The O’Neill–Fitzgerald Debate over the Christ Myth: Round 1, the Agenda

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by Neil Godfrey


All posts in this series are archived in the O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate.


I don’t imagine very many people interested in the debate over the historical existence of Jesus would have the time to read Tim O’Neill’s 12,000+ word response David Fitzgerald’s response (10,000 words) to Tim O’Neill’s review (7,500 words) of David Fitzgerald’s Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All. Even fewer interested readers, I am sure, would have the time to stop and compare each of O’Neill’s points with its related Ftizgerald passage. However, it is only by comparing point by point claim and counter-claim that one can make a fair assessment of the validity of each of O’Neill’s responses.

Well, it has been a very quiet set of rainy days here so I have had time to set out the three articles side by side in columns and colour-code the matching sections of the discussion. So that makes it a little easier for me to follow and evaluate the arguments that have spanned tens of thousands of words and two full years.

But I promise I will not attempt to cover it all in a single post. I’ll do it in small chunks — I really will try to keep every post to around 1000 words — one point at a time.

I will attempt throughout these posts to censor O’Neill’s language to make it fit for readers who prefer exchanges to be civil and respectful in tone. And as usual all bolded font is my own emphasis. I’ll be adding my own perspective from time to time, too.

The Agenda!

One of the first points O’Neill made against Fitzgerald was that he represents a group of Christ Myth theorists who are driven by a desire to undermine Christianity.

The final category of Myther [Christ Myth] theories are ones that tend to have been propagated by anti-theistic atheists or seized on by them as a way to attack traditional Christianity . . . Which brings us to David Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is an atheist activist . . .

Like most pseudo history, these [Fitzgerald’s] arguments for the non-existence of Jesus are flawed by the fact their writers [he] begin[s] with their [his] conclusion. That is bad enough to start with, and there is no shortage of amateur hobbyist theorists who are too enamoured of their “amazing idea” to subject it to sufficient comprehensive self-criticism. But this is exacerbated in the Mythers’ [Fitzgerald’s] case by an ideologically-driven bias. A major part of the problem with most manifestations of the Myther [Fitgerald’s] thesis is that its proponents[he] desperately want[s] it to be true because they [he] want[s] to undermine Christianity. (O’Neill 2011 — As a fellow Australian with some respect for civil debate I have attempted to save Tim the embarrassment of being seen to make sweeping pejorative generalizations about the motives of most people who embrace a mythicist view and to restrict him to the book and writer he is ostensibly reviewing.)

O’Neill provides no supporting extracts from Nailed to inform us how he knows that this is DF’s motive for writing the book. DF is an “atheist activist” and he does talk about his book at atheist conventions. TO finds this data sufficient to condemn him for coming to the views out of a desperate desire to undermine Christianity.

DF responds to this charge:

Yet another grossly uninformed allegation is his ridiculous assertion that all “Mythers” are just out to push an atheist agenda, so they start with their conclusion, and spin half-baked ad hoc theories purely out of political motivations, like creationists. This would be laughable if it wasn’t so insulting and patronizing. My atheist activism has absolutely nothing to do with whether Jesus was real or not. I don’t need for there to have been a mythical Jesus; the bible fails on its own just fine with or without a genuine founder from Nazareth. The truth is something O’Neill can’t seem to fathom: I never set about to be a “Myther” – in fact, it was quite the opposite. Like the overwhelming majority of atheists, twelve years ago it had never even occurred to me there might never have been a historical Jesus. Then one day (after reading Ken Smith’s brilliant Ken’s Guide to the Bible) I became curious to find out what Jesus really said and did, and how much was just legendary accretion. Once I began to look into the sorry state of the evidence for Jesus, I realized (as have so many others before me) that something is seriously flawed with the notion of a “Historical Jesus.”

. . . . I have sympathy for anyone with initial skepticism. We should be skeptical, especially of books by non-specialists in the field, like mine. And at the end of the day, it’s no skin off my nose if anyone else accepts it or not. I’m not dogmatic about it. I’m not a masochist or a contrarian. I defend the Jesus Myth theory for just one simple reason: I am sincerely convinced that it’s right. I’m certainly willing to reject it if it turns out to be wrong; indeed, there have been many supporting arguments and lines of evidence that I have discarded because they did turn out to be wrong. . . . . Maybe if O’Neill could manage to understand that Mythicists like me actually have reasons for our position, and that the dominant historical opinion on Jesus is seriously flawed, we could have an actual discussion. . . . (Fitzgerald, 2012)

I may have missed it but I don’t think TO responds to DF’s reply in his latest post (O’Neill 2013).

This notion that anyone who argues a mythicist case can be assumed to be motivated by a desire to undermine Christianity is surely belied by Thomas Brodie’s case that a symbolic Christ does not need to be incompatible with Christianity. It is also belied by the track record a number of those who have argued the Christ Myth case over the past century and more and their respectful treatment of the Christian faith.

