2013-02-09

Dear Joseph Hoffmann, I am writing in response to your recent . . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

Joseph Hoffmann has introduced his latest post with a misguided reference to me and this blog.

The recent uptick of interest in the historical Jesus is fueled partly by a new interest in a movement that was laid to rest about seventy years ago, but has received a new lease of life from a clutch of historical Jesus-deniers. The rallying point for the group is a site maintained by a blogger by the name of Neil Godfrey, an Australian university librarian who, like many others who have assumed the position, comes from a conservative Christian background.

Let’s take this point by point. And let’s see if we can find any indicator to tell us why this scholar cares enough about me and this blog to bother taking any notice at all.

The Christ Myth idea was “laid to rest about seventy years ago”? That’s not what classicist Michael Grant seems to have understood when he thought “mythicist” G. A. Wells’ books in the 1970s were worth notice and response in Jesus: An Historian’s View of the Gospels. Hoffmann himself appears to have forgotten the preface he wrote for one of Wells’ books, a preface that expressed more understanding of the Christ Myth theory than he has displayed recently.

“A new lease of life from historical Jesus deniers?” Deniers? Being in denial is a psychological problem. It means one is irrationally defensive and stubbornly refusing to face up to an idea or situation that one fears is a threat. Was G. A. Wells a “Jesus denier” when he wrote his books arguing Jesus was not historical? Was his eventual change of mind a psychological cure or an intellectual pursuit? Are Thomas L. Thompson and Robert M. Price “Jesus deniers”? Is it impossible to entertain the possibility that Jesus was not historical without being thought of as psychologically damaged? It seems so, in Hoffmann’s world. So if that is indeed the case, one wonders why he is bothering at all trying to construct intellectual arguments to argue for the historicity of Jesus. Surely what is needed is some other form of therapy if Hoffmann is working from a valid model.

The rallying point for the group is a site maintained by a blogger by the name of Neil Godfrey . . . I am at a loss to understand Hoffmann’s perception of my blog and me. “A rallying point for a group”? I don’t know of any group. I enjoy seeing a range of comments expressed on the blog, but they are a very diverse lot and I would be at a loss to tell you what defines them as “a group”. As far as I am aware, only a minority ever express any strong conviction in the Christ myth idea. My co-blogger, Tim Widowfield, as far as I understand (I have never much discussed it with him) is quite open on the question and has never argued against the historicity of Jesus as far as I recall. (He can correct me.) I do know of several commenters who are very clearly fence-sitters on the question and some who disagree with the Christ myth thesis. A poll I have had on the blog for the past couple of years shows that most readers are either believers that Christ was historical or fence-sitters on the question.

I am sure Hoffmann can find many more advocates of the Christ Myth idea on TheJesusMysteries site, FRDB, and RationalSkeptics and such sites.

. . . . an Australian university librarian . . . Yes, credentials are important when you are a professor who is attempting to defend a view that even a layperson can challenge on logical and evidential grounds. (Actually, for what it’s worth, my career in recent years has moved beyond librarianship as I’ve explained in my profile.)

who . . . comes from a conservative Christian background. Yes, it is important to create the psychological profile when talking about those you wish to paint as “Jesus deniers”. But, no, my background was never “conservative Christian” in the sense of what that means to Americans. I was a liberal Methodist for most of my life; I spent too many years in a cult that saw itself as opposed to “conservative Christianity” and that “conservative Christians” themselves emphatically opposed and claimed was not even “Christian”; after that experience I was a very happy liberal Christian fellowshipping with any denomination that was similarly liberal in outlook. I then moved on from that happy position to an even happier atheism. Far from any sort of “reactionary lurches” in my life, I capitalized on my experiences to assist others with cult backgrounds by initiating support groups. It was a positive progression. I never even heard of the Christ Myth until after I had left religion behind.

I once made all of these “facts of my life” clear to Hoffmann and others who have long had me pigeon-holed in some bizarre psychological profile. They were not at all happy for me to shatter their delusions about me. They accused me of even worse things! They want me to be a psychologically twisted Jesus denier! They need me to be one!

It simply will not do to think that their assumptions can seriously be challenged by a quite sane layperson without any agenda relating to the historical Jesus per se.

Now, why all the fuss?

Hoffmann curiously does not address a single argument of mine. But it’s not curious, really, because I simply don’t conform to the profile he goes on to say applies to all “mythicists”. It matters not to me one whit whether Jesus existed or not. I really don’t care. I was a very happy atheist assuming he did exist for a quite long time. I can be one again.

Most posts here are not about “mythicism”. They are about insights into the nature and origins of early Christian ideas and texts, or Jewish ones. If the scholarship discussed lends itself to insisting that the Jesus of these texts be treated as a literary figure primarily, then so be it. Whether or not there is an historical figure there behind the curtains is irrelevant unless evidence or arguments shows us otherwise.

I do not have any vendetta or psychological need to “demolish Christianity”. I know a lot of people who really do need their faith and I really don’t know if they could cope well without it — not without a lot of other variables in their life changing at the same time.

