Fight Club! Historical Jesus Scholars Take On the Christ Mythicists!

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by Neil Godfrey

Here they come. The advance warning was R. Joseph Hoffmann‘s Mythtic Pizza and Cold-cocked Scholars. He promises that within a week (apocalypse coming!) we will see on his blog “three essay-length responses to Richard C. Carrier’s ideas: The first by [R. Joseph Hoffmann], the second by Professor Maurice Casey of the University of Nottingham, and the third by Stephanie Fisher as specialist in Q-studies.” I haven’t been this excited since I was a little kid in side-show alley at our city’s annual exhibition. Recall the tremors as I came to the tent-boxing pavilion. You knew you were approaching it when you heard the war-like beating of a bass drum. On a raised platform iron-faced and red and gold robed boxers stood in a row beside the drummer yelling out the challenge for anyone to dare enter the ring.


Hoffmann whets our blood-craving appetite by announcing the intellectual weapons to be pitted against each other. Those championing the historical Jesus have “the complex evidence of textual and linguistic studies” and “hermeneutics”. (By “hermeneutics” I think he might mean in particular the full spanner-set of criteriology: the criteria of embarrassment, double dissimilarity, multiple attestation, coherence, etc.) Against these we have the mythicists using scientific method:

these same folk who hold up the scientific method to religionists want to walk past the complex evidence of textual and linguistic studies as though it weren’t there. ”Hermeneutics” for them is just a word theologians like to throw around to impress seminarians . . .

Textual and linguistic studies as weapons for historicity? I think that must include those incisive analyses that identify Aramaic words in the Gospels or lying behind the current Greek words. I wonder how the scientific method will compete against that slam-dunk evidence that the Gospels really were quoting the Aramaic words of an Aramaic speaking historical Jesus? It’s going to be a tough fight.

Just like a pugilist taunting his opponent to build pre-fight publicity Hoffmann has come out and called his opponents ghetto dwellers, loudmouths, mosquitoes, buggers, nutters, carriers of dengue and malaria, flat-earthers, conspiracy theorists, a rabble, sensationalists, impetuous amateurs, spewers of lunacy, inanity and idiocy. But what’s the most damning indictment of all? They insult their opponents. How low can these spewing ghetto-dwelling buggers, nutters and disease-carrying mosquitoes get?

And Hoffmann knows his insults are powerful weapons. He writes:

Insult works. Spew works. Faitheist baiting works. What works works.

And all for what? Why all Bart Ehrman ever did was have “the audacity to suggest that Jesus actually existed.” Honest and cross my heart and hope to die! That’s all Ehrman was guilty of! So Bambi-eyes innocent Hoffmann assures his readers. (Curiously he has no room to cite Carrier’s supposed insults, either. No doubt for good reason. Had he quoted anything of Carrier’s it would have likely demonstrated that Carrier was more about calling a spade a spade than stooping to labeling others “disease-carrying mosquitoes”.)

Thus we have on the one side those who are dedicated to “the calm and considered academic study of religion”, “the discussion of the lacunae of ancient history”, “textual and linguistic studies” and “hermeneutics”. And on the other, well, disease-carrying mosquitoes.

Hoffmann has made it abundantly clear that he is not interested in academic discussion with anyone arguing a mythicist hypothesis. There is no room for debate. One cannot argue with one who questions the establishment view. Ehrman himself said the same. He wrote in his book, Did Jesus Exist?, that it was not written to engage with mythicists, because, he claimed, mythicists will not change their minds. So he didn’t even try to present a serious academic dialogue for neutral bystanders to assess. All the hard work disappears if you can label your opponents as “closed-minded” and thereby excuse yourself from having to address their arguments. Insult and spew work much better among the converted.

Hoffmann’s tactics are the tactics of fear. He fears mythicist arguments:

the single greatest threat, next to fundamentalism, to the calm and considered academic study of religion. . . . .

But more to the point, the endorsement of amateurs by amateurs is becoming a rampant, annoying and distressing problem for biblical scholarship—one that apparently others in my discipline think will go away by assuming, as I do not, that saner heads will prevail.

You don’t try to reason with disease-carrying mosquitoes. You exterminate them.

Hoffmann touches on the fulcrum of what this debate is truly about. It is between those scholars who like the calm and considered deliberations undertaken in their isolated ivory towers, well away from the mosquito-infested ghettos of what people can see to be common sense. The likes of evolutionists Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers might dirty their grubby ghetto-tainted hands by sharing their research and studies with the mob out there and demonstrate that belief in evolution is indeed a simple matter of common sense to anyone who looks at the evidence. But never let a New Testament scholar stoop to such vulgarities. Textual and hermeneutical studies are far too intellectually refined to be exposed to the ghetto-dwellers.

The double irony here is that anyone who has read Hoffmann’s words over past years will be entirely excused for thinking he himself is an atheist and even a “Christ Mythtic”. But one also soon learns on reading more of R. Joseph Hoffmann that his ego will never allow anyone to identify him with any entirely common and banal concept as “atheist” or “mythicist”. Push him for a response to either of these positions and you will be fed an eruption of jargon that will leave all but the most ardent groupie fans like Stephanie Fisher drooling over his ever-so-erudite and incomprehensible views. His intellect is far too ethereal to be identified with entirely common “atheists” or “mythicists”.

But let’s not hide the best arguments Hoffmann has to offer. He draws them out even here in this initial foray.

We know more about Jesus than we know about a great many figures that we think existed, from far fewer sources—often from faint allusions in the work of only one ancient writer. Did Diogenes exist? Cincinnatus? Outside the gospels, Pontius Pilate is virtually unknown except for a reference in Tacitus and mentions in Philo and Josephus, if we discount the so-called Pilate stone.

Gosh, apart from Pilate being mentioned in Tacitus, and again in Philo, and also in Josephus and then again in his own inscription — he’s about as unattested in the record as is Jesus!

