The Gospels Assure Us (Relatively) That the Hoffmann Jesus Is True

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by Neil Godfrey

R. (Rabbi?) Joseph Hoffmann’s “semi-sincere New Year’s resolution for 2013 is to be nicer to the mythicists”. I’m touched. He explains the reason for his semi-sincere change of heart. It is not the ghetto-dwelling buggers‘ fault for carrying diseased ideas. The fault lies with his fellow scholars who have fed them “stammering indecision, deconstruction, conspiracy-theories, and half-baked analogies of a hundred years of uncongealed scholarship.” I think that’s Hoffmann’s way of complimenting the mythicists for making the effort to engage with New Testament scholarship.

But like Bart Ehrman, Hoffmann thinks it is time to come out and say that though just about everything you read in the gospels is a myth, if you look carefully you will see that it can all be rationalized so that at least its foundation is not myth. Scholars have indeed been wise enough to see that the emperor’s or king of kings’ clothes are nothing but the finest embroidery.

English: The Charge of the Light Brigade by Ca...
English: The Charge of the Light Brigade by Caton Woodville (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So with incompetent peers to the right of him and disease carrying mosquitoes to the left of him, Hoffmann (who, like Jesus, probably thinks he is the deliverer) rides down into the valley to sort it all out. But in a nicer way than before (semi-sincerely). I hope I will be able to handle all the love-bombing.

Everyone’s reconstruction about Jesus has been wrong — except Hoffmann’s. It’s the claim of probably every HJ scholar.

If only those stupid mythicists (whose stupidity is not their fault, let’s be a bit nice about this) had heard “the right” reconstruction of the HJ they wouldn’t be buggerizing around down there in their intellectual ghetto. This echoes a well-known refrain of the Christian devout: if only we had heard the true gospel preached or known the true Christians we would not be such regenerate apostates today.

Bypassing Claude Lévi-Strauss who reminds us that any retelling of a myth (including a rationalization of it) is itself a variant of the myth and nothing but a new version of the myth, Hoffmann lays out what he thinks “the gospels tell us” we can be “relatively sure” is not-myth – that is, “true”. He writes:

Think of this as a preview; I’ll save persuasion, argument and evidence for later.

So let’s list the points that the gospels assure us, relatively, is “true”. We can tick them off as the evidence comes in for each one — which we are told will be soon. The following is taken verbatim (with only minor edits and reformatting) from Hoffmann’s own post:

  1. Jesus of Nazareth was born toward the beginning of the common era
  2. to a peasant woman named Miriam. *
  3. He was from the region known as the Galilee (ha-Galel: Josh. 20.7), *
  4. and according to an early but dubious tradition from “Nazareth.”
  5. But the tradition soon lost track of the ascription
  6. and seems to have used a place name for an imperfectly understood epithet based on the common Hebrew word נֵ֫צֶר or branch. *
    • * I like these little touches of Hebrew characters and transliterations. They all add to the appearance of serious scholarship — helping to make it appear quite “irrelevant” to the backwoods “hometown” types of #18)
  7. No one knows what Jesus is supposed to have been a branch of, but the two likeliest prospects are of the sect associated with John the Baptist or the sect associated with Judas of Galilee.
  8. The true identity of his father is unknown,
  9. and both the Joseph-tradition and the ben-Panthera (Jewish polemical) tradition are flimsy attempts, respectively, to provide cover and to attack the shadowy circumstances of his origin.
  10. the likeliest scenario is that Jesus was taken by his mother to Jerusalem as a boy,
  11. As a teenager, he probably found work in the building projects associated with the reign of the Herodians.
  12. He listened to apocalyptic preaching
  13. and became an ardent opponent of the Roman occupation of Palestine.
  14. He commenced his own preaching career in Jerusalem
  15. and retreated to the Galilee during the sporadic but increasingly intense crackdowns on tax revolts and anti-government agitation that extended from Judas the Galilean to Theudas. (6 CE-46CE)
  16. where he began to find followers and build a small movement.
  17. this movement was a crashing failure in the outposts of the province since the iron fist of Rome affected city-dwellers in ways hardly imaginable outside Jerusalem.
  18. In his “home town,” the message of Jesus was largely irrelevant.
  19. the political message of Jesus seems identical to the person described by Josephus (Ant. 18.1) as Judas of Galilee, who opposed the tax structure imposed on the Jews following the census of Quirinius
  20. scurrying between the villages of the Galilee and the parlous environment of Jerusalem . . . seems to have characterized Jesus’career. . . .suspected of political agitation and holding reformist views about religion
  21. accompanied by the followers who had come to believe he was a deliverer (perhaps believing it himself)
  22. Jesus was arrested, accused of fomenting rebellion against Roman rule, and (possibly) with the capitulation of Jewish leaders, executed.
  23. Jesus used apocalyptic utterances and threats as political cover. . . . he used it as a stereotype ritual curse and not as a prophecy of messianic return.
  24. The securest parts of the Jesus-tradition therefore are the apocalyptic sections of the gospels such as Mark 13, though these have been repeatedly altered to conform to the changing expectations and beliefs of the community Jesus left behind.
  25. That community was unalterably changed by two events: the destruction of the Temple, which eviscerated apocalyptic of its historical power, and the preaching of Paul, which deprived Jesus of his historical context and turned him into a mixed-messianic figure.
  26. In Jerusalem, Jesus was remembered as a charismatic outlaw.
  27. the Romans conducted his trial with disptach.
  28. It would have been handled by a magistrate and not by the governor of the province.
  29. Jesus seems to be a typical purist member of “the fourth sect,” the religious group Josephus associates with the final troubles leading to the wars of 66-70.
  30. These “threats” are primarily cosmopolitan issues that were more intense in Jerusalem than the provinces, making a “Galilean” provenance for Jesus, or his inexperience (a one week acquaintance!) of the city, implausible.
  31. the injunction to “love” one’s enemies — Jesus does not display any of these characteristics in his remembered controversies with members of other sects, so there is no reason to suppose he would have encouraged others to display them to total strangers. In this respect, the controversy stories, though not in every detail, are the best indicators of what the “personality” of Jesus may have been like.
  32. Jesus’ critical agenda that flows from a general distaste for ritual,
  33. Jesus also taught the irrelevance of social caste,
  34. and was suspicious of priestcraft and law,
  35. and conscious of the meaning of sin and the “power” of God.

