Tom Verenna Debates James McGrath

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by Neil Godfrey

Recently I was playing with the time capsule button of WordPress and managed to accidentally relocate an old July 2010 post to today. Since trying to undo and relocate events in time is forbidden by the Time Lords of the universe I quickly deleted it. But a few quick ones did see it and commented favourably — so here it is again:

From http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/jamesfmcgrath?v=wall story_fbid=573473118322

Tom Verenna

Thanks for this James. I’m not certain I really understand your thought exercise though. I could say the same thing about a number of figures from historiographical works which we no longer believe to be historically credible (Lycurgus the Spartan, again, is a good example). But why stop at just people? How many events which we find in historical treatises from the past make little or no historical sense, but for which we cannot prove nor disprove? Exactly how much of those speeches, which make up 24% of Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war did he really make up and for how much might we say he had documents handy to copy, or even alter slightly?

The problem with saying, “Well we come to an impasse, so let’s break the impasse by the mere fact that he might have existed, possibly…” which is really what this comes down to, doesn’t it? I mean, if we’re just going to make the leap from the more honest position “I don’t know” to “it must have happened,” why should we stop making such logical leaps? Why not just say that, well, no history is repeatable, so let’s just say that everything happened because, after all, there is attestation for it. And where we have conflicting accounts of those things, we should still accept them as historical, but just accept the more plausible one as historical. That’s what all historians should do, right? I hope you haven’t been agreeing this whole time–because this is not what historians should be doing.

Historians are tasked with securing the memories of society’s past. If we were to just accept possibilities as fact, then we are doing society an injustice. Imagine if such testimony was given at a trial hearing? “Well, we have no evidence the defendant wasn’t at the place the crime occurred, so why not?” If you feel that is stretching, you might say that “well we have testimony he might have been there.” But if you examine that testimony, is it really admissible? Are the sources trustworthy? I do not think so. Any evidence of this caliber presented at a criminal hearing would be thrown out. Simply put, I believe the most honest answer is not positive, but agnostic. In that regard, we should never accept a positive until we have adequate reason behind it; otherwise, where would one stop at accepting things without evidence? Given your hypothetical thought experiment, there would be no positive evidence (by your own admission). Likewise, we have no positive evidence of elves, fairies, witches, or dragons–but don’t be so quick to scoff. At least 50% of Icelanders believe in elves yet and at one time a large part of the world believed in fairies, dragons, and witches (so much that they burned innocent people because of it). Do you see why I find your thought experiment a little backwards?

Yesterday at 8:37am ·

James McGrath

Tom, I confess I don’t really understand your objection. There is a lot that is uncertain, and mainstream historians recognize this. No mainstream historian, including those from Iceland, can affirm that Jesus did miracles and expect to be taken seriously within the context of academic historical study. And I’m not suggesting that we argue “No one says Jesus didn’t exist, therefore he existed.” Your caricature (if it is not in fact a deliberate attempt at misrepresentation) doesn’t seem to bear much resemblance to what I or any mainstream scholar investigating the historical Jesus argues.

Yesterday at 9:06am ·

Tom Verenna

James, you do realize I’m talking about your recent blog, not your scholarship, right?

Yesterday at 9:12am ·

James McGrath

Yes! My point in that blog post was that, hypothetically speaking, if we have testimony, and no corroborating evidence nor evidence to the contrary, and so the probability is evenly balanced, it seems like one could make a case for the truthfulness of the testimony if those who are arguing that the testimony is false can only come up with outlandish and implausible suggestions for why and how it was invented.

Stated as an abstract principle in this way, would you agree?