The simple fact is that Hoffmann, like Ehrman and most scholars of historical Jesus whose works I have read, has never stopped to question till now exactly how historians know of the existence of past figures. They truly have always taken the existence of Jesus for granted and never stopped to ask — at least not stopped to ask seriously — how we know. They have been content with the same answers that satisfy the apologists. Why, we find him mentioned in records 80 or more years after he was supposed to have existed. And the earliest of those are ambiguous about whether they are referring to someone named “Jesus” and whether he was a literal historical figure. Except for Josephus. Historians used to reject those passages in Josephus as outright forgeries up until the aftermath of the Second World War when Holocaust guilt led academia to find worthy values in all things Jewish. Jesus was the best of the Jews and recognized by the Jews. Any expressions of doubt were kicked out as anti-semitic. Even Judas became a well-meaning lover of Jesus.

The simple answer is that we know certain people existed because of primary evidence (e.g. coins and stone monuments from their time), and because of writings of a certain genre (with an interest in discussing facts) and established provenance, multiply and independently attested and supportable by reference to the primary evidence, give us good reasons for believing in the historicity of certain persons:

Scholars like Hoffmann and Ehrman and others give us no indication that they have ever stopped to think this through. As Thomas L. Thompson himself has pointed out from the prudent safety of his retirement, they have always simply assumed that there was a historical Jesus to discover.

Hoffmann repeats Ehrman’s curious claim that mythicists regularly cite Albert Schweitzer in support of mythicism. I never knew that and Hoffmann does not give us a citation. I myself have cited Schweitzer, but I have also always made it known that the reason I do so is because he is not a mythicist. That is what lends strength to the point I am making when I do quote him. Schweitzer understood the limitations of what generally passes for historical method far better than nearly every contemporary historical Jesus scholar I have read:

In reality, however, these writers [those arguing for the historicity of Jesus against mythicists] are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability. (From page 402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.)

Little wonder that Schweitzer called upon Christians to let go of their faith in an unknowable historical Jesus (whose very existence could not even pass the theoretical norms of positive probability) and turn to a new metaphysic. Those suburban churches that I see with banners proclaiming the heavenly existence of Jesus and his life today in our hearts, I wonder, have grasped far more of Schweitzer’s intent than many scholars.


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73 thoughts on “Fight Club! Historical Jesus Scholars Take On the Christ Mythicists!”

  1. Hi Neil. Thanks for your superb rebuttal of Hoffman’s disgraceful polemic.

    As one who gnashes teeth in the outer darkness with Acharya S, I have found the absence of rational engagement on the Christ myth debate highly perplexing, so welcome Ehrman’s self-directed hand grenade as showing the real status of the scholarship.

    Acharya has now moved on from the rather tawdry statue debate to analyse Ehrman’s discussion of Justin Martyr’s supposed familiarity with the gospels, yet another example where the indifference to facts by the new Jesus fundamentalists is readily exposed.

  2. Hoffman is not contrasting scientific methods against hermeneutics, as you imply here. His point is that the mythicists claim to use scientific methods but merely cherry-pick the methods they prefer (while ignoring others relevant to the field), and misapply even the few they have selected. He says:

    The disease these buggers spread is ignorance disguised as common sense. They are the single greatest threat, next to fundamentalism, to the calm and considered academic study of religion, touting the scientific method as their Mod Op while ignoring its application to historical study.

    Embarrassing–really–because these same folk who hold up the scientific method to religionists want to walk past the complex evidence of textual and linguistic studies as though it weren’t there.

    I appreciate your ideological need to believe that the mythicists are using scientific methods while the historicists are not, but that simply isn’t true and it’s not what Hoffman is saying. In fact, he says the opposite:

    Carrier is committed to making up methods as he goes along and pretending that he has found an evidence-based way of approaching the biblical books.

    Making up methods as you go along is not a scientific process.

    Of course the fatal weakness for modern mythicism is its failure to marshal contemporary scholars with recognised, peer-reviewed expertise in any relevant field. As Hoffman points out:

    The free thought rabble have chosen Carrier as their standard bearer, without any reason to put their trust in his inane conclusions and methods—a man who has never published a significant piece of biblical scholarship, never been peer reviewed (peers?), never been vetted, and never held an academic position.

    You say:

    (By “hermeneutics” I think he might mean the full spanner set of criteriology: the criteria of embarrassment, double dissimilarity, multiple attestation, coherence, etc.)

    Actually he means a lot more than that. Hermeneutics involves socio-historical context, literary context, genre, imagery, and a whole range of other considerations. It’s not just about criteriology. You would know this if you’d studied hermeneutics.

    1. Duh! Of course Hoffmann believes what the mythicists calls “scientific method” is only a fake toy and not the real thing. But do allow me to turn the irony of his own words — which I quoted — back on him for effect.

      And of course hermeneutics means more than criteriology, but when it comes to supposedly establishing the historicity of an event itself in the gospels then criteriology is what it comes down to. Only apologists fall back on the argument that a real social custom or person or place in a narrative is evidence the narrative is itself historical. Surely! But no, now you remind me, I guess even scholars draw that one out, too. So what do you want me to do? Edit what I originally wrote to make the historicist arguments sound even more fallacious than they already are by virtue of criteriology?

    2. Hoffman seems to ignore that “hermeneutics” are, by *definition* intellectual shortcuts. They are ways of getting at probable conclusions quickly, without doing the heavy lifting required to sift through the evidence carefully, and weigh probabilities, etc. They are not to be employed for reaching firm conclusions, *ever*.

      Hoffman scoffs at Bayes’ Theorem as one who has obviously got no clue what it is or how it works. Suggesting it’s anything like ‘picking one’s methods to suit one’s conclusions’ is absurd: Bayes’ Theorem is the most widely accepted description of proper inference! Rejecting it as irrelevant is as much as admitting that New Testament scholarship follows its own rules, and logical reasoning be damned!

      He wants his guild to get the authoritative status of the hard sciences, but rejects the suggestion that the methodologies need to be scrutinized by the same logically rigorous standards as actual sciences. He defends his guild’s use of the tools of the trade with hand waving (it’s all very complicated, you see, so those of us without degrees in Biblical studies couldn’t hope to understand…).

