Amanda Witmer on “Jesus, the Gospels and Historicity”

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by Neil Godfrey

It seems the topic of the day is Amanda Witmer’s article in The Bible and Interpretation, Jesus, the Gospels and History. It covers many points I have addressed often enough here, and that others have addressed at length, so I will refer only in brief to some of these arguments in my little contribution to the discussion below.

Amanda begins her argument by erroneously framing the Christ Myth position as an extreme form of dogma that insists on absolutes. The same paragraph ironically calls for the necessity for “an open and enquiring mind”

In some quarters it is now fashionable to argue that Jesus did not exist! At the opposite end of the spectrum we find the position that every word of the Bible is literally true and that the gospels provide us with an unfiltered historical account of Jesus’ life. This is a false dichotomy rooted in our human tendency to insist on absolutes and true or false claims. Neither position takes the evidence seriously. As it turns out, historical information about Jesus can be found, but sifting through the data requires some work. An open and enquiring mind is also a necessary requisite.


The Christ Myth idea is hardly a current “fashion”. It has been with us since the eighteenth century, and in some variant of its modern form since Bruno Bauer.

Advocates of the Christ Myth view, and others who are in some way neutral on the position, are no more “absolutist” in their claims than are most who argue for the historicity of Jesus. Given that a number of Christ Myth advocates do think that the Christ idea began with a belief in the appearance at some time of a human entity or a figure appearing as a human on earth, we have to acknowledge that there is as wide a range of discussion about the nature of the origins of the Jesus myth among “mythicists” as there is among “historicists” debating the nature of the historical Jesus and how much, if anything, can be known about him.

Witmer’s introduction unfortunately appears to be ignorant of the simple fact that the Christ Myth arguments are indeed arguments that address the scholarly literature and methodologies and are very conscious of the degrees of uncertainty that must necessarily exist on both sides of the debate.

Witmer is right to call for an open and enquiring mind, but if one wants to address an opposing argument one does need first to be open to enquiring what the opposing argument does argue. Witmer does not appear to have done that in the case of the Christ Myth theories; but the serious “mythicists” who appear to be concerning theologians today do know and understand and address the arguments of the historicists. Had she done so, she could not have written that the Christ Myth exponents are unaware of, or do not take seriously, the evidence that has been advanced in support of the historicity of Jesus.

As time passed and memories were formed, faith began to shape the way in which the early Christian community viewed and wrote about Jesus. As a result, the portrait of Jesus we find in the gospels is nuanced, containing a mixture of biography, historical information, memory, faith and myth. . . . It is now generally accepted that the gospels can be fitted broadly into the genre of ancient Greco-Roman biography.


These sentences are not facts but the mainstream conventional wisdom. They are a hypothesis. The hypothesis begs the question and assumes from the outset that Christianity began with followers of an historical Jesus. It is this model of Gospel origins that is being challenged. Simply repeating it is not an argument against the Christ Myth views.

The nature of the gospels, their genre, has widely been thought of as a form of biography on the strength of Burridge’s What Are the Gospels? A glance across this blog of the posts addressing Burridge’s work and the scholarly responses to it demonstrates clearly enough (1) that among those who question the historicity of Jesus are those who address genre arguments, and Burridge’s in particular, in depth; and (2) that the view that the gospels are a form of “biography” is far from a secure fact. Literary and genre analysis are critical exercises before one can understand the sorts of questions one can rightly ask of the Gospels. The theoretically grounded arguments of Michael Vines and others have seriously challenged the comparative dot-point facile arguments of Burridge.

That said, historical information does emerge from the four evangelists’ portraits. Luke’s gospel states that Jesus was around 30 years old when he began his mission (3:23) and that John the Baptist began to preach in the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign, so presumably in the year 28 or 29 (3:1). Jesus was probably born around 4 BCE, about the time that Herod the Great died,1 putting him in his early thirties at the time of his death. All four gospels report that Jesus died by crucifixion in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate. Since all of this corresponds to what is attested in non-biblical sources, we have no particular reason to doubt this information. So, while the gospels were shaped by faith and a theological perspective, the basic outline of what occurred as described in the gospels is corroborated by what we find in the writings of Tacitus and Josephus.


Details like numbers in a narrative do not necessarily mean that the information is historical. If a narrative gives a character a historical setting and a certain age, we need to remember we find the same sorts of details in fiction, including ancient fiction. Achilles, Moses, Joshua, Samson were all given historical settings. John the Baptist, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, did not appear on the scene until after the supposed time of Jesus. So the outline we find in Josephus does not corroborate the gospels.

