A fallacious argument for Jesus’ historicity

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by Neil Godfrey

Dr McGrath in a recycled youtube presentation Did Jesus Exist? argues that Jesus was a historical figure in these words:

The reason that the crucifixion persuades most historians that Jesus was a historical figure is that a crucified messiah was in essence a contradiction in terms. . . .  It needs to be emphasized that we are talking about a dying and rising messiah. And the messianic expectations of Judaism around the time of early Christianity are well documented. And the whole notion of messiah is “anointed one” . . . . and this goes back to the practice of anointing kings and priests in ancient Israel. And in the case of Jesus the connection of the terminology of the term messiah with the claim to his having been descended from David shows they were thinking of a kingly figure. And nothing would have disqualified someone from seriously being considered possibly being the messiah as being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish people. That wasn’t what people expected from the messiah. And it makes very little sense to claim that the early Christians invented a figure completely from scratch and called him the messiah and said that he didn’t do the same things that the messiah was expected. Not only did he not conquer the Romans, he was executed by them. He did not institute and bring in the kingdom of god the way the people were expecting, and in fact Christians had to explain this in terms of Jesus returning to finish the task of what was expected of the messiah.

All of this makes much more sense if one says that there was a figure whom the early Christians believed was the messiah and that the early Christians were trying somehow to make sense of those things that don’t seem to fit that belief.

In other words, the argument for the historicity of Jesus is, “No-one would have made it up.” This is in effect an appeal to ignorance. If one cannot imagine (without really trying) why someone would make it up, it must be historical.

The argument as expressed is, however, quite implausible. Stop and think.


If people in the life-time of Jesus really did believe Jesus was the Messiah then the argument is making it clear exactly why they thought he was the Messiah. According to the argument it was because they believed he was going to conquer the Romans and bring in the Kingdom of God. So when instead he was executed by the Romans, according to the argument, he was thereby disqualified from being considered the Messiah. We can expect the same disillusionment to have set in among his erstwhile believers as one subsequently saw among followers of other hopeful liberators as they were crushed by the Romans as spoken of by Josephus.

It makes far more sense, therefore, that we are reading a fiction. The story is simply implausible as history. The only thing that makes it plausible as fiction is that the reader is expected to believe in the resurrection.

False dilemma and straw man

There is another fallacy in the argument, and that is of the false dilemma. No one argues that “the early Christians invented a figure completely from scratch.” That is not the alternative scenario at all in anyone’s books. Not only a false dilemma, but a straw man is tossed in there as well.

Leaving aside the appeal to ignorance

What we do have among various Second Temple Jews is a belief in an atoning death and resurrection of a beloved son, Isaac. We also have suggestions in the Book of Daniel that the figurative heavenly Son of Man can be interpreted as representing the martyred saints and their victorious successors. The same book even explicitly speaks of the death of another “messiah” figure, and this is consistent with other messianic figures throughout the Bible facing their deaths. (See the related articles below.)

David himself in the Psalms and even in narrative was viewed as a pious man of suffering devoted to God even when pursued by his enemies to the point of death, trusting in deliverance even from death. David had earlier called upon his fellows to mourn the violent death of his anointed (messianic) predecessor, Saul. The earliest gospel narratives to a significant extent depict Jesus as a personification of the lives and experiences of Christians themselves as they faced persecution, and Paul himself explicitly made this point — that Christians were called to share Christ’s own life and sufferings. So there was ample material to fuel the concept of a suffering messiah. It was a very Jewish idea as 4 Ezra was to make clear with its own account of the death of a messiah.

But more than any of this, it surely goes without saying that Jesus is depicted as a far greater than David or Solomon or the Temple. He did defeat a power far greater than Rome. He defeated demonic rulers of the world and death itself. The concept of winning by losing is as old as the human imagination and creative literature and religious myths of all ages.