      I’m so puzzled by this trend among NT scholars and theologians, of labeling themselves as “historians” whenever the topic of historicity comes up–despite having no formal training in history. But what Hoffman does takes it to the next level: labeling an ACTUAL historian an ‘amateur’ in the field in contrast to those of his guild. Brilliant! If there were any integrity to NT scholarship (I almost said “any validity”), they would embrace the input of actual historians in refining their methods.

      I posted a long and courteous response on Hoffman’s article, calling him out on some of these inconsistencies. The post was removed. I was careful to say nothing even discourteous. I guess that, to Hoffman, publicly disagreeing with him is discourteous enough. Sigh.

      1. “hermeneutics” are, by *definition* intellectual shortcuts.

        Perhaps you’re thinking of “heuristics”. Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation.

      2. What I take away from Hoffmann’s scoffing at Bayes’ theorem is that the only time he’s seen it even mentioned is due to Richard Carrier and mythicism. He thinks that it’s invalid because it’s being used to argue for an “a priori” invalid conclusion. But he doesn’t realize that proper Bayesian reasoning is just as valid — and pervasive, as far as correct thinking — as, say, modus tollens. If someone used a basic syllogism to “prove” that Jesus didn’t exist, this is not an indictment of formal logic.

      3. I’ve come too late to the party *le sigh* – once again – but if you are still around and you happen to have saved a copy of your “long and courteous reply” to Hoffman’s article, I would surely love to read it!

    3. >>
      Carrier is committed to making up methods as he goes along and pretending that he has found an evidence-based way of approaching the biblical books.

      Making up methods as you go along is not a scientific process.

      Why not? When one is faced with a question that the existing methods are not suited to answer, making new methods is exactly the scientific way. Of course one should check the validity of the new methods and so on, but I think that without people making new methods to adress questions that the old methods are unable to answer, there can be no scientific progress.

      1. This is saying well what I said badly. Hoffman pretends Carrier’s use of Bayes’ Theorem is an exercise of convenience, rather than a way of verifying the validity of the methods he is using. Hoffman verifies the validity of his methods by appealing to “how we’ve always done it.” You get the impression, from his exhausted tone when discussing Bayes’ Theorem and Richard Carrier, that what he really thinks is “All of this mathematics seems a bit overly complicated, no? Can’t we just go back to talking about things like Embarrassment?”

        1. Aside the heremeneutics/heuristics “confusion” I don’t think your comment was badly worded. And just to be clear: I was replying to comment #2 by Dave Burke, not to your reply to it. Anyway, the important thing is we agree on this.

          1. The hermeneutics thing was so weird! Shame on me. But, having had to rethink it based on, well, *reading*, the more I see that there’s no more substance to what he’s saying anyway.

            Hermeneutics is just the NAME for the very methodologies that Carrier is rightly calling into question. Simply giving the collection of methods a name doesn’t legitimate them or serve as a rebuttal to arguments leveled against those methods. As Carrier (and others) point out: when the rigorous application of your methods produces scores of mutually exclusive answers, it’s difficult to convince a lay person that your methods are nonetheless legitimate.

            On the one hand I can understand how outside criticism would trigger such a hostile response (“how *dare* they question our entire discipline?!”). On the other, if there was a valid response, I expect we would have heard it by now. Perhaps we’ve missed it, distracted as we have been, by all of the hand-waving and pomp.

            Anyway. Bleh.

  3. An article by Maurice Casey?

    The man is such an expert on the historical Jesus that it is though he had stalked the guy.

    Maurice Casey kindly sent me a verbatim report of what Jesus said at the Last Supper (Jesus’s words in Aramaic, of course, kindly translated by Maurice for me).

    Gosh, it is as though Casey had been there, taking notes.

    Thus Jesus ‘took’ the unleavened ‘bread’, and ‘said a blessing’, a blessing of God, not of the bread. He ‘broke’ it and started to share it out, with his interpretation of it. His actual words were something very like this:
    nesubhū! denāh hū’ gishmī.
    Take! This it/is body-my.

    I think Casey must have bought the commemorative DVD of the event that Jesus was selling to be able to tell us Jesus’s actual words in Aramaic.

    Or possibly Maurice is just psychic.

    After all, Casey knows not only what Jesus had said, but knows that Jesus waited until they had all had a big drink before saying it.

    Jesus next took a large enough cup to be passed round the whole group. He blessed God again, and they all drank some of the wine before he interpreted it. Jesus then began the symbolic interpretation of the wine as his blood, probably using the Aramaic words demī denāh, literally ‘blood-my this’. There is again no direct Aramaic equivalent for ‘is’. The symbolic context is too strong for anyone to have seriously felt that they had drunk blood. At the same time, this was a potential problem, sensibly reduced by giving the interpretation after they had all drunk from the common cup.


    On related news, Banquo waited until everybody was seated at the table before appearing to Macbeth.

    Does any historian in any field of ancient history ever claim to be able to tell us the exact words of say Julius Caesar, or Augustus, or Caligula at a specific event?

    I’m sure Casey will do a much better job than Bart Ehrman, who managed to claim that Pliny’s letter about Christians was letter number 10 – a mistake of fact so basic that it makes you wonder if Bart has ever been on an internet board and tried to learn how to defend his ideas against public scrutiny.

    I’m sure if he did that , he would learn to get his facts right, before he started boasting about being the only scholar in the village.

  4. This battle of the blogs is intriguing. The Jesus fundies censor anyone who disagrees with them, while rational scholars (such as Neil) allow spewers like Dave Burke to dig their own grave, give themselves enough rope, etc. I would not bother trying to post at Ehrman, Hoffman, Verenna etc blogs, since they are just a coward’s echo chamber. By contrast, free thought nation, Murdock’s site, would welcome any apologist who deigns to sully their reputation by posting.

    Murdock’s thread on Ehrman is at http://freethoughtnation.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=3923&start=315&sid=829a2a0e868eba6631a2c3d38803bba0

    Her demolition of the Justin Martyr lies from Ehrman’s disgusting book is at http://www.freethoughtnation.com/contributing-writers/63-acharya-s/679-does-justin-martyr-quote-the-gospels.html (some loading problems – you can see the post at pdf link)

    Dave Burke and other gutless wonders should take us on. They won’t because they know they are spouting lies.

