materials are constructed from literary antecedents. I tend to think that the Gospel stories are embellished and justified by the addition of literary antecedents because that was expected in that era. Who knows the truth? Did the literary antecedents form the Gospel stories or did the stories use the antecedents? The only way to tell what happened is if a copy of the Q document is found and it can be dated to before the writing of the Gospels indicating the existence of the Jesus story before the addition of literary antecedents. Barring that, it’s a moot point. If Christ myth theorists want to use it as an argument in proof of their theory, fine, but it’s a slippery slope. You say that the Gospel material is all ‘mythical/literary overlay’ but I would suggest that while there might be a preponderance of mythic/literary overlay in the Gospels designed to serve a purpose beyond the obvious literary work itself that does not automatically or categorically dismiss an historical core to those works. You say ‘overlay’ and I say ’embellishment’ Even if it could be proven that it was 100% overlay, that still would not rule out the possibility that the writers used that literary device to advance their stories about a real person. There is just no way to tell. So to paraphrase your comment in para. 8; ‘if you have a text that is all overlay then what room is there for postulating a UNhistorical person beneath.’ That is as much an assumption as an historical recreation. Again, like fulfilling prophecy, if you have the myths in front of you, you can use them to whatever extent you deem necessary. One cannot draw conclusions based upon such evidence without first knowing the mindset and agenda of the writers using the overlay. Do the Christ myth theorists have such information?

    Para. 9. You say, ‘Now there might have been a real Jesus there behind it all but it is pointless to say that there was or there was not.’ REALLY??? That’s what your website, this blog and the Christ myth theory are all about!!??? That there can’t be a real Jesus behind it all. You don’t know and can’t know that the text we are working with is all overlay or rather, that that overlay automatically refutes a real Jesus. That’s impossible. That’s like saying that all the literature on Santa Claus refutes St. Nicholas because it is all overlay and doesn’t mention one verifiable biographical detail of St. Nicholas’ life. Yet we know that the cultural idea of Santa Claus, divergent as it may be, arose in part from stories of the real St. Nicholas. There was a very real man (in Turkey, I believe) that was the historical kernel for the Santa Claus myth. In fact, if you can find a myth that does NOT have a kernel of truth embedded in it, I would love to hear it. Even the Greek myths, as old as they are, are reckoned to be based upon various historical concepts (the early Greeks being unable to explain their discovery of fossilized bones—-an ancient mammoth skull with its single large nasal passage can look surprisingly like the skull of a giant cyclops in the absence of any other knowledge, etc.).

    Para. 10; If you can’t use Acts or any of the N.T. to establish anything, then what the hell are the Christ myth theorists doing??? I said Paul was Roman (as per Acts) you dismiss that because that datum can’t be historical fact if it comes from Acts. If that is the case then the Christ myth theory falls apart completely because it is based primarily on the historical testimony about Jesus MISSING from the N.T. If the N.T. is that unreliable how can it be used to argue for any point??? If a comment about Paul’s Roman citizenship is unreliable then the lack of biographical detail regarding Jesus must be unreliable as well. Maybe the writers DID have details of Jesus’ life and just didn’t include them. I mean, at a certain point, Neil, you have to ask yourself, ‘If I don’t believe any of these documents are reliable, how can I draw ANY conclusions from them or in spite of them, Christ myth, historical Jesus or otherwise?’ In which case, what the hell have we been wasting our time debating this for? On the one hand, the theorists argue that the missing biographical data in the N.T. suggests that Jesus didn’t exist and in the next breath you are saying that the N.T. is completely unreliable so why bother with it. Which is it? Is the N.T. reliable enough to suggest a mythic Jesus or is it all nonsense? Even completely fictional writings can have historically accurate information in them. Just look at ‘Avatar’ and tell me you can’t see historical memes of the clash between American Indians and the Western expansion of the U.S. in it.