The argument that says, “I can’t see any reason why anyone would make it up”, is entirely bereft of imagination informed by knowledge of human nature and our mythical imagination generally and of Jewish culture and Second Temple religious ideas specifically.


What is most instructive of all, however, is that such an argument would be made at all as an attempt to persuade others that Jesus was historical. It is like the arguments of Plato for the immortality of the Soul or the existence of Ideas. It is entirely theoretical. Surely if there were historical evidence one would simply point to the evidence.

The real world

Another error, I believe, in the argument is its assertion that “most historians” are “persuaded” Jesus existed on the basis of the argument presented. I doubt it. Firstly, “persuaded” implies that historians approached the question of Jesus’ historicity with an open mind and searching for verification from the get-go, and came across this argument or similar ones and “concluded” or “were persuaded” that Jesus was therefore historical. I suggest that that is not how most people, not even historians, not even biblical scholars, have come to write about Jesus as if he were historical. Jesus’ historicity is accepted as part and parcel of our cultural and educational socialization. It is as an afterthought that some stop to ask “how we know” he existed. They are obliged to concur with the only answers available.

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Neil Godfrey

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29 thoughts on “A fallacious argument for Jesus’ historicity”

  1. The story is simply implausible as history. The only thing that makes it plausible as fiction is that the reader is expected to believe in the resurrection.

    I don’t find it at all implausible that a hard core of supporters would cling to the memory of their hero and gradually develop an expectation of his return. I’m inclined to believe that belief in a resurrection arose much later. What is harder to explain is why such a movement could sustain itself and even grow. McGrath no doubt explains that by assuming the resurrection did happen, but I’m looking for naturalistic explanations.

    1. One can understand people clinging to a belief so and so was the messiah if they have a broader concept of what “messiah” involves and that would survive the execution of their hero by the Romans.

      But the argument I am addressing here states squarely that the followers believed precisely that Jesus would conquer the Romans. So it was the very specific beliefs of the followers that were crushed.

      The argument is not that they believed Jesus was a messianic figure who will do many wonderful things beyond anything we can understand now, including, hopefully, the overthrow of Rome. In that case, yes, some may have been likely to have rationalised their beliefs. But that is not the argument and I don’t know that any historical Jesus would argue this.

      1. It is worth keeping in mind that all the gospel narratives are united in their realistic portrayal of the disciples as having completely lost their faith in Jesus as the messiah for the reason that he had been executed by those they had expected him to overthrow. The only way the story is rescued is by the insertion of a resurrection.

        1. But that insertion could have happened long after the fact. First, most followers would have lost faith, while somewhat later some might cling to hope of Jesus’ imminent return. As that became increasingly hard to believe, a generation or so later, belief that there had been a resurrection might have grown. That might have appealed to a gentile public, which could explain the later growth of the movement – provided it survived long enough for this to happen. This could be a way to preserve McGrath’s argument, though by taking it in a direction he would not be sympathetic to.

          1. As i understand McGrath’s argument there was no hope of a return among disciples with Jesus for them to continue “clinging on” to. They are said to have believed in Jesus as a messiah who would specifically and clearly overthrow Rome. This is the argument.

          2. OK, but on reflection I was reacting more to your categorical rejection of McG’s argument, which would seem to also reject the view I mentioned above. I’m a fence-sitter on the historicity of Jesus, but I think there is a kernel of truth to McG’s argument. Complete invention would need a convincing explanation, and I haven’t seen one. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but it does make me curious.

    2. Sure, if they were apologists they would likely argue that my explanation is fanciful, that no one would ever continue to believe Jesus was the Messiah if there had never been a resurrection. But do you personally consider it unlikely that a very small group could, after the fact, cling to a new belief that Jesus would return even if they had initially thought of him as the long awaited traditional Jewish Messiah? That strikes me as quite a plausible hypothesis.