  5. I do hope that Hoffman and his tent-boxers will be able to live up to the hype. So far though, if one compares Richard Carrier’s rant to Hoffman’s, it doesn’t look so good for historicism. When Carrier wrote his hard-hitting attack piece, he at least attacked Ehrman’s arguments and offered counter-claims with citations, instead of calling Ehrman a gangrenous sewer crocodile or something.[1] *rolleyes*

    One thing Hoffman’s rant did bring home for me was how much of the the historicists’ emotional response is tribal defense. The one argument they use, over and over and over again, even more than “James, the brother of Jesus,” is that their opponents are not real, true members of the Guild. “Carrier may have the right piece of parchment hanging on his wall, but by Jove, he hasn’t been peer-reviewed[2] or vetted (by us), and he is not a professor! HARRUMPH! HA-RRRRRUMPH!”

    It’s really hard not to picture the historicists as a bunch of British gents with handlebar mustaches in some mahogany-paneled officers’ club scoffing at the poor breeding of the peasants knocking on the door (or trying to kick it down, in the words of one of Hoffman’s supporters). Hoffman’s post evinces little to no interest in discussing the issue under consideration (the historicity, or lack thereof, of Jesus). Instead, it is all about defending the special turf of the Guild against intruding outsiders. Even the degree to which they are right (expertise does matter) gets lost in the storms of vitriol.

    I think the main reason for this is, face it, the crappy data on which NT scholars have to base their theories. Unlike a physicist or evolutionary biologist confronted by Creationists, they don’t have, and can never have, knock-down, drag-out evidence to drop on the heads of their opponents. “We can accurately model the behavior of the Cosmos from the sub-atomic level, on up to the level of billions of galaxies, often to a level of precision comparable to measuring the distance from New York to L.A. down to the width of a human hair–and we don’t ever have to include a variable in any of our equations, to account for the existence or behavior, of any Invisible Magic Person.” So says the physicist. “See this? It’s called a fossil.” So says the evolutionary biologist.

    NT scholars are stuck with, “Well, we have these manuscripts, which are copies of copies of copies of evangelistic propaganda written by people with theological axes to grind, who were more interested in scriptural correspondences and narrative flow than historical accuracy, and all of those copyists also had their own theological agendas and often manipulated the texts when it suited them, and sometimes they just screwed up. Now if we analyze these manuscripts very carefully, we think we can peel back the layers of precursor manuscripts they were derived from. From these, we think we can deduce an oral tradition going back, ultimately, to the historical Jesus.”

    It’s nowhere near as impressive or as open-and-shut as the scientific consensuses of other scholarly fields. The source material is just too dodgy and subject to interpretation. Their mythicist opponents are stuck with the same data, so a conclusive win for either side is likely to be elusive. Historicists can take their stand on references of Jesus being “born of a woman, born under the Law,” “the seed of Abraham,” the descendant of David, who was crucified and bled, but they squirm when confronted with the hundreds of places where Epistle writers bypass the life and words of the great man they adored enough to worship as the creator of the universe,[3] and quote scripture passages about people like Abraham, Isaac, Esau, Baalam, etc. instead. They must also deal with the paradox of a Jesus who is unremarkable to the point that even his devotees do not or cannot marinate their writings in his life and words, and who fails to earn the notice of outsiders…yet this man is rapidly exalted to monotheistic godhood by his followers and family (brothers).

    For mythicists, it’s the obverse. The lofty theology and the “Great Silence” fit their theory perfectly, but they have to work at various explanations for the “human-sounding” passages that do appear in the Epistles (Paul’s, in particular), explain why the Gospels seem to portray Jesus as more divine over time, rather than less (as would be expected if the direction of development was from a wholly divine Jesus to one who was also a man on Earth), various “embarrassing” details, etc., and how a lofty, spiritual channeled entity came to be regarded as a man of flesh and blood who wandered the wilderness of Galilee and took a crap every day.

    Each side can argue that theirs is the best interpretation of the dodgy, and often contradictory data, but neither can provide arguments or evidence that will force the other side to concede (again, unlike fields such as physics and biology, where experiment and observation are possible). So, it comes down to group membership. The historicists are members of the Guild, the Real, True Serious Scholars who are defined as such by their adherence to the Consensus. Mythicists (at least the prominent ones that I know of) are either New Atheists (Doherty, Carrier, Price), or New Age-type mystics (Murdock, Freke and Gandy). Since these are both “fringe” groups, even credentialed persons who are members (Price, Carrier) become Other to the Guild, and lose the mantle of Real, True, Serious Scholarship.

    And so, the “debate” gets derailed from the question of Jesus’ existence, to the rather more important issue of the people on the other side of the fence being disease-carrying mosquitos/closet Fundamentalists writing books for a quick buck.


    1. In the interests of of clarity, I do not mean in any way to call Ehrman a gangrenous sewer crocodile or imply that he is in any way like one. This is a comparison to Hoffman’s comparing mythicists to “disease-carrying mosquitoes,” making the point that Carrier didn’t say something of this sort about Bart Ehrman. To the contrary, he expressed respect for Ehrman, upheld the integrity of his other works, and even recommended them to his commenters.

    2. IIRC, Carrier did have his book Proving History peer reviewed, but I don’t know by what academic institution.

    3. In Galatians 2:2, Paul says he explained the Gospel he taught to the Gentiles to the original leaders. The dispute that came up then (according to Paul) and what he is arguing in the letter as a whole, is: circumcision and obedience to the Torah laws, rather than the metaphysics of who or what Jesus is. Though we might imagine scenarios where Paul concealed his lofty spiritual theology of Christ as creator and sustainer of all things seated in glory at the right hand of Yahweh, whether or not one is circumcised is a rather…private matter, so if James and his followers were aware of Paul’s teachings on circumcision, it seems unlikely that they’d be ignorant of his teachings about Jesus himself.

    1. His questioning of Carrier’s credentials is exactly what I called him out for in my comment (which he deleted). I said something to the effect of:

      Hoffman says of Carrier that he “has never published a significant piece of biblical scholarship, never been peer reviewed (peers), never been vetted, and never held an academic position.” Besides being totally irrelevant to the question of his methods, these allegations are almost entirely false.