None of this, I am sure (?), rests upon an a priori assumption that there was an historical Jesus behind the myths to be rationalized in the first place. Haven’t we heard it all before? Don’t we already know the “evidence” that is going to be touted for each of these points? Maybe Hoffmann has some innovative surprises for us. He has certainly surprised us before. His amazingly courageous argument that the “born of a woman” phrase in Galatians 4:4 was evidence of Jesus’ bastardry certainly left many onlookers amazed with a great amazement.

Speaking of surprises, I like his “Jesus did not teach love”, touch — “controversy was his thing”, “Jesus probably saw himself as a deliverer but his movement was a crashing failure”, he belongs nowhere in this world, neither in Jerusalem nor in Galilee — How much of this Jesus, we must ask, is a projection of the cantankerous Hoffmann in controversy with the whole world (à la Schweitzer)? One cannot help but wonder!

The logic seems to be:

  1. Each point can be shown to be a rationalization of some myth or contradiction in the Gospels,

  2. and altogether it makes a plausible story,

  3. therefore it is (we can be relatively sure) true history.

Of course all of this overlooks entirely the only reason the subject is of any interest to anyone in the first place. Jesus came to be worshiped as part of the divine being. That’s what any reconstruction has to explain.

We need something like this:

  1. Each point can be shown to naturally give rise to a particular myth or contradiction in the Gospels,

  2. the plausible story can plausibly explain Christianity,

  3. therefore it is (we can be relatively sure) true history.

But that will only work if we can establish, by some external verification, that “each point” in #1 really did happen

There is a better way:

  1. Apply the more scientific/objective methods of classical source-criticism for ascertaining the date and origins of the gospels. (This will avoid the circularity of relying upon the texts themselves and the construction of hypothetical sources. It will also avoid the pitfalls of constructing hypotheses about oral traditions that are not supported by scholarly studies of oral traditions.)

  2. From this base, assess by comparative-analytical studies the exact nature of the evidence we have. What is it? What sorts of questions can legitimately be asked of it? Is its narrative a reference to real external events or is the thought-world it depicts something else?

  3. Seek the best explanation for the evidence of #2 by means of reference to other evidence — not by means of hypothetical scenarios that have no external verification.

Maybe Hoffmann does follow the better way. Let’s see.

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Neil Godfrey

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25 thoughts on “The Gospels Assure Us (Relatively) That the Hoffmann Jesus Is True”

  1. Wow, and to think E.P. Sanders limited himself to just *nine* “almost certain facts” about the historic Jesus. Now the supposedly more skeptical Hoffmann finds 35?!!