      1. Sure anything is possible. But we are talking about enough of a critical mass to such people who have the quite unprecedented power (I would suggest) to persuade others, even those who had scarcely known or seen Jesus in Judea (we are told he was an insignificant nobody in his own day not worthy of any notice in non-Christian records), that he was such a divine redeemer. McG and others say that the disciples were SO convinced Jesus was going to overthrow Rome that they continued to believe that after he was executed and persuading many others of the same. Now I suggest that this sort of scenario needs a miracle to make it work.

        1. That is indeed a weak point of this hypothesis. I wonder whether perhaps it succeeded because it accidentally touched a nerve, by stumbling upon a new belief to which a large gentile audience unexpectedly turned out to be receptive. The early faithful may even have interpreted that as the work of the Holy Spirit!

  2. I can appreciate that ceteris paribus a historian might not expect a 1st century Jew to accept the idea of a crucified Messiah. However, all other things are not equal. The indisputable fact of the matter seems to be that a great many 1st century Jews accepted the idea based on nothing more than the word of the person who told them the story. How can this fact not cause a historian to reconsider his his initial assessment of the acceptability of the idea?

    I might initially attribute a low probability to 19th century Americans accepting Joseph Smith’s nonsense about the Angel Moroni and the Golden Plates, but once I found out that they did so in substantial numbers, don’t I have to revise my probability assessment accordingly?

  3. What is being done with such arguments is, I think, only a rationalization of another story of the miraculous.

    How do we explain the crossing of the Red Sea through two walls of water? Maybe it was a volcanic eruption that indirectly led to a very low-tide.

    How do we explain the miracle of the feeding of the 5000? Maybe the generosity of the one boy motivated others not to be so niggardly and share what they had hidden in their pockets, too.

    How do we explain the healings? Maybe they were psychosomatic. Maybe those thought dead were not really dead.

    This is the same sort of rationalization at work. It is not evidence or an argument for historicity. It is a “maybe it was like this” mind-game we (and Dr McGrath) are playing.

    The irony is that in order to pull off these rationalizations we have to destroy the stories we are trying to rationalize so that they have no theological meaning at all and are the sorts of tales that we would find it very hard believing could inspire a belief in Jesus’ divinity.

  4. MCGRATH makes an excellent point.

    ‘And nothing would have disqualified someone from seriously being considered possibly being the messiah as being executed by the foreign rulers over the Jewish people. ‘

    As Paul explains in Romans 13, the Romans were God’s agents.McGrath patiently explains elsewhere that if somebody who is God’s agent does something, you can write that God did it…..If Paul says God appointed apostles, he meant that Jesus appointed apostles. Only a dumb mythicist doubts that if Paul writes that God did something, we should therefore always say that an agent of God did it.

    Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

    McGrath makes an excellent point. Somebody who was crucified by the Romans would have been regarded at that time as a wrongdoer, The Romans held no terror for those who did right.

    They did not bear the sword for no reason.

    Just how blatantly does Paul have to trash the idea of his Saviour being crucified by the Romans before McGrath stops saying that Paul thinks God crucified Jesus, sorry that God’s agents crucified Jesus. (Same thing in McGrath’s mind, of course, as God works through agents.)

    Just where is Paul’s outrage against the Romans crucifying his Lord and Saviour?

    1. Dr McGrath has explained to us that Paul was not a consistent thinker. He also wrote deceptively about the origins of his authority to his readers. But Paul was clearly at his spiritual best when he said we are all one in Christ, and therefore we just know Paul today would be absolutely opposed to churches discriminating against gays.

      Having an inconsistent thinker in the canon is soooo convenient.

      1. The same dance is done with Jesus’ notoriety. He was notorious enough to be mentioned by Josephus sixty years after his death, but the number of followers he had could “fit in a minivan.”

        1. And despite having such a small number of followers and doing absolutely nothing in his lifetime which could possibly suggest he was going to ‘conquer the Romans’, he was regarded as a possible Messiah by followers who were convinced that a Messiah should ‘conquer the Romans’.