    Para. 11; same as above. Really, questioning the Palestine provenance of the N.T.? O.K., then please tell me at what point in human history, what year specifically, do you and the theorists start accepting the historical record? The N.T. is a collection of documents written years apart in different geographical locations that tell the story of a single man. At what point in man’s historical record is there a similar set of documents that can be relied upon? By that I mean at what year in man’s history do you feel that reliability of a similar record can be assured? Because other than the modern age when the recording and transmission of historical events became codified in a sense, the same doubt you profess over the N.T. is in fact applicable to most of man’s history. It’s all really just assumption and an acceptance of reliability. If you exert the same doubt about all history as you do about the N.T. all history before Gutenberg would be suspect (and much of it even after). Even if you don’t accept my suggestion that the Romans heavily influenced the writers of the N.T. maybe you can accept the idea (held by most scholars) that the Romans influenced the writers by being a potential audience for their writings? You seem to question everything with no real purpose, so debate and theorizing become pointless. Here’s one for you, did you know that the sky really isn’t blue? Humans only see it as blue because the cone receptors in our eyes only register it at that blue wavelength. The actual wavelength of the light from a cloudless sky is in the violet range. So what is true? Is the sky blue or violet? If you toss out everything as unreliable you have nothing to build your own theory upon.

    Do me a favor, please let me know what agenda there was for creating a mythic Jesus with no historical man to base it on. Treat it like a criminal case. Give me the motive, means and opportunity. Tell me the who,what, why, where and how. Because honestly, I can’t come up with those. Did pious Jews create a god/man they knew would be in direct conflict with Torah and their personal beliefs? Why? Was it a Gentile creation that arose from Jewish Torah and belief? Why? Was it a Jewish sect that was rebelling against orthodoxy? Why? Hillel and Shimmai argued orthodoxy and fundamentals as did the Sadducees and Pharisees all without having to create a new god/man. In the theorists’ minds, who came up originally with the idea for a mythic Jesus? What was their agenda, what was the starting point that caused them to write it all down in the face of certain censure and conflict? Without a motive, the Christ myth is nothing more than an explanation for the hole in a doughnut: you have a doughnut (the N.T.) and then there’s this missing bit. Not much to hang your hat on.

    1. The difference between reliability and validity is not so confusing as you suggest. Do a google search on define: reliable and another on define: valid.

      A lot of time can be saved if you have a look at what other historians have said about the ‘validity’ of the evidence for Jesus in my reply to pf: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/did-not-even-john-the-baptist-recognize-jesus-when-he-came/#comment-14163

      I think I have already written recently (perhaps in reply again to pf and not to you) that it is a misinformed view that claims the Jesus myth arguments a dependent on a ‘lack of information’. It seems you have not read Price or Doherty. What mythicist authors have you read? I don’t understand how you can raise the objections you do if you have read either of these for starters. You ask about historical methodology. It might help me if you tell me what other posts on this blog you have read about historical methodology.

      Many of your questions – such as why did Paul write letters and not epic poetry – give me the impression all your objections to mythicism have been fantasized in your imagination. Again, let me know what you have actually read about the arguments you so strongly think you disagree with.

      You make some dogmatic statements about the origins of myths. Again, if you let me know what your reading is in the scholarly studies of myths and their origins it would help me know how to respond.

      Your response to my “Para. 9.” conveys to me a failure on your part to read what I write with minimal comprehension. I don’t think we can communicate.

      As for your claim that I dismiss a detail in Acts as historical because it comes from Acts, again I said no such thing. There is no point in my attempting to discuss with you if you so badly misread or read such fantasies into what I actually say.

      No-one has ever said “the N.T. is completely unreliable”. Your rejoinders are charging at windmills.

      As for questioning the Palestinian provenance of the N.T., – you attack biblical scholars and mythicists but have you actually read any of their works? (Paul’s letters were written in Palestine? Luke? John? Mark? . . . )

      I asked you questions and gave you a chance to give sound reasons or evidence for your claims, but instead of responding you read all sorts of things into my questions that are not there, and, as I said, proceed to charge at windmills.