Yes, I do personally believe religion has many negatives, and beliefs in Christianity, like beliefs in other “religions of the book”, have done a lot of harm to countless persons. But I did not join the recent internet campaign against parents teaching their children to follow their religion because I don’t know what to think about that. It’s not something I have thought through seriously. It’s easy to say a child should not be indoctrinated, but we are talking about parents’ faith here. It’s not so simple. Sure there are many abusive cases and many lives are ruined by religion, but I don’t know what the answer is to that except enhanced public awareness and education. I mean public education — not vendettas, not campaigns, not attacks, not assaulting the minds of people where they are most vulnerable.

And I certainly do not believe that anything is to be gained towards “undermining Christianity” by arguing Jesus did not exist. That’s crazy! There are plenty of other ways that I am sure have far more chances of success. But to deny the existence of Jesus is probably the worst way you can hope to make any dent to people’s faith.

So why the fuss?

Hoffmann knows that I often take the trouble to expose what I consider to be irresponsible and vapid “scholarship”. I am not a scholar, so why he or any other scholars care I cannot say. I have posted here many times on what I believe is some fascinating and brilliant scholarship — even among biblical scholars! (Yep, I really do have a lot of respect for the works of many of them. Just have a look at the Index of Topics in the right margin here.)

If I think a scholar is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of his lay readers with nonsense, and I think the scholars should know better, I will say so. And believe me, New Testament scholars seem to be capable of generating an awful lot of arrant rubbish that they wrap up in jargon that fools some of those who are less well read.

I know I have had an above average and quite good education and many opportunities to understand and read more widely than many others. I’ve taken to heart those proverbial adages that encourage anyone with some advantages in life to pay back to society. That may be a comforting rationalization for something I simply love to do by nature. Whatever the reason, I also find myself incensed whenever I see authorities misusing their positions and treating their public shoddily.

Maybe that’s the legacy I have from my cult years. I am alert to authorities pulling the wool over the eyes of anyone else. I cannot sit idly by and let it happen if I feel I can speak out and be heard. I get the impression that before the internet some biblical scholars were quite allowed to get away with laziness, irresponsible claims, ignorance, misrepresentation, hifalutin hogwash and incompetence. So often I seem to come across New Testament scholars massaging the publications of their buddies no matter how vacuous they are. Some seem to be upset that once they come out and blog those days are over.

So when I see Hoffmann and Casey and McGrath and others typing out invalid arguments I will address their words clearly and methodically and demonstrate why they are invalid. In recent years some of these scholars have taken offence and responded with very bitter personal attacks against me. They have not, however, addressed my arguments. So forgive me if, after being the target of their personal vendettas (yes, I exposed Hoffmann’s published falsehood about Doherty; that appears to have been an unforgivable faux pas of mine) I sometimes speak of their more outlandish arguments with a touch of mockery.

Hoffmann’s latest foray into Hegelian philosophy and the debates it generated all in order to come to the conclusion that every historical event is both analogous and unique, and that this somehow is a vital ingredient into the alchemist’s mix to conjure up evidence for the historical Jesus, is utterly risible and exactly the sort of nonsense Stanislav Andreski addressed in the social sciences a few decades ago.

So of course Hoffmann needs me to be a psychologically crazed Jesus denier.

Happily, not all New Testament scholars are like Hoffmann. I was recently very pleasantly surprised by find a cordial comment on my blog by Chris Keith, I think it was, acknowledging my criticisms of postmodernism in historical Jesus studies. He was able to respond with humour to my reference to something I compared with “mumbo jumbo” — I forget the exact words — saying something to the effect that he agreed with “jumbo” but was going to hold firm against “mumbo or something like that — the tone of humorous acceptance of my criticism (which was not an attack, by the way) was most welcome.

This again sits with Andreski’s thoughts. I don’t see much ability to laugh at themselves on the side of Hoffmann and co. Any peasant juvenile out in the mosquito infested slums who shouts out that their emperorships are not wearing any clothes is to be flogged!

There! I got through a whole post avoiding the terms “myth. . ist” and “histor . . ist” — at least without those “what-do-we-mean-by-this-word” quotation marks. Hoffmann should be pleased. I have never liked the terms, either. But as I said recently, I cannot deny that usage does decide meaning. So next time I will no doubt give up being an old fogey stickler for the rules I learned in primary school and get with the times.

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Neil Godfrey

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49 Comments

  • 2013-02-09 16:54:55 GMT+0000 - 16:54 | Permalink

    No correction needed, Neil. I can go either way on the subject. There simply isn’t enough hard evidence to decide one way or the other, but I’m open to all arguments.

    And like you, I really don’t care if Jesus existed or not.

    I am rather surprised that Hoffy dropped the F-bomb in his latest unintelligible post. But I guess that’s what happens when once-great scholars go off the deep end.

    Shalom, Hoffy McDuck. Shalom.