          Historicists leave unexplained the question of why anybody would think of Jesus as a possible Messiah during his lifetime, Apart from them explaining why Jesus did not fulfill any of the conditions of being a Messiah, which is why we know that Christians really did think of him as the Messiah.

          1. Let’s not forget Paula Fredriksen’s contribution: She attempts ot explain the “fact” that Jesus alone was executed while his followers were not.

            Her solution:

            Pilate could see that Jesus was so patently not a threat, so clearly was not expected to attempt an overthrow of Roman power, and knew he was completely harmless, innocent, etc. It was the unruly ignorant crowds who all of a sudden came to believe Jesus was the messiah about to overthrow Rome that were the threat.

            So instead of pulling out his usual tactics for crowd control Pilate decided to rob the crowd of all expectation and potential for a popular uprising by crucifying Jesus. That would teach that unruly mob. Let them see their would-be Messiah on a cross. That would be enough to demoralize them all.

            And of course it worked — except, presumably, for a few of those closest to Jesus and who presumably knew him even better than Pilate . . . . .

            HJ scholarship is a kaleidoscope of speculations that lead nowhere. The whole model falls apart once the miraculous and divine are removed.

            1. Michelangelo is supposed to have said: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

              HJ scholars believe they are sculpting history. They’re chiseling away the miraculous, carving away the implausible, chipping away the nonsensical. “All we have to do is remove the parts that aren’t Jesus.” But they start with their own conception of what the “real Jesus” looks like, which they can clearly see inside that block of marble (or pile of rubble).

              They’re going about it exactly the wrong way. Ancient history, at least in the case of first-century Palestine, is cold-case forensics. We have to start from a clean slate and construct the case according to the facts. And if the evidence supports no case at all, then the honorable alternative is to say, “We don’t know.”

              The question at hand is how Christianity emerged as it did in the early centuries of the common era. However, mainstream HJ scholars continue to focus on the loaded question: “How much can we know about the historical Jesus?” As long as they keep asking the wrong question and starting from the wrong end, nothing will change. In fact, given the trends in scholarship, I expect things to get much worse before they get any better.

            2. And apparently the brother of the Messiah-candidate took over the movement, without the Romans being at all bothered.

              How can the brother of a threat to the Roman Empire take control of a movement without Pilate thinking that something had to be done?

  5. The god Attis was castrated, which was probably more humiliating and embarrassing in Roman society than crucifixion. Yet Roman citizens who were in the cult of Attis would castrate themselves in this highly masculine society to emulate their god. No one would invent a castrated god, so therefore there really must have been a god who was castrated.

  6. http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2012/01/returning-to-talpiot-tomb.html is an interesting article about how any evidence about any Jesus that may be found has to be considered dubious if it ‘”contradicts dramatically nearly 2000 years of Christian tradition’.

    In other words, any historical Jesus that there may be evidence for, would be considered doubtful evidence, unless it fitted in with nearly 2000 years of Christian tradition.

    How then can research on the ‘real’ historical Jesus be done? If such research found that the ‘real’ historical Jesus had no brother called James, but had a brother called Thomas, it would automatically be rejected, because nearly 2000 years of Christian tradition claimed that Jesus had a brother called James and no brother called Thomas.

    1. I have sometimes fantasized on what might happen if a time machine could take researchers back to the time and place they were studying. I keep visualizing the HJ researchers faulting the technology if it “appeared” to take them to a Galilee or Jerusalem around the right time periods when Jesus was supposed to be known and talked about.

      1. If Jesus had had a son called Judas, that would have been an embarrassing fact that the Gospellers would have been forced to mention, like the way the Gospel of John was forced to mention the embarrassing fact that John the Baptist baptised Jesus.

        And of course, Paul never mentions Jesus having a son called Judas, because it was so well-known that there was no need for him to refer to it in his letters.

        Can I have my doctorate in Historical Jesus studies now please?