      You ask me to treat history like a criminal case as a favour to you. I have done so. And I give you the favour three times over:

      Biblical historians make detectives look silly:http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/04/29/biblical-historians-make-detectives-look-silly/

      Detectives make biblical historians look like Sherlock Holmes: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/06/15/detectives-make-biblical-historians-look-like-sherlock-holmes/

      Kafka’s biblical historians outdo Alice in Wonderland’s trial: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/kafkas-biblical-historians-outdo-alice-in-wonderlands-trial/

  7. ps Neil, you didn’t address the most important indicator for a real, historical Jesus, namely, his miracles and especially turning water to wine. Can the theorists explain why a mythic Jesus had to perform a very human parlor trick to show his miraculous powers?

    1. Let’s respond to this short one first.

      You are the one who reads “a very human parlor trick” into John’s Gospel narrative. That is not what John narrates at all. (I might add you tend to see much in my own comments that is also simply not there in the words I have chosen to use.) I would imagine surely every commenter on this miracle would acknowledge — from the context of the whole of the Gospel itself — that this miracle is meant to be read as a metaphor or symbol. I am sure you must know the arguments for this. If you’re into imputing parlour tricks into the gospel accounts of miracles then maybe you should inform me where we have any common ground at all to make a continuing discussion possible.

      Just one point that you raised in your longer comment. You spoke of the Five Views book having something to contribute. I have dealt with that http://vridar.wordpress.com/category/book-reviews/beilbyeddy-historical-jesus-5-views/ a few times but one can only spend so much time on arguments that lack any substance and that do not seem to even bother trying to argue against Price. (I noticed a blog post somewhere recently where “independent” doctoral student Stephanie Fisher who certainly does declaim against both mythicst motives and the mythicist position — I can’t say ‘engages in dialogue’ — says the same of this book: that it fails to address Price seriously, or words to that effect.)

  8. Thanks, Neil for responding. The common ground that I thought we had was in trying to determine the most probable explanation for the stories of Jesus as found in the N.T. If that required the attack and defense of various theories in that pursuit, that seemed a logical approach. Not that I think I have the influence, but if I offended you in any way you have my apologies.

    As for the ‘parlor trick’ as a ‘very human event’, I see that as an important point to making some kind of determination on this subject. The term ‘parlor’ was introduced as a way to indicate the simple nature of the trick. It did not require elaborate staging, etc. to accomplish. Whether it was used in John as metaphor or whether its inclusion in John was a recording of an actual event the point remains the same; it was a very human event and not divine in anyway. As such, its inclusion in John should be of interest to mythicists—why introduce what appears to be a patently human act (even as metaphor) as a miracle? I don’t agree with you that ‘every commentator’ would view the trick as metaphor. Despite what you may think, there are many Fundamentalists who would see it as a real (not metaphorical) miracle.

    As for Price not being taken seriously, I have tried to take his views seriously in this blog with you. You know his works far better than I do and I had hoped that within this context you might provide arguments from Price that would enlighten me on the subject of a mythic Jesus since I am completely open to the best, most logical and most probable explanation for the existence of Jesus whether real or mythic. As I have said before, the mythic theory has much to recommend it on the surface and makes sense in many ways but lacks a solid foundation as far as motive is concerned. If I have missed that in what I have read, please enlighten me. Most human enterprises happen for a reason, the creation and documentation of a mythic Jesus was accomplished for a reason. What was it?

    All best wishes.

    1. Dave M, are you suggesting that a real modern illusionist can turn vats of real water into vats of real wine easily as a parlor trick?

      Is it not more likely that such a story would describe a being greater than one who was the “God of wine”, such as Dionysus?

      1. On a small scale yes. On the scale required in the miracle story, probably not. It would have required some preparation since six stone jars of the size mentioned would have needed special manufacture.

        Was the trick necessary? Yes, if as you say Jesus wanted to be of greater importance than Dionysus. In fact, my point is just that, that a real Jesus, aware of the myth of Dionysus, would have prepared the trick to establish his credentials as a greater miracle worker. It’s precisely what a real, not mythic Jesus would have done to gain credibility.