Yesterday at 9:33am ·

Tom Verenna

I would not, do you understand why? You’re making a leap of logic. Allow me to explain through analogy: We do not know how the universe came to be, which should lead to an adequate agnostic position “I don’t know, yet.” Perhaps we’ll never know (but the amount of information that is steadily building leads me to believe one day we will). However some say, “I don’t know, ergo God.” Some say “I don’t know, ergo string theory.” Others say “I don’t know, ergo infinity (i.e. the universe has always existed).” All this is fine, as long as we keep in mind that without data, its only speculative leaps in logic. We’re all free to speculate on possibilities. But the truth is, we don’t know….yet. The historical Jesus might be out there, I find it doubtful, but I find it equally specious to say “I dont know.”

Further, I find it rather dubious of anyone to completely dismiss an idea which, given your hypothesis, is still plausible, simply because some individuals (not even all of them) can’t argue persuasively for it. Or to use your terminology some of those individuals make “outlandish and implausible suggestions.” The same could, after all, be said for a great deal of scholars on your side of the fence, am I right? Of course I am.

However, the truth is, there are scholars, top notch scholars, working in the field who find that the testimony is false and can argue for it rather well. Simply because you disagree, for whatever reason, does not mean it’s outlandish or implausible. I hope you’re not implying, by association, that mythicists like myself or Thompson, or Carrier are making outlandish claims or implausible suggestions?

Yesterday at 9:45am ·

James McGrath

Implausible? Certainly less plausible than those offered by mainstream historical scholarship. Outlandish? Sometimes! 🙂

But seriously, why would you possibly bring the issue of how the universe came into existence into a discussion of assessing mundane historical evidence, such as testimony that a person did this or that (and as a corollary presumably also existed)?

Yesterday at 9:55am ·

Tom Verenna

Define “implausible” for me. Can you give me one event in the Gospel which you believe historical that is not discredited by another mainstream scholar as being nonhistorical? It is doubtful. Do you understand the reason I am asking you this?

As for why I offered that suggestion, it is because I believe you feel the evidence for the historical Jesus is on par with the sort of evidence required to accept certain physical laws. And I feel this about you because of the way you can arrogantly argue certain perspectives and walk all over other implausibilities, while shunning them. I don’t think you’re an arrogant person, James…but seriously…what gives you the right to claim opinion as fact, and then claim that anything outside of that opinion is outlandish? Can you even give an example by me, Thompson or Carrier that is an outlandish mythicist position?

Yesterday at 10:00am ·

James McGrath

Tom, I’ve repeatedly said that historical evidence is not of the sort that we have in the natural sciences. I’ve repeatedly said that my point is that the existence of Jesus is more probable than the strained scenarios one has to offer in order to argue that Jesus was invented from scratch. And as for a basic piece of data that is generally accepted among mainstream historians in general as well as New Testament and historical Jesus scholars in particular, how about Jesus’ execution?

Yesterday at 10:03am ·

Tom Verenna

When? By Whom? I’ve read in, at the age of 55, as a phantom, or by Alexander Jannaeus. These are from early Christian church fathers, Christian historians, and even modern day historians who are credentialed or had access to the same documents you and I do. Your appeals to popularity not withstanding, even the crucifixion is disputed, and has been disputed, since the first century CE.

Yesterday at 10:07am ·

James McGrath

That’s like suggesting that we can’t know that John F. Kennedy was assassinated because there is ongoing dispute about who pulled the trigger. As for the date, the fact that a church father suggested Jesus might have been nearly 50 because of a reference in John’s Gospel doesn’t make that historical evidence that anyone critically examining the evidence will find plausible, or independent testimony of value.

But this is why I find mythicism so disturbing. There is a willingness to bring in any and every late source to attempt to argue against Jesus’ existence, but resistance to bringing in even the earliest sources in favor of his existence.

Yesterday at 10:11am ·

Tom Verenna

James, don’t be silly, I am not bringing this in as evidence, merely commenting on how quickly you rush into trusting canonical sources over any other evidence. BY criticizing my simply possibilities, even though I do not trust them either, you have shown how intolerant you are of other suggestions outside of your safe little box of the canonical New Testament, which was decided upon by just those late sources that you seem to hate so much.

