Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Zeus seduces Olympias. Fresco by Giulio Romano...
Zeus seduces Olympias. Image via Wikipedia

Here is a stock criticism of the Gospel accounts of Jesus by sceptics generally and mythicists in particular:

The historical Jesus is swallowed up by myth. Look at the framework of his Gospel story: virgin birth, facing Satan in the wilderness, transfigured on the mountain, resurrected from the dead. Without these mythical motifs Jesus is pretty ordinary. 

Here is a stock response from scholars:

Ancient biographical texts similarly contain mythical elements in their framework: the influence of the gods is shown in signs, dreams, etc. Such a mythical framework does not justify our disputing in principle the historicity of the traditions handed down within this framework. (p. 114, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, by Theissen and Merz)

More, the scholars who framed that response to the sceptic added two examples from ancient biographies to illustrate and support their claim that the Gospels are no different from other ancient biographies of historical persons: both alike are said to include mythical embellishments to their narratives.

But take a closer look at that claim. I will quote the scholar’s account of these ancient biographies that supposedly supports their claim that they are similar in this respect to the Gospels (Scholarly claim 1). I will then quote translations of the actual biographies themselves so we can see how faithful that scholarly comparison was (Plutarch and Suetonius in their own words).

After that I quote another renowned biblical scholar himself observant (or secure) enough to face up to the discrepancy between what his peers say about the evidence and what the evidence itself indicates (Scholarly claim 2).

One will forgive me if I sometimes let slip with occasional slivers of cynicism in relation to biblical scholars who present themselves as honest public intellectuals while at the same time resorting to tendentious claims about the evidence for their scholarly arguments. I conclude with another rant about the failings of too many historical Jesus scholars as truly responsible public intellectuals.

Scholarly claim 1

Firstly, here is how Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz justify their assertion that the mythical tales in the gospels are no different from the way ancients sprinkled serious histories or biographies of real people with mythical additions:

Plutarch reports about Alexander the Great that Alexander’s mother Olympia dreamed on her bridal night that ‘it thundered and lightning struck her body; a fierce fire was kindled by the lightning, flickering in many flames and spreading on all sides’. This dream is an indication of conception by Jupiter: on the basis of this and other signs Philip sent an envoy to Delphi. The oracle commanded him to sacrifice to Ammon and to show special reverence to this god. This legend is probably not pure fiction. The historical nucleus may be that Alexander was later welcomed by the priest in the desert sanctuary in the temple of Ammon as ‘son of Ammon’. This divine sonship is backdated in legendary and mythical form: it must have led to the story of the miraculous conception.

Suetonius depicts the cremation of Augustus on the field of Mars: ‘an ex-praetor actually swore that he had seen Augustus’s spirit soaring up to heaven through the flames.’ Previously Tiberius had given a funeral oration before the temple of the Caesar, who had already been taken up to the gods. In an analogous fashion now Augustus, too, had to be ‘divinized’. The expectation of divinization produced traditions to match! (my emphasis, p. 114 of The Historical Jesus by Theissen and Merz)

This book, these authors, are not obscurities in the field of historical Jesus studies. The work is a widely cited and well-known reference. Of Plutarch’s account of the birth of Alexander Theissen and Merz convey the unequivocal message that Plutarch “reports” supernatural miracles surrounding the birth as if they are as much fact as anything else narrated — just like we read in the Gospel tales of the virgin birth of Jesus.

In the case of Suetonius’s account of the death of Augustus they do at least quote the line that it was said an individual claimed to be a sole eyewitness of a miracle. But any ambiguity is quickly set aside by the final sentence of that paragraph when that single report is described as “traditions” that had come to the ear of the author.

The message is clear. These ancient biographers of famous historical persons wrote about their real heroes with the same sort of mix of fact and fiction, history and mythology, as we find of Jesus in the Gospels. Therefore we have no reason to think that the Gospels are any different essentially from ancient biographies. That is the message and that is how the evidence is cited.

Plutarch and Suetonius in their own words

Now here is what Plutarch wrote. I highlight the phrases that are quite unlike anything found in the Gospels and that give this secular biography and its reference to the mythical elements a completely different tone from anything we read in the Gospels. Far from the secular biographies of historical persons mixing up history and myth on an equal footing as we supposedly find in the Gospels, we find here a clear distinction — complete with explicit expressions that open up spacious room for scepticism — that sets apart the mythical in a way that finds no comparison with the Gospels at all.

2 As for the lineage of Alexander, on his father’s side he was a descendant of Heracles through Caranus, and on his mother’s side a descendant of Aeacus through Neoptolemus; this is accepted without any question. 