      His latest work was peer reviewed, contrary to Hoffman’s assertion, as have been many his other essays in the field of History. As for published work on Biblical Criticism, Hoffman himself has published some of Carrier’s work–which he only later rejected as bad scholarship, after Carrier publicly criticized Hoffman’s volume. Does a work cease to be serious scholarship when Hoffman’s personal opinion of the author changes? If not, is Hoffman in the habit of publishing the work of ‘amateurs’?


  6. i think the self-elevating, faux esotericism of the Biblical Scholars that attack Carrier are completely absurd. I really cannot believe they think that the canons of Biblical Scholarship are so far outside the comprehension of an expert in the History of the relevant period.. If anything it is the other way around because not only does Carrier have the Historical knowledge.. he also has educated himself on New Testament studies… and the kicker is his skill at logical which allows him to dismantle all their invalid methods and reasoning… since the combat analogy was raised, here is my prediction: Carrier (Neo) vs Ehrman, Hoffman, Casey, Fisher (Agent Smiths) — and you know the outcome..

  7. I haven’t had a chance to catch up with the comments on Hoffmann’s blog post but an online friend sent me the following:

    April 24, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    Dr. Hoffman, I just listened to your interesting appearance on “Point of Inquiry” (15 June 2007) and was surprised to hear you deny the historicity of Jesus. Do you still hold to that? Because I had gotten the opposite impression from reading your blog.

    [See comment #3 above for the link Ben provided.]


    April 25, 2012 at 1:36 am

    “I have often had doubts about the historicity of Jesus. Many critical NT scholars and even theologians do. Have a look at what’s coming next week.”

    April 25, 2012 at 1:49 am

    “I still think the question is intrinsically interesting. Everything depends on how it’s approached. What I have said ultimately in a series on the topic is that the evidence doesn’t permit us to judge absolutely; I think I am still in that camp, though I tend to be persuaded more and more that Jesus existed.”

    So why does the same R. Joseph Hoffmann call mythicism lunacy, even comparing it with the Piltdown Man Hoax? There seems to be something less than stable at work here. Is his hostility to mythicism principally personal? Does he really hate Carrier so much? Or is he feeling the humiliation of representing a “discipline” that is becoming the laughing stock of evolutionary scientists — those people not a few theologians and bible scholars have liked to compare themselves with as intellectual authorities. Are more people coming to see that one particular emperor really is not wearing any clothes at all?

    Or does it come down to plain old intellectual snobbery? Does Hoffmann feel his precious subject of erudite contemplation is being dragged into the mud if its fundamentals and basics are discovered to be simple enough for even commoners to understand? How can an intellectual be seen to have the same conclusions as the rabble?

    1. Just as an update, Hoffmann is now blatantly lying on his blog about his position on historicity in 2007 (http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/news-from-the-freethought-ghetto/#comment-5616): “I wouldn’t put too much stock in a Point of Inquiry interview, in any event, since I have been fairly public about the degree of my skepticism, but it is not as radical as it may have “sounded”: “The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the kingdom of God, who founded the kingdom of heaven upon earth and died to give his work its final consecration never existed….” ch 20 of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus. It doesn’t mean that Jesus did not exist but that the Jesus of Church teaching and doctrine did not exist. Sorry to disappoint you but there has been no game change or flip flop here. Just radical conclusions that have been around for more than a century.”

      So it looks like we have to drag out the extended context (http://www.pointofinquiry.org/r_joseph_hoffmann_the_jesus_project/ at timestamp 22:44) Hoffmann said: “I happen to believe that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist–I happen to believe that…but I’m completely persuadable. You just have to sort of sit me down and show me the historical elements in the gospels which point me in the direction of a plausible historical figure who is more plausible than the alternative explanation for the origins of Christianity.”

      The context of the entire podcast is the open inquiry behind The Jesus Project from mythicism to historicity. Not magical historicity vs. limited historicity. I’m guessing Hoffmann is hoping that he can reframe the “I happen to believe that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist” bit for people on his blog and hope that people won’t bother to go back and actually listen to the whole thing. I’ve emailed Carrier and DJ Grothe about it.

      It sounds like Hoffmann was a questioning historicist from his earlier work and then started doubting altogether. Perhaps all the trouble from trying to open up the case file on mythicism for The Jesus Project reverted him back to a historicist position as people took aim at him. Nothing really wrong with that. But to pretend like the mind changing didn’t happen and retcon like this? Gee, the truth really would knock the wind out of Hoffman’s current derision war path wouldn’t it? He must be taking notes out of the Mitt Romney playbook where Romney claims he never recommended an individual mandate at a national level for President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and then congratulated Obama for taking his advice just before the Republicans started listening to the Tea Party even though we have plenty of youtube videos and Romney’s own Op Ed in USA Today saying the opposite (sorry Neil, if you don’t know US politics).

      1. Hoffmann lying, and Carrier says he believes Ehrman is now lying to cover up his mistakes, and to complete the trio we now have James McGrath retaliating with outright falsehoods and character attacks for my mistake in pointing out that it was he who was the guilty party who declared that there was but “ONE VIEW” of cosmology among the ancients when he was scoffing at variant views that I posted from Seneca, Philo and Plutarch. (Of course, many of us are aware that Ehrman falsely accused Doherty of claiming that the ancient had only a single view of the universe.)

        The source of the discussion: McGrath’s repeated assertions of THE singular VIEW of cosmology in attacking the variants addressed by myself and Doherty:

        and several exchanges follow — with McGrath’s latest resorting to declaring me either insane and in need of compassion or simply a contemptible liar: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/03/09/ancient-beliefs-about-heavenly-realms-demons-and-the-end-of-the-world/

        The post where Dr McGrath repeatedly insisted that there was only ONE VIEW of the universe at the time in order to poo-pooh Doherty’s claims otherwise is Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world.

        So once again the historicists look like a pretty sorry camp. Hoffmann, Ehrman, McGrath, all falling over themselves in a heap of falsehoods and character attacks.