Yesterday at 10:17am ·

Tom Verenna


Yesterday at 10:18am ·

Tom Verenna

Oh, and what evidence do you have of the crucifixion again?

Yesterday at 10:18am ·

James McGrath

Tom, I honestly don’t have time to repeat the same discussions we’ve had before. I don’t rush to trust canonical sources. I critically evaluate them using accepted criteria for historical study. We can discard those criteria and simply say we don’t know much about the past, but I’m happy to use them since they have proven useful and are widely accepted. Skepticism will always still be possible, as is the case in even more firmly established fields such as science or medicine. But I would rather work with generally accepted criteria and methods than engage in the mythicist game of picking and choosing whatever evidence supports my viewpoint, and then having the audacity to accuse those who question my views of being “apologists”! 🙂

Yesterday at 10:24am ·

James McGrath

Was I not clear when I said I don’t want to repeat things I’ve said before? Crucified Messiah? Mention in non-Christian and even anti-Christian sources?

Can they be doubted? Sure – as I said, just like anyone can believe anything if they want to badly enough, anyone can doubt anything if they want to badly enough. But if the discussion were not about Jesus, there would be no dispute about where the probability lies.

Yesterday at 10:27am ·

Tom Verenna

Why would I question the trustworthiness of the canonical Gospels, James? Unless, they are untrustworthy, right? And why would I question the crucifixion when it is the last piece of the Gospels that scholars cling to? Why would they dismiss every other possible historical event in the Gospels and why should we trust them on this one, last piece of evidence?

Now you say nonChristian and antiChristian sources, but don’t these same sources talk about things like the Exodus, Moses, Genesis? So tell me by what criteria are you using to differentiate these? Commonality, or as Ehrman might say, consistent? But are the accounts of the crucifixion really consistent James? And how late are these nonChristian and antiChristian sources, James? How many of them are still debated even in mainstream scholarship?

I have a very good reason to be skeptical of these sources James. What scares me is your willingness to accept them. Have you really critically analyzed them? If so, through what lens have you done so? I doubt the word critical can be applied when you are so hardheaded you cannot even accept the plausibility that the sources for the crucifixion are simply fiction.

Yesterday at 10:33am ·

James McGrath

There’s a reason why no one who has studied the Jewish concept of a Davidic Messiah in this time period thinks it is plausible that a group invented a crucified Messiah and then tried to persuade their fellow Jews that he’s the Messiah.

We only need one solid piece of historical evidence to know someone existed. The rest may be uncertain, but if there’s a solid piece of evidence, whatever it may be, then we know they existed, even if we know nothing else about them.

Yesterday at 10:51am ·

Tom Verenna

Who said anything about a Davidic Messiah? James, do you realize how many Jewish sects there were that we know of? 32 by name, plus four more we can speculate upon that are unnamed. Do you wish to try to persuade everyone that all of these sects believed in the same type of Davidic messiah? Are you seriously going to sit there and tell me that there was even one version of a Davidic messiah?

Yesterday at 10:54am ·

Tom Verenna

In addition, are you going to try to suggest that this Davidic messiah that early Christianity believed was singular, where there was no disputes about interpretation? Are you going to say that its implausible that Jewish mysticism did not allow for a spiritually crucified savior?

Yesterday at 10:55am ·

James McGrath

This is the point at which you provide evidence for a variety of views of the Davidic anointed one from sources contemporary or prior to the rise of early Christianity…

Yesterday at 10:55am ·

Tom Verenna

I’m sorry, have you provided evidence for a crucified Davidic messiah that conforms to your versions yet?

Yesterday at 10:56am ·

Tom Verenna

And define “Christianity” please. Which Christianity are we talking about?

Yesterday at 10:56am ·

Tom Verenna

And while you’re at that, can you please tell me at which point you believe that “Christianity” (based upon your definition) arose?