And we are told that Philip, after being initiated into the mysteries of Samothrace at the same time with Olympias, he himself being still a youth and she an orphan child, fell in love with her and betrothed himself to her at once with the consent of her brother, Arymbas. Well, then, the night before that on which the marriage was consummated, the bride dreamed that there was a peal of thunder and that a thunder-bolt fell upon her womb, and that thereby much fire was kindled, which broke into flames that travelled all about, and then was extinguished.

At a later time, too, after the marriage, Philip dreamed that he was putting a seal upon his wife’s womb; and the device of the seal, as he thought, was the figure of a lion. The other seers, now, were led by the vision to suspect that Philip needed to put a closer watch upon his marriage relations; but Aristander of Telmessus said that the woman was pregnant, since no seal was put upon what was empty, and pregnant of a son whose nature would be bold and lion-like. Moreover, a serpent was once seen lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept, and we are told that this, more than anything else, dulled the ardour of Philip’s attentions to his wife, so that he no longer came often to sleep by her side, either because he feared that some spells and enchantments might be practised upon him by her, or because he shrank for her embraces in the conviction that she was the partner of a superior being.

But concerning these matters there is another story to this effect: all the women of these parts were addicted to the Orphic rites and the orgies of Dionysus from very ancient times (being called Klodones and Mimallones) and imitated in many ways the practices of the Edonian women and the Thracian women about Mount Haemus, from whom, as it would seem, the word “threskeuein” came to be applied to the celebration of extravagant and superstitious ceremonies. Now Olympias, who affected these divine possessions more zealously than other women, and carried out these divine inspirations in wilder fashion, used to provide the revelling companies with great tame serpents, which would often lift their heads from out the ivy and the mystic winnowing-baskets, or coil themselves about the wands and garlands of the women, thus terrifying the men.

3 However, after his vision, as we are told, Philip sent Chaeron of Megalopolis to Delphi, by whom an oracle was brought to him from Apollo, who bade him sacrifice to Ammon and hold that god in greatest reverence, but told him he was to lose that one of his eyes which he had applied to the chink in the door when he espied the god, in the form of a serpent, sharing the couch of his wife.  Moreover, Olympias, as Eratosthenes says, when she sent Alexander forth upon his great expedition, told him, and him alone, the secret of his begetting, and bade him have purposes worthy of his birth.  Others, on the contrary, say that she repudiated the idea, and said: “Alexander must cease slandering me to Hera.”

Be that as it may, Alexander was born early in the month Hecatombaeon, the Macedonian name for which is Loüs, on the sixth day of the month, and on this day the temple of Ephesian Artemis was burnt. (Plutarch, Alexander 2-3)

And Suetonius, note, is chock full of prosaic human events and the only time he mentions the supernatural in this context is to say that it was a singular report of an anonymous ex-public official. By no means does he cite the report itself on an equal status of matter-of-factness as the rest of the events he describes.

100 He died in the same room as his father Octavius, in the consulship of two Sextuses, Pompeius and Appuleius, on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of September at the ninth hour, just thirty-five days before his seventy-sixth birthday.

His body was carried by the senators of the municipalities and colonies from Nola all the way to Bovillae, in the night time because of the season of the year, being placed by day in the basilica of the town at which they arrived or in its principal temple. At Bovillae the members of the equestrian order met it and bore it to the city, where they placed it in the vestibule of his house.

In their desire to give him a splendid funeral and honour his memory the senators so vied with one another that among many other suggestions some proposed that his cortege pass through the triumphal gate, preceded by a statue of Victory which stands in the House, while a dirge was sung by children of both sexes belonging to the leading families; others, that on the day of the obsequies golden rings be laid aside and iron ones worn; and some, that his ashes be collected by the priests of the highest colleges.

One man proposed that the name of the month of August be transferred to September, because Augustus was born in the latter, but died in the former; another, that all the period from the day of his birth until his demise be called the Augustan Age, and so entered in the Calendar. But though a limit was set to the honours paid him, his eulogy was twice delivered: before the temple of the Deified Julius by Tiberius, and from the old rostra by Drusus, son of Tiberius; and he was carried on the shoulders of senators to the Campus Martius and there cremated.

There was even an ex-praetor who took oath that he had seen the form of the Emperor, after he had been reduced to ashes, on its way to heaven. His remains were gathered up by the leading men of the equestrian order, bare-footed and in ungirt tunics, and placed in the Mausoleum. This structure he had built in his sixth consulship between the Via Flaminia and the bank of the Tiber, and at the same time opened to the public the groves and walks by which it was surrounded. (Suetonius, Augustus)

Scholarly claim 2

I have said before that I like reading Dale C. Allison’s works. I very much doubt that he himself would appreciate my interest, however. (He would surely not like the way I set his words against those of his peers in this post.) I draw different conclusions from his honest assessment of the evidence and methods of historical Jesus scholarship. I think his insistence on finding a way to hang on to the historical Jesus model despite the problems it faces is a far more complex alternative than a mythicist alternative. But it is refreshing to read a scholar who is at least aware of the problems and not afraid to publish them. He speaks too much of humility in my opinion, but there are some other scholars who would nonetheless do well to imitate at least some of his humility before the facts.