        That the account was viewed later as metaphor does not alter the possibility that it was originally a real trick. That’s the problem with historical Jesus studies; his actions are generally viewed as either the supernatural miracles of a semi-divine being or they are viewed as metaphor. At that point the search for a real man stops.What I’m saying is that turning water into wine is a human trick, not supernatural miracle or mythic metaphor. There was a real man behind it.

          1. Thanks, Tim, however, since the SQ is a wholly hypothetical document that has been hypothetically dated to (perhaps) sometime before 70 CE I’m not sure I see its relevance for the present argument. As I said earlier in the blog, if an ancient copy of Q or SQ should surface predating the supposed lifetime of Jesus I would take that as a very strong argument in favor of the mythic argument.However, SQ could easily be a real record of Jesus’ miracles and not simply a singular source for the Gospels.

    2. Dave M. “Most human enterprises happen for a reason, the creation and documentation of a mythic Jesus was accomplished for a reason. What was it?”

      Can we at least agree that even if there was an historical Jesus, there was also a mythical Christ? I mean, that’s the “standard model” in NT Studies today — i.e., a kernel of truth is buried under the layers of embellishment. And this is Price’s target in The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man (also recently in “…at the Vanishing Point”). If we can peel away the dross to find the gold, then let’s try it. Price’s thesis is simple. When you’ve finished whittling away what can be explained by ordinary means, you have nothing left.

      Back to your question. What were the reasons for the creation? They’re the same reasons mainstream scholars give for the embellishment. Miracles show Jesus’ power over the natural and supernatural world. Direct pronouncements from the master add legitimacy to the groups who quote them. Fulfillment of prophecy proves messiahship.

      In the earliest phases of Christianity, most mythicists would argue, people received visions of Jesus and found proof in scripture. The written gospels came later as the earthly stories and sayings were fleshed out. Price (and I think Wells, too) has said that a major driving force in the production and dissemination of the written gospels was to establish credibility with the emerging orthodox faith and its leaders. That is, the current bishops could say they were chosen through a line of succession back to the Twelve, that there was an unbroken chain of ordination that starts with Jesus and ends with them. “So sit down and shut up.”

      If you don’t accept this motivation as sufficient reason for creation, then I don’t see how it’s sufficient reason for embellishment either. It seems to me that a plea to faulty human memory is a dead end. John changed the day of crucifixion from the Passover to the day of preparation for the Passover. Now did he do it because he or his witnesses “remembered it differently” or because he wanted Jesus to die at precisely the same time that the lambs were being slaughtered? Did Luke change the resurrection story location to Jerusalem because his witness “had an alternate recollection” or because he had a thematic purpose in starting with Jerusalem and ending in Rome?

      And the special plea that the evangelists would alter but not invent just doesn’t hold water. It’s like creationists who grant the existence of “micro-evolution” but draw the line at speciation.

      1. Tim,

        I would have imagined that an historical Jesus would have negated a mythic one. It’s kind of an either/or theory, isn’t it? The mythicists seem to indicate that an historical Jesus completely disappears (‘is whittled away’) once all the arguments for a mythic one are accepted. If there is a kernel of historical truth to Jesus then the mythicists are obligated to say that and admit that they cannot recover much of his biography. I think sites like Ken Humphrey’s ‘Jesus Never Existed’, while loaded with pertinent and useful information, do a disservice to historical Jesus studies by not accepting the kernel. It seems to be so ‘either/or’ with some of these theories.

        The problem with your response to my question about motive is that A). Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy did not meet the Davidic model that was expected. He was not a military messiah and B). Jesus failed as a possible messiah to the Jews because he claimed to be God and he was crucified, so the motive to develop the Jesus myth seems obscure. I understand the importance of a dying rising god/man to many of that time but not for the Jews. Jesus was anathema to the Jews, hence the ultimate schism. So the question remains, who bothered to instigate this myth? The only solution I can imagine is a schismatic sect of the Jews who had already broken from the faith and Torah and who, as you say, wanted the credibility of a mythic Jesus to bolster their cause but this seems a thin argument when compared to the religious debates current in Judaism in the first century. Why create when you can debate? Plus, there is not one word of a ‘mythic’ Jesus in any of the Jewish literature and I would imagine that that would have been their first line of defense against a schismatic and disruptive sect: ‘Don’t believe their nonsense. Their Jesus is just a myth!’ Yet that argument is nowhere to be found.