Yesterday at 10:57am ·

James McGrath

Bluster, bluster, bluster, and attempts to distract with other questions. If and when you have evidence to support your views, I’ll still be here. But you’ll probably have to await some new discovery, since mainstream scholarship has been over the relevant sources with a fine-toothed comb already and hasn’t found what mythicists are looking for.

Yesterday at 10:59am ·

Tom Verenna

I can’t very well provide you with evidence if I don’t know what you are asking for James. Come, come now. These are simple questions, right? Just appeal to more popularity again, don’t think for yourself.

Yesterday at 11:01am ·

James McGrath

Tom, this is Facebook, not a free course I’m offering on ancient Jewish Messianism. If you want to make the case that the view of the Davidic anointed one was not uniformly a royal, ruling, victorious figure, rather than one executed by the foreign rulers over the Jews, then by all means try. The subject has been studied in detail, and most of the primary sources are available in English translation. If you find what you’re looking for, I’ll still be here. Until then, please stop wasting my time with this nonsense!

Yesterday at 11:07am ·

Tom Verenna

James, don’t worry. I plan on bringing this up on my blog because I think everyone should benefit from this discussion. After all, I can see what you mean…of course these Davidic Jews would lie about everything else…but certainly not about that! Right? I mean, they can lie about the resurrection and ascension, but not about the crucifixion , right? They can lie about the miraculous birth or Jesus just arriv ing on scene like some phantom or spectre, but they would never lie about the actual birth or ministry of Jesus, right? And they would lie about all sorts of other silly things, but not about these other willy things, right? Come now James, who is really being silly here? Who are you kidding?

By the way, I don’t have to make the case; a formal inquiry was already launched about this issue and closed more than a decade ago. You might have heard of it, but berhaps you have not read the papers?

Here is your source: James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity (1992), by the Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins.

Yesterday at 11:21am ·

Tom Verenna

Sorry, that should have read “nearly a decade ago.”

Yesterday at 11:22am ·

James McGrath

I think you are mistaking the diversity of messianic concepts and mediator or savior figures for a diversity of concepts about the Davidic Messiah, the specific category into which Paul places Jesus.

Let me reverse your question, just to show how ludicrous it is. Are you going to suggest that all the ancient sources that claim the miraculous therefore have no history in them? If so, congratulations, you’ve just become a mythicist about Alexander the Great.

These are simple, basic things that the beginning student learns. I strongly encourage you take the time to learn the basics in this academic field before our next conversation.

Now once again, I ask you to kindly stop wasting my time until you’re better informed about this topic.

Yesterday at 11:28am ·

Tom Verenna

Paul Places Jesus as a Davidic messiah? Where?

Yesterday at 11:31am ·

Tom Verenna

James, your reversal of the question is a little ludicrous. That’s no different than you saying, “All Lesbians are women, but are all women lesbians?”

Yesterday at 11:32am ·

Tom Verenna

The answer to that question is ‘no,’ by the way.

Yesterday at 11:33am ·

James McGrath

Romans 1:3. Welcome to New Testament 101.

Yesterday at 11:34am ·

Tom Verenna

So you believe that when Paul says ‘Of the seed of David’ you interpret that to mean ‘Davidic messiah?”