[M]any scholars remain persuaded that the Gospels are a subspecies of Greco-Roman biography. What would acceptance of that classification imply for the thesis about “purely metaphorical narratives”?

Greek and Roman biographers were quite capable of handing on stories that they did not consider factual or about which they had doubts. Often, however, they made this clear. Plutarch told one version of the conception of Alexander the Great, after which he added: “There is another version of this story.” Having then related that second account, he added that Alexander’s mother, Olympia, repudiated it (Alex. 2-3). In this way, Plutarch signaled to his readers that they were not on firm historical ground.

The Gospels, however, offer nothing remotely similar. No evangelist confronts us with differing versions of the same story that push us to ask which is true. Instead, they present everything from a single point of view — there are no competing narrators — and they never drop a hint that they have doubts about any of their stories.

Nor, unlike Herodotus, do they ever measure the plausibility of a story against “what usually happens” or conceded that they have no firsthand knowledge of something (see Herodotus, Hist. 2.27-28, 68-72.) (p. 443, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination and History, my emphasis and paragraphing)


If you want to know what biblical scholarship acknowledges and struggles with when it comes to questions about historicity then don’t waste time following its attacks on external sceptics. That’s all window-dressing. Biblical scholars love to take on the atheistic challenges but have no time for outsiders who question their fundamental methodologies or take their own arguments to their logical conclusions. That’s why John Loftus with his Debunking Christianity blog is welcomed among the ranks of Biblioblogs while Vridar cast out into outer darkness. Debunkers and anti-Christian crusaders on the one hand and the biblical and/or Christian faithful on the other feed off one another: Loftus has made it clear that it  is against the interests of anyone wishing to debunk Christianity to deny the historicity of Jesus Christ; at least one biblical scholar has made it clear that for that reason Debunking Christianity is welcome as a member of an online community of bible-blogs.

Well, it’s not my interest to “debunk Christianity” but to explore Christian origins by studying the best scholarship and arguments I can find in my limited time as an amateur. That’s not to say that mainstream scholars do not ask or explore the same questions. They certainly do. But the difference is also clear. It comes down to “attitude”, one might say.

I once was struck by a segment in a documentary interview with ex Hitler Youth members. A couple of them, I recall, made it clear that the Nazi party did allow radical questioning of its ideology and teachings — as long as the questions were framed with the “right attitude”. The reason I was so struck by that was that it was exactly the same in a cult I had once belonged to. Radical questions were tolerated, even welcomed (at least ostensibly), so long as one asked them in a “spirit of wanting to learn the truth” — that is, willing to find a way to believe the answers offered by the powers that be.

One sees exactly the same spirit working in the pages of authors like Borg and Allison and Crossan et al. No no no no, I am not saying they are like Nazis or Hitler Youth or Cultists. I am saying that what keeps the status quo functioning despite advances in critical knowledge and intellectual freedom for rational inquiry is the ability of its members to cushion their critiques and rational inquiries within attitudes of support for the larger status quo to which their lives are so strongly committed.

Recall those stories of priests whom the Pope has excommunicated despite their confessions of love for the church and pleas to remain within the church.

But the wider biblical studies guild is not directed by an authoritarian committee. It is self-regulated. One can push up against any of the pillars one likes as long as one does not do a Samson and go all the way with a good push.

I studied ancient history several years as an undergraduate and had a reasonable knowledge of the ancient biographies and histories to which biblical scholars pointed when they attempted to compare the way the Gospels also mixed up myth and history into the one narrative. I never did find such a scholarly apologist who also withdrew or qualified his argument when I pointed out the difference between the way Greek and Roman biographers and historians addressed the mythical and how it is made a part of the Gospels. I only ever found that admission in a scholarly publication as I have quoted above written primarily for readers sympathetic to a liberal form of Christianity.

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus”

  1. The four gospels in the New Testament were written in order to prove that Jesus Christ was a deity, God’s Son, who had descended from the Heavens onto Earth in order to interact with human beings. While on Earth, Jesus looked like a human being, but he also remained a supernatural, immortal deity who was able to perform supernatural miracles. In particular, this Jesus died and then from from death and then ascended back up into the Heavens, where he co-rules the Universe as God’s Son. At some time in the future, this Jesus will descend again from the Heavens to Earth, where he will judge all the human beings who ever lived and then he will destroy the Earth and will arrange eternal time-space so that all his approved human beings will live eternally in a bliss in the Heavens and all his disapproved human beings will live eternally in torment in Hell.