Other early Christian sources inform us that there was a contrary tradition that Jesus was crucified by Herod, and that immediately following that death (not 40 years later) the Roman’s destroyed Jerusalem as divine punishment. The earliest sources give no historical details about the crucifixion at all; these all emerged over time. The Tacitus passage is second century and tells us nothing more than what Christians themselves at that time believed.

Even so, the sources we have on Jesus’ life were actually written closer to his lifetime than were those on Alexander the Great, for example, and were recorded while people who had known him were still living. Our most complete source of information about Jesus is the New Testament Gospels, written between 40 and 70 years after Jesus’ death.


This is begging the question of Jesus’ historicity in the 20’s CE. It takes for granted the self-witness of the Gospel narrative as based on historical fact. See the dismantling of the logic of this argument by Philip R. Davies. The early dating of the gospels is actually a tendentious argument and not methodologically sound. Niels Peter Lemche has addressed the question of dating as outlined here.

Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, also mentions Jesus, noting his reputation as a wonder worker, the charges brought against him by the Jewish leadership, his execution under Pilate, and the continuation of the so called “tribe” of Christians until the time of Josephus’ writing (ca. 90 CE).3 While some other more confessional statements in Josephus’ account are widely acknowledged to represent Christian interpolation, most scholars view the information just cited as coming from Josephus himself.


Merely claiming that “most scholars view the information” in a certain way is not an argument for the authenticity of the passage. What is a fact is that this change of mind among scholars is a historically recent development. It has come about since the Second World War. Before then the “consensus” view was the reverse. The evidence has not changed. Witmer regrettably shows no awareness of any of the detailed and extensive arguments that have been made against the authenticity of any of the Josephan passages concerning Jesus and provides no argument to justify the what “most scholars” think today against these arguments.

We can also be fairly certain that Jesus was closely linked to John, based on the criterion of embarrassment. This criterion asserts that if something mentioned in the gospels would be potentially embarrassing to the early Christian community, but has nevertheless been retained, it is likely to be historical.


Mack, Arnal, Vaage argue that the invention of a baptism of Jesus by John certainly did have strong literary and theological motivations. The earliest mention of the baptism betrays no sense of embarrassment at all. I don’t know if other scholars have overturned their arguments yet. (The whole scene can be demonstrated as having been created whole out of references to passages in the Jewish Scriptures.)

The criterion of embarrassment itself is increasingly recognized as logically flawed as a means of establishing what might have been historical fact.

Witmer is not taking the methodological or detailed arguments for and against historicity seriously but appears to be content to repeat the conventional wisdom as if it has never been questioned.

In other words, if the earliest Christian community had simply invented Jesus, why link him to John, a fiery Jewish prophet who was executed by Herod Antipas?


Beware rhetorical questions; they usually paper over cracks in the argument, as Daniel Dennett has said. The answer to this rhetorical question has been given many times now. What is needed is an open and enquiring mind to address the arguments and evidence. The answer is theological and literary. See Mack, Arnal, Vaage, Price, Wells, Thompson, . . . .

Finally, there is evidence in both Mark and John that Jesus was thought to be out of his mind by some (Mark 3:21; John 7:20; 8:52; 10:20) and in Mark and Q that Jesus was accused of casting out demons using Beelzebul, the prince of demons (Mark 3:22; Matt 12:24=Luke 11:15). Why should the early Christian community invent these kinds of accusations against Jesus or John when they could have simply invented a “nicer” story?


Because all the prophets and sons of God are by definition persecuted, rejected by their own. It’s their job description. It exalts them in the eyes of their worshipers.

Reading between the lines, or against the text, we learn from these two passages that John had perhaps initially been viewed as the more important of the two men, and that this perception gradually shifted. Again, why invent this issue?


Because Jesus came to supersede the old. Mustard seed. The old Israel was replaced by the called out remnant — at least that’s the witness of the early Christian writings.

To sum up, it is important to interpret the evidence about Jesus’ existence in a balanced way that neither dismisses all biblical evidence as worthless, nor assumes that every aspect of the biblical account should be read as pure history. . . .


Agreed. From my observation it is “mythicists” who take the evidence seriously and address all the arguments, while historical Jesus opponents of mythicists generally (I can’t think of any exceptions right now) dismiss without argument or ignore completely the arguments that challenge their assumptions.