Yesterday at 11:35am ·

Tom Verenna

God sent Jesus to fulfill the prophecies “concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh.” Immediately following this verse, Paul states that we can also be called “to belong to Jesus Christ.” It’s more allegory. I’d like to call attention to the formalistic style in which Paul is using. Paul does not say, “from the womb of Mary” or “from the seed of Joseph”. Paul does not once mention the names of Jesus’ parents. Instead, he utilizes this allegorical language. David was not the father of Jesus. But, that is a testament to the parable of Paul’s savior. David is representative of Israel. Once more, Jesus is not the subject of the chapter, but salvation for the Israelites is. Paul is writing to Rome; “So, as much as is in me, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes; for the Jew first, and also for the Greek.” (Rom. 1:16) For Paul, his goal is the salvation of everyone, but specifically his intent is to show the promise of God fulfilled. Paul, shortly after making his intentions clear, goes on about this very issue for the rest of the chapter, talking about the wickedness of Israel in the past, and how God gave the wicked up to their “dishonorable passions” (πάθη ἀτιμίας). The works of man are irrelevant to the Grace of God. He cements this into his discussion of circumcision, which again is allegory. Circumcision is representative of the law, and those who follow the law, where as those who are uncircumcised—the Greek who does not follow the law—but still have faith are no different. The tie in with the seed of David is that Jesus, to Paul, reveals himself to all men, just as David counts men righteous who do not follow the law.

Even as David also pronounces blessing on the man to whom God counts righteousness apart from works, ‘Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, Whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whom the Lord will by no means charge with sin.’ Is this blessing then pronounced on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it counted? When he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. (Rom. 4:9)

To Paul, the seed of David is likened to the seed of Abraham, the children of Israel, who are deemed righteous by their faith, not through works of the laws. “For the promise to Abraham and to his seed that he should be heir of the world wasn’t through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” (Rom. 4:13) Paul explains further the salvation of Israel, while making it clear that there is a “partial hardening” (πώρωσις ἀπὸ μέρους) upon the sons of Israel, “And in this way all Israel will be saved”. According to Paul, this salvation will occur when there is a specific amount of Greeks who are also saved. (Rom. 11:25-26) Paul speaks this mystery (μυστήριον) to his brethren because he seeks to “somehow…make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them”. (ibid.) He again relates this back to the patriarchs and the prophets. God is attempting to save a remnant of Israelites, those who have faith and are deemed worthy through grace. He brings up the passage in which Isaiah begs God to destroy Israel for their wickedness. God, recognizing the wickedness of the Jews well in advance, allows for seven thousand Israelites who did not “knee to Baal.” (Rom. 11:6) Paul sums up this allegory, “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect (ἐκλογή) obtained it, but the rest were hardened”. (Rom. 11:7) Bringing this allegorical interpretation of scripture back around, to “belong to Christ” you must become a seed of David, by specifically identifying your faith in God through Christ. This is accomplished through understanding the mysteries Paul teaches, and by becoming one of the mature (τέλειοι).

Welcome to New Testament 201.

Yesterday at 11:36am ·

Tom Verenna

In other words, you’re interpreting a context based upon an assumption; he uses David as an allegory for salvation, not a lineage of Jesus as a subject.

Yesterday at 11:39am ·

James McGrath

No, we don’t do allegory in NT 201 these days. But mythicists are usually at least a century behind where the rest of scholars are.

Posting a long-winded distraction doesn’t change that Paul refers to Jesus as the anointed one descended from David, and that you haven’t demonstrated the diversity you claim existed in this conceptuality in the Judaism of this time. But by all means, you can have this thread to yourself to go on about allegory and other topics not germane to what we were discussing. But I’m pretty sure no one will fail to notice by this point that you are not addressing the issues or providing evidence for your claims.

Yesterday at 11:41am ·

Tom Verenna

We don’t, eh? So I should put down my book Redescribing Christian Origins? He doesn’t say ‘descended’ anything, James. Stop falsely translating the text to appeal to your fiction.

Yesterday at 11:43am ·

Tom Verenna

If you want to get literal about it, he says ‘Of the seed of David” so either he means that Jesus was the literal son of David, that David impregnated Mary, or he means it allegorically in some manner. My manner works, and I can back it up. Where is yours?

Yesterday at 11:44am ·

Tom Verenna

By the way, good job backing yourself into a hole on that one.

Yesterday at 11:45am ·

James McGrath

LOL. Mainstream scholarship learned a long time ago that when you resort to allegory you can make the text say anything. Which is presumably why mythicism is appealing. No text cannot be made to support it!