    • 2013-02-09 18:30:19 GMT+0000 - 18:30 | Permalink

      ‘And like you, I really don’t care if Jesus existed or not.’

      To be honest, if you wanted to attack liberal Christianity, you can do no better than point out that liberal Christians like McGrath believe in a Jesus who was such a nutcase that he appointed 12 people to help him rule and judge the world after the forthcoming apocalypse.

      Not even Harold Camping was such a stranger to reality as the Jesus of McGrath and Hoffman.

      Surely Christians would prefer a Jesus who was a heavenly being to a nutty as a fruitcake Jesus who appointed fishermen and tax-collectors to judge the lost tribes of Israel and who thought the Queen of Sheba would rise from her grave to judge people.

      • Daryl
        2013-02-10 02:23:05 GMT+0000 - 02:23 | Permalink

        It seems a bit of a smokescreen when historicists attack mythicists as being motivated by a hatred of traditional Christianity: how is believing that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet ANY less insulting to the traditional orthodox view? Like you say, Paul’s heavenly Christ actually seems more viable, perhaps because it’s freer from the vicissitudes of historical investigation.

        Oh, perhaps one anti-religious person who thinks it’s better that Jesus lived and died a failure than not at all is John Loftus, who prefers the failed apocalyptic prophet over the mythical Jesus, possibly because it’s a more effective weapon for whacking today’s evangelicals over the head with. This is a nothing more than a speculation, though… 😉

  • 2013-02-09 18:01:05 GMT+0000 - 18:01 | Permalink

    I have been an atheist my whole life, during most of which time I believed that Jesus was a real bloke wandering around Israel 2000 years ago. The only reason I am glad to be a mythicist is that it just makes so much more sense. I like to be able to understand things, and the idea of a Jewish carpenter being turned into the creator of the universe within a couple of decades of his death is just bizarre. The “Sophisticated Theology” position that Jesus lived but we know nothing about him is meaningless. If we know nothing about him how can we know that he lived at all? I am not a biblical scholar or a classicist but I have slogged my way through both of Earl Doherty’s books, and several others on the topic, and I feel entitled to have an opinion. It really isn’t astrophysics, if it is explained it can be understood, with a little effort. And after Ehrman’s tragic attempt at propping up Jesus I feel all the more certain that there never was any such person on Earth.

    • 2013-02-09 18:33:38 GMT+0000 - 18:33 | Permalink

      This is the thing that worried me for a long time. The more I read of “historicist” efforts to either argue for the historicity of Jesus or to rebut the arguments of the serious “mythicists”, the more I realized that there really is no case for an historical Jesus.

    • 2013-02-10 14:41:45 GMT+0000 - 14:41 | Permalink

      This fits me almost exactly. I’m not near certain he didn’t exist, it seems to be a question that can’t be settled with the current evidence. But it does make me glad to adopt mythicism in the same sense I’m glad I’m an evolutionist. It makes the most sense. Btw, being thought of as a part of the creator of the universe within a couple of decades is less bizarre than worshiping someone alongside God within a couple of months of the crucifixion like Hurtado.

      Neil, the first link is to an old Hoffman post.

  • 2013-02-09 18:23:57 GMT+0000 - 18:23 | Permalink

    Wow!

    Is Hoffman resurrecting Tacitus as evidence of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’?

    Hoffman must have read his Wells. After all, Hoffman wrote a foreword to one of Wells’s books.

    Tacitus never mentions anybody called ‘Jesus’, let alone ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.

    He mentions Christ. As this is a Christian title, he was obviously getting his information from Christians.

    This is just so old news that it is astonishing that Hoffman doesn’t seem to know about Wells’s arguments about Tacitus – despite having written a foreword to one of Wells’s books!

    I dismiss as utterly unworthy of thought the idea that Hoffman really does know what Wells said about Tacitus, but that Hoffman wanted to hide from his readers actual, real mythicist arguments , preferring to demonise their character, while hiding from their arguments.

    Rather amusingly, Hoffman is listed on some sources on the Internet as the actual author of Wells’s book – ‘The Jesus Legend.’ The gods of irony work in mysterious ways sometimes.

    • 2013-02-10 16:38:41 GMT+0000 - 16:38 | Permalink

      Carr:

      “Is Hoffman resurrecting Tacitus as evidence of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’?”

      No. You haven’t read the post and are relying on what other people say so you’ve missed the point.

      “Tacitus never mentions anybody called ‘Jesus’, let alone ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. He mentions Christ. As this is a Christian title, he was obviously getting his information from Christians.”

      You’ve demonstrated part of the standard mythicist response as Hoffmann predicted you would in the post, a response that here, reflects that you haven’t read the post.

      “Hoffman doesn’t seem to know about Wells’s arguments.”

      Not true. You haven’t read the post from which you’d have no evidence of this.

      “The gods of irony work in mysterious ways sometimes.”

      No – but it’s not surprising that the internet plays open house to unreliable sources of information, misrepresentation and falsehood. One could posit a pretty good guess at what sort of sources those you allude to are.