          1. Possibly Wells did too, when Hoffman wrote his foreword to Wells’s book – ‘The Jesus Legend’.

            Wells little realised that when Hoffman was writing the foreword for his book, that Hoffman regarded mythicism as sheer crackpottery and that Hoffman was *that* close to putting lines like ‘disease carrying mosquitoes’ into his foreword 🙂

          2. For the uninitiated — CSI = Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. It’s where I had thought he stood for some time, too, given his message in a book by G. A. Wells and his own publications (e.g. Jesus outside the gospels and The secret gospels) that looked for all the world like handy manuals for mythicists.

          3. G. A. Wells is a scholar and Hoffmann responded to those who criticized him for having the wrong credentials by pointing out that his professorial appointment in German made him closer to German theology than many Anglo-American contemporaries. Doherty speaks in a language directed to a general educated lay audience. He is a democratizer of knowledge. I think we know by now Hoffmann’s intellectual elitism and why he would despise anything that could be associated with “popularizing” understanding. He would consider the words “popularizing understanding” to be an oxymoron. Carrier is also about popularlizing understanding. This could be idle armchair speculation but I wonder if there is theme underlying Hoffmann’s change of spots over the mythicism-historicism question.

  8. “Or does it come down to plain old intellectual snobbery? Does Hoffmann feel his precious subject of erudite contemplation is being dragged into the mud if its fundamentals and basics are discovered to be simple enough for even commoners to understand?”

    It does appear that way. He gives the impression that he thinks only scholars who have devoted their life to studying the issue can have an opinion on the subject of the historical Jesus. So, he’s justified in saying that there may not have been a historical figure, but virtually anyone else is not.

  9. Re “James brother of the Lord”, I’m not sure why nobody is as excited as I am about that whole section of Galatians (1:18-20) being missing from both Marcion’s Apostolikon and Irenaeus “Adversus Haereses”. Irenaeus also quotes Gal. 2:1 but the line he quotes does not contain the key word “again” which is a further indication that his Galatians did not contain Paul’s “first” visit to Jerusalem in 1:18-20.

    Seeing the missing “again” at the top of “Adversus Haereses” here – http://www.textexcavation.com/documents/images/ah3p040.jpg

    See the missing passage in reconstructed Marcion here (pdf) – http://www.deusdiapente.net/science/Bible%20Research/Paul%20to%20the%20Galatians%20%28Marcion%29.pdf

    Plus, Paul saying he met Peter and James contradicts v. 22 which says he was not personally known in Judea.

    So, to my mind, the whole “brother” passage is an interpolation. Does everybody already know this, or are you just all ignoring me?

    1. Will,

      Regarding Paul’s possible interpolation of 1:18-20, yes, I’m very interested. Codex Sinaiticus I just checked has “again” at 2:1. That’s what, 400 CE? What is your evidence this is interpolated?

      1. I’m pretty sure Tertullian would have had a field day with Marcion if either Paul met the blood brother of a [Marcion’s] phantom or if Tertullian had evidence that Marcion removed this passage. It’s not a slam dunk argument for interpolation, but it should make us a bit skeptical; and an argument that Paul met Jesus’ blood brother James is only as strong as our confidence in the integrity of that passage.

      2. The evidence is the absences in Marcion and Irenaeus, and the seeming contradiction with 1:22.

        I’m suggesting interpolation some time between Irenaeus and AD 400. Probably an anti-Marcionite tendency to tie Paul more firmly in to the authority of Peter and James.

        There’s also the phrase, “I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.” (Gal. 1:20)… what better evidence that something fishy is afoot?! ;D

        1. Contrary to its oft-repeated negation, absence of evidence being evidence of absence is a valid argument. The absence of evidence being evidence of absence is proportionally as strong as the presence of said evidence would be evidence for something. The only time when absence of evidence is not evidence of absence is when a hypothesis is unfalsifiable or when the evidence exists independently of the hypothesis; i.e. P(H | E) = P(H).

          This is why more people — especially scholars — need to understand Bayes’ theorem more. Absence may be strong or weak evidence, but it is evidence nonetheless.

        2. Yes Will, this is what you and I think. But Ehrman has a different take. He says that when Paul says he is not lying, he believes him. Paul said it, Ehrman believes it, and that settles it.

  10. You guys were expecting scholarship from Ehrman?

    What? Get real, guys! Recalibrate. There ain’t no way Bart will write scholarly works about mythicism.

    Carrier seems to expect Did Jesus Exist to be a work of scholarship written for scholars in the academy and with extensive engagement with scholarship, rather than what it is, a popular book written for a broad audience.

  11. Ehrman’s more complete response re Carrier’s review. It discusses Carrier’s defense of Doherty, and I suspect he was being very unfair in doing so. He apparently won’t be responding further on his blog about the Carrier review. His main defense seems to be that he wasn’t writing DJE? for scholars and that if he had been doing that, it would be a very different kind of product. Apparently, that is all that is to be heard from him on the matter as he said:

    I have had my say now, in an attempt to show my scholarly competence. I do not plan on pursuing the matter time and time again in this medium.

  12. So Ehrman now repeats a criticism we heard from McGrath who accuses Doherty of leading readers to think a scholar he quotes believes Christ was crucified in heaven. Doherty’s response is ignored, of course. As is the very obvious point made by Doherty that his whole argument is a challenge to mainstream scholarly conclusions. On this point it looks like Ehrman is simply repeating a fatuous accusation that originated with McGrath who will never let a mythicist counter-reply deflect him.

    Mythicists have been criticized (often unjustly) for not engaging with the mainstream scholarship. But that’s exactly what Ehrman faults Doherty for doing now — engaging with the scholarship.

    It is true that Doherty acknowledges that scholars disagree with him on this, that, or the other thing. But the way he builds his arguments typically makes it appear that he is writing as a scholar among scholars . . .

    Doherty makes his educational background very clear. And he engages with the scholarship in a scholarly manner — including making it very clear he is arguing a view they have not themselves argued. That is a no-no. So a mythicist is damned even if he engages seriously with the scholarship. And I don’t really think it would make any difference if Doherty reminded readers in every second sentence that he was arguing a mythicist position and that the scholar he was quoting was not a mythicist.