        No, Jesus as a failed messianic hopeful won’t do as an inciting agent nor will an apostate Jesus, which is what is required of a mythic Jesus (the Jesus movement was too anchored in the Torah and Jewishness to find an apostate useful as a ‘master’).

        The motivation for creating a myth is far different than the motivation for the embellishment of an historical person and I believe that that is what we are seeing in the Jesus story. The Jews could not refute him as real (although they slandered him and obscured his biography as much as they could) since people had seen him and knew of his existence and he did not have to be an apostate, because he was a real Jew with a clear message for Jews. He debated with the Pharisees and Sadducees. So to me, the question remains, ‘Who created the myth and why?’

        1. Dave M.
          Jewish literature mentioning Christians does not appear until rather late in Christian history. We don’t have Jewish discussion of a lot of ancient groups, so while the Jewish material on Jesus seems to have a long history of independent preservation(the The Jewish legends of Jesus are rather different from the Christian ones) it is not unlikely that it was not an issue of concern until Christianity matched Judaism in number(just as more protestants are discussing Islam or atheism rather than catholicism, as they had before), long after any knowledge of a Christ Myth passed from human memory.

          What is odd though that it was never part of the discussed heresies of the early church. Irenaus was much earlier than the Jewish mentions of Jesus. but none of the heretical ideas seem like our Christ myth. This is why I feel that both Jewish forms of Christianity that denied his divinity, along with Gnostic forms are both more likely candidates that Mythisism as the “original” form of Christianity. Rather than an an overt claim that some heretics don’t think Jesus manifested on Earth, or a Gospel declaring this, we are left speculating that it might be hinted at in Paul, if we consider atypical understandings of words. Mythisism is more speculative early Christian belief than the Godman of history, or the god in the “appearance” of a man as in Gnosticism, or the non-divine Ebionite Son of David.

          What it offers, seems to be an appeal to other factors that outweigh the lack of attestation. That this is simply the best explanation for the creation of Christianity, given the drastic failures of the other models. I would compare this to a situation where we have 1000 independent reports that giants built stone henge and none that humans did. But our understanding of human evolution and archeology really forbid this. It must have been normal people, Giants don’t exist, there is overwhelming evidence against that.

          I however, don’t feel the other models are so deficient in explain such a phenomenon as Christianity, nor that Mythacism is as adequate an explanation as to out weigh the lack of attestation. Without that I don’t feel a need to consider the alternate interpretations that would favor mythasism. Lots of things we don’t have any reason to suspect are possible if we change a few words around.

          There are, of course, other methods that would remove Jesus as a historical figure. One would be super conflation, where there are to many people making up important elements of the Jesus story for us to say that the Jesus we know from the letters and Gospels is a real person. and example is Robin Hood. Look up a site discussing the possible historical Robing Hoods, you get a lot of possible candidate, none particularly like the narratives.

          Another is mistaken existence, in this a figure of obscure folk knowledge is transformed into a historical person by way of further folk lore. An example would be Kilroy. This was an odd practice of American soldiers to wright “Kilroy was here” on things during ww2. It may have its origin in an earlier practice in ww1. People came to believe though folklore that there was a Kilroy who’s actions started this all, but there is not.