      • 2013-02-10 17:49:02 GMT+0000 - 17:49 | Permalink

        Penny/Pippa/S . . ? , Hoffmann clearly states in his post that Tacitus is speaking of Jesus. Yet you surely know as well as Hoffmann ought to do that Tacitus never mentions the name. The message of his discussion of Tacitus is that “mythicists” are stupid for denying that Tacitus is evidence for the historicity of Jesus — despite the plain fact that Tacitus at no point mentions the name Jesus.

        Perhaps you can explain what Hoffmann means by the following (I’d ask him myself but he deletes comments from me):

        However neither Tacitus nor Suetonius later, nor Celsus, nor Josephus if he mentions Jesus at all, raise the slightest doubt that Jesus was a flesh and blood character from their recent past. I repeat, their recent past. We have often established the irrefragable historicity of persons in the ancient world with much less to go on.

        1. In what text on “how to do history” does any instructor imply that if a source does not “raise doubts about X” that it therefore follows that X should not be doubted? That is the clear logic of Hoffmann’s claim here.

        2. In what text on “how to do history” does any instructor speak of “recent past” — in effect 85 years! — as contemporary evidence? That is the clear implication of Hoffmann’s claim here.

        3. Can you please site a single instance where we “establish the irrefragable historicity of anyone in the ancient world with much less to go on”? Hoffmann’s example of Tacitus himself contradicts his very claim. He omitted two very vital sources of evidence for Tacitus — including the very text he is discussing!!! — and dismissed entirely the nature and value of the one source he did cite.

        In other words, I have no doubt Hoffmann enjoyed writing his little excursus on Tacitus, but what he said about him, and the conclusions he attempted to draw, are as pompously vacuous as anything he has ever written.

        (P.S. Hoffy also accuses “mythicists” of wanting to score points rather than engage in serious discussion. Do you think he might be saying this because he is still smarting from the embarrassment of having his Galatians 4:4 Jesus The Bastard argument publicly and irrefutably demolished by a mere lay mosquito from the slums on this blog after he came here to show us all what’s what?)

        • 2013-02-10 19:06:37 GMT+0000 - 19:06 | Permalink

          Galatians 4:4?

          Isn’t that the text about which Hoffman said http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/the-jesus-tomb-debacle-rip/

          ‘It is sometimes pointed out that Paul makes reference (Galatians 4.4) to Jesus having “been born of a woman, under the law,” but it is widely believed that these words are an insertion into the text of Galatians: Marcion, our earliest witness, does not know them, and as Hilgenfeld once noted, if his opponent, Tertullian, could have quoted them against Marcion, a docetist thinker, to prove the essential humanity of Jesus, he would have. We are left with the bare fact that Paul knows nothing of the human family of Jesus. He does know the names of some of Jesus’ followers, and in the same epistle uses the phrase “James the brother of Lord,” which makes it the more remarkable that he would not know of an extended family with a strong female influence operating in Jerusalem. As suggested below, Paul’s use of the term “brother” is not dispositive since he is not using it in reference to a biological relationship.’

          It is also remarkable that when Hoffman insisted that Galatians 4:4 proved Paul knew about the family of Jesus he never cited famous scholars with opposing views to his, such as the famed scholar R. Joseph Hoffman, who had already demolished the point Hoffman was trying to make.

          Hadn’t Hoffman read his own blog?

          • 2013-02-10 19:13:41 GMT+0000 - 19:13 | Permalink

            Steven Carr, you are absolutely, deliciously evil! No wonder all those establishment supporters cry out to crucify you!

  • Amerikhan Jones
    2013-02-09 15:08:56 GMT+0000 - 15:08 | Permalink

    Hoffman has become increasingly shrill, on this question, over the last couple of years. Interestingly Hoffman’s own portrait (self-portrait?) of Jesus is equally panned and ignored by the mainstream. Jesus, a bastard born failed apocalyptic revolutionary, is just as unpopular as CMT/NT Minimalism. So since psychology was brought up maybe this is Hoffman projecting his own envy that his website can’t gin up a true “following” to support own pet Jesus theory. I am sure this is about as likely his allegations against Vridar but since we are throwing stones…

  • 2013-02-10 02:42:07 GMT+0000 - 02:42 | Permalink

    Neil, you may be a “librarian”. But I have serious concerns about graduates of Divinity schools (here I am talking about McGrath, Ehrman, and perhaps even Hoffman), assuming the mantle of “historian”.

    IIRC, McGrath has admitted his background in history was two courses as an undergraduate in a Divinity school(?). Ehrman and McGrath have repeatedly demonstrated to the satisfaction of actual historians that they have little understanding of historilogical methods. Hoffman feels it is proper for him to uncover ‘independent’ evidence of the historical Jesus in the Gospels.

    If you are a mere “librarian”, perhaps these products of Divinity schools should be pejoratively labeled as well. “Theologian” comes to mind.