    Ehrman has made it clear. If we were hoping for a scholarly dealing with the arguments of mythicism Ehrman’s book is not it. It is not written for scholars, he points out.

    So I guess historicists will just have to keep on saying the mythicist arguments were dealt with by “someone else” long ago and by no-one since. Yes?

  13. Maurice Casey shows up as a British Scholar in the New Testament area – is he a real historian or another “New Testament Historian” with theologian credentials? The wikipedia page doesn’t say and I don’t care to really look further if he’s a friend of Hoffman. Stephanie Fisher comes up a blank – is she the photographer or the American Idol reject? I really hope she has a PhD in History – well, really, she needs more. If Richard Carrier is an amateur, surely the scholars Hoffman will guest blog have credentials that leave his lowly PhD in the dust.

    1. Stephanie Fisher has informed us that Maurice Casey has degrees in Classics and Theology, both from the University of Durham in the UK. His Ph.D. is published as “Son of Man: The Interpretation and Influence of Daniel 7″ SPCK 1979.


      I understand Stephanie Fisher is doing her PhD (Maurice Casey is her advisor) on Q, — from the perspective that Q was not a single document but several written documents — as far as I recall.

  14. “Did Diogenes exist? Cincinnatus?”

    Not a lot of people care. If more people did, we might put more effort into questioning existence. Even so, their stoires are not so surrounded by mythical elements as to inspire serious doubts.

    “Outside the gospels, Pontius Pilate is virtually unknown except for a reference in Tacitus and mentions in Philo and Josephus, if we discount the so-called Pilate stone.”

    Philo and Josephus don’t just “mention” Pilate in passing. They both give detailed accounts of specific actions. (When so much weight is laid on Joe’s “James, brother of the Jesus” reference, it is astonishing to see his lengthier passages about Pilate given so little weight.) And why discount that stone?

  15. Following his March 21, 2011 radio lecture to the Commonweath Club of California, Ehrman was asked (minute 38:35): “What do you conider the most convincing evidence for the historicity of Jesus? The answer he provided there was in the same vein as that he gave on p. 163 of DJE? and employs the criterion of embarrassment. Ehrman wrote:

    Who would make up the idea of a crucified messiah? No Jew that we know of. And who were Jesus’s followers in the years immediately after his death? Jews living in Palestine. It is no wonder that Paul [at first] found their views so offensive.

    The last statement seems like a case of Ehrman making stuff up; that, ironically, is one of his favorite accusations against mythicists.

    Ehrman tried to make it look as though the mythicist claim is that someone deliberately made up a Jesus that got crucified.
    My recollection of the Doherty explanation of the phenomenon in The Jesus Puzzle (correct me if I am wrong) is that the story of an earthly Jesus got promulgated by one or more groups of people that hadn’t yet been told the whole story of the heavenly Jesus and his crucifiction, which they would have gotten upon initiation as full members of their Christian community. Hence, it may have happened simply as a misunderstanding of what Paul or others had preached.

    And what could be more ironic than basing one’s best argument for the historicity of Jesus on the criterion of embarrassment, which had been quite thoroughly discredited by Stephen Law a month before the talk to the Commonwealth Club and about a year in advance of the publication of DJE?. Given that it had been known for a while that he was planning to write the book, it is hard to believe that nobody ever said to Ehrman, “hey, have you seen the paper by Stephen Law?” I find it hard to believe he was doing anything other than trusting the fact that the vast majority of his readers wouldn’t be inclined to question his logic based on the criterion of embarrassment, yet alone going to the trouble of reading up on the issue. He presumably knows he can’t get away with that sort of thing in professional papers, and that makes it all the more disgraceful for it to be done in a book intended for non-professionals.

    1. I’m astonished that Ehrman claims the Jews Are Borg argument as the best evidence for historicism. I would have thought that “James, the brother of the Lord” (Paul)/”James, the brother of Jesus called Christ” (Josephus) would have been far and away the favorite. As for the Jews Are Borg argument, it’s ridiculous. Jews are human beings. Human beings self-evidently believe all kinds of weird and crazy shit. They’ll buy into mythicist religions (Mormonism, Scientology), and in flesh-and-blood God-men (Moonies, the Manson Family, the followers of Sathya Sai Baba). They’ll believe in a god that had his balls chopped off (Attis), or one who had his penis end up as fish food (Osiris), despite living in extremely patriarchal, literally penis-worshiping cultures. Just look at that Priapus statue. “Savior of the World?” Really?

      Nonetheless, historicists can assure us that Jews would never, ever, evereverever believe in a syncretic Mystery Religion influenced by the Greco-Roman culture that surrounded, dominated, and pervaded their nation for centuries. Instead, they would take the much more orthodox and traditional route of believing that their brother created the Universe. Traditioooooooooon! It ignores the fact that Jews did concoct a rationale for a crucified Messiah. As Carrier explained so well, a dying, spiritualized Messiah is exactly the sort of Messiah Jews could “make up.” The all-conquering warrior king would be rather difficult to believe in (as anything other than a dream of the future) as long as Roman legions patrolled the streets of Jerusalem. Given repeated disappointments from failed would-be liberators, it arguably makes sense that some Jews somewhere might want to come up with the idea that the Messiah saved them spiritually and for an afterlife, rather than nationalistically on Earth.

      Where does this idea come from then, that Jews would never believe in a crucified Messiah? What’s to stop them? A Jewish anti-crucified Messiah gene? I think this is a holdover from Biblical attitudes toward Jews. In the Hebrew scriptures, they are referred to constantly as a “stubborn and stiff-necked people” by prophets and clerics who struggled to make them give up their polytheistic deities for the state religion of Yahweh-only. In the New Testament, they are so incredibly hidebound by their Traditioooooooon that even though they had the Son of God walking among them working astounding miracles, they refused to believe. From this then, former Christians like Ehrman get an unexamined impression that Jews are somehow especially hardheaded and rigid, so that it becomes possible to pronounce with certainty that they would “never” believe something too far out from their culture’s mainstream orthodoxy.

      In a nutshell: the “strongest argument for historicism” is just a racial stereotype.