  9. Jesus was anathema to the Jews

    At least the ones who didn’t adopt Christianity, so this ends up begging the question. Earliest Christianity began as a sectarian vision of a new form of Jewish piety based on a suffering-servant redeemer figure. As it spread around the diaspora and attracted Gentiles in its expression of a “mystery” that they could understand in that Hellenistic religious context, the schism was complete. This is the context in which the myth of the cosmic Christ was historicized in the form of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Plus, there is not one word of a ‘mythic’ Jesus in any of the Jewish literature and I would imagine that that would have been their first line of defense against a schismatic and disruptive sect: ‘Don’t believe their nonsense. Their Jesus is just a myth!’ Yet that argument is nowhere to be found.

    I’ve seen this argument many times before. And I think it betrays a failure to understand ancient thought-ways and attitudes toward ostensibly factual claims about history. The modern default stance toward such claims is an empirical/rational one: “show me the evidence”, but that stance was not readily available or even obviously useful to an ancient person confronting an unwelcome narrative about fantastic events in the past. A counter-myth was a much more typical response, and this is what we see: the disciples stole the body, Jesus was the bastard son of a Roman soldier, etc. Further, the argument assumes that a person who doubted the account of a narrative set in the past would have felt confidence in their ability to discount its content. Consider this statement: No ultra-pious religious or political radical named Jesus was executed in Jerusalem during Pilate’s prefecture in Judaea. Can you imagine that anyone in the Eastern Mediterranean c.80 CE would have felt able to back that up? On what grounds would they have? Even what we would consider ‘recent’ events very quickly faded into the mists of time in a mostly illiterate society, and especially during and after periods of upheaval, which the period 60s-70s CE in Judaea and its surroundings certainly were. Nobody denies that the most basic outline of the narrative is plausible enough. Religious Gadfly Pisses Off Authorities, Is Executed by Ruthless Provincial Administration. It wouldn’t even have been worth a headline. Fiction written in a realistic mode is by definition more or less plausible. Plausibility alone is not enough to demonstrate historicity, and in my opinion it’s given too much weight by most of the scholars who have written on the historical Jesus.

    He debated with the Pharisees and Sadducees.

    In the gospels, in somewhat comically anachronistic circumstances, as they trailed around backwater Galilee through villages and grain fields trying to catch him in the act of apostasy.

  10. Dave M, presumably you read the post on which you commented. You apparently dismiss the advice of E. Schwartz, Albert Schweitzer, T.L.Thompson, E. Hobsbawm and Richard Slatta on the necessity of having independent corroboration of some kind to establish the historicity of a life.

    A collection of Christian documents — all with a religious agenda — speak about Jesus. Should we believe they are based on real events? Why or why not? Don’t misunderstand. I am not implying that we should not. I am suggesting we simply don’t know until we find some reason to make a decision either way.

    We have good reasons to believe Julius Caesar existed and that much that is written about him is based on real events. The reasons are primary evidence (coins, busts), writings from contemporaries who have no religious axe to grind and who are independent of one another. The existence of Caesar, and the events spoken about him, have a very strong explanatory power for the way the government of Rome was transformed into an imperial rule.

    All of this gives us strong confidence that other people who came into contact with Caesar also lived. Documents that mention Caesar and in the same context speak of other persons in the life of Caesar (e.g. Brutus, Cassius, Caesar’s wife) give us some confidence that they are speaking of real people.

    We have nothing comparable in the case of Jesus. All the early documents we have about Jesus are religious tracts with an agenda to have others believe he is god or saviour or such. There is no secure independent (non religious agenda) evidence from the time of Jesus that gives us any reason to have any confidence that the Christian documents are based on history or a real person. Just arguing that you can’t see why someone would make it up doesn’t work. The story clearly did have an impact and did serve its purpose very well. The suffering martyr god who is subject to the taunts and whims of men, and the faithlessness of would-be followers — all of this is the stuff of pagan and Jewish religious stories as much as of Christianity.

    As for explaining why we have no record of opponents of Christianity pulling out the “mythicism card”, that is, as C.J. said above, applying modern questions into ancient minds. How could the question ever arise? Christian claims were the subject of the controversies, so the issue was whether a man was also a god to be worshiped. Justin proves his case about all the things Jesus did entirely from the Old Testament and writings of some anonymous “memoirs”.