    • 2013-02-10 09:28:59 GMT+0000 - 09:28 | Permalink

      McGrath has emphatically declared that literary criticism has nothing to do with historical inquiry, both in his (dare I point out his “self-published”!) book and since in blog assertions.

      Another biblical scholar, David Clines, emphatically disagrees and insists that literary analysis is absolutely essential for the historian before he or she can begin the work of reading a document as a source. See my five-post series on Nehemiah.

      The former ends up believing stories about empty tombs in unprovenanced texts (that have more in common with Jewish and Hellenistic novels than any ancient biography) are “historical data” and that Christianity’s origins are to be explained in terms of a paraphrase of Luke: “something we cannot explain in historical terms changed the hearts of the followers of Jesus”.

      I’ll leave others to read the Nehemiah series for a comparison.

      Which one of these two is doing history? And which one is doing theology?

      • 2013-02-10 09:57:29 GMT+0000 - 09:57 | Permalink

        If history, Neil, Why is it so important to certain people that Jesus did exist?

        • 2013-02-10 11:01:00 GMT+0000 - 11:01 | Permalink

          I once attempted to answer that question with Why even nonbeliever historians may still need a historical Jesus.

          “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” (We recognize this line from Orwell’s 1984).

          History is a vital tool of ideology, of established power interests, even of theology.

          In Australia we speak of the history wars. I am sure you have something similar in the U.S. In India the comparable struggle over the historicity of the Golden Age and Rama culminated in the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque and the bloody aftermath. In many countries today it is illegal to publish free inquiry into the official version of the Holocaust (no, I am not a Holocaust denier! but I do not believe history or truth is served by banning free inquiry); in Israel one can be branded an anti-Semite for questioning the historicity of David; we know what happened to T.L. Thompson for questioning the historicity of the Patriarchs.

          Your point is spot on, of course. “Truth” does set us free. If we could disentangle historical inquiry from ideology and power interests we potentially open up whole new frontiers to explore.

          • 2013-02-10 21:44:49 GMT+0000 - 21:44 | Permalink

            And truth is absolute, not my truth and your truth.

          • 2013-02-12 07:39:58 GMT+0000 - 07:39 | Permalink

            Thanks. It’s clearer for me from your article above.

            • 2013-02-12 07:57:31 GMT+0000 - 07:57 | Permalink

              It’s something like a badge. Having the right thoughts is like wearing the right badge or knowing the password. It is a bit like cultural markers like diet and clothing. The right words — even the right accents and speaking with the right grammatical constructions — demonstrates you are a member of the elite, the powers that be, or are on the outer.

        • maryhelena
          2013-02-10 19:16:45 GMT+0000 - 19:16 | Permalink

          Clarice

          As Neil wrote above, after quoting Orwell: “History is a vital tool of ideology, of established power interests, even of theology”. True, very true. But let us, also, give scholars their due. A scholar should be able to put all this aside and strive for ‘truth’, strive for knowledge for its own sake.

          Why then, re your question, “is it so important to certain people that Jesus did exist?”. From a scholarly perspective the answer can’t be one of dogmaticism or faith. All a scholar can say is that from his, or her, reading of the available sources, that a historical figure was more probable than not. Of course not, re the mythological elements of the gospel Jesus story. Just an ordinary human man of flesh and blood upon which, after his death, all the extras were added on. That is an easy to understand, simple, explanation of the gospel Jesus story. It’s possible, it’s plausible.

          Regarding the “important” aspect of your question: Well, logic is important. That a flesh and blood Jewish messiah figure was executed via Roman sanction is a logical position to take. But there is also something else that is important and which, I think, underscores a lot of what one reads from Hoffmann. It is important that the gospel Jesus story has some history behind it. Yes, Hoffmann is opting for a flesh and blood Jesus (minus the gospel mythology additions). However, all that position is endeavoring to uphold is that the gospel Jesus story is not all imagination, that this story had some historical relevance. And that is what is important – that a foothold in reality is secured. It is important not only for Christianity – but important for any search into early Christian origins. And if a flesh and blood Jesus is perceived, by some NT scholars, to be that hold on historical reality – no amount of throwing Pauline ‘stones’ at that position will be able to knock it down. Reality, in this case historical realities, will always have the upper-hand – however much, in this particular case, the historical realities are misunderstood..

          As Hoffmann said in his closing statement:

          “The existence of Jesus is not a theological problem. It should not be motivated by events in our own religious biographies and experiences. It is not a case in metaphysics. It is an historical question that should be free of theological ends and metaphysical implications. Otherwise, it cannot be answered”.

          So, if the ahistoricsts/mythicists want to get the JC historicists to see past their assumed flesh and blood Jesus – they have to provide an historical alternative to the pseudo-historical gospel story. To rephrase Hoffmann: the question of the historical relevance of the gospel Jesus story has to be addressed through an historical lens – or not at all. Offering a Pauline alternative scenario is to seek to bypass this question: the question of whether or not the gospel story had an historical relevance. That is the important issue that is being overshadowed by the ‘did Jesus exist’ debate.