    1. Hoffy once had a post titled dramatically, “Jesus is Coming!” — it was notice of Maurice Casey’s imminent new book. That was many months ago but it seems he has removed that premature announcement now from his blog.

      The Jesus Process(C) was touted as about to launch the world into a whole new discovery of what was what about the historical Jesus — it was going to revolutionize New Testament studies and stomp mythicists out of existence once and for all. We ended up with one post from Hoffy, one from Casey and one from Stephie. Hoffy came over to Vridar to push his Galatians 4:4 interpretation (how it was evidence Paul knew Jesus was a bastard and therefore evidence Jesus existed) and became completely apoplectic and incoherent when faced with a few facts and hard questions from the amateurs. He stormed off scribbling a curse upon us all in Hebrew.

      I miss him. Looks like 2013 is going to be a fun year. But as you say, he does so often make pronouncements that always seem to leave us waiting. Recall The Jesus Project before The Jesus Process. Like Jesus, he finds his work forever ending in a crashing failure. I’d be more sympathetic to him if he weren’t such a mean old cranky arrogant sod with everyone.

    1. Well we are full of surprises on the eve of the new year, aren’t we. Firstly, it takes Casey years to prepare a book to settle the Jesus question and that is still not ready; Steph can never summarize a single argument in defence of historicity because one can only grasp the idea by reading a very lengthy scholarly work; but her idol Hoffy can dash the whole kaboozle off in a day or two? And if we disagree with any point in it I’m sure we’ll be reminded it is only a “brief outline” and we still have to wait for Casey’s book anyway.

      And I still fear Mark Goodacre is never going to get the time to respond to the questions his defence of historicity raised, and next time we hear from him he’ll be repeating the same old stuff all over again.

      Always waiting. Maybe it’s really a matter of waiting for this generation to pass before sorely needed fresh ideas gain entry.

      I also see Hoffmann has turned off pingbacks to his post so that no link appears there to our own post here.

      1. “Maybe it’s really a matter of waiting for this generation to pass before sorely needed fresh ideas gain entry.”

        “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Luke 21:32)

  2. It’s as if people who make lists like this are unaware of basic widely-known cognitive and statistical fallacies.

    Kahneman and Tversky showed clearly that people are more likely to fail to recognize statistical facts when the problem is given in narrative form. They assume the natural conclusion of story to be likely even if the facts are likely to be contrary. In addition, they showed that people incorrectly assume that the differences in probabilities of chained events are not substantial when in fact, they are massive. Given evidence of poor quality for a historical individual, the probability that 35 individual facts about him could be collectively true is under 2.5% even if we assume each individual probability is 90%.

    1. On glancing back over these points, I wonder if it’s worth confronting exactly how these “facts” appear to be manufactured.

      One reads a story one regards as implausible or simply unlikely and thinks, “Nah, that’s not very likely. A Governor would not have bothered to take time to handle the Jesus case at such short notice. I can imagine a lower magistrate doing something like that, but not the gov’na.”

      Thereby the implausible tale is the raw material from which the “historian” creates his fact: “A lower ranking magistrate tried Jesus.”

      The same method is useful for creating genuine history out of Cinderella and Puss in Boots.

    2. Yes, it’s much more likely that a guy named Jesus existed than a guy named Jesus who was also crucified existed. It’s more likely that a guy named Jesus who was crucified existed than it is that a guy named Jesus who was crucified and had 12 disciples existed. It’s more likely that a Jesus who was crucified and had 12 disciples existed than a Jesus who was crucified and had 12 disciples and was from Nazareth.

      So on and so forth. Thinking otherwise is called the conjunction fallacy; the belief that the more details you add to a story the more likely the story is when the opposite is true. To counteract this, you would need some method of increasing the probability of each individual detail.

      1. It also depends on the degree of interdependence of each line item; obviously,

        if it can be shown that
        (a) a dude called Ye[ho]shuah ben Yusuf existed and
        (b) that dude was crucified,

        then the conditional probability of
        (1) the existence of a dude called Ye[ho]shuah and
        (2) the existence of a dude called Ye[ho]shuah ben Yusuf;

        both also rise to unity (i.e., it’s 100% certain that they existed).

        What’s still definitely not certain is that (a) and (b) together are evidence for a god-man who raised the dead etc and talk in silly riddles (like all charlatans do).