Good night. I expect I’ll have a lot more e-mail notifications in my inbox by morning. But I still think your time would be spent learning some of the basics of relevant fields, rather than ranting here.

Yesterday at 11:47am ·

Tom Verenna

So then Jesus is the literal son of David?

Yesterday at 11:48am ·

Tom Verenna

Oh, and for the record, my allegory is based on current trends in philology-based studies in intertextuality. Thanks, though. maybe you need to brush up on recent trends in literary theory in biblical studies over the past decade, James? Perhaps you didn’t know about this trend in ancient literature known as imitatio…Μίμησίς and Ζήλωσις. Check into it once in a while, you’ll be impressed by how much your historical notion of Jesus shrinks.

Yesterday at 11:53am ·

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28 thoughts on “Tom Verenna Debates James McGrath”

  1. A few points about Romans 1 which Tom could have made against McGrath’s “101” reading of the passage. Let’s look at it:

    “1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised (or, announced [NEB]) beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, 3 who arose from the seed of David according to the flesh (kata sarka), 4 and was designated Son of God in power according to the spirit (kata pneuma) of holiness (or, the holy spirit) after his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” [RSV, with a bit of literalizing in the latter verse]

    First, what has Paul found in scripture? God’s gospel about the Son, which gospel Paul is now preaching. Scripture, in other words, has embodied/pre-announced Paul’s gospel, not Jesus Christ himself or his life. Between the prophecies of that gospel by God (not by Jesus) and Paul’s preaching of it, there is no historical Jesus inserted.

    Second, the items enumerated in verses 3 and 4 are given as part of “God’s gospel about the Son,” they are not presented as historical data. OT 101 states many times that the Messiah will be a descendant of David. Paul and his early cultic fellow-Christians have taken “of the seed of David” directly from scripture and applied it to their Logos-like heavenly Son, just as they have taken so much from scripture to “discover” and characterize that figure. (This is NT Epistles 101, if traditional scholarship would stop importing the Gospels into the Epistles.)

    Third, the second item of “the gospel of God”, in verse 4, is clearly from scripture. It is derived from Psalm 2:7-8:

    “7 I will tell of the decree of the Lord:

    He said to me: ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you.

    8 Ask of me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,

    and the ends of the earth as your possession’.” [RSV/NEB]

    Verse 7 provides Paul (or whoever may have written this pre-Pauline liturgical unit in Romans 1, as some see it) with “designated Son of God,” and verse 8 describes how he became Son of God “in power” (compare the similar heavenly scene of exaltation with power in Philippians 2:9-11). Since verse 2 tells of the gospel of the Son in scripture, and verse 4 gives us a scene from that gospel which can only be a heavenly one revealed in scripture, what is likely to be the nature of verse 3? An out-of-place historical datum insertion? Or another feature of the gospel of God revealed in scripture?

    All this need not be styled “allegory” (if McGrath detests that term so much). It is simply Paul & Co. reading scripture and discovering within it the spiritual truths about the heavens and the divine activities which went on in it (as so much of Jewish sectarian writing of the time was concerned about). Paul need not even have understood exactly how Jesus the heavenly Son could be (temporarily) “of David’s seed.” Scripture said so, that may have been all he needed.

    But even here it need not be labeled “allegory.” I prefer the term “mystical.” Let’s compare Romans 9:6-8:

    “It is not the children of the flesh (tes sarkos) [i.e., children of Abraham in natural physical descent] who are the children of God; rather, the children of the promise [i.e., the gentiles] are reckoned as (Abraham’s) seed (sperma, same word as used in Romans 1:3).”

    So Paul is quite capable of speaking of the “seed” of someone in a non-literal sense. Here it is a mystical linkage of the gentiles to Abraham based on faith and being “in Christ.” (Compare Galatians 3:29, which does the same thing.) There is no reason why Paul could not have seen his heavenly Christ (at the time he took on a form of flesh—kata sarka, but that’s another story—to be crucified by the demon spirits in the lower heavens, see 1 Cor. 2:8) as establishing a mystical link with David, since scripture said so.