          • 2013-02-10 20:27:19 GMT+0000 - 20:27 | Permalink

            Mary, I see no reason to think that there had to be any historical basis to the myths of Adam, Abraham, Thor, Heracles, Achilles, Gilgamesh, Aeneas, Rama, William Tell. All that matters is that a plausible story is conceivable. Nor do I have any interest in “wanting to get JC historicists to see past their assumed flesh and blood Jesus”. What they come up with is their business. If they want to challenge my views then I’m open to a discussion. But I don’t think many do want to do that. My responsibility can be nothing other than arguing whatever case I find the most persuasive.

            • maryhelena
              2013-02-10 20:51:53 GMT+0000 - 20:51 | Permalink

              But that is it is it not, Neil – many people do find that the gospel story is more than simply a plausible story. i.e. they hold that gospel story to have historical relevance. And that, as I suggested, is the more important question that the one about ‘did Jesus exist’. To write that gospel story off as though it had no historical relevance for the gospel writers – is an unwarranted assumption. i.e. one can’t know the answer to that question. We can’t read the minds of the gospel writers. What we can do is consider Jewish history alongside the gospel story. And that, Neil, Jewish history, needs as much consideration as any story element from the OT.

              • 2013-02-10 21:05:31 GMT+0000 - 21:05 | Permalink

                No one, as far as I am aware, writes off the gospel story as though it had no historical relevance. Not even Paul did that.

              • maryhelena
                2013-02-10 21:17:43 GMT+0000 - 21:17 | Permalink

                And so, Neil – what was the historical relevance of the gospel story for the writers of that story?

        • 2013-02-12 08:27:14 GMT+0000 - 08:27 | Permalink

          To most historians of the Ancient Near East, it’s not important that Jesus existed, in the sense that if any credible evidence or a semi-convincing theory of him not having existed ever appeared, it would certainly be worth considering.

          If Jesus’ existence isn’t consiered more likely than not, based on the evidence that we currently have, then this means there was a de facto conspiracy by ancient authors to invent him which left no trace in the historical record, and is immune to all of our best detection techniques, including those developed centuries and centuries afterwards.

          The Orwellian “control” alluded to by Neil is not perpetrated by theologians with vested interests today, it’s perpetrated by the authors of the past, who are more convincing liars than have ever been known in history before or since. If that happened, then the practice of ancient history is mostly intractable.

          Imagine a scientist having to always consider the possibility of a malicious interventionist deity actively trying to upset their experiments in just the right way to create a misleading impression of the laws of nature. It’s “important to certain people” that this is an unlikely possibility. Historians are no different from any other academic in this regard.

          • 2013-02-12 08:40:14 GMT+0000 - 08:40 | Permalink

            then this means there was a de facto conspiracy by ancient authors to invent him which left no trace in the historical record, and is immune to all of our best detection techniques, including those developed centuries and centuries afterwards.

            This is nonsense. If we were to one day able to establish that Socrates or Hillel were no more than literary figures does it follow that we were the victims of a conspiracy by ancient authors? Were the Swiss for generations victims of a conspiracy for long believing William Tell was historical? Not to mention that there would simply be no Christ Myth theory at all if, as you say, the understanding of Jesus as a myth was something beyond our “best detection techniques”. The techniques of Bauer, Thompson, Price and Brodie are quite within the norms of literary analysis and historiographical methods.

            • 2013-02-12 12:06:57 GMT+0000 - 12:06 | Permalink

              If we were to one day able to establish that Socrates or Hillel were no more than literary figures does it follow that we were the victims of a conspiracy by ancient authors?

              All current “theories” of a non-historical Jesus are at least partly conspiracy theory. (I am, of course, leaving late-era-Wells theories, which posit more than one historical Jesus, aside for one moment, since this is a different claim.)

              It could happen some day that a semi-plausible theory arises which posits no historical Jesus and doesn’t require an ancient conspiracy to make it look like there was a historical Jesus. In the mean time, I feel comfortable in saying that denying a historical Jesus involves a conspiracy theory.

              I haven’t looked into the theories of any Socrates mythicists or Hillel mythicists (unless you count the “phantom time hypothesis”, which is admittedly quite entertaining). If such people exist, and have semi-plausible theories about the non-existence of these figures which are not at least part conspiracy theory, I’d be interested in knowing about them.

              • 2013-02-12 12:11:38 GMT+0000 - 12:11 | Permalink

                All current “theories” of a non-historical Jesus are at least partly conspiracy theory.

                Well I have come across none that are even a smidgen conspiracy theory. How are Thompson, Price, Doherty, early era Wells, Bauer, Brodie, Carrier in any sense even slightly leaning towards any “conspiracy theory”? How do you justify this assertion?

                I am surprised you have not even encountered the mere possibility of figures like Hillel and Socrates being figurative — you do not strike me as very widely read in the scholarly field.