    We can assume if we like that the gospels are about a man who performed parlor tricks or who had a political agenda. But it will always be assumption. There is no evidence to support those claims. They are only what we choose to read into the texts.

  11. Plus, there is not one word of a ‘mythic’ Jesus in any of the Jewish literature and I would imagine that that would have been their first line of defense against a schismatic and disruptive sect: ‘Don’t believe their nonsense. Their Jesus is just a myth!’ Yet that argument is nowhere to be found.

    Yet Justin Martyr’s first apology says:

    But those who hand down the myths which the poets have made, adduce no proof to the youths who learn them; and we proceed to demonstrate that they have been uttered by the influence of the wicked demons, to deceive and lead astray the human race. For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were mere marvelous tales, like the things which were said by the poets.

    Sounds very much to me like someone is making the exact argument that there was a mythic Jesus, and in the 2nd century. Or is it your suggestion that a myth is different than a marvelous tale said by the poets?

    1. Evan, it seems they are arguing that the tales of Jesus are phony baloney, not that they are arguing for a mythic Jesus. Philosophically minded devotes didn’t view the myths of gods as tall tales, but as symbolic stories on the nature of reality. They wouldn’t call them “mere marvelous tales”. More rational people just dismissed them as superstitions of the past.

  12. First, let me say thanks to all who have responded and offered their insight into this debate. The responses have been intelligent, rational, educated and finally very helpful. My thanks to all and especially Neil for creating the blog. I don’t know that I can respond to everyone but I do have a few thoughts about recent comments.

    First, C.J. if you have any works or citations regarding ‘ancient thought-ways and attitudes’ I would appreciate your sending them along. For me, part of the interest in researching this subject is to get into the minds of the people who lived then, so I would be very interested in your sources. Thanks.

    For you and Neil, in regards to the ‘lack of response in the Jewish literature’ of the time. Can’t say that I agree with your points. Josephus (certainly Jewish literature of the time) castigated the Samaritan taheb to the point that Josephus would not even mention him by name. Surely, had Josephus been aware that the Christ story was myth he would have been offended (as a pious Jew) by the implications (or am I missing something?) Josephus mentions other vile acts by certain Jews that offended him mainly and not least because he was writing to impress a Roman audience with the virtues of Judaism. A mythic Christ at that time would have been the kind of scandalous story that he would have wanted to refute to the Romans, yet he does not mention it. Nor is it mentioned (as someone noted) in any early Christian writings so that what we have here is a similar argument to the Christian apologists’ argument against the swoon theory; would so many martyrs go to their deaths in defense of a myth (swoon)? And would early church leaders allow them to go if they knew the truth? That would require that early on those people who might have known that it was a myth had to keep silent in the face of conflict and tragedy. That’s a big lie to keep secret.

    Next, Neil, you mention ‘independent corroboration of some kind’ but the irony there is that the mythic Christ theory has absolutely NO corroboration at all, independent or otherwise. It is a theory from silence, assumptions and suppositions. Where is the ancient corroboration that Christ was a myth? Where is the historical document? And refuting a real Jesus through comparison to the historical record for Julius Caesar is an apples to oranges comparison. They weren’t even in the same league. The only reason most mythicists dismiss corroboration for Jesus is because they have already subjectively dismissed the reliability of the N.T. and again, if the N.T.’s reliability is dismissed then the case for a mythic Jesus disappears as well. If you can’t count on the N.T. for accuracy how can you count on it to be accurate in its omissions?

    Next, even G.A. Wells accepts the historicity of Jesus and he was (as I’m sure you all know) a major proponent of the mythic Christ theory. Check ‘The Jesus Myth’ by Wells, 1999.