    When traditional scholarship presets the curriculum of NT 101, it’s hardly surprising that they miss so much of what the texts actually tell us.

  2. Regarding the oft repeated claim that historical Jesus scholars derive their conclusions by the same techniques that other historians use.

    Classicists have writings from three different viewpoints by men who knew Socrates personally. Nevertheless, few seem be willing to assert with any certainty what it was that the real historical Socrates said and did because they recognize that the pictures that these men paint may be shaped to meet their own rhetorical purposes.

    Historical Jesus scholars, on the other hand, have only the works of unknown authors written for unknown audiences based on unknown sources removed an unknown number of times from people who may or may not have been eyewitnesses to any relevant even; all of which were all written from the perspective that after his death Jesus had been supernaturally exalted by God. They, however, are convinced that they can tease out things that the real historical Jesus said and did with a high degree of certainty.

    1. Historical Jesus scholars, on the other hand, have only the works of unknown authors written for unknown audiences based on unknown sources removed an unknown number of times from people who may or may not have been eyewitnesses to any relevant even

      And, surprise, surprise, the result is that we get a whole bunch of differing historical Jesus-es.

  3. James: “Are you going to suggest that all the ancient sources that claim the miraculous therefore have no history in them? If so, congratulations, you’ve just become a mythicist about Alexander the Great.”

    Hector Avalos:


    “… Therefore, it is not a case of undue skepticism to believe in at least some of Alexander’s exploits (i.e., those independently corroborated by further evidence) and yet not believe in any or most of Jesus’ exploits.”

    Hector is arguing against Christian Apologists not for Christ mythicism. But his argument applies here as well, me thinks.

    1. That plus the how does James’ logic look when the pendulum swings back his way- “Are you going to suggest that all ancient sources contain some reliable history that can be extracted regardless of the amount of miraculous claim and the like? If so, congratulations, you’ve just become a historicist about Clark Kent/Superman.

  4. In summary, the only thing McGrath thinks we can be sure of regarding the historical Jesus is that he was crucified… even though he doesn’t actually have a historical source for that event.

  5. Mainstream scholarship learned a long time ago that when you resort to allegory you can make the text say anything.

    This would seem to me to be a reason for mainstream scholarship to be less dogmatic about its conclusions rather than simply dismiss the possibility of allegory. Of course I think the fact that any verse could be interpolated is a reason to seek corroboration and express less certainty whereas mainstream scholarship simply creates a presumption in favor of authenticity.

    1. God I was such a little snot back then. I apologize to James; it’s embarrassing and humbling really. Nothing shows you just how far you’ve come in a short amount of time like looking at something you’ve written before.

          1. Granting you may or may not be a snot, which of the statements of fact you made do you now retract as false and which of McGrath’s arguments that you didn’t accept then do you accept now and why have you changed your mind if you have?

            1. I believe my points were not at all nuanced and considered. I don’t accept some of the stronger positions I’ve made and would now take a more agnostic position on the question. I was also wrong when I called Thomas Thompson a mythicist. Like me, he is an agnostic.

              1. So, at the risk of sounding like a snot, it seems that you still hold to all the factual assertions you made and accept none of McGrath’s. You just don’t like your former tone and the descriptive terms you use to describe factual assertions you continue to hold as valid.

              2. Pardon me, but that is a comical non-response. If you disagree with what you said, it should be trivial to point out where. If you agree with McGrath now, it should be trivial to point out where. The fact that you won’t or can’t suggests that you have had no changes in your views. If you have had changes, what is so difficult about showing us what they are?

              3. I disagree with everything I said in a not-so-trivial way. Everything McGrath said is worth consideration and that is why I’m an agnostic and not a fundamentalist about it. Sorry, I thought I was clear about this.