          • 2013-02-12 08:43:23 GMT+0000 - 08:43 | Permalink

            I did not speak of Orwellian control wielded by theologians. I raised an Orwellian quote that is little more than a truism. It applies to institutional mechanics, not personal devils, as I have pointed out many times. It is not restricted to biblical studies.

            • 2013-02-12 12:16:42 GMT+0000 - 12:16 | Permalink

              Sorry, that was my misunderstanding. I see your point now. Of course I disagree that it applies here. In the modern era, mounting a serious, evidence-based challenge to academic orthodoxy tends to make an academic’s career. That’s true in any field, including history and biblical studies; just ask Israel Finkelstein.

              • 2013-02-12 12:30:33 GMT+0000 - 12:30 | Permalink

                That is not a black and white rule. There are limits to challenges of the orthodoxy in the humanities and social sciences. Even Finkelstein kept within those limits — which is what I found disappointing about “Bible Unearthed”. He failed to address the arguments he surely knew of that completely undermined his conclusion that a revised version of a biblical Israel did have a foundational place in the history of the Jews. Look at the Christ Myth theory itself. There certainly are academics who have advanced the theory, some even from within New Testament studies — but very few and you only have to look at the way they are treated to see why there are so few. Look at your own reaction.

                It is still too early to entertain a challenge to the orthodox narrative of the Holocaust or challenge the victor’s narrative about the responsibility of the Pacific War in the 1940s. (No, I am not a Holocaust denier by any means, but the fact that some countries have legislation banning the publication of contrary narratives tells us a lot about the limits of freedom to challenge orthodoxy within historical studies.) Look at the narrative of Israel and Palestine. That is severely censored in some countries and certain challenges can put your career at risk. Look at the ‘history wars’ and the threats issued against some historians around the world over those. Look at Peter Singer and the response he attracts in so many places.

                The bottom line is that the history (and some other studies, including ethics) is an ideological discipline. Far more so than physics or maths. The ideological pressures and selection processes (you are very unlikely to even get to become an academic in NT studies if you very early make your views on a mythical Jesus well known) — part of the acceptance into academia is about selecting those who “think correctly” in the first place. That’s true in other fields, too. See Chomsky’s media and journalism models.

              • 2013-02-12 15:14:09 GMT+0000 - 15:14 | Permalink

                Gee, you seem so reasonable. Did you know your evil twin is posting over on New Oxonian? He writes:

                “James McGrath’s observation that mythicists are the creationists of history is very, very apt. My agenda requires X to be true, therefore X is true.”

  • 2013-02-10 02:45:43 GMT+0000 - 02:45 | Permalink

    Rant. Just to say that Hoffmann asked, “Why is it so important to certain people that Jesus did not exist?” I gave my answer which was apparently off-topic and irrelevant: http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/the-passion-of-the-christ-deniers/

    Are not HJ/MJ studies connected to life other than salvation after death? If so, save yourself and to hell with other people.

    I’ve asked many times there, “Why is it so important to certain people that Jesus did exist? No answer yet but they don’t have to answer me if they don’t want. Some of my messages haven’t been approved. They are not caustic or off the HJ/MJ topic.

    Clarice O’Callaghan

    • 2013-02-10 09:43:00 GMT+0000 - 09:43 | Permalink

      One might wonder if Hoffmann is finding himself in the unenviable position of having to prove to his peers that past rumours of his mythicism were greatly exaggerated while at the same time having to excoriate his peers for having such poor arguments for Jesus’ historicity in the first place that forced him into that erstwhile mythicism. Trying to win back a reputation by punching those he estranged in the nose. As Tim intimates, it’s a sad story to watch play itself out. It appears he is seeking his salvation through some of the most bizarre and methodologically and logically fallacious arguments of one or two of the “independent scholars” of the UK.

    • 2013-02-10 12:57:00 GMT+0000 - 12:57 | Permalink

      Hoffman didn’t approve my comment either the one time I posted on his blog.

      Funny, I expect that kind of behaviour from Creationists, not historians. At least Dr. McGrath does not censor my comments even when he disagrees with them.

      • 2013-02-10 14:52:11 GMT+0000 - 14:52 | Permalink

        Comments on McGrath’s blog, and possibly all of Patheos, are immediately published, they don’t go into moderation like Hoffmann’s blog. This may be by McGrath’s choice or Patheos policy. So don’t automatically give him any credit.

  • David Hillman
    2013-02-10 06:26:22 GMT+0000 - 06:26 | Permalink

    What is it about the words denier or denialist that is supposed to automatically rule a persons opinions beyond the pale, his arguments beyond consideration? Yes holocaust denial, climate denial, nakba denial are fair uses.

    But in other contexts I am a denialist myself: I deny that the British royal family are really lizards, that Bush planned the details of 911, that the wildest conspiracy theories are put out by the C.I.A. to discredit viable conspiracy theories.

    In real intellectual arguments the accusation of denialism does not help at all. In the argument for example over the philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics, was Einstein a dice denier, Bohr a reality denier. Such accusations would not have advanced the argument.