      2. Mark Goodacre deploys the favourite argument of mainstream Biblical scholars – the argument from silence.

        Arguments from silence are clear, undisputed and at once decisive – (provided of course that it is a mainstream Biblical scholar who uses the argument from silence, otherwise an argument from silence is am obvious amateurish fallacy used only by people who simply have no more idea how to do history than creationists know how to do science.)

        ”The difficulty with (2) is that there is simply no evidence that Jesus had a son called Judas.’

        Why would we expect Paul to mention Judas the son of Jesus if he felt no need to mention Judas the betrayer of Jesus?

        1. Stevan Davies recently drew attention to the preponderance of HJ scholars who have been trained through seminaries, but simply retorts with “absurd!” when one suggests that there is little validity to simply accepting the acclaimed author of an ancient text at face value; Mark Goodacre has posted an audio declaring tolerant bonhomie with a mythicist, but concludes with the old fallacy that if Jesus goes so must Pilate and Caesar; McGrath is simply too much a simpleton to even enter the debate and surely an embarrassment to anyone, even an HJ supporter, with an average IQ. I have finally come to the conclusion that Butler does not censure him speaking on their behalf because they are pretending not to know him.

          I am looking forward to this new book on the demise of authenticity BUT Jesus surely existed etc etc etc.: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0567377237/freeratidiscb-20

        2. I’m puzzled by Dr. Goodacre’s last response to your questions, Steven, namely:

          “Most of your questions appear to be aimed at some kind of fundamentalist approach to the New Testament and are therefore irrelevant to this particular discussion as well as to other discussions here.”

          Can somebody decode this statement? At first I thought it was the kind of “lashing out” that McG engages in — you know, calling anyone who disagrees with him a creationist. But surely Dr. “I-say-old-chap” Goodacre wouldn’t do such a thing.

          1. “Fundamentalist approach”? Oh, but Tim, one should beware of attempts at decoding for fear of more decoding of the decoding becoming necessary, as seems necessarily necessary throughout the thread in question, correlations and contradictions, notwithstanding.

            I’m reminded of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland (Chapter 9):

            ‘Be what you would seem to be’–or if you’d like it put more simply–‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'”
            “I think I should understand that better,” Alice said very politely, “`if I had it written down: but I can’t quite follow it as you say it.”
            “That’s nothing to what I could say if I chose,” the Duchess replied, in a pleased tone.
            “Pray don’t trouble yourself to say it any longer than that,” said Alice.

            I do wonder if the same kinds of correlations and contradictions would arise in another two thousand years should names be scrutinized in a tomb possibly belonging to Harry Potter.

            1. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

              “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

              “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

    2. Dr. Goodacre points out that finding an ossuary for Jesus’ son contradicts 2,000 years of tradition. He concludes:

      “In a case that requires extraordinary correlation, extraordinary contradiction simply will not do.”

      Correct my if I’m wrong, but isn’t there a 2,000 year-old tradition that says the tomb was empty on Easter morning? Doesn’t the NT tell us that the body was somehow magically resurrected, transformed, and glorified? And that this same body launched from Earth, rocketed up into the sky, and disappeared behind a cloud?

      Assuming the body of Christ attained a speed slightly under the speed of light shortly after lift-off, he’s still streaking through the Milky Way even as I write this. Hence, finding a bone-box with Jesus’ bodily remains doesn’t fit with “the tradition.” The contradiction represented by the existence of offspring seems to pale in comparison.

      I suppose the difference is that for HJ scholars, the miraculous is ignored, placed to one side. On such matters the gospels cannot be trusted. However, when the evangelists discuss mundane items such as the names of relatives, they must be conveying the truth. And not just truth, but exclusive truth, for the absence of evidence — the silence of the NT writers — is incontrovertible proof that Judah, the son of Jesus, never existed.

      The lesson for today: The argument from absence when used for a holy purpose is not a fallacy.

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