    Lastly, C.J. thanks for providing the real possible motive for what has become known as the Christ myth. If, as you indicate, the Jews would have chosen a ‘counter myth’ like the body was stolen by the disciples, Jesus was the bastard son of a Roman soldier, etc. (rather than an open admission that Jesus was a myth)to discredit Jesus then the possibility exists that the Jews (initially Paul) designed the mythic Jesus as a counter myth to the historical Jesus. In other words, a real Jesus, preaching a message that was sure to disrupt the cozy working arrangements between the Jewish authorities and Rome became the target of a counter myth meant to discredit him and alter the direction of his movement so that it was no longer a threat to the social stability of the time. Once the non-biographical myth began it took on a life of its own (supported by Paul and others) and morphed into the early Christian movement which moved away from Judaism, especially after the First Jewish Revolt. Paul’s counter myth only worked for a short time and perhaps delayed the revolt for a couple of decades. But the initiating motive (to me anyway) was to create such a counter myth to discredit a real person.

    Unfortunately I don’t have the time to write more just now. Must run.

  13. You seem to have a fixation on Paula Fredriksen. Granted, she’s written lots of books and articles, and has contradicted herself and admitted in one of her talks that she relied too heavily on a methodology that ill served the historical process. But, you have to admit, she is a good looker!

    In any case, her “conversion” from Catholicism/Christianity to Judaism was somewhat of a puzzlement. She seemed to be trending more and more toward agnosticism.

    Which reminds me of the story about Will Durant that circulated around the Seton Hall University campus in South Orange, NJ, in the late ’40s, when I attended classes there. Durant was studying for the priesthood. He gave up its pursuit and eventually left the Catholic Church. When asked if he was about to convert to another religion, his alleged reply was: “I lost my Faith, not my mind.”

    1. I’ve heard that quote (“I have only lost my faith, not my mind”) attributed to Voltaire, James Joyce, Bertrand Russell, and (more commonly) an unnamed Catholic apostate. I wonder if it’s just one of those anonymous quotations in search of an author, like “Neither do I condemn thee” or “Consider the lily.”

    2. “admitted in one of her talks that she relied too heavily on a methodology that ill served the historical process”

      I have to confess I don’t recall any pictures of her but I am interested in tracking down exactly what she said (and the context) here. Can you give me a lead?

  14. Type her name in a Google and select from any one of her pictures. She seems to delight in arguing with herself on the subject “Law-free.” In her book “From Jesus to Christ,” she believes Paul argues for a “Law-free” (Torah-free) culture for the Hellenic Gentiles. On her home page. you will find an article where she argues the opposite. Also, she can’t come to terms with whether the crucifixion or the resurrection purged “the sin of the world.” She uses the terms interchangeably in her discussion on this subject.

    Go to: http://www.bu.edu/religion/faculty/bios/fredriksen/

    and read her articles, especially:

    Judaizing the Nations: The Ritual Demands of Paul’s Gospel*
    Paula Fredriksen, Dept. of Religion, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, USA.
    Dept. of Comparative Religion, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel.
    email: augfred@bu.edu
    Memoriae Krister Stendahl sacrum.

    Much current NT scholarship holds that Paul conducted a ‘Law-free’ mission to Gentiles. In this view, Paul fundamentally repudiated the ethnic boundaries created and maintained by Jewish practices. The present essay argues the contrary. Paul’s principled resistance to circumcising Gentiles precisely preserves these distinctions ‘according to the flesh’, which were native to Jewish restoration eschatology even in its Pauline iterations. Paul required his pagans not to worship their native gods—a ritual and a Judaizing demand. Jerusalem’s temple, traditionally conceived, gave Paul his chief terms for conceptualizing the Gentiles’ inclusion in Israel’s redemption. Paul’s was not a ‘Law-free’ mission. Keywords: Paul, ethnicity, Temple, pagans, conversion, Law-free gospel זכרו לכרכה

    (Personally, I think she is splitting hairs. Draw your conclusions.)

  15. PS
    Paula is now on the track of Augustine vis-a-vis Paul. Why she is spending time on Augustine is beyond me. This guy was a sexual neurotic, who screwed up western sexual understanding, belief and practice for seventeen hundred years. His own mother was his procurer. His understanding of the female sex is summed up in his own words” “Lover her as a wife, but hate her as a woman!”

    Go figure!

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