              4. So you have done a complete volte-face but you can’t say what evidence changed your mind? Comical. If someone were to suddenly change from being a moon-landing skeptic to believing that Neil Armstrong actually walked on the moon, they would usually have evidence they could quickly present an outline of that changed their mind. You still seem focused on tone — using words like “fundamentalist”. Fundamentalists ignore and eschew evidence and go by things like faith, and how they feel about things. Skeptics and scientists don’t attempt to defend positions without evidence. Yet you seem to have come around 180 degrees without being able to tell us why. This is curious, obviously.

  6. McGrath:

    mainstream historians recognize this. No mainstream historian, including those from Iceland, can affirm that Jesus did miracles and expect to be taken seriously within the context of academic historical study

    Is it just me, but every time McGrath starts a defense he includes himself in the constellation of ‘academic historians’, and it rankles me. By what justification does a bachelor of religious studies, a masters in Divinity, and Doctorate in Christian apologetics – who has admitted that he has only taken a history course or two as an undergraduate – earn the right to assert that he is an academic historian?

    1. See: Theologians who mistakenly think they’re historians

      Anyone who has followed this blog for the past few years knows that McGrath’s “gaps in knowledge” of the study of history are quite large. More than once he has directed Neil to go read some book that he clearly has either only skimmed or just didn’t understand.

      It appears to me, just from my reading of the modern scholars, that a great many academics working in NT studies consider themselves historians specializing in the Ancient Mediterranean world, focusing on the area of Palestine from about 1 BCE to 4 CE. Yet, as a general rule, they have no idea how much they don’t know.

      Here’s a fun experiment you can try at home. Search for the term “Criterion of Embarrassment” on Google Books and try to figure out when it was invented. Every historical Jesus scholar today will tell you that the much-vaunted criteria of authenticity or “nothing special” and that all historians use them.

      You can click on this starting search URL.

      Now try to find any citation before 1980. Click Search Tools, then the arrow next to Any time, then Custom range . . .

      In the dialog window, put 1800 in the From field and 1980 in the To field. Or you can just click on this link.

      Notice that the only NT-specific work that is listed in the search results is Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician. I confess that although I recently bought this book, I cannot find a reference to the criterion of embarrassment. I’m still looking.

      So what happens if we look between 1980 and 1990?

      Now there are only three hits. Interestingly they’re all about the historical Jesus:

      1. The Silence of Jesus
      2. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary
      3. Jesus the Magician

      The eruption of works that cite the criterion of embarrassment occurs in the 1990s. The incipient event appears to be John P. Meier’s first book on the “marginal Jew” in 1991.

      The thing to notice is that this criterion is very specific to biblical studies. Once the flood gates have opened, NT scholars quote Meier, then quote each other, then quote themselves. The important thing is to spill gallons of ink on reams of paper in order to legitimize the enterprise.

      But make no mistake. No matter how much the NT scholars protest, no historian worth his salt will ever base his judgment on the historicity of a person in antiquity on whether an anonymous author is embarrassed about what another, earlier anonymous author wrote.

      1. That’s very interesting about the ‘criterion of embarrassment’ – I suppose if you’re determined to find an historical Jesus sometimes you need to invent tools custom made for the task.

      2. This reminds me of the classic psychological experiment demonstrating people who default to System 1 thinking instead of System 2 thinking:

        I have a bat and a ball that together costs $1.10. If the bat is $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

        The intuitive answer is “10 cents” but that’s wrong. You have to actually stop yourself and recall your algebra to get the right answer. But if you’ve never learned algebra, then you will think that people who say 10 cents is the wrong answer are weird.

        The criterion of embarrassment seems like the equivalent of the intuitive answer: “People don’t invent things that are embarrassing!!111” but if you don’t have the framework for how history is done outside of your narrow field, then you will look at people odd if they try to tell you the historiographical equivalent of “use algebra”.

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