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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “Amanda Witmer on “Jesus, the Gospels and Historicity””

  1. Neil, what dates does Josephus place John the Baptizer in?

    Exrelayman, it’s no big deal the wiki page was edited today. Although I noted that one of the recent edits was to take Ehrman’s section out

    1. According to the passage in Josephus John was imprisoned and executed in 36 CE — this was the time of Herod’s divorce from the daughter of King Aretas and the war Aretas launched against Herod over this.

      1. Not to beat a dead horse, or anything, but it seems pretty obvious that the JtB reference in Josephus is a clumsy interpolation. Consider the end of the paragraph that precedes the reference and compare it with the next paragraph after:

        So Herod wrote about these affairs to Tiberius, who being very angry at the attempt made by Aretas, wrote to Vitellius to make war upon him, and either to take him alive, and bring him to him in bonds, or to kill him, and send him his head. This was the charge that Tiberius gave to the president of Syria…

        …So Vitellius prepared to make war with Aretas, having with him two legions of armed men; he also took with him all those of light armature, and of the horsemen which belonged to them, and were drawn out of those kingdoms which were under the Romans, and made haste for Petra, and came to Ptolemais.

        The paragraph relating to John the Baptist interrupts the flow of this recounting of the dispute between Herod and Aretus.

        1. Even if the JtB passage is an interpolation, it’s still a lose-lose situation for those who employ it to verify the historicity of the Gospels. If we accept the passage, it puts John the Baptist after Jesus’ death; if we discard it, we have no first-century historical evidence for John the Baptist at all.

        2. Yes, I am inclined to see the JtB passage in Josephus as a later addition, too. (Have posted once or more on that in the past.) But few people using it as evidence for the historicity of the gospels would accept that — they would suspect the interpolation argument as one of convenience — so in discussions like this I’ll accept it as genuine. I also think the Tacitus passage is either an interpolation or a “redaction” of an original passage that denigrated Isis cultists, but again in discussions like this I’ll set aside those possibilities (probabilities) and try to work as much as possible within the parameters the “historicists” can accept.

            1. Stephen Dando-Collins, “The Great Fire of Rome”, presents this possibility. To see the introduction to this argument read from page 9 at http://tinyurl.com/m2x58fk

              Thanks to Giuseppe (below) — Roger must have been the one who put me on to this book (I could not recall how I came to it until Paul’s reminder.)

  2. -Do I detect that the WordPress theme has been changed? [checks both Firefox and Chrome] If so, please change it back! This new one looks horrible! The lack of sidebar and header is especially terrible!

    1. It shouldn’t have changed. It is possible, though, that if the new site is dragging (which it does quite often, sadly) then the cascading style sheets (CSS files) might not come along for the ride, and the resulting raw HTML would look just awful. (Actually, that should happen very rarely, since we’ve set the headers to encourage browser-side caching.)

      We’re seriously thinking about moving, but it seems everyone complains about oversold hosting services, slowness, unexpected downtimes, etc.

  3. Just to follow up with you, Pithom, on one of my machines, the site looked like crap, so I flushed the cache. Let me know if that helped on your end.

  4. John the Baptist is dated to 36CE, by Josephus, but what about the length and location of Jesus missionary as per Mark it is less than one year and in Galilee only, and as per 4th Gospel, it is few days more than 2 years and last seven months, for Festival of Tents, Temple rededication and for passover Jesus was in Judea. If Mark delibarately lied- apply Luke 16:10

    1. All the canonical gospels say Pilate was the governor of Judea so if we accept Josephus’s date for John then Pilate left his post the same year John was executed. Irenaeus interpreted the Gospel of John to mean that Jesus was almost 50 years old when he was crucified. Justin understood that Jesus was crucified in the year that the Romans overran Judea and destroyed Jerusalem. Those associated with the Gospel of Peter believed Herod was responsible for the crucifixion, not Pilate. (Justin appears to think the same.)

      For all of this, I have no reason to think that anyone was “deliberately lying”. Mark was not writing history. He was writing parable, a metaphor, a symbolic tale. If the details were being worked out in the first few decades that would account for the wild variations in the early literature. (The earliest literature gives us no specifics at all — i.e. the letters of the NT and Revelation).

      I see no reason to think there was some sort of conspiracy to deliberately deceive anyone and that produced what we know as Christianity. If a conspiracy was involved then we have no way of uncovering it. It is more economical to interpret our data through models of normal historical/anthropological and sociological processes.

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