    This story is essentially different from the stories that were written by Greek and Roman historians such as Plutarch and Suetonius about human beings such as Alexander the Great and Augustus.

    These and other such historians generally believed in deities and other spiritual beings that interacted with human beings. For example, deities might inform human beings about the future by means of omens and dreams. Various demons might possess the bodies and minds of human beings. The anger of deities might be mollified by various worshipful rites that were performed by human beings.

    Furthermore, some such historians believed that there was a long-ago age when deities and supernatural beings mated with human beings and gave birth to extraordinary human beings who became patriarchs of nations and tribes.

    However, historians wrote their histories about human beings who lived in a human manner with human limitations in the historians’ own human age. They did not write anything like the gospels, about a unique deity such as Jesus Christ who plays a cosmic role and who created and governs the entire Universe and who eventually will destroy the entire Earth.

    It is a backwards idea to think that the Jesus story began with a real and ordinary man, a carpenter’s son who spent two or three years as a traveling philosopher and magical healer and to think that gradually this story was enhanced with miracles and then was further enhanced and enhanced until this Jesus was The God of the Universe.

    Rather, the story must have developed in the opposite direction. The original story was that Jesus Christ was The God of the Universe, and the final story was that he was a carpenter’s son, a traveling philosopher, a magical healer.

    There are lots of mythical stories about gods temporarily assuming the forms of people and of animals. And there are also lots of legends about kings pretending to be commoners for a while. The almighty can become ordinary temporarily.

    However, the ordinary cannot become almighty eternally. It is fundamentally nonsensical idea that a story might develop so that an ordinary, mortal human being becomes an almighty, immortal god.

    The gospels are not about Jesus Christ being a man who is able to obtain Almighty God’s help in order to do miracles. Rather, the gospels are stories about Jesus Christ being Almighty God.

    Thus the gospels are fundamentally different from historians’ stories about human beings, even if those stories indicate that the historians believed that gods and other spiritual beings sometimes manifested themselves in human history.

  2. Neil: “But the wider biblical studies guild is not directed by an authoritarian committee. It is self-regulated. One can push up against any of the pillars one likes as long as one does not do a Samson and go all the way with a good push.”

    Sometimes the borders of acceptable discussion change, almost always in the direction of “a smaller range of debate.” In 1990 (JBL vol. 109, no. 3), Bart Ehrman wrote a paper called “Cephas and Peter.” In it he asks if these two names represent two different people, citing centuries of speculation and lots of tantalizing evidence. He concludes by saying, “When Paul mentions Cephas, he apparently does not mean Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus.”

    However, young Bart had gone too far, and was summarily smacked down by the likes of Dale Allison (see JBL vol. 111, no. 3) “Peter and Cephas: One and the Same.”

    Ehrman learned his lesson well. In his popular press book, “Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene,” there’s no hint that there was ever a controversy. Clearly by 2006, Bart had learned where the borders were and which lines he could not cross. Reading this book today, you’d come away thinking Peter must be an historical figure who was described fairly accurately in Luke’s Acts and Paul’s epistles.

    Brother Bart learned the art of self-regulation.

  3. ‘In 1990 (JBL vol. 109, no. 3), Bart Ehrman wrote a paper called “Cephas and Peter.” In it he asks if these two names represent two different people, citing centuries of speculation and lots of tantalizing evidence. He concludes by saying, “When Paul mentions Cephas, he apparently does not mean Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus.”’

    But this is peer-reviewed research.

    Haven’t we been told often enough that all mythicists need to do is produce peer-reviewed articles (as though many of Doherty’s supporting ideas about Paul, the Gospels, Heaven, Son of God etc are not already found in mainstream Biblical publications)?

    Surely, as every anti-mythicist will tell you, as soon as such ideas are published in peer-reviewed journals, they will deign to take them seriously, and not smack them down and then ignore them.

    Why, barely a day goes by without McGrath referencing the existing peer-reviewed research suggesting that people found in Paul’s letters were not Gospel characters….

    And it is almost impossible to find McGrath saying that no such peer-reviewed research has ever been done….

  4. IMO Mike Sylwester completely debunks Neil’s post.
    Neil compares writings about Jesus, (who was not famous while alive), with Caesar, Alexander the Great, Augustus, Hitler …, (who were famous in their day).
    Not comparable, “historicitically” speaking.

      1. What specific points are you addressing in my post? Do you understand what the post was about?

        What past posts of mine in particular are you addressing? What specific points in those posts are “debunked” by your claim of false comparison?

    1. Jesus was indeed not famous while alive. In Romans 10,Paul says that Jews hadn’t heard of him.

      Jesus must have made a strange sight, wandering around with 12 (not 11 or 13), disciples, who must have been wondering what their exact job description was.

      Why wasn’t such a gang famous?

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