        In fact (a) and (b) together – if from a genuinely non-oartisan, unimpeachable source, buttressed with other external evidence, are only proof of the fact that a guy of that name ran afoul of the Romans (who were not averse to getting crucify-y at the slightest provocation: there are single instances of several thousand folks being done at once, at least several of whom will have been called Joshua son of Joseph).

        The reverse is not true (of course); so to get from

        “A lot of people were called Yusuf; a lot of them had sons; a lot of them named their sons Yeshu[ah]”


        “The existence of a dude from Gallilee called Yeshu[ah] is conclusive proof that the dude we think of as Jesus Christ was the son of god and we should kill all the witches and heretics”

        Well, that relies on innumeracy and a lack of understanding of conditional probability. Sadly, both of those attributes are common in the sorts of folks who are keen to find a repository of meaning in an otherwise unfulfilling life.

  3. If Historical Jesus preached a message that was basically no different from that of Judas the Galilean, how could his ‘ministry’ have been a dismal failure up in the Galilee??? The Galileans of the time were known to be a restive bunch (Josephus, Epictetus Discourses 4,7:

    Nothing. If, then, another should think concerning his estate, or wife, or children, as this man thinks concerning his body; and, in short, from some madness or folly should be of such a disposition as not to care whether he has them or not; but just as children, playing with shells, are busied with the play, but not with the shells, so he should pay no regard to these affairs, except to carry on the play with them, what tyrant, what guards, or swords are any longer formidable to such a man?

    And is it possible that any one should be thus disposed towards these things from madness, and the Galileans from mere habit (upo ethous)

    Schweighhaeuser (II. 913 sq.) suggested this text was corrupted, that Epictetus meant (upo aponoias “under all loss of sense, rebellion” so that, Epictetus ascribed to the Galileans (webpage cited says Christians) fury and desperation, or dementia.


    1. Nota bene: You have to scroll most of the way down on the webpage to the next to last paragraph, and click on the red superscripted footnote marker ‘575’. The info I cited then pops up.

  4. Having a span of interest akin to a polymath, I am familiar with the foundations of the sciences. The Scientologists in fact diagnosed me as “manic dispersed” on their ‘Personality Test’ {grin}

    I have a fair grasp of physics, cultural anthropology, sociology, mass psychology, etc…
    I became particularly interested in ‘systems science’, having some long email exchanges with a scientist involved in the project to map the human brain. His specialty is systems science.

    It may come as no surprise that this esteemed gentleman was a firm atheist.

    I become somewhat suspicious of ‘Certainty’. I feel that Certainty is a harsh mistress.
    I think it can be successfully argued that such utter certainty is not rational by the very standards of those who are so certain.

    I do not know if conversations such as the one I am hinting to are of interest to this community, so I won’t pursue the object further here, unless someone is curious as to where I might go with such a prologue.

    The proximate cause of this chain of thought began with reading, the comment by Evan — 2013/01/01 @ 2:10 am.

    Statistics is considered one of the ‘hard sciences’, is it not? It is certainly based in mathematics, which seems to be held as a factual based process. But from a philosophical point of view, I would assert that ‘statistics’ as a branch of mathematics is much more ‘qualified’ or ‘attenuated’ from the concepts of pure math and calculation. For statistics necessarily deals with ‘assumptions’ [meanings].

    I think it is always beneficial to our thinking to bear in mind the distinction between, ‘How’ and ‘Why’.


    1. I see no harm in firmly insisting that religion or spirituality have no proven track record for answering questions about how the universe and people work. That’s not to say we need to rule them out of court absolutely. But they need to show a ticket with a genuine track record of answering such questions before they are allowed inside. So far they have zilch to show.

      If ever we are able to refine our scientific methods or find something else that yields more reliable results then of course we should be open to embracing it.

      1. As far as dealing with the current manifestation of our physical existence in the time/space continuum Neil, I agree with you wholeheartedly. My epistemology is categorized in layers. or bardo’s as some ‘mystics’ would term it. The categories that have relevance to our current manifestation must be communicated via the empirical and share-able means of our language and symbols.

        It is futile to use any other method in our present general state of consciousness.
        If I were able to directly project my inner knowledge of other states, it would be an entirely different ‘matter’.

        So I accept that this ‘court’ is not concerned with theology in the sense of the theologies themselves, but is a discussion of the ‘practical’, and how such theological conceptualizations have no bearing in a technological society. I would agree with Jacques Ellul, and differ on this point if I felt it would bear fruit. But that is one of the deepest subjects I can imagine at this time.