    I do actually suspect that MacGrath’s use of the term is an immoral smear to avoid addressing the arguments, and if I could ever work out what Hoffman is attempting to communicate I might suspect the same of him.

    • Geoff
      2013-02-10 22:58:30 GMT+0000 - 22:58 | Permalink

      Actually, the first time I heard the term “denier” or “debunker” was when I lived in New Mexico and heard the term used to describe anyone who did not believe an alien spaceship crashed near Roswell. It has rather a less connotation in that context.

  • 2013-02-10 10:24:26 GMT+0000 - 10:24 | Permalink

    Scholars should know more about what Jesus was than what he was not. Jesus was the personification of Isaiah’s suffering servant symbol. What Jesus was not was an actual person. It’s too obvious for scholars not to know that. The gospels depict Jesus as an actual person but the writers used the Jewish scripture to artificially create the story. It was much easier to do that in order to persuade gentiles to join the movement than to explain how the symbolic suffering servant of Isaiah was relevant to a new covenant with the Jews and how that was relevant to the salvation of gentiles. Somewhere along the way, the church dispensed with that second part of the conversion for the initiates and stuck with the flesh and blood Jesus that was only used to persuade people to join the movement until they could be more fully instructed in the mystery.

    • Geoff
      2013-02-10 23:03:50 GMT+0000 - 23:03 | Permalink

      As Neil points out, the question is not “Did Jesus exist?” The question is “What were the origins of Christianity?” Your explanation is an example of the latter. To me, there is a fairly clear trajectory of thought and belief that leads to the evolution of “Jesus-belief” prior to the time that Jesus is supposed to have lived to say that we do not need an actual person, Jesus of Nazareth, to explain the advent and spread of the Christian religion.

  • 2013-02-10 19:01:24 GMT+0000 - 19:01 | Permalink

    Of course, the fact that Hoffman gets so hopelessly wrong the character, motivation and personality of people he interacts with in the present day should cast no doubts on his ability to tell us about the character, motivation and personality of Jesus of Nazareth.

    • 2013-02-11 05:58:49 GMT+0000 - 05:58 | Permalink

      He begins by removing all the evidence that does not fit the character he wants to find. For example, he has removed from his consciousness the posts where I have pointed out that I don’t think a nonhistorical Jesus should necessarily undermine the faith of Christians. My argument was similar to Brodie’s. It was an adaptation of one given me by a Jesus Seminar scholar. One can even find it latent in works of mythicist Couchoud. The clues are found even in billboards proclaiming Jesus alive in hearts and heaven. Mythicism and affection for Christianity are by no means necessarily incompatible.

      • David Hillman
        2013-02-11 06:45:11 GMT+0000 - 06:45 | Permalink

        I except arguments based on bad faith and ad hominem arguments, but I do believe that to properly argue against a view it helps to have some ability to see how it works intellectually and emotionally, to see it from within, with empathy when appropriate. As an atheist I have a lot of affection and respect for my co-workers who are religious, and I find, sometimes to my surprise, that in my most effective and important poetry I often use religious traditions and imagery, sometimes to subvert it, sometimes not. I find that some religious people can be just as ethical, commited, and spiritually aware as us atheists, though we usually top them in humility.

  • Geoff
    2013-02-10 23:20:58 GMT+0000 - 23:20 | Permalink

    Hoffmann has few weapons at his disposal. He starts with his most powerful, the fallacy of the ad hominem. Nice work, RJH.

  • Geoff
    2013-02-10 23:35:33 GMT+0000 - 23:35 | Permalink

    I posted this in response to “Sailor” on the New Oxonian, thought I would share it here in case it does not pass moderation:

    Sailor, you miss the point. While there may be some Jesus-doubters who have personal agendas, the project is not about changing human nature. Nor does it need to be seen as an attack on Christianity. If ancients believed in a Jesus who was a heavenly intercessor sitting at the right hand of God, how is that different than modern Christian beliefs? How does the question of whether or not there was a deluded messiah figure at the center of this Jesus cult at its beginnings impact modern Christian beliefs? In your mind, was Jesus more like David Koresh or Bo (Marshall Applewhite)?

    Mythicists are engaging in a process of questioning traditional beliefs regarding the origins of Christianity. That this project is met with overwrought denunciation and wild hand-waving says more about the defenders of tradition (faith) than it does about those raising these questions.

  • 2013-02-11 06:58:10 GMT+0000 - 06:58 | Permalink

    In my post I said that Hoffmann and co accused me of “worse things” after I posted a few details about my life that I thought made a nonsense of their claims that I was motivated by some twisted psychological response to my past involvement with a certain religion. I was relying on memory then but have since tracked down the actual words Hoffmann wrote in response to my post “A little biographical footnote“. They were, “Why the simpering innocence?“. Not as bad as I recalled. But clearly Hoffmann does not want to get to know anything about me that might begin to dismantle his preconceptions.

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