I’ve also thought that the worst way anyone can seek to undermine someone’s Christian faith is to try to tell them Jesus did not even exist! Now that’s so “far out” in most people’s thinking that they will simply laugh or scoff at the idea.

It made no difference to my atheist views when I took Jesus’ historical existence for granted and it would make absolutely no difference to me if I am persuaded again that he did exist. Besides, I’m simply not interested in trying to turn people off their Christian faith. I really do as a rule respect people who embrace whatever faith they do just as I know I appreciated others respecting my beliefs when I myself was a Christian. This blog is very largely about understanding how the Bible came to be and what it really is. If the best answers are found in an historical Jesus then so be it.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “The O’Neill–Fitzgerald Debate over the Christ Myth: Round 1, the Agenda”

  1. ‘One of the first points O’Neill made against Fitzgerald was that he represents a group of Christ Myth theorists who are driven by a desire to undermine Christianity.’

    So O’Neill argues ad hominem and commits the genetic fallacy in one of his first points.

    A good start!

    The reason mythicism is interesting is that the standard explanation for the origin of Christianity is so flawed.

    Apparently there was this apocalyptic preacher that almost nobody noticed who was crucified as a threat to the Roman Empire. He impressed his handful of followers but we don’t know why. And then they started preaching that he had been a crucified Messiah, because the idea of a crucified Messiah would never have occurred to anybody.

    There are gaps in the standard story.

    Which is why mythicism has appeared.

    1. “The idea of a crucified Messiah would never have occurred to anybody”, so it wouldn’t have occurred to any “handful of followers” either. But, obviously, it occurred to somebody.and the idea of a dying and rising god was already there. In Jewish thought the idea comes in the form of Tammuz, the shepherd god, also mentioned in Ezekiel. The crucifixion has great sympathetic appeal and weeping for Jesus was/is not something new (Ezek. 8:14). So, in my mind, the idea of a crucified (but raised from the dead) Messiah was at the beginning of the Jesus story and not at the end of it. IOW, the Jesus story was formed around that original idea which already existed (and revealed) in the “mystery” religions,

      1. The women weeping for Tammuz remind us of the women who first discovered the empty tomb. HJ apologists assure us that nobody would ever have invented a story in which women play so prominent a role in the resurrection story.

  2. …and who is Tim O’Neill and why should we care what he thinks. I have long written off dogmatic defenses of the HJ theory that rely primarily on ad hominem and other basic logical fallacies. What mythicism needs are monographs, the Building blocks of grand theory. A book such as Doherty’s should spin off several such works. Carrier’s recent Article on Antiquities is an example of the sort of work that needs to be done. Studies on Paul that do not presuppose the Gospel stories are a place to start, in My opinion.

    1. Personally I don’t give a hoot about anything Tim O’Neill writes. He is not interested in discussion nor even in serious debate. I have in the past invited him respond to my criticism of his attacks on Salm and the arguments based on Nazareth archaeology but he declined — presumably because he could not accept my only condition: that he refrain from uncivil language. He now even falsely claims that I am censoring him here when he knows that all I am doing is asking him to abide by the same rules as we expect of all commenters. (I soon learned that he can’t really handle having his case actually addressed in any sort of depth, and his subsequent responses tend to expose even more his dogmatic and authoritarian fall-back positions.)

      But I do hate to see injustices to others go by without making some effort to do what I can to step in.

      So when others like curiously popular online scholars such as the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University popularize certain of his criticisms then I do think it is important that there is on record a response to those criticisms.

      Tim O’Neill (or whatever alias he uses, I don’t know) has become a bit of a joke on at least one of the rationalist discussion forums for his bully-boy theatrics. (Tim is on record as boasting victory in argument when the reality is that others — as they themselves have explained — simply get sick of him and walk away leaving him to shadow box in the room alone.)

      Unfortunately not everyone is aware of what lies behind his antics or the fatuousness of much of his argument, and there are even scholarly goons — with, as I said, curiously popular profiles in the web — who do endorse his posts from time to time.

      Hopefully these posts will be one more mark on the record that the mythicist arguments of Fitzgerald are worth engaging with and are not to be dismissed in the O’Neill is trying to persuade others to do. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing if there is on record an answer to his bombastic display of smoke and mirrors.

      I was thinking these posts would peter out and I’d get on with other things soon enough but our stats show that there are indeed very many who are interested in reading a post that does actually call O’Neill’s bluff and expose him for the fraud he so often is. (I expect he’ll respond the same way he did to my post on his Nazareth article and show even more of his dogmatic and authoritarian fall-back positions. He certainly won’t make the least effort to engage in civil discussion.)

      I did the same (not only with respect to TO) when I saw outrageous mistreatments and misrepresentations of Salm and Doherty and I am doing it again for Fitzgerald. I don’t think any of the earlier efforts were wasted and the evidence indicates this effort will not be a complete waste either.

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