        I am still interested in the ideas here, and will keep abreast on the essays and discussions that are taking place.

  5. A posteriori, the gospels exist as data that has to been explained, sifted, and assessed. Advancing hypotheses and even speculation supported by argument and evidence is the normal course of events in any scientific process. It is not speculation to say that Jesus existed because the thre “c’s” relevant to that existence are present: conditions, context, and coordinates.”

      1. Pippa’s jumping the line here. Old Man Coyote stories exist (a posteriori), Hercules stories exist. Lots of stories exist but we don’t have to treat them as “data that has to [be] explained, sifted, and assessed,” at least not as data relevant to events that actually ever occurred. As I have said many times, if you could take a time machine back to year 20 or so and live in Jerusalem waiting for the big event to occur, you would never see anything identifiable as the Gospel story. You might see a good number of crucifixions though. Rather than sift out plausibilities (sure, it’s not likely that a shape shifting trickster roamed the pre-Columbian plains, but…) from the enormous implausibilities, it makes sense to view the whole with a skeptical eye, in my opinion.

  6. Hoffman is at it again: http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/the-historically-inconvenient-jesus/

    He takes his shot:

    “I’ve been pilloried since by the same gaggle of mythtics who normally begin to cackle and crow every time someone reiterates the perfectly obvious suggestion that their cause is nothing more than a cobbling together of mutually contradictory premises, the full weight of which don’t amount to an argument.”

    But also has to show he doesn’t think Jesus was historically significant:

    “He wrote nothing. He said little that could be construed as original or memorable, so that almost everything attributed to him could have
    come from other sources. We can point to a dozen “mystery” religions whose heroes had at best a shadowy existence, but probably none at all. And even though the dying/rising god cults differed pointedly from each other and from Christianity, it is pretty clear that Christianity after the time of St Paul fit the description of a salvation cult pretty well. It is hard to imagine Christianity surviving and spreading on the basis of Jesus’ teaching alone.”

    Have been discussing this in a broader forum and the question keeps coming up why do we care, man or myth? The obvious answer is that we want to get history right. But it seems we should care more than that, depending on one’s position.

    I am an anti-theist (at least the Abrahamic type). I don’t know that it much matters whether Paul created Christianity from a David Koresh type figure (Hoffman/Erhman view as I understand it), or from Greek-like cosmology (Doherty view as I understand it).

    But it does seem to matter if there was a Jesus that the new-agers seem to love (man, avatar, etc.). If one thinks that the memes associated with the Abrahamic beliefs are cancerous to human society, then it seems a wise benevolent Buddha-like lovey dovey Jesus is a problem too.

    I am curious to why people think the myth/historical distinction matters and if further distinctions matter too. Any thoughts or sources?

    1. I haven’t visited his site so I don’t know who he’s thinking of as making such silly suggestions.

      But I did see his post in an email and marvelled at its perfectly symmetrical circular argument for the HJ.

      I think he’s hit on a major breakthrough, actually. His method has the potential to prove the historicity of Ned Ludd, Robin Hood, Ben Hur, and probably William Tell. Maybe with a bit of cross-disciplinary imagination it could be applied to prove the existence of Bigfoot.

      When I get a decent internet connection restored I’ll be posting on it.

      (It matters to us because Jesus is a cultural linchpin of western civilization.)

      1. I look forward to your comments when you are back online.

        I don’t know if you saw the “why we care/why it matters” part of my question….but I would be interested in your thoughts or resources you may be aware of.

        1. Yes, I added a brief afterthought to my comment. Jesus is an icon with wider relevance than just for the religious. Even many of those who have abandoned religion still find Jesus a ready anchor or channel for their ideals. But more crudely, I am sure it matters to many simply because to imagine they’ve wasted a life-time of study on an unexamined premise is an intolerable thought.

          1. I think of my friends in the Hermetic community who think that Jesus is a descended master, an Avatar, who went to Egypt as a child to learn Egyptian Magic, then on to India to learn the Guru “miracle” techniques and even returned to India to be buried. He would be no more divine than any of us and his miracles are available to all of us. They see him as preaching Hermetic philosophy (Love thy Neighbor, The Kingdom of God is within).

            Many of these wasted half a lifetime on the Xian version, then the second half on the new-age stuff. As for the Christians, these guys like the ideas of neither Hoffman nor Doherty.


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