      1. “In a nutshell: the “strongest argument for historicism” is just a racial stereotype.” Ouch! That’s one “argument from embarrassment” right there. lulz

      2. “In a nutshell: the “strongest argument for historicism” is just a racial stereotype.”

        This is an intriguing insight. I wonder if the same argument — built on the view that Jews are positively different from the rest of humanity — was as prevalent before World War 2 and if it is especially since 1967 that it has become a standard mantra.

    2. I’m interested in what kind of messiah “the Jews” would have invented according to Ehrman. They obviously couldn’t invent one that actually conquered the world since it would be immediately falsified by the state of the world. No, anyone inventing a messiah would invent one essentially like Jesus. One who did all of his conquering on some other plane of existence where real world effects couldn’t be verified.

  16. Fight, fight, fight! Neil and Steven, show Ehrman the way mythicists do things! More insults! More outrage! Show them the strengths of the mythicists case!

    1. Any chance of you explaining why Ehrman was right to claim that Tacitus was ‘precisely wrong’ in saying Pilate was a procurator, when Ehrman then went to consult an expert who told him ‘‘Not really’ has to be the answer to your question, because prefect and procurator are simply two possible titles for the same job.’

      Ehrman then published this as a lengthy ‘response’ to Carrier’s criticism that Ehrman messed up in saying Tacitus was ‘precisely wrong’.

      You have to admire the honesty of Ehrman, who consulted an expert, who told him Carrier was right and he was wrong , but published it anyway..

      1. I think you have part of this wrong, Steven. Ehrman’s anonymous world-renowned expert did not say that Carrier was correct, he contradicts Carrier, who says that prefect and procurator are two very different titles for two very different positions, which can be held simultaneously. Your point about Ehrman seeming to claim victory even though his expert’s testimony belies this is great, though.

    2. Neil and Steven, show Ehrman the way mythicists do things! More insults! More outrage!

      Have you begged Hoffmann to stop calling mythicists disease carrying mosquitoes? Have you asked McGrath to stop calling people dishonest every time he disagrees with their point of view? Have you asked anyone else on McGrath’s blog to stop the outrageous insults that fly there? Have you found any fault with Ehrman’s denigration of mythicists qua mythicists?

      1. IIRC I said on McGrath’s blog a while ago that insults shouldn’t be used by both sides, and if the other person is consistently unreasonable, to stop posting to them. (It won’t stop them from continually postingn, but it does make things more peaceful.) Let the evidence speak for itself. I haven’t said anything to Hoffmann or Ehrman. I agree Hoffmann shouldn’t call mythicists disease carrying mosquitos.

      1. Hi Ken, I have my moments with G-Don and am prepared to call a spade a spade, and I know I sometimes step over the line, too, but would appreciate it if we kept these sorts of jibes in the privacy of our own hard-drives — or on Exploring Our Matrix where they have a welcoming home. Many thanks.

        1. I was actually going from the blog post “Fight Club!”, where the audience encourages the fighters to “go at it” by yelling “Fight, fight, fight!” There are two ways to go: Chess Club (scholarly back and forward) or Fight Club. Personally I prefer a nice game of chess. But what the heck! Neil, you need to ratchet up the insults, so that the other side will think, “That guy is insulting me, my view must be wrong!” Steven, you need to post to more blogs, so that people can see just how mythicists argue. Fight, fight, fight!

          1. GDon, if you really interpret my post as an encouragement to the likes of Hoffmann or anyone else to “go at it” you could not be more utterly uncomprehending. If that really is how you interpret this post it is consistent with your other comments — on both Doherty and Ehrman, and mythicism generally — where you miss completely the rhetorical and contextual message and see nothing but a cavil in your confusing a jot for an iota.

          2. Your failure of reading comprehension is comparable to that of those in the audiences who watched The Bridge on the River Kwai and whistled along with the Colonel Bogey March at the end, failing utterly to grasp that what they had been watching was a savagely ironical anti-war film.

  17. So Ehrman claims Q is evidence for an historical Jesus, and now Steph Fisher is going to refute mythicists.

    Is this the same Steph Fisher who says Q is an invention?

    Hoffman is going to enlist on Ehrman’s side somebody who thinks a major part of Ehrman’s evidence is ‘invention’?

      1. Is this a bit like the GOP in the US rolling out Mitt Romney against Obamacare? This after Romney having constructed the prototype, advocated it nationally, and congratulated the POTUS for having taken his advice before lying his ass off ever since the GOP realized it was convenient political gold to be against?

  18. Hoffman, in the comments section of his last self-described “rant”, tells us that we can expect his essay to draw upon the best source available to provide evidence for the historical Jesus, and by that he means the Gospels, those “artefacts” about which the “mythitists” seem to have forgotten.

    And Stephanie informs us that Stephan Law has no valid argument whatsoever, because he is not a historian, understands nothing about the textual intricacies of Biblical scholarship, and uses modern analogies to incorrectly parse a historical time and place he knows not enough about.

    Is it just me, or are both Hoffman and Stephanie incredibly obtuse on these two related issues?

  19. Eric MacDonald discusses Ehrman the religionist and other interesting stuff. The fact that Ehrman divulged that he lives his life in accordance with the sayings of Jesus certainly would seem to give him all the more reason for wanting to believe in the historicity of Jesus. That, in turn, would seem to disqualify him as an objective evaluator of the evidence. If this all true (the date and place of the cited interview wasn’t given) it is shameful for Ehrman to have written his book without informing his readers of his esteem for the sayings of Jesus.

  20. Not sure if anyone’s noticed Herman Detering chime in here: http://www.radikalkritik.de/index.htm. Notably:

    “Nun ist er zum Advokaten jenes historischen Jesus geworden, den er einst mit seinem kritischen Scharfsinn verfolgte. Aus dem Saulus ein Paulus.
    Er lässt uns im Unklaren darüber, wann und wo er sein Damaskus gehabt hat.”

    Roughly, as best I can do:
    “Now he [Hoffman] has become the advocate of that historical Jesus, whom he once persecuted with his critical acumen. From the Saul a Paul. … He leaves us uncertain as to when and where he has had his Damascus.”

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